As the media discussion of the London riots unfolded last week – with its talk of hoodies, ‘cardigans’ and the art of looting the right trainers – I was reading about Italian protest movements in the 1960s. Not the better known ‘68ers with their Che Guevara beards and hippy inspired look, but the series of working class protests that took place across the northern Italian cities in 1960 and 1961. They were less ideologically driven and less structured than those of ’68, but no less reflective of the turmoil and inequality of Italian society at the time. They aren’t directly comparable with the London riots but hearing about both did make me think about urban unrest, collective protest and the politics of dress, since it does seem to have a real importance both for those involved and for the press who need to describe and discuss them afterwards. Continue reading
History tends to focus on important, pivotal moments; times of war, calamity, accelerated social change, revolution or unrest. But what happens when life gets back to ‘normal’ so to speak? When things began to calm down after those first few weeks of 1789 – even though the revolution continued – some people at least had to get back to work. And in May 1945, what happened after the first few days of relief and celebration? Soldiers returned home and everyone had to adjust to life as normal. But what is normal, in historical terms? And does it ever feel normal to those living through it?
These are some of the questions that the Mass Observation project, set up in Britain in the 1930s, sought to address. So-called ordinary people all over Britain were asked to keep diaries recording the details of their day-to-day lives. The aim, in the words of the organisers, was to bring about a ‘science of ourselves’. Nella Last was one such person; a housewife from the north of England, her wartime diaries were made into a television series, ‘Housewife, 49’. Unlike many of the other participants, she kept writing steadily almost to the end of her life, her diaries continuing right into the 1960s. Her lively and perceptive account of her own life is now published in three volumes, the last of which, Nella Last in the 1950s, was finally published in 2010.