People queuing for the cinema.

In 1973, Georges Perec wrote, ‘What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front page splash, the banner headlines…The daily papers talk of everything except the daily …We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep.’  Joe Moran’s book Queueing for Beginners, which I’ve just read, aims to wake us from that sleep, to gaze awhile at (again, in Perec’s words) ‘the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual’.

Joe Moran is Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University who researches and writes extensively on the mundane aspects of daily life, especially British everyday life from the mid-twentieth century until the present day.  I discovered Joe’s writing when I stumbled upon his excellent blog, aptly described by his colleague Professor Roger Webster as ‘entertaining, erudite, whimsical, and encyclopaedic’, dazzling in its breadth of subject matter and the range of media he draws upon.  He’s published several books and also writes columns for the New Statesman, Guardian and Financial Times.

Queueing cover

Queuing for Beginners – subtitled ‘The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime’ – follows the daily routine of an ordinary British day, bringing into focus the humdrum and the overlooked: the patterns of daily routine where change happens, but with imperceptible slowness, so that we hardly notice the small changes that can end up transforming our lives.  We rarely give much thought to activities like working at office desks, sitting in meeting rooms, eating ready meals, flipping through the TV channels with the remote control.  These things are all part of what the German critic Siegfried Kracauer (quoted here by Moran) calls ‘a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone’.

The silence of daily life can be deafening, writes Moran. The very nature of habits and routines, activities repeated again and again, makes it hard to think of them in historical terms. Daily life seems to be the way things have always been, and always will be. By excavating the meaning and origins of daily behaviours, Moran is following in the tradition of Mass-Observation, the project begun in 1937 when Tom Harrisson (anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (poet and Daily Mirror journalist) invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, which they called an ‘anthropology at home’. They were keen to develop what they called ‘a science of ourselves’.  Joe Moran has said of Mass-Observation that:

They hoped that their investigators would develop some new insights into subjects such as: ‘[The] behaviour of people at war memorials … Shouts and gestures of motorists … Anthropology of football pools … Beards, armpits, eyebrows … Female taboos about eating’.

Thanks to Mass-Observation, he writes, we have some idea of what it was like to smoke a cigarette or drink beer in a pub in the 193os and 1940s. But, he continues, we don’t know much about how those habits changed from the 1950s to the present; his aim in this book is to try to unravel ‘a sort of alternative history of post-war Britain – one that does for habits and routines what other historians have done for more momentous political, social or lifestyle changes’.

The way that Moran has chosen to organise his findings is to focus on the pattern of the banal during the course of the day – the daily grind, or what Parisians call ‘metro, boulot, dodo’ (commuting, working, sleeping). He notes that writers have for a long time used the structure of the day to paint a kaleidoscopic picture of society and look again at neglected areas of everyday life: from Charles Dickens, with his chronological accounts of a morning and night of London street life in Sketches by Boz, to  20th century milestones like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, novelists have use the structure of a single day ‘to juxtapose the profound and the banal, the weightiest matters of life and death with the most trivial quotidian detail’.  In the structure of a single day, everything receives roughly the same amount of attention – however dull or boring it might at first seem. Moran’s book similarly uses the pattern of a single day to explore the history of everyday life:

Some of these routines would be immediately familiar to anyone alive at the end of the Second World War: having breakfast (although they would be horrified by our propensity to skip it or skimp on it), commuting (although they didn’t call it that) and queuing (although it took up much more of their time, and the queuing barriers and recorded voices announcing ‘cashier number one, please’ would have seemed like sci-fi inventions). Other habits – checking emails, watching telly, eating ready meals – would be almost entirely new and strange to them, but they might detect some residue of older social habits even in these activities.

In Queueing for Beginners, Moran investigates the uninteresting events that unfolded yesterday and the days before that across Britain:

Millions of people woke up and had instant coffee and a cereal bar for breakfast. They all rushed for the train and stood pressed up against each other in a crowded carriage. They all arrived at the office, went to their desks and spent the morning there, occasionally getting up to go to the photocopier or the staff kitchen for a gossip. At lunchtime, they all stood in the queue at the bank, then they all bought a sandwich and came back to eat it at their desks. They all checked their emails, and then nipped outside for a smoke. They all had to attend a boring staff meeting. At half past five, they all walked out of the office, weaving in between the rush~hour traffic. They all had a quick, after-work drink with each other, then they all went home and stuck a ready meal in the microwave. They all ate it on the sofa while zapping through the television channels. After they had all watched the late-night weather forecast, they all went upstairs, tucked themselves up in bed and drifted off to sleep. Nothing out of the ordinary happened…

Britain by Mass Observation published 1938
Britain by Mass Observation published 1938

Moran’s interest in the unobserved and banal was piqued whilst studying for a DPhil at Sussex University, where he stumbled across the Mass-Observation Archive.  On a more mundae level, Moran has credited his interest in taking note of what normally goes unnoticed to the I-Spy booklets he consumed as a young boy. Quoting the geographer Doreen Massey, Moran says that despite every generation’s emphasis on change, much of life for many people ‘still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes’. He describes himself as ‘trying to find a critical language to talk about these empty, purposeless moments of daily life, filled with activities such as commuting and office routines, that we generally take for granted but that take up so much of our lives’. Ultimately, his focus on the banal suggests a serious idea: that ‘anything might be interesting if we look carefully at it’.  There are parallels here with the recent interest in the similarly unnoticed edgelands, described by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their recent book as a ‘zone of inattention’ and a ‘richly mysterious region in our midst’ which is both interesting and strangely beautiful.

George Perec

The spirit that pervades Queueing for Beginners is that of Mass-Observation – and of Georges Perec who in 1973, five years before the appearance of his defining novel Life: a User’s Manual and nine years before his death, wrote an essay called ‘Approaches to What?’, in which he remonstrated against the neglect of life’s ordinary things:

What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motor-cars is to drive into trees. [ …]

The daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask. What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

Queueing for Beginners is endlessly fascinating and, for those who have trudged through the days of more than a few decades, will reawaken many lost memories of the trivia that has filled the days: free gifts in cereal packets, Vesta curries, green-man, panda and pelican crossings, fax machines, three-piece suites, prawn cocktail sandwiches, Watney’s Red Barrel, theme pubs, teletext and TV remotes, and meetings structured around Powerpoint bullet points (in the index, under ‘meetings’, the first sub-entry is ‘bullshit’).

Somewhere along the way, Moran quotes Siegfried Kracauer as declaring:

We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up.

See also


2 thoughts on “Queueing for Beginners: ‘the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up’

  1. Some really interesting ideas and thanks for highlighting the work of Joe Moran. It seems a great loss that Mass-Observation were not able to continue their work post-war to give us a continuing narrative of the lives and thoughts of ordinary people. I first came across their work reading about the Pitmen Painters.

    The comments about what is included in newspapers lit a tiny lightbulb inside my head and made me realise one of the reasons for reading the Guardian is that it contains a lot of stories about the everyday, quirky things that people do and think. Something reflected on its letters page where a very broad range of opinions co-exist, including the light hearted and whimsical thoughts of readers.

    If one were needed the ideas about the value of contemplating the commonplace provide an excellent narrative as to the value of Carl Andre’s notorious arrangement of bricks, owned by Tate Gallery. Something simple and mechanically produced when placed in a new context takes on a new significance. Get those neurons firing!

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