Seven Lives From Mass Observation by James Hinton

The Blurb On The Back:

What was it like to live in Britain during the second half of the twentieth century? In a successor to his acclaimed Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self, James Hinton uses autobiographical writing contributed to Mass Observation since 1981 to explore the social and cultural history of late-twentieth-century Britain. Prompted by thrice-yearly open-ended questionnaires, Mass Observation’s volunteers wrote about their political attitudes, religious beliefs, work, childhoods, education, friendships, marriages, sex lives, mid-life crises, ageing – the whole range of human emotion, feeling, attitudes, and experience. At the core of the book are seven ‘biographical essays’: intimate portraits of individual lives set in the context of the shift towards a more tolerant and permissive society from the 1960s, and the rise of Thatcherite neo-liberalism as the structures of Britain’s post-war settlement crumbles from the later 1970s.

The mass observers featured in the book, four women and three men, are drawn from across the social spectrum – wife of a small businessman, teacher, social worker, RAF wife, mechanic, lorry driver, banker: all active and forceful characters with strong opinions and lives crowded with struggle and drama. The honesty and frankness with which they wrote about themselves takes us below the surface of public life to the efforts of ‘ordinary’, but exceptionally articulate and self-reflective, people to make sense of their lives in rapidly changing times.

You can order SEVEN LIVES FROM MASS OBSERVATION by James Hinton from Amazon USA, Amazon UK, Waterstone’s or Bookshop.org UK. I earn commission on any purchases made through these links.

The Review (Cut For Spoilers):

James Hinton is Professor Emeritus at Warwick University with expertise on 20th century British social history. Using 7 contributors to the Mass Observation project (which has been running since 1981) this absorbing and moving book assesses attitudes to the societal and economic changes of the 80s and 90s (albeit with caveats as to the reliability of the opinions expressed given that it’s a self-reporting project) and made me want to read more.

I picked this up because I’ve always been interested in British social history and had heard of the original Mass Observation project, which ran during and for a short time after World War II. I had not known, however, that it started up again in 1981 – and indeed is still running today, albeit is currently closed to new participants – so was keen to read something about contributors who signed up to it back then. Having grown up in the 1980s and 90s, I’m also – and perhaps naturally – curious about attitudes of the time and how they compare with my own admittedly hazy recollections. So I was curious to see what an expert like Hinton was able to compile.

Hinton chose 7 contributors to the project for the purposes of this book (all of whom are anonymised) and uses their contributions to produce what are basically mini biographies of their lives and their opinions, including how those opinions changed and were shaped by the world around them. 4 of the contributors are women and 3 men:

– Caroline, the wife of a West London businessman;

– Janet, a school teacher in South London;

– Stella, a social worker who lived in Surrey and West Yorkshire;

– Helen, the wife of a RAF pilot who lived in Hertfordshire and South Wales;

– Len, a mechanic and transportation manager ho lived in North London and Sussex;

– Bob, a lorry driver who lived in North London and Essex; and

– Sam, a banker who lived in south-east England.

All of the contributors were born in the 1920s and 1930s so they went through the War and its aftermath and then went through the more permissive 60s and economic upheaval of the 70s. Hinton is at pains to point out that the nature of the Mass Observation contributions is a form of self-reporting so although it gives a sense of what people thought and felt during the relative times, there is also a need for caution because of the nature of self-reporting and also because of the way that the writers are looking back over their lives and have the benefit of hindsight and reflection. Hinton advises looking for the silences and what the contributors don’t want to talk about, e.g. Sam didn’t respond to a directive on equality between women and men. Indeed, it’s interesting how uniform the contributors are on blaming permissiveness and liberalism for a decline in standard of behaviour and all had what could kindly be regarded as “traditional” views on the role of men and women and there are some double standards on display that are difficult to read with modern eyes.

Saying that, I found myself completely gripped by each of the contributor’s biographies, from Caroline’s unhappy marriage to Len’s battles with management as they sought to privatise the bus service. I can’t say that I actually liked any of the contributors but then that’s not really the point – Hinton teases out their stories and experiences so that you can better understand them and why they thought the way they did. What is remarkable is how candid the contributors are in their writing, whether it’s talking about love or work or their thoughts on politics and economics. Some of this does seem to be more performative or therapeutic- notably in the case of Janet, who really does not hold back in her opinions.

I would have liked much more of a focus on the 80s and 90s than what we get in the book – for me Hinton puts a lot of emphasis on their memories of the 60s and 70s. I didn’t dislike that because it does shape who they are but it would have been good to get more of an idea of what directives were being issued after 1981 that tied in with events of the time. We do get some events like the Falklands war and the miner’s strike and then the Labour election win in 97 but I wanted more. What did interest me was how many of the contributors turned towards right-wing, anti-EU parties and their reasons for doing so – I think there’s a lot here that helps to explain the 2015 referendum result. However it’s a shame that none of the contributors here seem to be from non-white backgrounds and although I assume that’s because there’s a shortage of such people among the Mass Observation project itself, this is not explicit (although Hinton does lay out how the project tended towards people in retirement as they had more time to participate).

My criticisms aside, I genuinely found this to be an absorbing and fascinating read that made me feel as if I had a bit more of an understanding of what makes the eldest generations of British society tick. Having discovered that Hinton has written several other books using Mass Observation participants, I’m now very keen to check out the same.

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