The Poet Recorder ;

Mass Observation


It's the purpose of this session to emphasise that the mere act of recording is not the task of the drudge, the clerk. It can advance our insight into the fabric, the conduct of the world. What emerges can be used by the painter, photographer, film-maker, photographer, poet. The film you'll see is about MASS OBSERVATION. I want to stress the capacity for such an activity to uncover the Magickal.

Founded in 1937 by the anthropologist Tom Harrison and the poet, Charles Madge, Mass Observation was dedicated to recording the British national life in minute detail. Other participants were the painters William Coldstream, Graham Bell, the collagist Julian Trevelyan, the photographer Humphrey Spender, and the film maker Humphrey Jennings.

Mary-Lou Jennings, Humphrey Jennings, Film-Maker Painter Poet , BFI London 1982.

David Mellor writes, "One guise which reconciled the twin demands of the Surrealist and the Documentarist was that of the Poet Reporter. In his BBC broadcasts of 1938, on the general theme of Poetry and the Public, Jennings posited a unity which once existed in English literature before the advent of the mass media in which the poet was a kind of reporter; and poet-reporter was in fact the title adopted by Charles Madge during these years, echoing the Utopian hopes of Mass Observation to have reconciled science and art after their separation brought about by the Industrial Revolution. "

Jennings' film Spare Time (1939) was partly set in Bolton, much studied by Mass Observation.

For a general survey of the Thirties, see Clark et al, Culture and Crisis in Britain in the 1930's , Lawrence and Wishart, 1979

see also Sylvia Harvey, "Who wants to know what and Why", Ten 8 , No.23
The Book arranged by Charles Madge and Tom Harrison, Penguin Books, Harmondsworth 1939 180 x 110 cms.
Humphrey Spender speaks in the film. In his book Lensman, he writes, " [Tom Harrison] believed as I did that press photography was largely falsifying and irrelevant. MO was committed to `study real life' and for this purpose the concealed prying camera was essential...At our disgusting breakfasts in the smelly parlour of our headquarters house, Tom Harrison would talk me into taking my camera to christenings, Holy Communions, pubs, railway stations, public lavatories. Away from headquarters I was very much on my own, sometimes, frightened, embarrassed, bored and depressed. To the working people of this town my manner of speaking was la de fucking da . To me their language and accent was foreign."
"Democracy is not simply an inherited freedom to do what you like or what others like to supply. It inevitably involves, among other things, the intelligent operation of society for the optimum benefit of all the people; and for this end the people need to be given every facility and encouragement, both to ber informed in fact and to be capable of intelligent decision in theory." Tom Harrison, Contact ,"The Public's Progress", June 1947, p.xiii.


The First Year's Work ,Mass Observation 1937

Mass Observation Day Survey May 12th 1937, Faber and Faber London 1987 (1937)

Britain by Mass Observation ,Penguin, Harmondsworth 1939

Contact , 1947,Saturday Night by Mass Observation, pp.4-12, illustrations by Gerard Hoffnung

Contact March 1947, Faith and Fear in Postwar Britain, by Mass Observation, pp.4-16

Contact March 1948, Don't know Don't Care, by Mass Observation, pp.56-62.

Contact July 1949, Keeping up with the Jones's, by Mass Observation, pp.41-45

Mass Observation, The Press and its Readers ,Art and Technics London 1949

Humphrey Spender, Lensman Photographs 1932-52 Chatto and Windus London 1987

Humphrey Spender, Worktown Peopl, Falling Wall Press, 1982.

exhibition catalogue, The Thirties, Hayward Gallery London 1980


The Archives of Mass Observation are in the collection of the University of Sussex.