i knew next-to-nothing about Mass-Observation before reading this book, simply placing it, with certain big-band, whispering hotel trumpet tunes, as part of the stock marginalia of the thirties, lingering in my mind as one of those exercises in journalistic, impressionistic sociology to “present the people to the people”, like Gaumont British News. This, of course, was a travesty of what Mass-Observation was up to, and I’ve been back to some of its earlier work: stimulating, amateurish, purposeful, something, clearly, which, because of the time, was sharp enough for use and deep enough to lie under the rotting skeins of habitual complacency about British life and work. M-O claimed to make “objective descriptions”, whatever that might mean, but, because it had many of the techniques of the novelist and documentary film maker, appeared able to present situations which could speak for themsleves, to cut through to the vivid or dramatic or the “ordinary” in rather selfconscious parenthesis and so avoid the mess of confused, opposing complexities that always crowd in on any social condition. Wodges of figures now give the feeling of tarted-up impressionism, the “justification” for the literary streaks, though Professor Charles Madge, in a Postscript, remarks that “even as a socialist, I felt I must put sociology first.” Even as sociologists, the M-O writers seemed then to be valuing their own experiences first, and that’s one sign of change, for the purpose and immediacy has almost disappeared in this book. It was a good idea to return to some of the scenes of those earlier investigations and plot the changes, but an irritating hash has emerged. M-O is not the constant agent, of course, eye-witnessing change or discovering unchange, and one of the differences between Britain immediately after the war and Britain now hides behind the tasks M-O has had to complete—
1946: Modern Homes Exhibition (Note and Counts); World Organisation and the Future; Stevenage Satellite Town; Salvation Army; Drinking Habits; Black widow Posters; Famous People; The Hotel Strike; Holiday Weather; People Feel 1939–45; Anti-Semitism & Free Speech; Trade Unions & Closed Shop; Paratroops Mutiny; Implications of Peckham; The Squatters; Popular Attitudes to Palestine and Arab countries.
1959: Teenage Shirts; Household Soap; Foot Treatment; Ice Cream; Attitudes to Bread; Pies and Sausages; Bookshops; Pork Joints; Attitude to Gardening and Gardening Products; Cats; British Typewriters; Instant Coffee.
M-O is now a successful market research organisation, and, as such, must be less concerned with closing gaps “between the ordinary and rather non-vocal masses of Britain and a highly specialised set of organs and organisations supposedly speaking for all through Parliament, Press, Radio, etc.” than bridging them with the para-military intelligence of all-conquering commerce. It might appear a long way from Worktown to Instant Coffee, but this is the kind of road we are travelling, and this irritating book brings out masses of interesting facts within a general framework that was not built for evaluation, nor for the kind of use which was there earlier and not even for going deeply into “change”, “unchange” or the channels flowing from the past into the expectations, ambitions, inhibitions, fears and involvements of the present. I cannot sympathise with the praise which has been lavished upon this book, for it seems to me superficial, verbose and so bloody clever as to be dangerously inaccurate.
Going back to Worktown (Bolton), M-O found that “the immediate effect was exciting. Some things had visibly changed. Others had visibly unchanged— including many that anyone reading newspapers and listening to the radio from abroad would expect to have changed almost beyond recognition.” The documentation, or rather the surprised descriptions of this continuity and resiliance, is, of course, interesting and occasionally stimulating, for so many of these elements tend to get overlooked when we shout about the glitter of present-day commerce or the dimensions of present-day “apathy”. Always, when you see, know and talk to the old man of working class England, “unchange” is not something to be recognised as a residual, unthinking habit but as a positive attitude: try and describe them, not simply take a photograph, as people set vividly and immovably in a particular environment, and one would, somehow, be suddenly confused by which environment, for the past not only bends their backs and callouses their hands, but moves heavily, undigested in their minds, their limbs, their whole language and outlook. Continuity of prejudice, if you want to put it that way, of language, of expectation and habit is powerful and terrible in working class Britain—and also the most valuable response or defensive apparatus that we have. It’s not something we swoop in on, changing the tele-lens, capture our significant little shot then disappear to gaze at, file away under “unchange” and think that our job has even begun: for what is most interesting, most difficult to translate and communicate, is the shifting parameter of “change” within that seeming darkness of “unchange”. Defences change all the time, angles change, ways of thinking about the same thing, even when one continues to do the same thing, change—the way, indeed, that M-O has changed. But where evaluation is most needed, where insight has to go beyond the points of observation, Britain Revisited is astonishingly glib, ignorant even.