Monday 15 March 2010

Can Any Mother Help Me?

I don't remember where I first heard of Jenna Bailey's book Can Any Mother Help Me? but it has been across the blogosphere like wildfire over the past year or so. Ironically, a few people bought it because of a mention or two here at Stuck-in-a-Book in the past - because I got my copy in mid 2008. It was one of those titles I just *needed* to own immediately, had to read immediately... and then, of course, it somehow languished on my bookshelves for the best part of two years. But no longer!

Can Any Mother Help Me? tells the story of the Cooperative Correspondence Club - known to its members as CCC - which began in 1935 when a young woman wrote to Nursery World:

Can any mother help me? I live a very lonely life as I have no near neighbours. I cannot afford to buy a wireless. I adore reading, but with no library am very limited with books. I dislike needlework, though I have a lot to do! I get so down and depressed after the children are in bed and I'm alone in the house. I sew, read and write stories galore, but in spite of good resolutions, and the engaging company of cat and dog, I do brood, and "dig the dead." I have had a rotten time, and been cruelly hurt, both physically and mentally, but I know it is bad to brood and breed hard thoughts and resentment. Can any reader suggest an occupation that will intrigue me and exclude "thinking" and cost nothing!

The solution was to set up a collective magazine (of which there were apparently over two hundred that are known about) to which women would contribute, under pseudonyms ranging from 'Sirod' (Doris backwards) to 'Cotton Goods' (for the proudly working-class) to 'Elektra' and 'A Priori'. The members came and went, but over half a century these women sent around their contributions on all manner of topics, but mostly simply about their own lives. Ad Astra organised it all, and sent them out in the beautiful homemade covers shown in a picture below.

The book is essentially a selection of articles from different magazines, with editorial material provided by Bailey. She has grouped the articles thematically: issues of raising children (members had to be mothers - the issue was raised of allowing non-mothers to join, but it was decided against); the war; everyday life; marriage; working; hard times; growing old. There are quite a few 'voices' in the book, and only a few become really familiar, but it's certainly an interesting sample and cross-section of a fascinating project.

I loved the idea of the CCC, and did enjoy reading the book, but somehow it didn't *quite* match up to what I was expecting. Or rather, what I was hoping - because I didn't know how I expected Bailey to arrange the material. She could only really pick and choose certain pieces, it would be impossible to give the feeling of belonging to the group - instead, I felt a little like an eavesdropper. Also, once all the articles were typed up, with marginalia noted in neat little font, the feel of the magazine was lost. I'd have loved a facsimile edition of one or two copies of the magazine - so that all the original handwriting and margin notes and crossings-out would have been reproduced. But perhaps that wouldn't be possible, or too expensive, or even illegible.
When Claire reviewed the book, she pondered over blogging as a modern equivalent of the CCC. In a way it is, but much closer (in my experience) is the Yahoo Group I'm in. Are other people in these sorts of email groups, where people send out emails to a whole group, and correspond that way? They're not as popular as they once were, but the one I've been in since January 2004 (a quarter of my life!) is incredibly dear to me. The experiences of the CCC sounded very familiar - the cautious and slightly nervous initial face-to-face meetings, which become regular and joyous occasions; the feeling that you can share close, personal events with people you've never had the opportunity to meet; the joy of kindred spirits. Who knows whether we'll still be going in fifty years' time (with some record-breaking-aged people, if we do) but I know that it has been, and will continue to be, a very special part of my life.

If Bailey's book couldn't quite convey this sense of intimacy and special-ness, that's only to be expected, because the reader must remain an intrigued outsider to the group. At the same time, it is the only way that we can now remember such wonderful groups and I applaud Bailey (and the Mass Observation project which held the material, and also gave rise to significant books like Nella Last's War) for immortalising the CCC and making their venture accessible to many.

Oh, and for anybody reading this in Oxford... the £2 bookshop has a number of copies...


  1. I was expecting the book to have more of the feel of the magazine, too. Even without a facsimile, I'd have liked to know what a single edition contained, rather than the snippets Bailey gave us, arranged by topic.

  2. So, are those original covers hand-stitched? I wasn't sure from the picture if they were stitched, drawn, or some of both? Sounds like a lovely concept. I think the loneliest time in my life was when I was a new mother in a new area and hadn't met people yet. Luckily, it was also short-lived! :)

  3. I would have loved to have read a full edition of the magazine, scribbled notes and all!

  4. This book has been at the top of my TBR pile for a few months now. A fellow blogger suggested I look at it to see how working class mothers 'managed' during the war. Looking forward to reading it.

  5. How funny you should be reading this now, Simon, as I chose it last week for my next Bloggers' Book of the Month!

  6. Oh what an interesting book this does sound. I have to say the title put me off, the secret magazine bit intrigued me again lol.

    I am not in Oxford and can't buy books so thats technically being a book tease Simon haha.

  7. Jenny - glad I wasn't the only one who responded in that way...

    Susan - yes, handstitched! I admire all the work they put into this sort of activity, which we take for granted now with the internet.

    Claire - maybe one day there *will* be! There's been a lot of interest in the book, so who knows...

    makedoandread - there's only really one who thought of herself as working class, and to be honest she wasn't really...

    Karen - how strange! And it must be about that time of month again to start thinking about my next choice...

    Simon - sorry to tease!!

  8. Simon, Yahoo groups I still find very useful. The most active one I am a member of (flutenet) is extremely useful indeed. Also the group devoted to LTspice.

  9. This sounds like a really interesting book. Thanks for highlighting this :)

  10. Another absolutely must read! Thank you so much for your fantastic blog.

  11. A friend sent this to me several years ago and I have yet to read it - thought I would like it but just haven't done more than thumb through it & look at the pictures (hah! a kid at heart!!). Somehow, it just didn't grab my attention enough to sit down & begin to read.

  12. I loved this book when I finally got around to reading it. (The title put me off; I thought it was going to be full of helpful hints about potty training and sleepless nights!) I was fascinated by the details of these women's lives ... seem to remember one of them having to give up work because her husband's employer - NatWest bank, I think - didn't allow employees' wives to go out to work. Can you imagine anybody tolerating that today?
    And didn't you think it was so sad when they all started getting old and dying and the club fizzled out?

  13. Mary - you're right, that was sad - I think it would have been even sadder if the book had been chronological. It reminded me of reading the Mitford sisters' letters, and the sadness as they grew old and, one by one, died.


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