Observing Christmas with a Mass Observer

A Shelter in Camden Town Under a Brewery by Olga Lehmann 1940
Olga Lehmann, A Shelter in Camden Town Under a Brewery (1940; via)
I heard the planes go over
With shuttle and with roar
The moon looked down on Dover
And lit the winding shore.
It filled the night with beauty,
Our tired world’s release:
Old wardens at their duty
Invoked a prayer for peace.
–T. A. Agius, O.S.B., “Wartime Christmas,”

A sprig of mistletoe was all Pam Ashford wanted for Christmas, 1941. It surely would’ve livened up the office of the Glasgow coal-shipping firm for which the 38-year-old worked — an office she described at one point as “death heated up.” And it would’ve marked a welcome addition to the tin of shortbread biscuits and tiny cash bonus given to her by the firm’s honchos. At the very least, the bit of seasonal greenery would’ve leavened dull routine with a dash of the aleatory. Pam Ashford wanted it “just to see what would happen,” as she confided to a colleague. Later in private she walked back this wish. “But certainly I could never rise to that level of audacity,” she wrote in her diary.

We know of these Yuletide yearnings because Pam Ashford was a mass observer. That is, she participated in the Mass Observation social research project started in 1937 by a group of former Cambridge students. They intended the project to gauge the public mood, through reports and diary entries of some 500 volunteers, on everything from Edward VIII’s abdication to holiday preparations. Though the project seemed benign enough and even useful, it had its detractors. Critics called it a mass surveillance project, sensing in it ulterior motives. Whatever the misgivings of skeptics, the project nonetheless proved popular. Participants found it a welcome diversion from conditions of economic depression and, later, war.

Pam Ashford (a pseudonym) must have found it an especially welcome diversion, for she proved an uncommonly adept diarist. A single, middle-aged woman who lived with her mother, she filled her entries with colorful anecdotes and detailed accounts of the daily struggles of life under the blitz. She recounted the story of a woman who drove her car into a bomb crater while trying to get home in a blackout one night. She found her way home by other means; and, when she arrived to fetch her car the next morning, she saw nothing but a twisted mass of metal, a second bomb having struck the crater after she left.

Other of life’s trials were not nearly so explosive. Much ink Pam Ashford spilled on her pet canary, Dick. Unlike the rest of the household, Dick apparently found it difficult to adapt to wartime conditions and its attendant privations. The situation caused Dick to sulk, especially as it meant his familiar food, bird seed, was hard to obtain. Simply no substitute would do, if the account of Pam Ashford may be believed. “Mother gave him a sandwich of bread, sugar and butter, and he would have none of it,” she wrote.

When her cantankerous canary didn‘t occupy her thoughts, the usual sort of scuttlebutt did. Pam Ashford delighted in office gossip. And she was evidently not one to miss a chance at enjoying life’s delights, few though they might have been. She hoarded meat and tinned soup whenever the opportunity presented itself. Indeed, she prided herself on the “magnificent reserves” she’d managed to lay by.

This last diversion was a hedge against the shortages and inflation that became increasingly vexatious as the war dragged on. Common foods vanished from shop shelves. “Do the Government intend the civilian population to live on potatoes and bread?,” Pam asked of her diary. She did take an impish glee from learning of those who ran through their sugar rations from drinking tea “umpteen times a day and always with heaped spoonfuls,” and she took a smug satisfaction from learning that a colleague was forced to use artificial sweetener. She herself carefully portioned out her stores of treats and nibbled her favorite, biscuits, in “the darkness of the cinema” she went to to pass the hours.

Yet Christmas, 1941 was a time of unexpected abundance. At 9:30 AM, Pam Ashford got her wish. The firm’s managing director gave her a huge spray of mistletoe. Fearing that he would demand a kiss in exchange for this present, she dove for cover behind a table. The threat of bussing passed, so she set the mistletoe on a mantlepiece for everyone to enjoy. The good luck continued into the next day. She managed to purchase chicken, a food that, as she wrote, “Mother for weeks has been saying would be unobtainable.” She made a Christmas pudding, too. After dinner she went shopping, and found a tin of Armour’s spiced pork to add to her hoard of hard-to-get commodities.

And all the while no enemy planes appeared on the horizon, and no bombs fell. The small pleasures that make life worth living remained undisturbed. “As long as we have a peaceful Christmas Day there is hope for this civilisation of ours,” Pam reflected in one diary entry from around the time.

Is there hope for ours? It remains to be seen. In the meanwhile, you can enjoy a bit of wartime cheer of old by making this eggless Christmas cake from Wartime Cookbook: Food and Recipes from the Second World War 1939–45 (1995).

Eggless Christmas Cake

4 oz carrot, finely grated
2 tbsp golden syrup
3 oz sugar
4 oz margarine
1 tsp bicarbonate of soda
½ tsp almond essence
½ tsp vanilla essence
4–6 oz dried fruit
12 oz self-rising flour
1 tsp ground cinnamon
1 small teacup milk, slightly warmed

Cook the grated carrot and syrup over a low heat for a few minutes. Cream the sugar and margarine until light and fluffy. Stir the bicarbonate of soda into the carrot and syrup mixture, then beat it into into the sugar and margarine, using it as if it were an egg. Stir in the flavourings and dried fruit. Fold in the flour and the cinnamon and add the warmed milk to make a moist dough. Put into a greased cake tin. Smooth the top and make a deep hole in the centre with a spoon, to stop the cake from rising too much during cooking. Put it into a hot oven (220 degrees C, 425 degrees F, gas mark 7) and turn down to a very low heat (150 degrees C, 300 degrees F, gas mark 2) and bake for 3 hours.

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