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Britain, although not the first Mass Observation title, was the one that made its name. Britain was published as Penguin Special and is reported as selling over 100, 000 in ten days. It was published in January 1939, and seventy years on Faber Finds are reissuing it.
The aim of Mass Observation was to create ‘an anthropology of ourselves’, to provide a study of everyday lives of ordinary people in Britain. In this book, arranged and written by Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge (two of the founders of Mass Observation) the notorious year of 1938 is anatomized. It was the year of Munich. The first half of the book deals with the unfolding crisis, culminating with Neville Chamberlain waving his scrap of paper, the agreement with Hitler, from No. 10 Downing Street. A Mass Observation observer was there. The Press gave wildly misleading impressions of the turn-out. In fact the crowd was under 5000. As the commentary tartly observes, ‘No second division football club could survive on a Chamberlain gate.’ A bleakly comic moment is recorded, ‘P. M. stretches out his arm for silence. Several in crowd appear to take this as a Fascist salute and stretch forth their arms likewise.’
Other chapters deal with the dance craze ‘The Lambeth Walk’, all-in wrestling, the cow’s-head cult of Westhoughton (the chapter is aptly entitled A Slight Case of Totemism) and the Two Minutes’ Silence on Armistice Day.
As the Times said then, ‘ . . . With these anthropological spies among us one wonders how statesmen and journalists will ever again dare to speak and write on behalf of ”the people”. For here are ”the people”.
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