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Historical Context > Mass Observation

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message 1: by Ruth (last edited Dec 03, 2015 08:18AM) (new)

Ruth I've always been fascinated by Mass Observation - the Wikipedia entry gives a good general introduction to this social research organisation which was founded in 1937. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mass-Ob...

I've been listening to some fascinating podcasts from the Mass Observation website http://www.massobs.org.uk

I started with Juliet Gardiner because I've read some of her books and like her as a writer of social history. It was an interesting lecture but the delivery was quite difficult to listen to at times. I didn't realise she had used so much Mass Observation material in her books. That seems to be one of the biggest uses of the Mass Observation archives - a wealth of source material that social historians can delve into to use as background for their books.

The next one I listened to was by Robert and Patricia Malcolmson who have edited several Mass Observation diaries - if you click on either of their names through this link you'll see all the books they've worked on. They were both very engaging speakers and my interest was piqued by several of the diaries they have edited, particularly The View From the Corner Shop: Diary of a Wartime Shop Assistant which is due out next April. http://www.amazon.co.uk/dp/B0112O5LGA...

I'm currently listening to James Hinton talking about the origins of Mass Observation and how it changed it's focus after the outbreak of war in 1939. Another very interesting talk.

I'd love to do some reading about this organisation but there seems to be such a lot of material out there that I'm not quite sure where to start. There are general histories, books about particular aspects of the research gathered e.g. daily lives on the Home Front during WWII, and of course the diaries which have been edited so far.

Has anyone else done any reading around this subject?


message 2: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb You probably recall we had a little MO digression over at The Patrick Hamilton Appreciation Society...

Miss M wrote: "Just a few days ago I finished reading about the early days of Mass Observation in Bolton. Bill Naughton was a very helpful figure in introducing and connecting some of the key figures/outsiders from the project into the working class areas they were interested in.
Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that launched Mass Observation is the book. I wouldn't necessarily recommend anyone go out of their way to find it, but it is interesting if you have any interest in the background to Mass Observation. Quite a difference in approach between the group Tom Harrisson led in Bolton, where he wanted them to be true observers, noting all aspects of minutiae of people's everyday lives, vs. Charles Madge's approach with his London-based observers who did more self-reporting via diaries.

Think I'll put Naughton's stories on the wishlist for now. I'd also like to get a hold of Humphrey Spender's photographs from that period.
'Lensman' Photographs 1932 1952
Worktown People: Photographs From Northern England 1937 38 "



message 3: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Simon Garfield has written three books based on the MO archive...


We Are at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

Private Battles: Our Intimate Diaries: How The War Almost Defeated Us

Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Post-War Britain

I've read another book by him about Wrestling - The Wrestling - which I loved. I am sure those three MO books are well worth a read


message 4: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Peter wrote: "I have an old Penguin Special called Britain by Mass-Observation which is contemporary to the organization (it was published in 1939) and full of the latest observations: "what with them scientists and Mussolini and Hitler, the world'll be in a bloody mess soon, that's what I think" (and you're not wrong there, mate). Fascinating stuff, if often a bit patronizing, and interesting to see it in use - as in this Penguin Special - with earnest hopes for its future and an address to write to if you want to join. It looks like this has been reprinted by Faber Finds as Britain, but I think the original Penguin can probably be bought for less. "


message 5: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Thanks Nigeyb. I think I might just put them all on my 'want to read' list and keep an eye out for them turning up secondhand etc.

It would be interesting to eventually have read some contemporary stuff like the Penguin mentioned above, as well as modern interpretations of what MO was all about and see how they differ.


message 6: by Mike (last edited Dec 03, 2015 08:45AM) (new)

Mike Robbins (mikerobbins) | 39 comments This is nice, I didn't know their were other members of the group who were interested in Mass Observation. I'm a fan, in fact - I think they were great.

I've read Our Hidden Lives and you've both given me some other interesting suggestions (Ruth, I didn't know about the podcasts, I will check those out). Here is some of my own recent reading:

Speak For Yourself: A Mass Observation Anthology, 1937 1949 ...Very good on the story of MO itself, and with some fascinating pictures - but out of print now I think - I bought a secondhand copy off Amazon.

Meet Yourself on Sunday and Meet Yourself at the Doctor's - short collections published postwar and just reissued by Faber, fascinating stuff about the way people lived in the postwar period. Illustrations by Ronald Searle, no less.

I've also just enjoyed All Day Long: A Portrait of Britain At Work, a lovely book - it is about modern Britain but shows that the spirit of MO is alive and well!


message 7: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Thanks Mike. There's a lot more published material than I'd realised so this discussion is a great resource to refer back to. I'm so glad there are others who are interested.


message 9: by Miss M (last edited Dec 03, 2015 11:05AM) (new)

Miss M | 118 comments I'd already mentioned being interested in Humphrey Spender's (Stephen's brother) photographs of the period, but I also want to find out more on another co-founder, Humphrey Jennings. Embarrassed to say I hadn't previously heard of his documentary films. Was excited to see there's a collection of some of his work available for streaming on Amazon (also some on Youtube), "Listen to Britain and other films", I hope to take a look at over Christmas.
https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Liste...

