Sam, Caroline, Janet, Stella, Len, Helen and Bob

Susan Pedersen

  • Seven Lives from Mass Observation: Britain in the Late 20th Century by James Hinton
    Oxford, 207 pp, £25.00, October 2016, ISBN 978 0 19 878713 6

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.

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