Mass Observation Anniversaries Conference

Seventy five years of Mass Observation: Thirty years of the Mass Observation Project University of Sussex 4-6 July 2012

My paper abstract

Litter Trails

In 1940 strange montages of litter started to appear in fields and woods, on grass verges and village signposts. Assemblages of cigarette cartons pegged up on sticks, scraps of packaging with intricate cut outs, readymade chocolate wrappers displayed in series, and drawings chalked onto gateposts. Explanations for their presence ranged from the covert activities of fifth columnists to secret signals between lovers, however the origins and intentions of such unlikely material practices remain unclear to this day.

The story of these litter trails unfolds through a set of documents which has found its way in to the Mass-Observation Archive. It consists of a collection of correspondence and detailed reports generated by a group ofCambridgeacademics almost a year into the Second World War. These papers reveal suspicions that enemy agents were operating in the Cambridgeshire countryside, and that their presence had become apparent to the sharp eyed observers through their use of carefully laid trails of litter and outdoor drawings as forms of covert communication.

This paper explores the significance of the litter trails in relation to wider narratives of national disquiet and details how this material indirectly animates many of the concerns and methodologies of the archive and its founders. It speculates on the inclusion of ‘Litter on the Streets’ amongst the selection of possible topics for study that were suggested in Mass Observation’s initial pamphlet. It goes on to think about litter trails as a form of spatial collage, discussing collage as a methodology employed by Madge and Jennings as a way of accessing different yet simultaneous realities, and the emergence of symbolic anxieties and forms of mass consciousness.


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