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Mass-Observation

Down and Out in Paris and London, The Road to Wigan Pier, Letters from Iceland

observers war documentary humphrey

originated in 1937 as a social survey group under the leadership of Tom Harrisson (an anthropologist), Charles Madge (leftist poet/journalist), and Humphrey Jennings (documentary film-maker), with the project of producing ‘the anthropology of ourselves’. As such it pre-empted in its interests (if not methodology) some of the concerns now studied as popular culture. It was characteristic of a growing commitment among politically and socially aware 1930s writers and intellectuals to ‘experience’ and document how ‘ordinary people’ lived, worked, and thought and, as such, bears comparison with George Orwell (Down and Out in Paris and London, 1933, and The Road to Wigan Pier, 1937), Auden and MacNeice (Letters from Iceland, 1937, and the former's collaboration with the documentary film-maker John Grierson), and Isherwood (Goodbye to Berlin, 1939). Using a team of ‘fly-on-the-wall’ investigators (students, artists and writers, photographers and unemployed workers) and recruiting volunteer (self-)' observers' from all over Britain and many walks of life to keep regular diaries and respond to questionnaires on specific topics, Mass-Observation applied documentary reportage techniques to pioneer a study of British ‘everyday life’ from 1937 until well after the Second World War. A mass of ephemera—press cuttings, leaflets, posters, sketches, and photographs—was also collected to supplement ‘observations’ on such subjects as Air Raids, Anti-Semitism, Capital Punishment, Children's Games and Toys, Commodities, Dreams, Drink, Graffiti, Propaganda, Pub Life, Sexual Behaviour, War Grumbles, and Women in War-Time. Among its more noted contributors/observers are to be counted William Empson (who investigated sweet-shop windows), J. B. S. Haldane, Naomi Mitchison, and Kathleen Raine. The photographic documentation of Bolton and Blackpool by Humphrey Spender (Worktown, 1937/8) is seminal and also signals the paradoxical roots of the project in British Surrealism. But despite leftist-surrealist origins, M-O was essentially positivist and reformist, not radical, in tendency, as its wartime Government work reporting on civilian morale and its name suggest. Since 1970 the M-O archives have been housed at the University of Sussex, which in 1981 revived earlier projects to document the daily lives of observers through the 1980s, including responses to Royal Weddings, the Falklands Crisis, and unemployment. See Speak for Yourself: A M-O Anthology, 1937–49, edited by A. Calder and D. Sheridan (1984), and Humphrey Spender's photographs of Worktown (Bolton) (1977).

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