Ageing, Gender and Moving Beyond Binary or Hierarchical Thinking

This is the fourth instalment in a short series on aging following on directly from the third, ‘Growing Old with the Welfare State’ (the first two posts are here and here). Having discussed both the ‘Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing Project (FCMAP) described in my brief introduction to this series, and the follow-on project to produce Growing Old with the Welfare State, eds Hubble, Taylor & Tew (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019), I want to reflect on what I learnt from that process before finishing with a fifth and final post thinking about ageing in the context of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In my previous post in the series, I discussed the response of two mass-observers (‘Dick’ and ‘Beryl’) to the postwar decades and suggested it is the apparent contradictions thrown up by studying individual lives in detail that reveals deficiencies of the received historical cultural frameworks that we assume to be operating. Not only do we need to rethink how we understand contemporary history but we also need to consider that the dissatisfaction which is sometimes felt with contemporary Britain by some older people (in this case, to use media labels, one that might be termed more ‘socially conservative’ and one that might be termed more ‘liberal’) is not simply nostalgia for bygone ages but a disappointment that the world of their youth has not changed into the transformed future that they sought to achieve during their life.

It seems to me that anyone arguing Dick does not want to change the world of his youth but return to it is failing to grasp the complexity of these mass-observer lives by categorising them as though they can be assigned easily as binary-gendered responses. In Seven Lives from Mass Observation (which also discusses ‘Dick’ and ‘Beryl’ but he calls them ‘Len’ and ‘Stella’), James Hinton accounts for this apparent division by arguing that while ‘for most men of this [interwar] generation, gender was an unproblematic given’, women were dependent on ‘more complicated processes [to construct] their sense of themselves’ (165). The differences in responses to the past are not therefore essentialist but a result of women being more likely to have to undertake a particular process of self-discovery than men because they wanted more from their lives than the subordinate roles they were offered in the 1940s and 1950s. There was nothing preventing men from following a similar path other than the fact that they already appeared to have clearly-defined active high-status social roles – as breadwinner, husband and father – openly available to them. In fact, we might see those men who did participate in MO as on some level seeking such a path of self-discovery as followed by many women. As Hinton argues, by describing himself as an ‘old reactionary’, Dick ‘could be seen as a man who had internalised a narrow and life-denying subaltern consciousness’ but, on the other hand, as ‘an MO correspondent’ he found a way to nonetheless explore much wider horizons (108).

Therefore, if we reject gender as the prime determinant of self-discovery in the name of a wider social transformation, how else might we broadly classify this lifelong process of self-reflexively considering our own experience in the world even as the social context constantly changes? One term that covers this process in the context of this research is ‘growing old’. Arguably, the acceptance of various mass observers that they are old (as discussed in the second and third instalments in this series of blogposts) is both an unavoidable product of their self-reflexive practice and an acknowledgment that ‘life has meaning because it ends but its end is not its meaning’ and thus an acceptance and statement of their recognition that they are the authors of their own lives (Hubble and Tew 2013: 205). As Lynne Segal observes in Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing (2013): ‘To the extent that we can manage it, awareness of mortality can enhance our sense of our bonds with others and our embrace of the moment’ (170). Anne Karpf (2014) makes a similar point about the need to ‘incorporate [our mortality] into our daily lives’ (109) but also insists that ‘we never need to lose our earlier selves only add to them’ (55). This understanding was central to the research undertaken for Growing Old with the Welfare State and arguably it is the reflexive awareness of their past earlier selves that enables these MO diaries to expose the complex, multi-layered composition of the contemporary present we inhabit. On such a reading, ‘growing old’ isn’t just something that happens to us but a process which requires complex self-reflexion. In Ageing, Narrative and Identity, we provided histories and analyses of MO and the University of the Third Age (U3A) which suggested why these two organisations are particularly good in encouraging this process to take place, but the simplest explanation is that both embrace ageing as a lifelong process. As Karpf argues, this attitude will not stop us eventually declining and dying but it will help us in the more difficult task of actually living.

