Seven Lives from Mass Observation: Britain in the Late 20th Century 
by James Hinton.
Oxford, 207 pp., £25, October 2016, 978 0 19 878713 6
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Mass Observation​ was the brainchild of the charismatic ornithologist turned anthropologist Tom Harrisson, the Marxist poet Charles Madge and (briefly) the experimental filmmaker Humphrey Jennings. It attempted to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’ by ‘observing’ ordinary Britons as they went about their ordinary lives – and by enlisting those same people as diarists and commentators. In the decade or so after its foundation in 1937 ‘MO’ produced more than a dozen books and a host of commissioned reports on subjects ranging from George VI’s coronation to the Munich crisis, from war work to religious belief. Buffeted by financial troubles and leadership crises (Madge broke with MO in 1940; Harrisson was conscripted in 1942 and sent to Borneo in 1944), by the late 1940s the organisation was in decline, although Harrisson could usually be relied on to generate a project when he blew into town. In 1949, by now mostly dependent on advertising and company contracts, MO became a market research firm. The mass of material it had collected went into storage, and then in 1969 was transferred to the University of Sussex. In 1975, the Mass Observation Archive opened to researchers.

Over the last forty years, and especially since its digitisation by Adam Matthew, the archive has become a vital resource for historians of mid-century Britain. The characteristics that irritated wartime officials and postwar social scientists – its methodological eclecticism, its political promiscuity, the sheer dottiness of some of its enthusiasms – are exactly what have made it priceless for historians. Its reports, data and diaries have been mined for studies of courting, love, class, schooling, juvenile delinquency, race relations, anti-Semitism, religion, spiritualism, health, venereal disease, patriotism, pacifism, conscription, voluntary service, demobilisation, reading, writing, cinema attendance, newspapers, gardening, dance, domesticity, sexual attitudes, child-rearing, party politics, electioneering, gambling, drinking, shopping, sport and rationing; gas masks, smoking, football pools and facial hair await their historians. Teachers at institutions with digital access can set their students loose; I have had papers from undergraduates on wartime invasion scares, margarine, fashion and a host of other subjects. Collections of excerpts and some of the most vivid diaries – notably Nella Last’s War (2006) and Love and War in London (2009) – can now be found among the Churchill biographies and accounts of the Somme in high-street bookshops.

But the archive has not merely been a passive beneficiary of this burgeoning interest: the choices of its directors (especially Dorothy Sheridan, who began work at the archive in 1974) have done much to shape how we view MO’s significance. Mass Observation did its work in the period leading up to, during, and after the Second World War – an era when social democratic values had strong purchase and even state sanction. But the archive opened in the mid-1970s – a decade of left-leaning resistance to conventional social roles and of right-leaning disaffection with social democracy. At that moment, Mass Observation struck a chord less for its programmatic ambitions or social-scientific claims (the latter were always shaky) than for its insistence on the importance of everyday life and its commitment to a ‘bottom-up’ practice centred on personal reflection, narration and ‘self-fashioning’. When the archive relaunched the project in 1981, recruiting volunteer observers to contribute personal diaries and responses to directives, it was this inheritance to which it laid claim. Mass Observation is, as its website puts it, ‘a national life-writing project about everyday life’.

The revived project turned 35 last year, its longevity far surpassing that of its parent. The Sussex archive now holds qualitative data for the 1980s and 1990s as well as the 1930s and 1940s; there are as many diaries from the later as from the earlier period. This new material has not been digitised, and has received nothing like the same amount of scrutiny as the earlier deposit. James Hinton’s Seven Lives from Mass Observation, a book of short narrative biographies put together from recent diaries, offers some remedy. This is the third work based on the MO archives that Hinton has published since his retirement from the University of Warwick in 2004; with the possible exception of Sheridan, no one knows the archive better. Taken together, these illuminating, often moving works help us take stock of eighty years of Mass Observation.

Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self (2010), the first in Hinton’s trilogy, was also the last in a series of books on the social history of the Second World War. Having published studies of shop stewards and women voluntary workers, Hinton dug in the Mass Observation archive in search of evidence of ‘active citizenship’ – engagement with public service, commitment to social change – in wartime. He found some of that, but his main discovery was something else: a persistent struggle, especially by women, for personal autonomy and fulfilment. He decided on an unusual approach, shaping material from the diaries into eight engaging biographical chapters – five women, two men and one married couple.

