Engaging with 'The Present'? Nella Last's Mass-Observation Diary

Andrea Salter

Research output: Working paper


Using material from Nella Last’s Mass-Observation diary (1939-1966), I suggest that the relationship which diaries are often assumed to have with ‘the present’ is troublesome. I use examples to show that the assumed synonymy of ‘the moment of writing’ and ‘the moment of experience’ (Stanley and Dampier, 2006) is questionable: Last’s diary-entries neither always follow the strict chronology of the day’s events as they occur, nor concern activities that occur solely on the date her entries are given. These memories are inscribed from Last’s perspective at ‘the moment of writing’, so I look at her presentperspective, set within her broader writing present, as the site from which times are organised in written representation, drawing on extracts regarding her practice of remembering and how these intersect with her ‘moment of writing’. This points up Last’s agency in using or playing with time, in using the present/‘the moment of writing’, and with it the ‘diary-genre’ more broadly, to her own ends. This agency connects with her personal perspective concerning a desire to ‘hold time still’ and ‘take a day at a time’. The discussion concludes by trying to reconceptualise ‘the present’ that Last’s diary invokes, arguing that examining the ‘moment of writing’ as a complicated and ‘thick’ present is instructive on two particular counts. Firstly, it recognises the knotty intersections between the past, present and future, and secondly it is highly contextualised and contingent on the diarist’s location in her writing present. Understood this way, the present or the ‘moment of writing’ denotes a nexus of mind, self and society at a particular time. This represents Last’s ‘subjective lens’ (Jennings and Madge, 1937) through which she navigates her (sense of) place in the world (Mead, 1962) and also locates her within the Mass-Observation project.
Original languageEnglish
ISBN (Electronic)1-900522-13-6
Publication statusPublished - 2008

Publication series

NameEdinburgh Working Papers in Sociology

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