Over 80 years ago, a radical public monitoring organization known as the Mass Observation Unit was established by one of Britain’s most eccentric anthropologists. Based in Brighton, England, the MOU has spent decades organizing volunteer observers to keep diaries and answer open-ended questionnaires (known as directives) about their everyday lives. Lives, for the most part, of working-class British people. The questionnaires run the gamut from where dance partners place their hands during ballroom waltz, random conversation in the street and life working in a factory in the North West of England, the records are an honest and raw account of everyday life. Document spoke with one of the unit’s coordinators, Anthony McCoubrey, about an “Observation of a Prison Year.” Written in 2017 by a prisoner at HMP Lewes, in England’s south east, the observation is in Japanese haiku form and is born from a series of creating writing sessions at one oldest men’s prisons in the country.
Document—What’s importance attached to this particular item?
Anthony McCoubrey—It was recorded on May 12th—a significant date for the organization because it was on this day in 1937 that we first asked people to record their days. To date, we have issued 110 directives. Topics include the Falklands Conflict, every General Election since 1981, the EU referendum, the Iraq War, having an affair, happiness, television, women and men, gay people and even the Eurovision Song Contest. It’s important that everyday life is documented and that it is done so by the person who is living it. And for some people, that takes place within the confines of a prison cell. Everyone deserves to record their day, particularly those who sit on the periphery of society. If someone a hundred years from now wants to find out about life in prison, we have a record of that.
Document—Can you physically describe it for me?
Anthony McCoubrey—It’s a typed manuscript, printed on a standard A4 piece of paper.
Document—Why should people know about it?
Anthony McCoubrey—Because it offers a different perspective that we would not get from other places. When prisons are reported on by the media, it is extremely rare that the articles contain any comment from the prisoners themselves. Even reports about prison tend to lean toward the presentation of quantitative data, so this presents a narrative or insight that is lacking elsewhere.
Document—Can anyone donate their diaries to the collection?
Anthony McCoubrey—Yes, anyone can take part, donate their record to the archive where it is held as a reference for consultation. All diaries entries are anonymous, so you never have to worry about their identity being revealed.
Document—Tell me one thing about the object that no one else would know?
Anthony McCoubrey—It was written by one of the most profound writers I have ever met.
Observation of a Prison Yard, May 12th 2017
The shower water.
A single temperature
that can treat a guilt.
Gulls, perched and baited
On an empty yard
waiting to be shooed by men.
An old grey jumper
discarded on the barbed-wire
would like to have mates.
It surely must be
that every belly gapes
like an empty cavern.
The blunt grey tired lead
finds its energy
clockwise in a silver square.
Tick tock tick tock tick.
The clock breaks screaming silence
until a door slams.
Leaves peek over walls
castling shadows to the floor
that dance with the wind.