This method affords pleasures – identification, near voyeurism, self-reflection – rather like those experienced by the Mass Observers themselves. As a group, these nine individuals are hardly representative. All saw themselves as middle-class, though one was married to a garage mechanic and another became a factory director; two of the three men were pacifists (although one changed his mind); the women tended to be non-earners, and were older, either childless or with grown children – which no doubt made it easier to find the time to write and post off regular contributions. They were chosen for the depth and quality of their reflections and not to tick particular boxes, and yet, as Hinton rightly says, ‘as exceptionally self-reflective people, they can provide us with access to a cultural world that others inhabited with less self-awareness.’ In the hands of such a deeply knowledgeable scholar, their writings can be made to reveal much about social relations and social change in the period.

All of Hinton’s subjects were involved in war work (the women often with the Women’s Voluntary Service); some were politically engaged; several drew on religious belief to help them cope. But, when it comes to personal matters, Hinton makes a distinction between male and female respondents. Ernest van Someren, Quaker and chemist, fretted about how to reconcile his pacifism with his firm’s production of war materials but wrote little about his marriage or personal life, and while the young soldier Denis Argent was preoccupied by personal relations, mostly he just wanted to get into his girlfriend’s knickers. The women, Hinton insists, were more self-revealing and in a sense more revolutionary, using war service or diary-writing to expand their horizons or find a measure of emotional fulfilment. Gertrude Glover and Mary Clayton seemed to consider their tireless volunteer work a moral and civic duty, while Nella Last found it a welcome refuge from an unhappy marriage and Bertha Walton’s stint as a shop steward in an engineering firm upended, if only for a time, conventional marital roles. But the women’s responses varied too, especially by age, with the two younger women looking more towards intimate relationships for fulfilment.

Hinton sees these women’s struggle for autonomy as the closest thing ‘to the front line of progressive social change’. By ‘setting in train a transformation of the intimate sphere’, he writes, they located a ‘key to the realisation of genuine democracy in the public sphere’ – a formulation that echoes Virginia Woolf’s claim in Three Guineas, written just before the war, that ‘the public and the private worlds are inseparably connected … the tyrannies and servilities of the one are the tyrannies and servilities of the other.’ But if this is the case, and no feminist would claim otherwise, then Hinton’s use of that word ‘progressive’ must give us pause. It was the older women – the ones in their fifties when the war broke out, who expressed no interest in sex or (in one case) worried that it distracted people from more socially useful activities – who seem to have enjoyed the greatest ‘autonomy’ and who showed the deepest commitment to social democracy. By contrast, the two younger women – Lillian Rogers and Eleanor Humphries – avidly pursued personal and sexual fulfilment but had almost no social commitments. Rogers spent much of her time cultivating intense flirtations with men, wanting not to sleep with them but to bag them as dance partners; Humphries, the wife of a wealthy businessman, was in thrall to her domineering husband and spent her days catering to his every need. ‘A childless housewife in a modern labour-saving house’, she often managed to spend her entire day on housework, undertaking a modicum of volunteer work only to avoid conscription. (I lived for years with two children, had a more than full-time job and no ‘domestic help’ aside from my husband, and I still can’t fathom how she passed the time. One is reminded of Rose Macaulay’s comment: ‘Surely a house unkept cannot be so distressing as a life unlived.’)

Nine Wartime Lives makes an irrefutable case for the importance of the diaries, but they form only a small slice of the MO repository and tell us almost nothing about the organisation itself. Hinton’s next book, The Mass Observers: A History 1937-49 (2013), a bracing narrative of MO’s founding, practices, struggles and first demise, provides that comprehensive account. It shows that MO was chaotic and polycentric from the start – indeed, at its founding it was really two loosely linked projects. One was based in Bolton, where Harrisson and a group of undomesticated, mainly male ex-undergraduates spent 18 months ‘observing’ (or perhaps snooping on) local inhabitants. The second was based in the Blackheath home of Madge and his wife and fellow poet Kathleen Raine, where a skeleton staff recruited volunteer observers and analysed the responses they sent back. Harrisson was the more forceful personality, but the London organisation yielded the early results: May the Twelfth, a collage of reported impressions of Britain on the day of George VI’s coronation, and Britain: By Mass-Observation, a compilation of reactions to the Munich crisis, which was published by Penguin in January 1939 and sold 100,000 copies in ten days.

The war brought new opportunities, but it also brought personal tensions to a head. Harrisson was chaotic, noisy, authoritarian and usually unwashed, and by 1940, Madge had had enough. When they parted, the Bolton study wasn’t yet written up; in the end, only a single volume, The Pub and the People (1943), appeared. Harrisson, now with a sizeable wage bill to meet (the staff peaked at 22 in July 1940), cadged for Ministry of Information contracts and advertising industry commissions; he got funding from the Board of Deputies of British Jews for a study of anti-Semitism, but spent the money on something else. He kept the books coming (on the outbreak of war, on attitudes towards housing, on the culture of the factory), but they elicited criticism as well as interest. Mass Observation’s documentation of indifferent morale in the factories and a workplace culture still scarred by the antagonisms of the 1930s scarcely endeared it to a cabinet seeking to project national unity. Ernest Bevin in particular wasn’t sorry to see Harrisson conscripted in 1942. That same year, MO’s female staff were informed that their jobs would no longer be accepted as an alternative to war work.