Humphrey Spender:
Worktown People: Photographs From Northern England 1937 38
'Lensman' Photographs 1932 1952

Link to the book I recently read which nigeyb quoted, is:

Worktown The Astonishing Story of the Project that launched Mass Observation by David Hall
Worktown: The Astonishing Story of the Project that launched Mass Observation


message 10: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Miss M wrote: "I'd already mentioned being interested in Humphrey Spender's (Stephen's brother) photographs of the period, but I also want to find out more on another co-founder, Humphrey Jennings. Embarrassed to..."

Thanks Miss M - Humphrey Spender and Humphrey Jennings both look interesting characters worth a bit of research.


message 11: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Just found this - Reflections on Class from June 1939 - on the Mass Observation twitter feed
https://pbs.twimg.com/media/CVXxzo9WU...

A few things immediately leap out at me from reading this. Firstly, does anyone these days think in so much detail about the class system & their place in it. I know this respondent must have been asked a certain set of questions, most of which we can guess at, but to have such a definite view on the matter seems at once surprising but also strangely comforting, in that the person seemed to have a firm basis for where he (or she) stood in the world and also why.

The other thing that struck me was the difference in the way he communicated his answers (I think it is a man - what do you think?). We are so used to using a computer keyboard now that it's hard to remember how long this would have taken him to compose, both mentally and physically, on a manual typewriter, with the tabulations and corrections. Somehow I imagine it would have taken longer to do this than a handwritten document, but I think I'm comparing how long it would take me now to type this out.

I find this document a thrilling example of social history - there is so much to be gleaned from it.


message 12: by Miss M (new)

Miss M | 118 comments Hi Ruth, I missed your last comment--will take a look, thanks.

Just dropped by to mention there's a very good review of Worktown in today's Guardian:
http://www.theguardian.com/books/2015...

Also, a couple of older Guardian articles there:
http://www.theguardian.com/uk/2005/ma...

http://www.theguardian.com/commentisf...


message 13: by Ruth (new)

Ruth Great article - thanks Miss M


message 14: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Nigeyb wrote: "Simon Garfield has written three books based on the MO archive...


We Are at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times

Private Battles: Our Intimate Diaries: How The War Almost Defeated Us

Our Hidden Lives: The Remarkable Diaries of Post-War Britain

I've read another book by him about Wrestling - The Wrestling - which I loved. I am sure those three MO books are well worth a read"


I've decided to nominate 'We Are at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times' by Simon Garfield as an August 2017 non-fiction nomination

Top review on Amazon...

The unfolding drama of wartime life is captured faithfully in these first-hand accounts. I wonder what would be the reaction of the diarists to know that in sixty years time their submissions to Mass Observation would be printed and made into a book. I suspect they would secretly be quite pleased that their efforts would be enjoyed by future generations - a kind of immortality. I was particularly moved by Christopher Tomlin's honest descriptions of the struggle to keep his family afloat financially while coping with the anxiety and sleeplessness of incipient invasion. A different world indeed.

Book description

Of all the accounts written about the Second World War, none are more compelling than the personal diaries of those who lived through it. We Are At War is the story of five everyday folk, who, living on the brink of chaos, recorded privately on paper their most intimate hopes and fears.

Pam Ashford, a woman who keeps her head when all around are losing theirs, writes with comic genius about life in her Glasgow shipping office. Christopher Tomlin, a writing-paper salesman for whom business is booming, longs to be called up like his brother. Eileen Potter organises evacuations for flea-ridden children, while mother-of-three Tilly Rice is frustrated to be sent to Cornwall. And Maggie Joy Blunt tries day-by-day to keep a semblance of her ordinary life.

Entering their world as they lived it, each diary entry is poignantly engrossing. Amid the tumultuous start to the war, these ordinary British people are by turns apprehensive and despairing, spirited and cheerful - and always fascinatingly, vividly real.




message 15: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Nigeyb wrote: "I've decided to nominate 'We Are at War: The Diaries of Five Ordinary People in Extraordinary Times' by Simon Garfield as an August 2017 non-fiction nomination"

Not getting much traction though. Sadly.


message 16: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments I picked up the book. I didn't vote for it though.


message 17: by Nigeyb (new)

Nigeyb Let me know when you want to read it Jan


message 18: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Okay. It is sitting amongst a pile of books - half of which were picked up this last month. They have a big used book sale in June and I made two large purchases from Powell's (it was in the latter).


message 19: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Although it might be better (it would actually get read) if you pick a date. Otherwise it may sit in there for quite a while.


message 20: by Nigeyb (last edited Jun 27, 2017 02:10AM) (new)

Nigeyb Okay Jan. I've got a few commitments to get through first*. And I have yet to get hold of the book. Watch this space.

*including the longest book I have ever read Alan Moore's sprawling behemoth 'Jerusalem' which runs to more than 600,000 words - and is longer than the Bible. I've been reading it for a month now and am still not at the halfway point. It is magnificent though. A modern masterpiece.


message 21: by Jan C (new)

Jan C (woeisme) | 1525 comments Sounds good.

Currently still reading about Happy Valle and working on finishing some of my half-read books - The Man in the Queue by Tey and The Nursing Home Murder by Ngaio Marsh, amongst the other thousands.


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