Speak for yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937-1949 
edited by Angus Calder and Dorothy Sheridan.
Cape, 272 pp., £12.50, March 1984, 0 224 02102 8
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Voices: 1870-1914 
by Peter Vansittart.
Cape, 292 pp., £9.95, April 1984, 0 224 02103 6
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The spectacle of members of the upper class setting out solemnly and in a spirit of scientific research to study the lower classes in their natural habitat is a peculiarly Thirties phenomenon. Earlier social investigators, like the Webbs, had quarried their material at second hand from mountains of blue books, reports and statistical abstracts. Young men from the public schools, like Clement Attlee, had gone to live and work among the poor, but to help rather than to observe. Rowntree and Booth admittedly went to York and London to study poverty on the ground, but they limited themselves strictly to examining physical conditions and their economic causes. Moreover, the purpose of all these investigators was to secure political reform. The Thirties attitude was at once more political and less so. This was the period when self-consciously progressive intellectuals, many of them decidedly unpolitical in the traditional sense, were driven by guilt and romantic despair to join the Communist Party. They felt not merely uncomfortable about the existence of poverty, but personally guilty about their utter ignorance of how the mass of their fellow-countrymen lived. They began, under the influence of a fashionable neo-Marxism, to idealise the working class, to see it (as Orwell did) as the repository of all decency and hope, and to value the vigour, humour, stoicism and comradeship of working-class culture – things that would never have occurred to earlier investigators, who saw poverty only as a breeding ground of vice. However, the attempt to expiate upper-class guilt by identifying with the poor, reinforced by an anthropological concern to document a species which reform might threaten, could easily induce an attitude which was in effect quite apolitical, or positively conservative.

Mass Observation was a quintessentially Thirties idea. Its two principal founders, Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, were Cambridge drop-outs and (Madge more seriously than Harrisson) poets. Madge (‘a rather inactive Communist’) was interested in the random association of Surrealism; Harrisson was a self-taught ornithologist who spent some time living among cannibals in the New Hebrides before returning to darkest England to ‘go native’ in Bolton (a few years later than Orwell in Wigan). They met in 1937 as a result of a quite fortuitous juxtaposition in the pages of the New Statesman, and it was in the New Statesman (where else?) that they advertised later that year for 5000 ‘observers’ to study the curious and the unremarked in the daily texture of British life. Their initial catalogue of projects is more surreal than sociological:

Behaviour of people at war memorials
Shouts and gestures of motorists
The aspidistra cult
Bathroom behaviour
Beards, armpits, eyebrows
Distribution, diffusion and significance of the
dirty joke
Funerals and undertakers
Female taboos about eating
The private lives of midwives

Most of the surveys that Mass Observation conducted over the next 15 years were disappointingly more conventional. The alphabetical list included here begins with ‘Aims in life’, ‘Air-raids’ and ‘Anti-semitism’, and ends with ‘Women in Wartime’, ‘Work, employment, registration and demobilisation’, ‘World organisation’, ‘World outlook survey’ and ‘Youth’. The reports filed by the five hundred or so observers fell into three distinct types, of which only the first reflected the ornithological/surrealistic approach to British society. Teams of extraordinarily thick-skinned investigators were sent out to observe and record in minutest detail the al fresco sexual habits of holiday-makers in Blackpool. Several extracts from the reports of these scrupulously scientific peeping Toms are reprinted in this anthology, and very funny they are, when not downright embarrassing:

Now a new position. They are looking out to sea, cheek to cheek. She looks at her watch. She moves. He puts his hand under her left breast, and pulls her down. She titivates her hat. In the original position, except that his right hand is further down near her thighs, they kiss. Time – 28 seconds. As he comes out of the kiss he slips his hand further down. They are cheek to cheek. People come and sit by them. They sit upright. They are looking out to sea, not holding at all. Then she has her head right up, looking left, he is looking at her cheek. She titivates her hat on her left breast, touches her head. She gets up. He pulls her down. Screws himself against the back of her neck. They kiss. Time – 26 seconds. Barracking from crowd passing. Then in again, boring right in. Time – 22 seconds ...

Sample count of couples under 50 during daylight gave 49 per cent no contact, 1 per cent handclasp, 47 per cent arm-in-arm, 3 per cent round waist. A non-comparable sample of couples 11.30 to midnight (232 cases): 

Sitting down and embracing120
Standing up embracing42
Lying on sand embracing46
Sitting kissing25
Necking in cars9
Standing kissing3
Girl sitting on man’s knee7

What the investigators failed to find, despite their most intrusive efforts (‘Observer units combed the sands at all hours ... pretended to be drunk and fell in heaps on located sand-couples to feel what they were doing exactly’), was a single couple actually making love. Beyond confirming that holiday sex is an activity more boasted of than practised – the Town Council was terrified that Mass Observation might destroy the naughty reputation on which Blackpool’s prosperity depended – it must be doubted how much these anthropological surveys added to the sum of human understanding.

