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Response to Review of The Mass Observers

I am grateful to Nick Hubble for his full and generous review of my book. But I stand by my claim that MO had two not three founders, a claim which as Hubble rightly explains is designed to downplay the importance of the surrealist, imagist and poetic ideas that Jennings and Madge brought to the emerging organisation between the autumn of 1936 and the summer of 1937. Downplay, but not deny. The Jennings/Madge pursuit of ‘popular poetry’ and a collective unconscious embodied in ‘dominant images’ was certainly responsible for Madge’s initiative in recruiting a national panel of volunteer observers and encouraging them to write about their own experience, feelings and ideas; and nothing like MO would have emerged had this initiative not been taken. To that extent the ideas associated with Jennings were crucial, but beyond the initial establishment of the panel those ideas had little lasting influence on the development of MO.

In his unpublished autobiography Madge made it clear that Jennings himself played no part in the organisation after the completion of the manuscript of May The Twelfth in June 1937. Even before this date he had never been an equal partner with Harrisson and Madge. Hubble ticks me off for neglecting the statement in a promotional leaflet published in the summer of 1937 that MO was being run by ‘a committee consisting of Charles Madge, Tom Harrisson and Humphrey Jennings’. There is no other evidence that such a committee existed or, if it did, that it ever met. No doubt the author of this leaflet (almost certainly Madge) wanted to present a coherent picture of what was, as I show in detail in my book, a profoundly incoherent organisation. That he was engaging in fiction is clear from the statement following immediately in the leaflet, and reproduced in the preface to May The Twelfth, that while Madge ran the observer network and Harrisson ran Bolton, responsibility ‘for the business of presenting results’ lay with Jennings. But Harrisson had his own plans (with Gollancz) for presenting the Bolton results, and it is in any case inconceivable that he would ever have assented to an arrangement which gave Jennings control over what was published. These tidy presentational fictions cannot sustain Hubble’s assertion that Jennings was part of a ‘tripartite operational division’ of labour in the management of MO.

Hubble and I agree that writing for MO came to provide a means by which ‘ordinary’ people could elaborate a modern reflexive selfhood (as it continues to do in the MO project revived since 1981). It strains the evidence, however, to argue that this was ‘exactly what Madge and Jennings had in mind with the concept of “Popular Poetry” that was originally floated during the 1936 meetings in Blackheath’; or that ‘the modernist and poetic impulses that influenced their initial founding of the organisation became implicitly embedded within it even after the stage of their explicit expression was superseded’. In the book I show how within weeks of receiving the initial contributions from the volunteers, Madge’s surrealist-inspired belief that they would reveal ‘dominant images’ giving access to the collective unconscious began to crumble. A gap opened up between Madge and Jennings who, as Madge later wrote, ‘was out of sympathy with the direction taken by MO as a result of Tom’s own initiatives or those which I took in an attempt to adapt my own initial approach to that of Tom’.(1) By the time Madge wrote his contribution to May The Twelfth (in the early summer of 1937) he felt it necessary to apologise for Jennings’ ‘documentary’ and ‘poetic’ presentation of the material. Classic modernist text it may be, but for MO May The Twelfth was a dead end. Madge’s main contribution to the book (the final chapter and some embarrassing footnotes) show him struggling to elaborate a more ‘scientific’ and ‘analytic’ approach, starting with a classificatory schema (‘the three social areas’) intended to map the impact of social forces on the observers’ individual attitudes. As contributions flooded in from the panel over the next 12 months Madge’s schema proved of little help, and he found himself at a loss about what to do with the accumulating material. By the autumn of 1938 he was happy to swap places with Harrisson, hand over responsibility for the panel, and embark (at Harrisson’s suggestion) on the more conventional empirical work on spending and saving that, with the help of Gertrude Wagner, was to pave the way for his later career as an academic sociologist. Taking issue with my remark that Harrrisson effectively saved Madge from the collapse of his pursuit of ‘popular poetry’, Hubble rightly points out that Madge never gave up his poetic side or his fascination with Jennings’ work, and was later to become deeply dissatisfied with the prosaic world of academic sociology. But at the time, in 1938–9, Madge had every reason to be grateful to Harrisson for pointing him in the direction that was eventually to enable him to get funding from Keynes and put what (for Madge) had become the failed (surrealist) project of MO behind him. By then, however, the relation between the two men had become far too embittered for Madge to acknowledge his debt.

This account of what happened leaves little room for Hubble’s ‘implicit embedding’ of Madge and Jennings’ original ideas. His suggestion that Jennings’ modernist techniques influenced the way in which later MO publications were structured is hard to square with Harrisson’s intense dislike of May The Twelfth. As Harrisson had demonstrated in his own pre-MO presentation of his anthropological adventures in the South Pacific, Savage Civilisation, he needed no lessons from Jennings in the deployment of ‘montage and self-reflexivity’. Nor is it at all self-evident that the wartime diarists learned their own techniques of self-reflective writing from MO’s published books which, Hubble asserts, ‘they would have had in mind’. The past subjunctive is a tricky tense, and one which historians are trained to mistrust. What they clearly did have in mind were MO’s regular ‘directives’ to the panel, and it would not be unreasonable to argue that the range of issues explored by the directives owed something to Madge and Jennings’ original surrealist agenda: there may be a bit of ‘embedding’ there. Lillian Rogers’ interest in sexual behaviour (especially her own) did not, of course, originate with MO, but it was MO that provided legitimation for her sexual exploits and encouraged her to write about them. Her account of transvestism in post-war Birmingham (2), provides a pleasing link to Madge’s delight in observing popular cross dressing in pre-war working-class London: but, as Hubble’s sensitive reading of her text demonstrates, Rogers displays a degree of reflexivity that was absent from Madge’s handling of similar material before the war, a finding which complicates the suggestion that, in any sense, she had learned her reflexivity from Madge. 

