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When I learned of the existence of the English organization Mass-Observation from David Kynaston’s A World to Build, I was immediately interested in the concept and its results. As Wikipedia explains,
Mass-Observation aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires (known as directives). They also paid investigators to anonymously record people’s conversation and behaviour at work, on the street and at various public occasions including public meetings and sporting and religious events.
The name suggests observation by a “mass,” but its aim was more observation of a mass. During its active period prior to the mid 1960’s the organization published several reports and books based on its observations. Since that time, its archives have been available to those doing research. This anthology of women’s writing during World War II in England has been edited by Dorothy Sheridan, Archivist at the University of Sussex Library. As she explains,
The central tenet of their approach was to ‘observe’; to watch and to record people’s behaviour and conversations.
This collection offers diaries and reports. A typical diary recorded not only personal events and opinions, but also observations of others. In the early months of the war in 1939, bombing was expected and many women and children were evacuated to the countryside. Some of them did not like it.
Other women said that they found much difficulty in the country shops. Food was much dearer at the village grocer’s. Nothing can be bought ready cooked and they did not understand the coal cooking ranges of the country. They all grumbled at the inconveniences of travel, now only one bus each way every two hours, and about 3 trains a day. They were not used to living three miles from a station and bus stop. Some said there was no cinema and one wanted to know where she could get her hair permed….
A diarist on the coast during that first winter of the war adjusted to the situation.
This morning we were laying in bed and Mother called out what’s that noise. I listened and heard machine-gun fire, lay in bed and listened and heard burst after burst of guns. This was about eight o’clock. Mother called out, ‘Do you think they are landing on the beach?’ She then said, ‘If they come I shall get under the bed and lie low.’ Jenny said, ‘I think I shall be more of a success with them if I stay in bed!’ We all laughed and after a time it stopped and I went to sleep again.
Reports were written by Mass-Observation staff members, drawing on the many reports coming in, usually in response to questionnaires of directives. Social issues important to women were favored topics, for example, the availability of child care for working mothers and the feelings for or against the presence of unaccompanied women in local pubs. Most of the diarists and reporters were middle class and educated – not surprising since they had the time and inclination to write – but the organization made a conscious effort to include the views of working women. I enjoy the immediacy of reading reactions recorded at the time, with no fore-knowledge of what might happen tomorrow.
I have enjoyed several of Karen Armstrong’s books about religion, especially The History of God, in which she shows how the concept of God developed in several religious traditions, and The Battle for God, in which she attempts to explain the rise of various fundamentalisms in modern times. Armstrong has her own interpretation of events, but she is not trying to persuade us to see one religion as more advanced or worthy than the others.
In Islam, she teases out much of what had appeared in the other books and embeds her interpretations in an outline of the history of Islam from the time of Muhammad until today. The history is important because Islam is less a religion of belief and more a set of righteous practices which flow from and lead to a righteous community.
The life and achievements of Muhammad would affect the spiritual, political and ethical vision of Muslims forever. They expressed the Islamic experience of “salvation,” which does not consist in the redemption of an “original sin” committed by Adam and the admittance to eternal life, but in the achievement of a society which puts into practice God’s desires for the human race.
I found the history of the various Islamic empires and dynasties – Umayyads, Abbasids, Ismailis, Seljuks and more – to be confusing without a strong background in the history of the region. The most rewarding parts of Islam are Armstrong’s description of Muhammad’s life and teachings and the final sections on the interaction of Islamic countries with modernism, as embodied by the increasing powers of the West. She ascribes the threat which Muslims clearly feel less to religious differences than to different stages of development. The Ottoman Empire recognized this and used it as basis for military reform. It was not enough.
When the Ottomans had tried to reorganize their army along Western lines in the hope of containing the threat from Europe, their efforts were doomed because they were too superficial. To beat Europe at its own game, a conventional agrarian society had to transform itself from top to bottom, and re-create its entire social, economic, educational, religious, spiritual, political and intellectual structures. And it would have to do this very quickly, an impossible task, since it had taken the West almost three hundred years to achieve this development.
