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Monday, May 17, 2010

What ever were we thinking? The mass observation of Britain in wartime.

Of all the fields of historical enquiry, there seems to me to be nothing more challenging and nothing more rewarding that trying to understand how ordinary people lived their lives and what they were thinking. When I was an undergraduate I cheerfully wrote essays extrapolating the values of everyday ancient Athenians from religious carvings and the plays of Aristophanes. Now, in my old age (well, shall we say the approach to middle age), I realise how ridiculous this was. Social history is the narrative that hides behind political history, but which in many respects is more key to understanding human events. How can I have neglected it for so long?

It was these feelings that so excited me when I first discovered Mass Observation. Mass Observation is a social research project which aims to gage the thoughts, feelings and values of the nation. It was founded in 1937 in the wake of the Abdication Crisis of 1936. In the final months of 1936 Edward VIII, the youthful and popular King had been forced by the giants of his family, his Government and the Church to abdicate the throne sooner than make a Queen of the American divorcee Wallis Simpson. The affair between Edward and Wallis had been kept out of the newspapers and so when the story went public in the run up to Christmas 1936, it was a massive shock to almost the whole of Britain. Some people agreed with the then Archbishop of Canterbury that Edward represented some kind of moral rot. Many idealised Edward and saw him as a victim of the unpopular Prime Minister Stanley Baldwin. The secretary of the Communist Party probably spoke for many when he declared “there is no crisis in all this for the working class, let the King marry whom he likes”.

The complexity and downright confusion of what the nation thought about the abdication crisis led to the foundation of the Mass Observation project. The organisers appealed for volunteer observers and asked that they contribute their own diaries and answers to open ended questionnaires on an ongoing basis. Data was collected on all areas of life – food, sex, work, growing up, giving birth, the list is endless. The enormous archive of information collected is now stored at the University of Sussex and anyone can read it (I have consulted some of the archive for research but if you are interested, please remember that you have to make an appointment).

A good taster is the excellent book that I have just finished Wartime Women: A Mass Observation Anthology 1937 – 1945 edited by Dorothy Sheridan. This is a collection of diaries and responses from women all over Britain during the Second World War. The book is well organised into different themes and periods but it feels far more intimate than your average social history. It is not a dry discussion of possibilities, but an introduction to a range of larger than life characters such as Nella Last, a Barrow-in-Furness housewife, the plucky young Norfolk sisters Muriel and Jenny Green and the Leeds based nurse Amy Briggs. By setting out individual voices, the editor Dorothy Sheridan shows the strange interplay of continuity and disruption of life during wartime. The pattern of domesticity is radically changed, but much remains. We learn through poor Amy Briggs that a bad marriage in peacetime is a bad marriage in wartime too.

So it is a good read, and it is ground breaking stuff, in its way. Mass Observation was not a perfect answer to the problem of gathering social history data of course. It will be obvious that it appealed far more to women than to men and so it is rather one sided for that reason. Much effort was made to get working class women to contribute, but inevitably it was easier for middle class women to do so. Nevertheless, it is a marvellous archive of material and lets hope that there may be a few more anthologies in the pipeline somewhere.

26 comments:

  1. I LOVE Mass Observation - I'm not sure if you've come across Nella Last but her diaries came out of that project. There are also three wonderful volumes edited by Simon Garfield, starting with Our hidden lives, which compile diaries from various respondents. And faber Finds have republished some of the studies recently (which I covet, hugely!).

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  2. PS: This book is also great for contextualising some of the diarists:

    http://www.amazon.co.uk/Nine-Wartime-Lives-Observation-Making/dp/0199574669/ref=sr_1_1?ie=UTF8&s=books&qid=1274084479&sr=8-1

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  3. This book sounds fascinating, I love reading diaries and autobiographies because I am a nosy parker.

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  4. An unfinished thought but there must be a connection between mass observation and the blog hemisphere? Do we have an innate desire/need to record and read our/others lives?

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  5. Trying a post again - you have a lovely blog Hannah. I love the way you use pictures - and your posts (from my little scan) are interesting. I shall try to come back. (I wish blogger enabled email subscription like Wordpress).

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  6. Oops, I mean, comment of course.

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  7. As far as I know, the Mass Observation project is still going on, though they are only recruiting diarists from under-represented social groups. (Middle-aged, middle-class lady bloggers not required!)
    Have you read Can Any Mother Help Me? by Jenna Bailey. Feel sure you would enjoy it. I didn't read it for ages because the title put me off, and I thought it would be about be about child-care ... in fact, it's a fascinating glimpse into far-flung female friendships in the days before blogging.

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  8. I read one of Simon Garfield's books on the Mass Observation project, and it was fascinating. I'm sorry - I've forgotten now which one of his 3 books it was. It's amazing how those voices from the past still reach out to us, with all their hopes, fears and everyday dilemmas.

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  9. Ohmigosh, this sounds FABULOUS! What a great idea. I often wonder if the information we extract historically about "everyday life" is accurate, and this sounds right up my alley. Thanks for bringing it to my attention!

