16 May 2013

A German spy, or possibly a transvestite

From Simon Garfield's We Are At War, Glasgow war diarist Pam Ashford (a pseudonym) records a workplace conversation about the German spy threat, in her entry for Boxing Day 1939 (plus some additional gossip about two office girls and her family canary):

Mr Mitchell and Miss Crawford had a long conversation on the subject of spies. Both believe every word of the following stories:  
Mr Mitchell: 'A porter at Paisley Station saw a nun. She dropped something and when picking it up he noticed it was a man's hand. He warned the police. The nun was a spy. The porter received a letter from the War Office thanking him. That proves it is true'. 
Miss Crawford: 'No, you have the story wrong. The facts are these: my friend's friend went from Glasgow to Greenock late one night. She got into a carriage in which there were nuns. During the journey a nun dropped something and the girl noticed it was a man's hand that picked the article up. She warned the police. She has a letter from the War Office thanking her'. 
Several people drew a comparison between our two office girls. Betty (14) notices every bill in the street and can always tell you what the latest is; Margaret (18) never notices anything at all. Several people wondered if she knew there was a war on. I commented upon the fact that Margaret often says, 'Daddy says the only thing that matters is if I am happy'. 
A curious piece of natural history. For the seven years from 1932 to September 1939, Dick, our canary, fell into a somnolent position at tea-time and the family did not get much pleasure from his company thereafter. On the day that the war was declared he changed completely, and now spends the evenings singing and hopping and being as sociable as he can. 
- 'Pam Ashford', quoted in Simon Garfield, We Are At War, London, 2005, p.133.

The diary entries from Ashford and four others in the book were obtained from the remarkable social experiment, the Mass Observation project (official website, Wikipedia), which ran from 1937 until the mid-1960s, and was revived in 1981. For a revealing summary of MO's work, see Caleb Crain's excellent September 2006 summary in the New Yorker, Surveillance Society. In it Crain highlights the subversive intent of the early MO work, seeking to offer an alternative outlet for public questioning of government propaganda. This was later subsumed when it was incorporated as a market research firm in 1949. 
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