As Armstrong tells the history the colonization of Islamic countries, one sees the loss of dominance from the Muslims’ point of view, and it is a most discouraging story. That the reaction, the counterattack to speak, has been phrased in religious terms is not surprising. That some turn to violence we have all been aware, but others react with a clear statement of identity. Speaking of Islamic dress,
When this is forced upon people against their will (as by the Taliban) it is coercive and as likely to create a backlash as the aggressive techniques of Reza Shah Pahlavi. But many Muslim women feel that veiling is a symbolic return to the pre-colonial period, before their society was disrupted and deflected from its true course.
Amstrong ends this edition of Islam with a brief Epilogue about the attacks of 9/11. She may help us to understand how they came to be, as well as later developments such as the upheavals following on the Arab Spring, but leave me discouraged as to our ability to find a way out of the conflict.
The subtitle of A World to Build – Austerity Britain 1945-48 – explains why I wanted to read this book. I have read many novels set in wartime and immediate post war Britain, as well as memoirs of that period. Elizabeth Bowen’s The Heat of the Day gave a sense of the strain in civilian life caused not just by the war, but also by a sense that social arrangements were no longer stable.
Two recently-read novels caused me to think of that period again. In Dorothy Whipple’s 1953 novel, Someone at a Distance, the war is over and respectable middle-class families are trying put it behind them. It isn’t easy. The only servant is a “Daily” so wife and mother Ellen does her own cooking and gardening.
After the anxiety, the separations and dangers of the war, it was wonderful to have them safe and all together, except for mild interruptions in the form of school terms and military service.
‘I’m very glad to have the house to look after,’ she said. ‘And the garden too.’
‘Well, I hate housework,’ said Anne. ‘What I have to do at school is far too much for me. We’re so short of maids we have to wait at table some days and take turns to do our classrooms and our bedrooms. Everybody simply hates it….”
Ellen struggles on, maintaining standards.
Margery Sharp’s 1948 novel, The Foolish Gentlewoman, is set in the immediate postwar period. Isabel has her own house with a live-in caretaker, a comfortable income, and various guests. She too maintains standards, but the food is awful.
The meal served in the mahogany dining-room consisted of tinned soup, corned beef and salad, and for sweet a concoction of macaroni inadequately laced with treacle.
Observation of rationing and related regulations can be a moral issue.
After a moment of reflection, Mr. Brocken acknowledged this also: the atmosphere of Chipping Lodge was pleasant.
“Or perhaps I should say morally,” added Humphrey.
“You may say so, certainly,” agreed Mr. Brocken, “if you know what you mean.”
“Well, there’s no fiddling. Aunt Isabel doesn’t pop off to buy eggs under the counter, and Jacky doesn’t buy clothing coupons, and under their virtuous influence I have ceased to buy Black Market gin. It makes a nice change.”
A young man and a young woman, just demobilized from their wartime service, are unsure what to do with their lives. They are happy to stay for now with the “foolish gentlewoman.”
In the first place, they desired no change of any kind in the life at Chipping Lodge. As a rule it is the old who fear changes, but the circumstances of Jacqueline and Humphrey were peculiar – or peculiar to their generation. Both got through the war years well enough. Warfare, even civilized warfare, is not, to a thoroughly healthy young male, unmitigated purgatory; Jacqueline had suffered chiefly from the curtailment of her liberty and the enforced company of too many women, and on the other hand had been glad to escape from a dull home.
Whipple and Sharp show us a world in which middle-class pre-occupations and standards have been changed very little by six years of war and some years of privation afterwards. They still have inherited incomes, they live in comfortable houses, belong to clubs, and have servants – or the memory of them. How about the rest of the British, I wondered, and looked to David Kynaston to show me a broader picture.