This research into ageing began more than ten years ago while I was still in my mid 40s. I explained why I chose to use MO in the first post of this series but one of the reasons why I quickly warmed to MO and the U3A was the insistence of their members that they weren’t necessarily old when they were in their 60s and 70s but only, as discussed in the second post, at a point when they came to define themselves in this manner: a process which should be seen as a function of self-reflexion rather than bodily decline. At that time, I didn’t particularly think of myself as middle-aged which I would now if it wasn’t for the fact that I don’t think it is a particularly useful term. Looking back, I still don’t think I was middle-aged then because if the term means anything at all then it must mark some sort of stage between being young and old and I certainly didn’t consider myself as poised between youth and age at that time (with a youngest child age 3). More to the point, I was hostile to the suggestions I remember reading that people should start preparing for retirement from the age of 50 and perhaps have an afternoon a week to take classes and start preparing (I can’t now remember where this was but I will look it up and add a reference at some point if possible). This idea seemed entirely inconsistent with the ongoing process to extend retirement ages and, furthermore, I was anticipating at least another 20 years of what I thought was turning into a successful career. I saw this ‘classes from 50’ idea as part of an ‘active’ or ‘successful’ ageing agenda in which we all remain super fit until into our 80s and then quickly die at no cost to the state; an approach I found repugnant. I’m not just an academic, I’ve read books and written about them ever since I can remember (I did this at home for fun while I was still at primary school age): therefore I was drawn to defining my life in terms of reading, writing, and self-reflexion. So in terms of my motivation to do it, the research was partly driven by how I see myself and the things I’m drawn to.

A decade later and I can see the point about thinking about retirement in your 50s (in fact, I try hard not to think wishfully about it all the time!) This is because as my own subjectivity has caught up with my research, I have come to fully understand what I wrote about retirement not being about a pipe and slippers but actually moving into a new phase of life working on new projects and ways of living. In my mid 40s I couldn’t see what I would do when I retired other than carry on doing academic stuff (but without the more boring admin load and the need to keep regular hours), preferably with some sort of eminent emeritus status (when indulging in idle fantasy moments) but not dependent on that (when thinking in more pragmatic mode). But now I can see all sorts of things that I would like to be doing which involve reading, writing research and self-reflexion but which my full-time career is actually constraining the opportunities for. I have come to understand, as the founders of the University of the Third Age did, that ‘retirement’ is not a stage of ageing but more of an ideological rejection of the model of professional career for life and the embrace of a more fulfilling way of living. However, I also understand that the financial model and the whole basis of the Welfare State which supported this ideological shift several decades ago no longer exists in the same way that it did. My response to this shift is not to think that we should pour all our resources into desperately rebuilding or shoring up the welfare state and pensions and the whole structure (although we do clearly need to adopt sustainable models for these functions), but that we need to focus more energy on self-reflexion, different ways of living and getting away from the model of professional career for life (e.g. people shouldn’t have to need to do this for 20, 30, 40 years before realising there should be more to life).

So what has happened here other than I have got a bit older? I think this project has (along with other stuff in my life and work) changed my attitude to academia. When I wrote that we considered our MO and U3A volunteers to be co-researchers this was sincerely meant but a statement of the obvious that I didn’t necessarily think through the full implications of (or at least I thought them through intellectually but not fully in terms of my own practice). I don’t like the hierarchical model of academic life but rather than seek to overthrow it, I’ve done my best to climb high enough up so that I don’t have to worry about it. But there is only so far you can go without running into the limitations, internalisations and structural distortions of these kind of hierarchical structures (which not only inherently privilege bourgeois white male subjectivity but to some extent generate it). These consequences of the system affect everything including research. This is not to say that good work is impossible but just to acknowledge that the system itself is another constraint alongside time, budget, resources etc. In order to try and break out of these systemic constraints, I have slowly inched towards a more reflexive stance in various ways such as using the first person more in academic writing, setting up this blog, and writing for MO (see here). These are all ways of easing both the binary divisions between academics and non-academics and the hierarchical divisions within academia (although it is of course possible for academics to write like angels while behaving dictatorially as managers). What I’m trying to say is that this process of undoing binaries and hierachies is like that of ‘growing old’ (understood as a lifelong process) in that it entails giving up status, which is always defined through binaries or hierarchies, in order to better manage the task of actually living. In the final post in this series I will consider some of the things that are happening to our understanding of ‘ageing’ as a result of the Covid-19 pandemic and then situate the pandemic in relation to social change within the twenty-first century in order to argue why we all need to grow up by growing older.

References

Hinton, James (2016). Seven Lives from Mass Observation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hubble, Nick and Philip Tew (2013). Ageing, Narrative and Identity: New Qualitative Social Research. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hubble, Nick, Jennie Taylor and Philip Tew (eds) (2019). Growing Old with the Welfare State: Eight British Lives. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Karpf, Anne (2014). How to Age. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Segal, Lynne (2013). Out of Time: The Pleasures and Perils of Ageing. London: Verso.

