Every day in every way

<strong>Queuing for Beginners: The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime</strong>

Joe Mora

Reading the everyday, to borrow the title of cultural historian Joe Moran's previous book, is all the rage at the moment. Mass Observation, the movement of diarists and professional nosey parkers established by the anthropologist Tom Harrisson in the 1930s, has provided the basis for a steady stream of bestsellers, including Simon Garfield's series of wartime diary excerpts and David Kynaston's recent Austerity Britain: 1945-1951. Then there's Victoria Wood's Bafta-winning drama Housewife, 49, based on the Mass Observation diary of Nella Last from Barrow-in-Furness. It feels as though we're delving into the recent past to make sense of what's happening to us now, and finding out that we've always been pretty much the same. Moran's excellent book does much the same job of reminding us that there are some things that make the British - and Britishness, by extension - solid, almost immutable. Our attachment to queuing is just the start.

Moran's work at Liverpool John Moores University concentrates on the history of the quotidian, or what he calls "the infra-ordinary" - which, he is the first to admit, produces raised eyebrows down the pub: "Some people may accuse you of trying to rediscover what a certain strain of English pragmatism likes to call 'the bleeding obvious'." If that were the case, surely no one would see the point in writing a diary, and Mass Observation would have died on its feet through a lack of willing participants.

In order to comb over every last detail of the habits, choices and little traps that make up our daily life, Queuing for Beginners is arranged chronologically, in "real time". The first chapter gives us a brief history of breakfast, from the full English to the gruesome cereal bar, seemingly designed to give commuters the sense that their right to a decent nosh-up in the morning is far less important than getting to work an hour early.

This carelessness of our time - the way work has been permitted to encroach on every spare minute in order for us to appear "focused" and "passionate" - extends to lunch, as Moran observes a few chapters later. "The average lunch 'hour' fell from 36 minutes in 2000 to 19 minutes and 42 seconds in 2006."

Sixty years ago, he notes from the diary of a Liverpool office worker kept for Mass Observation, we might have taken the time to meet a friend for a proper meal at a Lyons Corner House. A miner or factory worker would have gone home for his main meal of the day. Under silent and invisible pressure, we have internalised Gordon Gekko's maxim that "lunch is for wimps".

Having wolfed a Nutri-Grain bar on the train and crammed in a chicken tikka sarnie "al desko", you'll be quite thirsty. You can top up your reserves, notes Moran, either at the water cooler - a place for brief encounters and cud-chewing assessments of last night's telly - or later, at the pub, where the half of mild has been replaced by the "cheeky Vimto" (double port and blue WKD alcopop). Bleurgh.

The chapter on TV dinners is depressing for its cold willingness to point out how, when it comes to food, we value convenience and appearance over enjoyment every time. Frozen whole meals were invented in the 1950s by a turkey manufacturer who needed a way to use up the meat left over from Christmas. American consumers were soon buying 25 million a year, but we only followed suit once we could be convinced that microwave ovens wouldn't irradiate us along with the food.

French families, writes Moran, bring the TV to the dinner table if they want to watch it, not the other way around. They're eating; we're refuelling. He also recalls those famous Sainsbury's adverts of the early 1990s, which persuaded the middle classes that they wouldn't be doing anything naughty by buying pre-prepared food, because - look! - here's Selina Scott making tagliatelle carbonara in 30 seconds flat.

Amid this sea of apparent change, there remain many constants. One, which post-dates Mass Observation but is documented in endless newspaper columns, is that watching ITV is common. Another is pretending that beds are for one thing only, namely sleeping.

Significantly, we're increasingly likely to allow bedrooms to double as home offices, not as love dens. Imagine the difficulty of trying to get your end away when you can see your overflowing in tray out of the corner of your eye. The mind shudders.

Like Julian Baggini's Welcome to Everytown, another recent book dedicated to finding out what makes the British tick from hour to hour, Queuing for Beginners may attract derision for its commitment to examining the most basic and visible aspects of our lives. I, for one, reckon the bleeding obvious is the best place to start.

Lynsey Hanley's "Estates: An Intimate History" is published by Granta

This article first appeared in the 11 June 2007 issue of the New Statesman, Russia: The beggar becomes the belligerent