Last week, as part of the Being Human Festival of Humanities, the Mass Observation Archive hosted an event to celebrate teenage diary writing. The event was held in partnership with Cringe, UKCringe, UK who host regular events in London where people read from their teenage diaries. In this blog post, the organiser of Cringe, UK, Ana McLaughlin, reports on the event.
When Mass Observation first got in touch about a potential event, I was thrilled. Cringe nights have been running in the UK since 2009, having been imported by the founder of New York Cringe Sarah Brown. She had found re-reading her own teenage diaries hilarious and realised here was an enormous untapped reservoir of very funny material that was worth sharing, so she established open mic nights where people could read diaries, rock band lyrics, lists of things they hated about their parents and just about anything they had scrawled during their teenage years. In the six years Cringe has been running in London we’ve been treated to the darkest, most secret thoughts of adolescents writing in the 1990s, 80s, 70s and even the 50s – and we have learned that although cultural reference points and attitudes change, much about puberty is universal: obsessions with fashion and appearance; passions for bands and favourite television shows; sibling rivalry; bucking against parental restrictions; unrequited love. The event with Mass Observation gave us the opportunity to take the show on the road to Brighton and entertain a new audience, hear new readers and most importantly to have academics from the University of Sussex examine the phenomenon of teenage diaries as part of the Being Human festival of the Humanities, which was absolutely fascinating.
It’s always been interesting to note how readers address their diaries. They name them – Yoda, darling Janet, in several cases Kitty (when the writer has just read The Diary of Anne Frank and considers that their own musings on being allowed to watch X-Men and revising for GCSEs will probably have similar historical impact to her diary.) They apologise for not writing enough and ask questions of their diaries; often, they lie to their diaries either unconsciously (claiming they don’t fancy someone they clearly do) or consciously (the boy who implied he might have been ‘blown’ on the French Exchange and, while reading, freely admitted he definitely had not.)
This relationship between diary and writer was fascinating to have the academics examine – Dr Lucy Robinson talked about the confusion of voices she detected in her own diaries. Adolescence is a time when you’re trying on different identities for size, which includes experimenting with your physical look as many diaries intricately detail, but also with your own emerging social and political outlook. (I’m reminded of the reader who solemnly wrote: “Today, we invaded Iraq,” and followed it up immediately with, “My new pens are cool, huh?”)
Many teenage diary writers consider it likely their words will be published when they grow up and do the great things they consider themselves capable of – delusions of grandeur are a common theme – and this was even picked up in one of the readings from a Mass Observation diary written in the 1920s by a girl who wrote, “I want to do great things, to be great.” For all the restrictions placed on teenagers by school rules and parental guidance, it is emotionally often a time when possibilities seem limitless, and this sense that your diaries might one day be pored over as the juvenilia of a statesman, author or rock star (common teenage employment fantasies) can sometimes be seen in the tone – designed to impress, riddled with half-understood long words. The gap between delusion and reality is, in retrospect, what makes adolescent diaries so extremely funny – as the plan for thrashing out world peace in the Middle East is interrupted by a rant on the pettiness of a sister who won’t let the writer borrow their lipstick. Teenage dreams are big, but their actual horizons are necessarily small.
Something else that was apparent from the event was the value of diaries to social historians. Nobody engages more passionately with popular culture than teens, who are tribal about their tastes in fashion, music and literature. Jane Harvell, reading at the event, noted the fluctuating fortunes of Depeche Mode in the singles chart in astonishing detail. Often it’s the cultural reference points that really date the audience – dumping someone in pink Comic Sans font on MSN got an enormous laugh from twenty-somethings at Cringe, and references to the Body Shop’s Dewberry range tickled thirty-something women in the crowd. Teenagers are the ideal filter through which to see exactly what’s going on culturally, and diaries are the place where this incidental detail finds a natural home.
We’ve long enjoyed hearing people read from their secret diaries because it’s hilarious, and partnering with Mass Observation – as well as making for a very funny evening – gave us a new insight into what we’d been hearing all these years. Thank you for having us!
Dr Lucy Robinson (University of Sussex) has also written about the event. You can read her blog post here.