Far more useful – to contemporaries and historians – were the two other types of investigation on which Mass Observation increasingly concentrated as the war made public opinion and the state of public morale simultaneously more important and harder to gauge (normal political activity being suspended for the duration). These were reports by observers recording, not ‘objectively’ but much more personally, their impressions either of their own lives and feelings (in the Forces or doing various forms of war work) or of public attitudes on specific questions of the hour: war grumbles, hopes and expectations of the post-war world. These two types of report quite rightly make up the bulk of this fascinating anthology. Here we have, not the numbers copulating under Blackpool pier, but individual men and women speaking, highly articulately, of their particular experience of a life which it is as easy for young historians who did not live through the war as for older people who did to generalise into a few self-perpetuating images. Oral history is all very well, but it tends to mean thrusting microphones under the noses of octogenarians and trusting more than is academically prudent in the veracity of memory. Mass Observation reports may not be strictly representative, but each one is the direct testimony of an individual set down unvarnished while the experience was still warm and the outcome unknown.

Angus Calder was among the first historians to make extensive use of the Mass Observation archive, and his study of the Home Front, 1939-45, The People’s War, is still unrivalled as a critical examination of the reality behind many cherished myths. He has now joined with the custodian of the archive (housed at the University of Sussex) to present a tiny selection from the riches it contains. The result is a wonderful bran tub of excerpts – funny, touching, astonishing and sobering. Choosing what to include must have been a nightmare: but trying to include a bit of everything does leave the book, as a book, without a theme. In one of his pre-war Tribune articles Nye Bevan rebuked one of the dimmer members of Labour’s Front Bench for believing in a ‘democracy of facts’: he was incapable of giving power to his indictment by imposing any pattern on them. That cannot help but be the reader’s response to any anthology. The editors have grouped their material into five main sections: the pre-war social anthopology is followed by wartime reports of differing experiences in the Blitz and of life in the Forces, and then by predominantly wartime reports of attitudes to and of women, and to politics.

In each of these sections some items stand out. There is a thoughtful piece on the community life of the tube-dwellers during the Blitz, asking why so many people continued to live underground nearly two years after the last serious air-raid; a thoroughly convincing description of an early ABCA lecture to an RAMC unit stationed in Durham, with a ‘varsity’-type major doling out a ‘poor rehash’ of a War Office text on the War in the Desert and strictly excluding any discussion of the Russian Front, where the fate of the war was actually being decided; ‘urgent discussion’ of the forthcoming general election in a NAAFI in West Africa and horrified digestion of its result on ‘Blue Clydeside’. (It is interesting to be reminded in passing that in 1945 the Conservatives still held five of the 15 Glasgow seats: Roy Jenkins toppled the last of these when he won Hillhead.)

Unquestionably, however, the most resonant items concern women – who, significantly, came by the end of the war to dominate Mass Observation’s panel of observers. There is a shrewd account by a highly intelligent WAAF of the rules and precise gradations of success in ‘the great man-chase’ which was the bored aircraft plotters’ principal preoccupation (‘The desirable qualities are rank, wings, money, youth in that order. Rank is unbelievably important’); an amazingly elaborate analysis (into 28 grades) of the social class structure by a woman born, by her own estimate, into grade 28 (‘crude, dirty and irresponsible’), who by marrying a man from grade 10 (‘The nicest people of all grades. Cultured, but not being too well-educated they can also be intelligent’) had pulled herself up, and her husband down, to grade 19 (‘The lowest stratum of the reading public’); a revealing report on the limited post-war aspirations of girls doing wartime factory work (‘It’s not so much what’s going to happen to us, as what’s going to happen to the men who come home. Will there be jobs for them?’); and another on the attitudes of both sexes to equal pay (most women want it, but most men and some women are against it, on the ground that a woman expects a man to pay for her when they go out). Not one of these reports is ‘scientific’ in the anthropological sense with which Madge and Harrisson started out, but they all retain much more social interest than the earlier surveys. They also portray a vivid sense of the political allegiance of the country shifting decisively yet sceptically to the left during the war. ‘It’s these blessed ’Igh and Mighties what’s have the upper ’and.’ ‘Give Labour a chance,’ urges a little man in the NAAFI. ‘It’s the only way you have of altering things.’ Despite a lingering regret that they never got round to aspidistras, armpits or female taboos about eating, the historian cannot but be thankful that the war diverted Mass Observation from its initial surrealistic eccentricity.

Peter Vansittart’s book is another anthology, but here Bevan’s ‘democracy of facts’ or, in this case, of ‘voices’ applies with a vengeance. It is a follow-up to his successful anthology Voices from the Great War. But those had the unity of the war to hold them together.

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