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  10. Sounds like a book i need to look out for

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  11. Mass Observation sounds like a book that could really enlighten and inform me about lives led differently and in far different times than the times I live in, and I definitely want to grab my own copy of it. Wonderful review, Hannah! I will be looking for this book!

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  12. I am going to try and get hold of that book, I had heard about it at a study day I went to and think saw something about it on TV. My eldest daughter was lucky enough to have been chosen to visit the archives at Sussex as part of a school history trip, she said it was fascinating.

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  13. This sounds like something I'd LOVE - thank you for bringing it (and the Mass Observation project) to my attention!

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  14. This sounds completely fascinating-thanks for sharing it with us

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  15. Dear all -

    Thank you so much for visiting and commenting.

    Verity - You are clearly a real authority here - thanks for the recommendations... looking forward to them.

    Tea Lady - yes nosy parkerdom definately comes into it. At the time it was set up and during the war Mass Observation came in for quite a lot of criticism on exactly this basis - it was said to be an invasion of privacy - especially of those whom the diarists wrote about but were not diarists themselves (husbands, neighbours co-workers etc)

    Joan - yes I think that you are on to something here. I often ask myself the question "Why do we blog?" I guess that inevitably, there is more than one answer - one of which is the desire to reach out to other ordinary lives.

    Whispering Gums - you are so kind.... I was laying in bed at the weekend and thinking just that - but I didn't know that blogger didn't allow email subscriptions - that is so irritating. I have been thinking of re-jigging my blog for sometime. Thanks for your encouraging words.

    Mary - yes MO is still operational. I believe that it had a hiatus in the 60s and 70s or something like that. Can Any Mother Help Me?.... no I have not read this - I have seen it but I thought that it was a misery memoir about child abuse and so decided to do without. It just goes to show how important titles are doesn't it? Thank you for the recommendation.

    Joanne - yes - the voices are very alive on the page - that is what struck me in reading this book.

    Aarti - it is suh a difficult thing to do - I wonder what social historians in the future would make of our blogs?

    Jenny - I hope that you read and enjoy it - it is worth a look. Thank you for visiting and commenting.

    Zibilee - you are welcome! Hope that you manage to get hold of it one day.

    Ragged Roses - i hope that your daughter enjoyed that... I went a few years ago on my own to consult a specific diary - it was really fun.

    Nymeth - you are very welcome indeed - enjoy!

    Mel - again - you are welcome - it is a pleasure.

    Thank you all and have a lovely Tuesday

    Hannah

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  16. Hannah - this was a large part of my Special Subject in my history degree, and also my British History paper and my further subject! You should also check out (it took me ages to remember) the first anthology - Speak for yourself, ed. Sheridan and Calder.

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  17. Thanks for recalling Verity - this is very useful.... I will drop you an email about it.

    Hannah

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  18. Very interesting! This is all new to me. How did you first come across information about Britain's Mass Observation? I wonder if any other countries have done anything similar.

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  19. Hi Kathy - welcome indeed.... I forst came across Mass Observation as I was doing research on a particular person who was one of the many contributors who submitted their diaries - that took me to the archive at the University of Sussex - and from there it has been a case of discovering the various books that have used Mass Observation material - as you will see from the comments here - Verity at The B Files is the expert but I am hoping to read more soon. I have no idea whether this is a project which has been replicated (or even started!) in other countries - I think that it is a cvery useful thing and would benefit any culture.

    Welcome and thank you for your visit and comment -

    Happy reading!

    Hannah

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  20. Excellent post, Hannah. I've only read the two Nella Last diaries but your post has made me want to read more from the MO project.

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  21. Hi Hannah, thanks for stopping by my blog - so interested in what you have written on yours! I am a big fan of the Persephone press and I think the last time I was at the Imperial war musuem in London with my boys (they LOVE this musuem) there was an exhibit that included some of the Mass Observation data on life during wartime... I didn't realize it was such a large project, very intriguing!

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  22. Vintage Reading - There are excerpts from Nella Last's diary in this anthology - but I would love to read Nella Last's War and Nella Last's Peace - I have heard such good things about them. I have discovered through Verity that there is actually quite a lot available and intend to review some of it here. thanks for stopping by.

    Amy - welcome to my blog - thanks so much for visiting and commenting. Yes, isn't the Persephone Press lovely. I love the BiAnnually as well. I must get around to chosing my next Persephone read. I envy your trip to the Imperial War Museum - this is a big confession but I have never quite made it along....

    Thanks for visiting all!

    Happy Wednesday

    Hannah

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  23. Thanks for such an interesting post. I didn't know that MO came about because of the abdication crisis. I adore social history so will have to look out for this book!

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  24. Dear A Bookish Space - you are most welcome and thank you for your visit and comment. I recommend it and there are several other Mo titles (see Verity's comments). Happy reading and happy monday!

    Hannah

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  25. I have a Mass Observation Penguin paperback from 1939 - just before war was declared - and what's striking is how many people were reluctant to fight the Germans, contrary to the propaganda that followed. The reasons weren't particularly noble, but generally rather small-minded, which was disappointing.

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  26. This sounds like a fabulous read! I gobble up any world war book that I can lay my hands on and this one is definitely going on my TBR list! Thanks for the thoughtful review Hannah!

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