A World to Build is the most readable kind of history because it is, as he says in his Preface,
…a story of ordinary citizens as well as ministers and mandarins, of consumers as well as producers, of the provinces as well as London, of the everyday as well as the seismic, of the mute and inarticulate as well as the all too fluent opinion-formers, of the Singing Postman as well as John Lennon.
The people of those years 1945-48 speak in their own voices from letters, diaries, memoirs, contemporary publications and Mass-Observation’s recorded statements. (See the note below about Mass-Observation.) They speak at that time, with no knowledge of what is to come. Social class still matters, even when celebrating the victory in Europe.
‘Half our road where all my friends lived had semi-detached houses and detached bungalows while at the bottom of it the houses were small and terraced,’ Michael Burns later recalled about growing up in Tolworth just off the Kingston bypass. ‘We had a street party that our parents were insistent should not include the terraced houses, so there were two parties in Southwood Drive divided by about two hundred yards.’
Kynaston reminds us that it was a different world from the one we know.
Britain in 1945. No supermarkets, no motorways, no teabags, no sliced bread, no frozen food, no flavoured crisps, no lager, no microwaves, no dishwashers, no Formica, no vinyl, no CDs, no mobiles, no duvets, no Pill, no trainers, no hoodies, no Starbucks…. No launderettes, no automatic washing machines, wash day every Monday, clothes boiled in a tub, scrubbed on the draining board, rinsed in the sink, put through a mangle, hung out to dry….
Churchill was out and Labor and Atlee were in, although you wouldn’t know it from the novels, only a vague distrust of official arrangements. The distrust was real, according to Kynaston. Enough traditional Tory voters had no confidence in Churchill to solve postwar problems to give control of the government to Labor; yet they were not confident about Labor either. From a diary in July, 1945:
The election result is still creating talk – I wonder what this Labour Government will lead us to. I heard that Ladies shoes are going to 9 coupons on the new books. I expect it is true.
As much as possible, Kynaston lets the working man speak. It appears the he is not too keen on some other changes either. Many wanted to return to Britain as it had been – but with full employment and better housing. The planners’ vision of blocks of flats was not shared by the workers for whom they were intended. A working woman declared,
I’d like a sitting-room-kitchen so you could have meals in it, and a nice garden in the back for vegetables and chickens, and a flower garden in front.
When the mines were nationalized, few miners related the change in management or the actions of the union to any improvement in their own lives.
Bob Crockett ‘never took it into [his] head’ to go to union meetings, and ‘once I came out of the pit I came home and never thought about the pit…until I had to back there’; Cliff Price frankly conceded that he was ‘only interested in things appertaining to myself, my own work’; and according to Eddie Bevan, the men were solely interested in union affairs ‘when it hit their pockets, when something within the pits happens.’
I have quoted extensively from A World to Build because, by giving us the voices of ordinary people, Kynaston brings those difficult postwar years to us with an immediacy that held me. That is what novelists do also: they make a situation live by the characters they create and by what those characters do and say. Kynaston did not have to create his diarists and letter writers. We are fortunate that that he found them for us.
Note: A word about Mass-Observation. It was a social research organization founded in 1937 which “aimed to record everyday life in Britain through a panel of around 500 untrained volunteer observers who either maintained diaries or replied to open-ended questionnaires” [Wikipedia].
Jane Gardam, God on the Rocks. In this early novel by the author of Old Filth, it is summer on the English shore and the various characters take their turn in a dance in which we must seek clues to explains past events.
Margery Sharp, The Foolish Gentlewoman. It is after World War II and the Foolish Gentlewoman has several unrelated people living in her house. Sharp’s social comedy is just pointed enough to be entertaining, while her human sympathy’s are real enough to be moving.
Julia Glass, The Widower’s Tale. Percy’s wife died years ago, his daughters are grown. He lives alone and likes it that way — or so he thinks. In this thoughtful novel, Percy becomes reconnected with the lives of others. I enjoyed Glass’s social commentary and gentle flashes of humor.
