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…