Hubble says that in my earlier book on the wartime diarists I ‘revealed … the influence of modernist writers such as Virginia Woolf on the self-reflective everyday practice of the diarists by which they constructed modern identities for themselves’. Did I? Virginia Woolf was mentioned by only two of my nine diarists (both, incidentally, male; and both also alone as readers of T. S. Eliot). Among the 100 or so wartime diarists I surveyed in preparing that book, my notes reveal no other reference to Eliot and only one, by the wife of a Sheffield timber merchant, to Woolf: ‘I cannot get anywhere with Virginia Woolf who is all haywire to me – I want a book written to explain a book by her!’(2) It is improbable that literary modernism contributed much to the reflexivity of the great majority of MO diarists who wrote in ignorance of such highbrow literature, and while, no doubt there are tracks leading from modernist literature to the reflexive writing of MO diarists, I cannot claim to have revealed them.

The fascination of MO writing does not depend on seeing it through the lens of surrealism or of literary modernism. Madge and Harrisson’s achievement can stand on its own two – not three – feet.

  1. Charles Madge, Autobiography, p. 71 (Madge papers, University of Sussex).
  2. Hubble’s footnote 14 clears up the confusion about VE and VJ days, a confusion initially caused by a careless footnote of mine which failed to specify that the VE day reference was to a Directive reply, not a diary entry
  3. Directive response May 1942, by diarist 5447 (whose post-war diaries are extracted in Simon Garfield, Our Hidden Lives, where she is given the name Edie Rutherford).


Response from Dorothy Sheridan (Trustee, Mass Observation Archive)

Nick Hubble’s generous review of Mass Observation Online (affectionately known as MOO) succinctly conveys several key aspects of the digital resource including what Mass Observation actually was – and importantly still is, the scope of the digital resource itself and, valuably, a flavour of some of the actual material. I was also pleased to see his mention of some of the ‘spin offs’ at the University of Sussex and in the wider community. Either using the material directly or inspired by the original aims and methodology, MO lives on. The opening up of the Archive, which MOO has been able to consolidate at a national and international level, has facilitated the creation of courses at all levels, the establishment of the Centre for Life History and Life Writing Research, numerous books, theses, articles, radio and television programmes, films, and art works as well as MO-style community and educational projects and above all, the re-launch of the national panel, the ongoing Mass Observation Project.

Dr Hubble is well placed to comment knowledgeably on the benefits of MOO since he is one of the scholars who used the collection for his research long before we had any idea how computers were going to help us explore the riches of such an extensive historical resource. As he says, almost all of the material generated by Mass Observation’s studies in its original phase between 1937 and the early 1950s has been digitised for MOO. Nevertheless, I have to agree that it is the one-fifth of the Archive that has benefited most. This comprises not only the personal diaries from 500 writers but also the detailed replies to open-ended questionnaires from a wider group of about 3,000 people throughout the period of the Second World War. These have become much more accessible and have both benefited from, and contributed to, the recent ‘biographic turn’ in the Social Sciences and History.

I respond to Dr Hubble’s thoughtful comments not as an author or editor of the resource but as a current Trustee of the Archive and as the former archivist of the collection. The real authors, those responsible for the design and population of MOO, are the very astute team at Adam Matthew Digital, notably Martha Fogg. In creating the structure of the online resource, she succeeded in reproducing the arrangement of the original physical collection which in itself was a reconstruction of Mass Observation’s own system for organising its papers. Thus the digital resource remains true, as far as possible, to the provenance of the papers. This to me is one of the strengths of MOO since the danger of any form of digital conversion is the tendency to flatten and decontextualize the data. Adam Matthew has succeeded in combining the ease of online searching with the intellectual and historical background through both the inclusion of scholarly essays and through a creative, informative and easy to use ‘front end’ to the resource.

What is not available in MOO is the facility for searching the full text of diaries and the other personal writing. The researcher must rely on the key words provided by the digital editors to interrogate the text. The ideal resource would be able to show both the image of the original document next to a searchable transcription. But this would have required a complete manual transcription of millions of words since, as yet, as far as I am aware, there is no optical reader that is capable of converting a huge variety of handwritten texts plus the output of various idiosyncratic typewriters into digital form. That will come eventually, I am sure. In the meantime we have a wonderfully preserved set of images of the diaries in MOO.

Because he is addressing a predominantly academic audience, Dr Hubble does not mention one final point but it is one that deserves attention. Over the years the MO Archive has received complaints that the digital version is not freely available on the web. To gain access to the digital resource, one must be a member of an institution with a library that has been able to afford to buy MOO from Adam Matthew. That of course restricts access to a wider public. We did try, in those early days, to acquire funding for digitisation which could have made the resource freely available but we were often turned down.(1) Mass Observation has had to earn its current celebrated status painfully over many years. We can be grateful that Adam Matthew was prescient enough to take the commercial risk, as it most certainly was in the early 1990s, to move from their previous project of publishing MO on microfilm to their present-day digitisation programme of MO, now in its final stages.

1             For our first sally into full-text delivery (albeit of a tiny part of MO material collected since 1981 plus other material from the National Life Story collection), and for a freely available online teaching resource, see the JISC-supported ‘Observing the Eighties’ <> [accessed 30 May 2014].