Saul Bellow, Herzog. In this novel, a failed academic addresses the people and troubles in his life in a series of letters. He also visits some of people and places in a an attempt to resolve what’s bothering him.
Peter Ackroyd, Thames: The Biography. Everything you every wanted to know about the River Thames and its importance in English life and literature. The long meditation is rich in detail, well illustrated.
David Lodge, Changing Places. In this first of three campus-based novels, two college teachers, one English and one American, exchange their academic positions and their lives. One of the funniest books I’ve read in a long time.
Thames, by Peter Ackroyd, is not the biography I expected. It is less a chronological account of the river’s existence over the millennia than a meditation on all the aspects of the river. We learn of the river as connector, the river as border, the river as benefactor, the river as hazard – the river of commerce, of folk lore, of poetry, and art. Ackroyd takes broad and romantic views of his subject. In Elizabethan times,
The Thames was seen as the microcosm of the kingdom, incorporating past and present, the world of pastoral and the world of the city, the center of secular as well as of religious activities, the site of sports and carnivals. It was considered to be “another Helicon” where Apollo and his Muses had alighted, so that under its benign influence London surpassed Rome and Athens. The excitement and energy of London were the excitement and energy of the Thames.
The Thames I saw on my several visits to England was the majestic tidal flow through London. I did glimpse it briefly at Oxford, where students punt on the “Isis,” but I did not have time to linger. In London, on the other hand, I strolled along its banks, traveled on it to Greenwich, and walked across many of its bridges. Ackroyd is a London man, writing in loving detail of the changes in the river as it passes through the city and its importance to Londoners. There are hints of regret that London is no longer quite the world center that it once was.
If Ackroyd stepped back for an even wider view, he might muse on river cities generally. Ackroyd speaks of Rome, but what of Paris, of Amsterdam, of New York – of Cincinnati, Ohio? I grew up in Cincinnati, situated on the north bank of the Ohio River, a border between the North and the South, between slave and free. Many river cities, including Cincinnati, are semi-circles. The city expands from its starting point, growing outwards, but cannot form a circle, since the river blocks growth in one direction. Instead it forms a fan, with the river at its base. Ferries and, later, bridges unite with the other shore, but by then many of the civic modes are well established.
Rivers create a special climate for their cities, as Ackroyd observed of London and as I experienced in Cincinnati. The climate is humid in all seasons, subject to mists and floods. An inhabitant who boats on the river moves out of the city, yet knows that the river is still part of it, the basis for its existence. Ackroyd is at his best when demonstrating this with literary examples, most especially from Dickens. His view of the role of the Thames in English literature encompasses all:
What is the song of the Thames? Its endless melody may be glimpsed in all the poetical legends and myths of the river. It is the place where many of the English stories of time and history have their origin – in Spenser’s Faerie Queene, in Drayton’s Polyolbion, in Pope and Milton, in Marvell and in Shelley. In Spenser, the river came to represent the identity of the nation. The Thames conflated genres and forms to create a complete statement. It embodied harmony, and unity. It became a metaphor for poetry itself.
Ackroyd over reaches, but I can see why. The Thames has an unbeatable status compared to the Ohio, or the Hudson, or even the Mississippi. The North American continent has many rivers but they do not flow together. The United States unifies them, making them part of a larger whole. On a small island, a single river – the Thames – can be the heart of the nation.
Saul Bellow wrote many novels and became a Nobel laureate. Herzog, his 1964 novel, was a best seller. I wonder how many readers actually finished the book. Reading it now, I felt like saying, Bellow, you’ve made your point, now let’s move the story along. So what is his point? The principal one is that there is no story to move along, as Moses Herzog cycles again and again though his catalog of complaints like a dog circling on his bed, unwilling to settle down until he has it just right.
