Tuesday, 5 January 2010

This will not do

Snowed in and marking student essays today, I was reminded that the latest release from the National Archives revealed, according to news reports, that Margaret Thatcher was prone to writing things like ‘No!’ and ‘This will not do’ in the margins of draft documents written by civil servants – although I suppose it would have been more surprising and newsworthy if it had emerged that she sprinkled the margins with encouraging words, kisses and smiley faces.

Of course, now we are living at the end of the consumer revolution in higher education initiated by Mrs. Thatcher – under the latest regime announced by Lord Mandelson, university courses will be tagged with dropout rates and student feedback, modelled on a supermarket food labelling system – ‘No!’ and ‘This will not do’ are the very last things one should ever write in the margins of student essays. Not that I would ever want to.

There is a great Billy Collins poem about marginalia which you can read at


More on Billy Collins anon because he is coming to my uni this year, hooray.

I did a piece about Mass Observation for the Faber website – they are republishing some of the MO books – which you can read at



  1. I remember when I was a student, dreary Middle English classes were livened up no end by the revelation that many of the original ecclesiastical texts we were studying - and these were some of the oldest, most valuable manuscripts in the language - had been defaced by 'baboonerisms'; basically marginal doodles of animals, genitalia etc.

    I love the idea of some bored 14th Century monk, idly scribbling all over sacred parchment. Seems like a very English thing to do.

  2. I'm horribly precious about my books, so the idea of scribbling in them doesn't appeal to me at all! And I've waded through too many university library books which glow with chunks of flourescent marker or entire paragraphs underlined with a blotchy biro.

    Mind you, I could forgive any notes written with wit or insight - I've just never come across any.

    Fantastic news about Faber republishing the MO books - you did a great job summarising their project and its importance, btw! I spent a happy few days researching at the MO archive at Sussex University a couple of years ago. What I did notice was an overt class prejudice on the part of some of the observers - describing working class women as 'common' or 'vulgar' for example. I've been told there's a book about the observers which analyses their subjectivity, but I've failed to track it down.

    Perhaps you might know the book and be able to help me out here?

  3. Thank you both for this delightful marginalia on my post.
    There've been a few books about MO, Sarah - I'm not sure which one that is but it might be Nick Hubble's Mass Observation and Everyday Life, which is very good.

  4. Thanks for the tip Joe, I will seek that book out.

    I did manage to find a reference to a book called "In Darkest England: Observing the Observers of Mass Observation 1937-1939" by David Jury, but it seems to be a privately published box set, written by a typographic designer. I'm not sure how useful that might be, but I'll probably never find out since the book defeats all the online searches I throw at it!