When the Ordinary is Extraordinary

One of the things that interests me most about handwritten letters is that they capture the day-to-day lives of ordinary and extraordinary people. Sometimes, letter writers describe the most mundane tasks, like hanging out the wash in sub-zero weather, or planting the corn in the spring. Other writers may go deep as they philosophize about the times in which they are living, with all its drama and challenges. Handwritten letters run the gamut of topics and viewpoints, providing a kaleidoscope of substance and perspectives. In other words, personal stories told in the form of letters bring our history to life. They fill in the gaps in what we think we know about history from books, newspapers, and journal articles.

Instead of memorizing the names and dates of events as the goal of a history lesson, why not broaden the picture and learn about the ways in which ordinary citizens react and navigate their way through ordinary and extraordinary times? If we did this more often, perhaps more students would find themselves unable to turn away from their history lessons. Instead of seeing themselves as different from the generations before them, they would recognize themselves as much the same. Events change significantly over the decades, but human nature stays amazingly the same, and it is not as difficult as it seems to relate to those who lived hundreds of years before us.

One man was particularly interested in documenting and preserving the stories and activities of average citizens living in Britain. Professor David Pocock from University of Sussex, requested that British citizens from all walks of life document and share the substance of their days in the form of letters. It was called the Mass Observation Project. He announced his project in 1981 in a letter to a periodical called, New Society. His request was far-reaching, asking that Britons provide their most honest observations and ideas about a variety of topics. He promised that a specific question would be given to them each quarter and their letters permanently archived. Pocock’s request was brilliant:

 “All that is required is a willingness to write to us both about personal experiences and things seen and heard in daily life. The more ordinary people think they are, the more interesting their experience to us.”[i]

He asked his voluntary participants to include small details of their daily lives and not to worry about how banal it all might seem. The public response to Pocock’s request was impressive, and since the early days of the project, the responses have never stopped flowing. While his project’s sample was not entirely representative or scientific, he nonetheless believed that the public’s observations of the times in which they lived would be of great value to historians in the future.

Some of his “observers” wrote long-winded tomes about their experiences, others wrote more cryptically. Some participants sent in neatly written letters, while others scrawled their responses on whatever material was handy.

The topics Pocock asked about were far-ranging, the questions diverse—asking opinions about inflation, love, geo-politics, happiness, gardening and much, much more. In later years, when Pocock retired, his successor asked more personal and intimate questions.

The result of this social experiment is an amazingly rich documentation of what Britons were thinking about many social issues for a period of over 40 years. And the amazing part is that many of the early observers are still writing letters for the archive today. While Pocock retired long ago and his successor as well, the enthusiasm for this project does not seem to be waning. There was a significant amount of writing and sharing during the Covid-19 pandemic, for example.[ii]

Bolstered by anonymity and the lack of rigid rules or requirements, the observers felt free to openly express themselves and provide raw, unvarnished thoughts that have rarely been captured like this before. These letters hold a nuanced version of history—one that is richer and more complex than can be described by history books or newspaper articles alone. Pocock’s letters give us an unfiltered glimpse into the collective psyche of Britons over time. Letters like these are also able to capture the degree to which people change and grow over time in their ways of thinking. Many of us evolve over time, and in many instances, letters like these can document positive changes for individuals and for society as a whole.  

What a rich treasure Pocock has left Britons! So, too, can you. If you take pen to paper and begin to share your stories in your personal correspondence to those you love and care about, you will be giving an incredible gift for present and future generations. Instead of a simple image in a scrapbook in two-dimensional form, let the future know more about the inner workings of your heart and how you navigated the ever-changing set of challenges of your day-to-day existence. As Pocock said to his observers, “each tiny piece is integral to an intricate and luminous whole, and the ordinary is transformed into the extraordinary.”[iii]  

[i] Pocock’s Pen Pals, The Economist, December 18, 2021, pp.27-29.

[ii] Ibid.

[iii] Ibid.