Moran, Joe. Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime.

London: Profile Books, 2007.

Fifty years ago, as an undergrad student picking up some necessary sociology credits, I took a seminar in the “anthropology of everyday life,” which turned out to be a fascinating introduction to ethnography and its methods. As part of this, we were told to record every mundane event and action in which we participated on a given day and then to analyze the results.

Turns out this was done systematically in Britain in the 1930s by the Mass-Observation Project, which queried ordinary people about the detailed ordinary events of their ordinary lives. Now, three-quarters of a century later, that ethnographic data has become a gold mine of material for comparison against similar quotidian activities in the present day, especially in exploring the changes since World War II.

Moran’s academic qualifications are never stated but he seems to have done quite a good job, dividing his observations into sixteen not-long chapters tied more or less to the hours of the normal waking day. Chapter 1 considers the place of the “Full English” breakfast in the traditional Englishman’s life, which is supposed to consist of bacon, eggs, tomato, sausage, and toast — but finds that this repast actually was disappearing at about the time it was being enshrined in tradition, a victim of wartime rationing and the invention of dry breakfast cereal. And then the postwar commuter culture didn’t allow time for a hot breakfast. Now, most people make do with a tub of yogurt or a “breakfast bar,” as long as tea is available.

Subsequent chapters deal with the growth of commuting to work by train or bus, the evolution of contemporary office culture (the bullpen of rows of desks gave way to the open-plan office, then to the cubical, always in search of greater efficiency and a more contented workforce, but the worker always seems to lose out along the way), the role of water-cooler gossip, the business lunch (which now means eating almost entirely at your desk), the rise and decline of the public smoker, after-work pub culture (even though we invented “happy hour,” the U.S. doesn’t really have the equivalent of the local), the role of the sofa as the center of the home, and so on.

The author obviously has done his research and there are a great many citations, so it’s pretty clear that his observations in recent social history are accurate. However, they’re also often extremely British, with no clear parallel to the lifestyle of the American office worker. Fair enough: It’s a British book intended for British readers. But it’s also very London-centric, ignoring the large percentage of workers, especially younger ones, in smaller towns. There’s no mention of those in the military, or in government jobs, or who work for small, innovative start-ups, or on farms, or who are self-employed. It’s an interesting book but be aware of its limitations and generalizations.

Published in: on 4 October 2015 at 6:09 am  Leave a Comment  
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