 

12 May 2020

This is the day diary I am submitting to the Mass Observation (MO) 12 May 2020 day-diary project. This is part of a wider series of posts I am writing about MO during this period. Here is my day diary, which is mostly reflective because I wasn’t feeling well and therefore didn’t do much:

I am 55 years old, a university academic and live in Aberystwyth with my partner ‘A’ (51),  and two of our three children, ‘S’ (27) and ‘a’ (13).

I didn’t feel good this morning at all: I didn’t sleep well and I just felt out of sorts, depressed and with a migraine-y headache (which I suppressed with painkillers). ‘A’, in contrast, was feeling positively bouncy in comparison with yesterday, when she was feeling down. It does often appear as though we are on opposed points of cycles that just keep swirling around with us occasionally meeting at the high points. I ended up taking the day off from work. I rested, I had a late breakfast and we did German (‘A’ is giving myself and ‘a’ a German lesson every day from a GCSE coursework book with the idea that we will sit the GCSE next year or the year after). Then I posted my #12May2010 MO diary – the day diary I sent to MO in 2010 when they first ran the annual call for submissions on 12 May – on my blog with an introduction and some afterthoughts. Thinking about it was quite emotional because although I only submitted 750 words (I think we were asked to keep submissions to that length), they touched on a number of very significant points of my life. For a start, that day was two days after my 45th birthday (and today is two days after my 55th) and 5’s and 0’s tend to be the ones that make you feel a bit more reflective (in my family, many of them also fall on years ending with 5 and 0: already this year my mum has turned 80 and my dad turned 85, my niece has turned 20 and my sister will turn 50 – this does help with remembering how old everyone is). 12 May 2010 was also 6 days after the General Election which, although we were happy in Brighton Pavilion with the election of Caroline Lucas of the Green Party, had been extremely depressing and eventually resulted in David Cameron’s Tories forming a coalition government with the Liberal Democrats (who the Guardian had unforgivably endorsed in a leader on polling day). While there have been everyday changes since 12 May 2010 – I, like many others, no longer buy a print copy of a newspaper every day; the release statement for MO in 2010 required no reference to the Data Protection Act – the profound changes across the intervening decade (the degradation of the welfare state and public life, Brexit, and the acceleration in the break-up of the UK) largely stem from that coalition and the decade of austerity it unleashed.

Aside from the recent birthday, that day diary from 2010 also touches other personal turning points. As I noted in introducing it on my blog, that turned out to be our last spring in Brighton because later in the summer ‘A’ was offered a job at Aberystwyth University and so we moved at six weeks’ notice. This changed our lives hugely (and generally for the better). It removed us from the blinkered perspective of the South East (although obviously Brighton is hardly typical of political outlook in the wider region) and led to us becoming voters for and, subsequently, members of Plaid Cymru. It meant that I was able to vote Ie/Yes with the winning majority in the Welsh Referendum in March 2011 on greater powers for the Welsh Assembly (now Senedd Cymru/Welsh Parliament), which has resulted in increasing material differences in the handling of the Covid-19 pandemic and means that the conditions we will be experiencing under lockdown from now on will not be the same as those in England (which have attracted condemnation and dismay from around the World). Professionally, it was a great move for ‘A’ because it got her away from the aggressive and damaging neoliberal management style (then and now) of the University of Sussex and allowed her career to thrive. The professional downside was that my commute to the university in west London where I work, which was difficult enough from Brighton, became a nightmarishly long traversal of two different countries and required me to stay away from home (in a variety of B&B and hotel rooms) when working. The current lockdown does mean that I am relieved of this exhausting and draining weekly commute (not helped by the flooding that took place during February this year) and, in fact, this period is the longest I have ever spent without leaving Aberystwyth and the immediate region during the decade I have lived here.

