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Reviewed by Harriet

The Astonishing Story of the Project that Launched Mass-Observation

So screams the cover of this book. I’m always a bit wary of cover blurbs, and I must say this does go rather over the top. It certainly has an interesting story to tell, but astonishing? Come on, calm down.

Basically, this is an account of three years in the late 1930s spent in the Lancashire town of Bolton (rather patronisingly known as Worktown) by a group of young social volunteers dedicated to observing and recording the lives and thoughts of the town’s inhabitants. The group was certainly an interesting and disparate one. The three founders of the project were Tom Harrisson, an anthropologist, and two Cambridge-educated intellectuals, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings. A group of nearly ninety people came together to participate: artists, photographers, students, writers, unemployed workers and local volunteers. For three years they were to live and work in among the people of Bolton – to talk to them, watch them in cafes and pubs, to work alongside them in factories and mills, and sometimes to go to bed with them.

If you haven’t heard of Mass-Observation, or M-O as it came to be called (which is still going strong today, housed at the University of Sussex), it still has the brief it started with back in 1937: ‘to gauge the public’s mood and their attitudes towards current affairs’. Naturally there was a great deal of material in the wider sphere to pique peoples’ interest, including the abdication of Edward VIII, Hitler’s rise, and the Spanish Civil War. But there was a lot more than this going on. The volunteers were instructed by Harrison to record in enormous detail the minutiae of peoples’ lives. Thus it is possible to learn how long it took a man in a pub to drink his pint, what colour dresses the girls wore to a dance (five brunettes wore flowered ones and four wore green ones, apparently), and how many men in the cinema were bald.

I started the book expecting to read chiefly about the people of Bolton, a town I know a bit as I lived close by there for nearly twenty years and the hometown of a couple of my good friends. And I did learn things, of course, not least things that made me realise I had deeply ingrained preconceptions of my own, so that I was pleasantly surprised to discover how well informed and well read some of the interviewees were. Of course there were libraries, reading rooms and discussion groups and people participated energetically in all of them. The volunteers were surprised too. One young woman, who got work in a factory, became good friends with one of her co-workers, with interesting results:

As it seems to be the thing to take something to read at dinner time I took Penguin Short History of the World. Lilian said to me, ‘Are you a Wells fan too? I’m just getting to the end of the Science of Life. It’s taken me nine months to read. Fortunately I found a friend to lend it to me – I haven’t got it, of course, it’s too expensive’. Later she said, ‘Have you ever read any DH Lawrence?’ We both had, but not the same. She said, ‘I used to like him; now I’m not quite sure. But he does make you think. It’s the same with Galsworthy. When I read The Forsyte Saga I thought it was the best book I’d ever read, but now I think all the people are too good. Yes, they may be stupid, but I do like a bit of real wickedness now and again’. Later ‘Have you read any Bertrand Russell? I read an article not long ago, and I’d like to read something else by him’.

There was also a lot to be learned about peoples’ daily lives, their wages, their attitudes to work and to their employers and to life in general. So all this – and there’s plenty of it – gives great interest to this account of what was undoubtedly a ground-breaking project and one which proved to have great importance in the coming years. But equally fascinating, and perhaps not foregrounded here as much as it might have been, is the way Harrisson and his team viewed their own roles in the project. ‘The fact that I have a so-called Oxford accent in no ways adds to any suspicion that I am a spy,’ Harrisson said. ‘I only have to claim that I’ve come from another dialect area a few miles away.’ This surely cannot have been true. It’s interesting to speculate on what the locals thought about having a bunch of middle class intellectuals chatting to them in the workplace and sitting with them in pubs, taking precise notes, like this one about a man drinking a pint in a pub:

Puts it down, yawns, lights fag, sips half an inch of beer, rests left elbow on table, picks nose and examines result on forefinger and thumb, suddenly seizes beer in left hand, drains mug, gets up and goes without saying anything.

Never mind the observer in a restaurant, watching a group of middle-aged women and waiting for the moment when one of them might put some of the cutlery in her handbag. It was certainly a thrill for these somewhat sheltered, though very left-wing, young people to get a glimpse of how the other half really lived, and strong relationships undoubtedly developed, but there was surely no hope of it being as objective as Harrisson claimed. Any such scheme is bound to be affected by the views and prejudices of its interviewers and recorders, and perhaps David Hall could have made more of this. But all in all this a really interesting and valuable book, and I’m glad to have had a chance to read it.

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Harriet is one of the editors of Shiny New Books.

David Hall, Worktown (Weidenfeld & Nicholson: London, 2015). 9780297871682, 323pp., hardback.

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