Bellow gives us three narrative threads, braided together. We have third person narrative, telling us who, what, where and when. The why we get from Herzog’s letters and memos to all persons living and dead with whom he has been concerned, from Nietzsche to his ex-wife Madeline. These are in italics. Interrupting these communications, we have non-italic text in first person, with Herzog’s comments, addressed sometimes to himself and sometimes to a person or persons unknown.
Herzog’s letters are scholarly and philosophical. To a fellow academic (and competitor):
We love apocalypses too much, and crisis ethics and florid extremism with its thrilling language. Excuse me, no, I’ve had all the monstrosity I want…. You have a taste for metaphors. Your otherwise admirable work is marred by them. I am sure you can come up with a grand metaphor for me.
I extract. There are pages and pages of this, interspersed with Herzog’s encounters with significant others, past and present. Herzog’s excess of emotion has disrupted his life; now this excess find a verbal outlet.
Still, what can thoughtful people and humanists do but struggle toward suitable words? Take me, for instance. I’ve been writing letters helter-skelter in all directions. More words. I go after reality with language. Perhaps I’d like to change it all into language, to force Madeleine and Gersbach to have a Conscience. There’s a word for you. I must be trying to keep tight the tensions without which human beings can no longer be called human. If they don’t suffer, they’ve gotten away from me. And I’ve filled the world with letters to prevent their escape. I want them in human form, and so I conjure up a whole environment and catch them in the middle. I put my whole heart into these constructions. But they are constructions.
Herzog’s constructive letters range from pedantic to plaintive to humorous (in the academic mode). He is angry and aggrieved and feels he has been hardly used by ex-wives and others. What his constructions are not is warm or loving. When you construct your own reality in words, tolerance is not required. You don’t have to cut those other people out there any slack.
My mother had trouble with the Book-of-the-Month-Club. For those too young to have experienced it, in the 1930’s and 40’s this mail-order club provided book selections every month. Those were the days before Amazon or Border’s, and many readers had little access to local book stores. My mother was a reader and did visit local book stores, but the Club enticed her to join with the offer of a selection of low-cost books. Then every month she received the Book Club News, with reviews of coming attractions. If she returned the card she could reject the monthly selection or choose an alternate, but she had contracted to purchase some minimum number of books each year.
The system worked smoothly for a while. Then my mother, who had four children and many other concerns, did not reject a selection and received John Steinbeck’s novel The Wayward Bus. I have read many Steinbeck books with pleasure, but have never read this one. Whatever was in the book, it offended my mother. She sent it back and engaged in a fruitless correspondence, asking to resign from the Club and being reminded by them of her minimum purchase commitment. I cannot remember how it was resolved – it may never have been resolved. Both sides probably got tired of the dispute, and it was hardly worth suing my mother over a couple of books. In defense of the Club, I see that they offered a number of good titles in that year 1947, including Mr. Blandings Builds His Dream House, Trevor-Roper’s The Last Days of Hitler, and Bill Mauldin’s Back Home.
My mother and the Book-of-the-Month Club were brought to mind by the recent purchase of a used copy of The Foolish Gentlewoman by Margery Sharp. The tattered dust jacket announces “BOOK-OF-THE-MONTH CLUB Selection*”. The hard cover book was published by Little, Brown and Company and on the book itself there is no hint of the Club connection. Did the Club simply add their own dust jacket?
Tucked within my copy of The Foolish Gentlewoman was pamphlet with a Quick Preview by Christopher Morley. He was also a popular writer in his day and best remembered now for his novel Parnassus on Wheels. I bring this up as evidence that the Club engaged well-respected writers. The back of the pamphlet tells us about the author, Margery Sharp.
I was also pleased to find a coupon announcing the next selection.
On the back of the coupon is the bill of $3.15 for The Foolish Gentlewoman, including mailing expenses. Since I now have the bill in hand, I wonder if it was ever paid. I hope the recipient did not have an objection to the book. I found it humorous and inoffensive, not an easy combination to achieve.