Bad jokes, fighting cats, and odd uses for prams: snapshots of Irish daily life

Tue, Nov 20, 2012, 00:00

While newspapers from November 12th, 2011, full of President Michael D Higgins’s inauguration and boasts of Ireland’s footballing victory against Estonia, are preserved in archives, the particulars of what ordinary people did that day fall through the net of official record.

However, thanks to a team of dedicated Dubliners who recorded their every move from rising to sleeping that day, we know that it was unseasonably warm; silver at first light with mackerel clouds to the southwest. We know that at 4.07am, a woman in Monkstown woke abruptly from a strange dream to hear cats fighting in her garden.

Out in Stillorgan later that morning, a joke to a fellow shopper in the supermarket bread aisle went down badly, while a father marooned in a hospital bed won €4 on a scratch card. In the sunshine of a winter afternoon, two friends practised their hula-hooping in Phoenix Park as two former friends passed each other wordlessly in the shadows of Henry Street.

Driving home in the dark that evening, a mother and daughter discussed the importance of remembering the dead, while across the city at 9.10pm, the moon was so bright it was mistaken for a new street light and examined through binoculars.

To some, such details are inconsequential. To others, myself included, there’s something magical about this sort of trivia frozen in time. It provides a snapshot of life at one very particular moment; a record of the small joys and disappointments of a single day.

The group of volunteers who participated in this “day-survey” on November 12th were part of a month-long city-wide project called Mass-Observation Dublin. Some 124 people, recruited by radio, website and email appeals and ranging in age from 21 to 72, agreed to devote the month of November 2011 to observing themselves and the people around them.

The day-survey was accompanied by weekly questionnaires, in which contributors gamely revealed everything from the contents of their wardrobes and their typical Saturday night entertainment, to a list of all they ate on a particular day and how they felt about their jobs.

They were also encouraged to watch and listen as they travelled around the city; counting, itemising, storing up anecdotes, sketching and taking photographs.

The venture was inspired by a social study of the same name that first took place in the UK in 1937 and continued for many years, involving voluntary observers watching and listening on the streets of Bolton and London, filling out regular questionnaires known as “directives”, and keeping a more detailed diary on the 12th day of the month, just as we did.

The original project was prompted by newspaper coverage of Edward VIII’s abdication and subsequent marriage to divorcee Wallis Simpson, which the Mass-Observation team – led by Tom Harrisson, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings, an anthropologist, poet and film-maker respectively – felt had failed to capture the public mood. Their aim was to create a comprehensive survey of ordinary people’s feelings and activities.

Nothing was beneath their attention; from snippets of overheard conversations to the number of people wearing tweed overcoats on a given day; from a survey of window displays to the average number of chips in a six-penny portion. Volunteers were also encouraged to watch out for particular things of interest from a regularly updated list.

One of the very first singled out a bewildering array of topics: behaviour of people at war-memorials; shouts and gestures of motorists; the aspidistra cult; anthropology of football pools; bathroom behaviour; beards, armpits and eyebrows; anti-Semitism; distribution, diffusion and significance of the dirty joke; funerals and undertakers; female taboos about eating; the private lives of midwives.

Stories from home

Taking their cue – and some of their ideas, gathered during a visit to the Mass Observation archive at the University of Sussex – I launched Mass Observation Dublin. As observations trickled in week by week they were by turns humorous, touching, informative and, without exception, profoundly fascinating.

They proved a thrilling mix of the mundane and the lyrical, from the variety of items carried around the city in prams (bales of hay, a wheelie bin, shopping, and on occasion a baby) to the strange poetry of a list of objects on a mantelpiece.

Some aspects of contemporary Dublin life were entirely predictable, if no less revealing for that: the extraordinary number of people clutching take-away cups of coffee (15 out of 22 people entering a city-centre office on the morning of November 9th); the abiding love of Dublin buskers for Van Morrison’s Brown Eyed Girl. Some observations were reassuring (at least for the resolution-breaking or nostalgic among us): there are still more people running for the bus than running for exercise; wristwatches remain in surprising abundance.

Others revealed the moments where the cogs and wheels of everyday life begin to grind and stick: a barman cleaning the same spot on a shiny bar like a glitch in a record; a guard dropping sheaves of documents in a puddle; sugar bowls and milk jugs, left on tables outside a cafe, filling slowly with rainwater.

Comparisons between the 1930s observations and our own efforts were also revealing. Eating in the street, once considered “not quite the thing”, is now acceptable. Ditto bank-holiday excursions and cycling clubs.

Fast-forward to 2011 and an observer records the elaborate make-up ritual of the girl sitting beside her on the bus, who liberally applies foundation, powder and blusher for at least 10 minutes. Threads of continuity are also apparent.

Unsurprisingly, strange personal habits die hard. The gentleman who refused to wear any clothes with buttons in 1939 is echoed in an astonishing array of modern tics and peculiarities; from the man who habitually smacks lamp-posts as he walks along to hear them “ding” to the woman who has to remove every bubble on the surface of her tea before she can drink it.

Equally, the particular things that people noticed and chose to record were often brilliantly idiosyncratic and spoke of the highly individual nature of curiosity. An Imperial College lecturer who took the Piccadilly Line every morning and evening in January 1938 noted with meticulous care the reading style and precise folding method of every newspaper reader in the carriage using a complex series of abbreviations.

He might have found congenial company among the 2011 observers who drew diagrams of the cars and bikes parked outside all the houses on their street or noted every bird that passed their office window on the morning of November 2nd.

In our frenetic, fragmented city, where the majority of participants rated their knowledge of their local area as poor, we rarely have the time or the excuse to simply watch and listen.

For a month, at least, all those involved became proud contributors to what the original Mass-Observation team aptly dubbed the “Science of Ourselves”; challenging the prescribed order that decrees what is remembered and what is forgotten, the stories we collect and those we lose.

As economic and social collapse threaten to subsume us, it is somehow comforting to know that on the 16A bus, dead dogs and cake recipes are still the topics of the day.

Overheard in Dublin

“Halloween costumes; a cold; eating organic; the Occupy movement; Michael D’s poetry; films and TV programmes; creative-writing classes; dreams; Belgian beers; being hung-over; having your drink spiked; long-haired kids; mobile phones; a nasty break-up; Steve Jobs”

Topics of conversation in a Stoneybatter pub , 2011

A woman approaches a fruit vendor and asks for a banana. She is offered five for (whatever) but replies she only wants one – another multiple offer is made but she sticks to her guns and says: “Only one please.”

The vendor turns to her colleague on the next stall: “She’s havin’ a party.”

Conversation overheard on Moore Street, November 22nd, 2011

Late one night, two train attendants sit at a four seater. It is the last train of the day travelling from Cork to Dublin. The mood is sleepy and relaxed.

The female train attendant is in a chatty mood. She asks her male colleague if he would like a slice of cheese.

He says no but she asks again a few minutes later, if he’s sure he wouldn’t like a slice of cheese. She then goes on to explain why the label says “cheesy” and that this in fact denotes that it is not “cheese”.

The male co-worker agrees and comments that she is “on to something there”.

Conversation overheard, Cork to Dublin train, November 10th, 2011

Everyone is talking about heating and home insulation. A man in his 70s who had worked on the buses for 50 years says to another: “What’s wrong with you that you don’t insulate your home?”

“Money, that’s what.”

“People expect to sit in their homes now without moving a muscle to stay warm and are prepared to take any kind of pill rather than do some DIY.”

Conversation overheard at a retirement party, November 5th, 2011

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