One of the merits of Hinton’s account is that he tells us what happened next, tracking how more reliable but less colourful figures like Bob Willcock and Len England kept the organisation going. However, Hinton has also counted the directives and file reports, and shows how rapidly the work of volunteer data collection declined after Harrisson ceded control: from 1663 topic collections in 1940, to 258 in 1943, to 210 in 1945; from 469 file reports in 1940, to 193 in 1943, to 78 in 1945. Most of the books were written before his exit. It makes sense for Hinton to break his narrative with a chapter on ‘Method’ two-thirds of the way through the book, at the fulcrum between the period of Harrisson’s control and the later period, when MO survived mostly on work commissioned by advertisers and newspapers.

In that chapter, and in his conclusion to the book, Hinton assesses MO’s wider significance. He insists that it was less sloppy than some social scientists have claimed. It did offer observers some training; Harrisson did cross-check data for bias. Yet its real innovation was not in introducing the practice of anthropological observation in Britain but rather in developing the use of a volunteer panel – and, even more important, in asking panellists to keep diaries. In part because the war intervened, the members of these panels became progressively older and more female; to MO’s distress, they were also disproportionately middle-class. When it came to the diaries, however, Harrisson and Willcock didn’t worry about representativeness: they understood that they weren’t compiling a data set but an archive of qualitative materials for later social historians. The diaries should just be put into ‘well-prepared cold storage’, Harrisson wrote in 1940; they would find their uses in the future.

He was entirely right. Mass Observation, Hinton concludes sharply, was not a modernist project or a social movement (as Nick Hubble has argued); its volunteers were not harbingers of a new scientific mentality (as Mike Savage has claimed). What distinguished its participants, instead, was their willingness to devote time and effort to solitary self-reflection, a practice symptomatic, even generative, of a culture ever more committed to individual self-realisation. In fostering these practices, MO was ‘prophetically attuned’ to approaches and concerns adopted by social historians half a century later. It also produced the archive to which they would so frequently turn.

This is the understanding of Mass Observation that inspired the relaunch of the archive in 1981 – and, now, Hinton’s latest book. Seven Lives from Mass Observation is marketed as a successor to Nine Wartime Lives, and the structure and the pleasures it offers are much the same. Once again, individual diaries have been crafted into engaging biographies, with attention paid to the observers’ reflections on their subjectivities and their social worlds. Diarists are again chosen for the quality of their writing and not their representativeness, though Hinton has made an effort to strike a better balance in terms of gender (four women, three men) and class. We have Sam, a wealthy banker; Caroline, the wife of a businessman; Janet, a teacher; Stella, a social worker; Helen, a youth worker and wife of an RAF officer; Len, a mechanic; and Bob, a long-distance lorry driver. (All names except Bob’s are pseudonyms.) But all are white (hardly a given in this period) and the age range is narrower. All were born in the 1920s or 1930s, married in the 1950s or 1960s, and were near or into retirement when they began writing for Mass Observation in the 1980s (the most recent entries are from 2015) – a bias Hinton justifies, not very persuasively, by claiming that the reflections of older people are ‘fuller, richer, deeper, more considered’ than those ‘caught up in the throes of establishing a family and making a living’.

His choice does succeed, though, in providing us with a portrait of a particular generation as they navigated – or, more accurately, looked back in the 1980s on how they had navigated – a period of rapid social change. Hinton is especially sensitive to the way the new movements of the 1960s and 1970s – the sexual revolution, university expansion, feminism – affected self-understanding and social roles. Once again the women prove the more sensitive conductors for those changes. Years into her marriage, Stella realised, listening to ‘a daring BBC radio Woman’s Hour discussion of the female orgasm’, that intercourse could bring sexual pleasure; she subsequently had two affairs, divorced and trained as a social worker. For Helen, the RAF wife, it was her children (‘my greatest source of intelligent learning’) and then her engagement with various progressive causes that turned her ‘from Tory lady to socialist firebrand’ – an evolution that, remarkably, seems not to have troubled her husband. Janet’s life sounds a new register, with an abortion and a first child out of wedlock followed by a brief companionate marriage, a second child and a degree course to train as a teacher. Notably, and unlike most of their predecessors in the 1930s and 1940s, all three of these women spent years in paid professional work – although the content of that work (teaching children, counselling families) doesn’t seem miles away from what Gertrude Glover was doing as a volunteer in the 1940s.

Just as social movements changed the lives of the observers, so too did the economic crises of the 1970s and the neoliberal policies of subsequent governments. For Sam, the banker, these were decades of rapid professional advancement; Caroline watched her husband’s business thrive; both worried about greedy unions and swingeing taxes and reliably voted Tory. But Bob (a lorry driver for state-owned British Road Services), Len (a skilled mechanic and later transport manager for a local authority) and Janet, a teacher in London, were all made redundant or forced into early retirement when public services came under pressure or were privatised. Len’s diaries provide an especially detailed and chilling portrait of how pell-mell outsourcing destroyed public services. All three saw New Labour’s accommodation to Thatcherism as an abandonment of the socialist values of fairness and equality; all three expressed anxieties about immigration; all three turned into floating voters, including for Ukip – although Corbyn’s election as Labour leader brought Bob back to his traditional allegiance. Janet, despite her concern for her non-white students and her MA in Women’s Studies, was particularly vituperative about the elitist ‘thought police’ of the education establishment and the ‘socialist nuclear-free zone of dereliction and thuggery’ of Lambeth Council.

It​ is easy to read these responses as a parable for our times. Hinton tries to understand how the drive for personal autonomy (which he approves) became entangled with the repudiation of social solidarity (which he doesn’t). His hopeful prediction in Nine Wartime Lives that increased equality in personal relations would result in a strengthening of democratic commitments is called into question here. He now speculates that these two forces might always have been in tension or even in competition, with psychological or sexual exploration becoming an end in itself and identity politics tending ‘to fragment rather than broaden the forces campaigning for social justice’. But, as in the earlier book, he finds that ‘the most systematic contrast between the life experiences of the mass observers lay across the faultline of gender.’ The men, he thinks, took masculinity for granted and were unaffected by the social upheavals going on around them. By contrast, the women were ‘fully paid-up members of what Christopher Lasch described as “the therapeutic society”’, constructing their ‘selves’ through conscious effort and reflection.

I am not so sure. Caroline, clinging to a loveless marriage while deploring the moral laxity of her times, hardly seems a fully paid-up member of the therapeutic society, and the men didn’t really go untouched by gender politics. Bob admired strong women and helped sex workers to unionise, but left the Labour Party over all-women shortlists; Len loathed the new permissiveness and blamed feminism for his sons’ failed marriages. Sam, by contrast, profited from the sexual revolution by embarking on a series of affairs that his wife unhappily learned to tolerate. Hinton is censorious about Sam’s ‘insatiable desire to live life to the full’ and professed love of ‘the company of fine women’, but his conclusion that Sam’s aspirations were ‘a fantasy’ and his life ‘too good to be true’ is a dodge. The point, surely, is that the intersection of economic liberalisation and permissiveness made it perfectly possible for Sam to enjoy wealth, social status and comfortable domesticity while pursuing sexual fulfilment just as avidly as Stella.

Such moments make clear Hinton’s own values and commitments as well as the limitations of his approach. In Nine Wartime Lives, he acknowledged that his own experiences shaped his accounts of others’ lives, although he shied away from any ‘attempt to disinter the tenth life, the buried autobiography’. Those traces are to be expected: identification is one of the tools of the biographer’s trade, used to foster the empathy on which the enterprise relies. But of course it’s easier to identify with people whose values you share; Hinton admits finding it harder to write sympathetically about those whose motivations seem elusive to him or whose values he disapproves of. This is the reason identification can also be hazardous: it can seduce biographers into projecting their values onto their subjects or blind them to interests they don’t share.

Hinton pulled off the biographer’s balancing act remarkably well in Nine Wartime Lives, but admits he has had more trouble keeping his ‘self’ at bay in the new book. His dislike of social inequality probably lies behind the rather ungenerous remark that Caroline’s affluence must have been some compensation for her marital unhappiness; his disapproval of traditional gender roles is betrayed by the observation that all three of his unenlightened male subjects were lucky to be married to women equally uninterested in feminism. He can’t hide his surprise that Stella, despite her social commitments, was almost entirely indifferent to party politics, and he doesn’t even try to find ‘the critical distance necessary for an objective evaluation’ of Helen, whose political views most resemble his own. ‘Unqualified admiration is, perhaps, not the best stance for a biographer with pretensions to contribute to the social history of his times,’ he writes. ‘But on this occasion it is the best I can do.’

Many readers will share Hinton’s values; I share them myself. But, perhaps partly for that reason, I came away from the last of these three marvellous books glad that biographical reconstruction is only one of many possible approaches to these sources. Hinton ends by hoping that his stories may help ‘you’ to ‘contemplate your own life and your own paths not taken’ – but this therapeutic purpose is not the reason I, for one, read history. You can admire Hinton’s achievement but still look forward to historians bringing some rather different questions to the Mass Observation archive.

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