12 May 2010 was also significant for me professionally because I did participate that day as a member of the closing plenary panel of a conference organised by Brighton University at the Jubilee Library: ‘Engaging Mass Observation: New Perspectives on Contemporary Material’. The inherent self-reflexivity of writing a day diary for MO on a day in which I was participating as an academic who works on MO at a conference about MO was too much to resist (and, of course, there is another layer of self-reflection in writing another MO day diary looking back at that day). I get that this might seem like naval-gazing to some, but this is my life. As I noted for a recent post on my blog, Why I Chose to Use the Mass Observation Project for My Research on Ageing, the 1937-49 incarnation of Mass Observation (MO) was central to both my MA dissertation, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Mass Observation’ (1996), and my DPhil thesis, ‘George Orwell and Mass-Observation: Mapping the Politics of Everyday Life in England 1937-1941’ (2002). Vastly expanded, this research resulted in my 2006 book, Mass Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory (Palgrave Macmillan), which was republished as an extended paperback edition in 2010 (although I think this was later in the year than May). Central to my interest in MO was their first book, May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937 (1937). I have a large colour photocopy of the iconic red, white and pink cover of this book framed on the wall on the room in which I’m currently typing. During 2010, I was involved with colleagues from Brunel University in a huge funded project on Ageing (see the post linked above) and I had major ambitions for my career across the coming decade (the one we have just lived through). By and large, I have been successful in meeting those ambitions but at some cost in a decade in which the working conditions in academia have worsened to a degree unimaginable back in 2010. I am privileged enough to have a senior full-time academic post but Higher Education as a whole is dependent on a model of exorbitant fees for students, mass recruitment of international students paying even higher fees, and thousands of part-time or hourly-paid staff (many on zero hour contracts) working precariously to keep the show on the road. The icing on the cake is the normalisation across the sector of an absolutely vile and toxic brand of neoliberal performance management which increasingly sees teaching and researching processes led by people who aren’t academics. For several years it has been clear that this system is utterly unsustainable and that fact has now come into sharp focus in the current pandemic with the refusal of the Chancellor, Rishi Sunak, to bail out the sector. It is easy to get side tracked by the huge expenditure of energy that university staff have made over the last two months in order to set up and maintain a system of teaching online virtually overnight but it is clear that there will be a savage restructuring of the sector in the months to come. At my university we have been told that the focus going forward will have to be on teaching and that research will be ‘streamlined’. In other words, there is an opportunity to force through yet more performance-managed measures in the name of extracting more labour from the workers in the system. One reflection that writing this diary has reinforced for me is that MO is far more important for my sense of identity and self-worth than being an academic is. That is why I am very happy that, after hearing last autumn that MO was open to new participants without demographic restrictions, I decided to join the project and have been writing for it since. Obviously, the value of MO has become apparent to many during the current crisis because I believe the Project has now swollen to over 700 volunteers (and is therefore closed again) and there are also significant numbers of people (including me) writing Covid-19 diaries for MO.

Returning to today’s activities, I can report that I didn’t do too much else apart from posting my 12 May 2010 diary other than rectify a problem with the hoover and then run it around upstairs. In the late afternoon I went for a walk along the seafront. Rather like this day ten years ago (only then in Brighton) it was sunny but unseasonably cold. It was noticeably busier than earlier in the lockdown on the south beach promenade. So possibly Johnson’s message that people (in England) can drive where they like has got through. Having said that, it was still possible to physical distance (although any more people and it will be difficult) and it might be just a coincidence that several groups came out at once. The fact it was the south beach (with more parking available) suggests people have driven but they might just have driven from the other side of town rather than further afield. I also suspect that some local people have not really been going out at all and it might just be people thinking it is now safer to do this. Difficult to say exactly but this might become clearer over the next few weeks. When I got home, I let the guinea pigs and rabbit out into their pen on the grass and then we had dinner. Afterwards, I took my cup of tea out to a bench in the garden, where it was actually quite warm because the sun had heated up the wall behind it.

The two big UK news items today – neither of which accord with the fake optimism of Johnson’s message on Sunday – are that Rishi Sunak extended the furlough job retention scheme until the end of October (so the Tories have obviously abandoned the attempt to ‘wean’ workers off it) and the latest ONS weekly updates have impacted the official death toll again, which is now just over 40,000 (although the Financial Times now estimate the actual number to be closer to 60,000). This is far in excess of anticipation at the beginning of the lockdown and far worse than elsewhere in Europe; the result of a catalogue of out-of-date pandemic plans, allowing supplies of ventilators and PPE to dwindle and become obsolescent, prioritising leaving the EU over preparing for the pandemic, flirting with ‘herd immunity’, sending 15,000 people home from UK hospitals in mid-March without testing (many to care homes causing outbreaks and mass fatalities), and fatally procrastinating for eleven days in March before reluctantly imposing a lockdown. An article in the Guardian that went online today describes the UK as ‘taking a pasting from world’s press over coronavirus crisis’. Die Zeit sums up the position well: ‘In Great Britain, the infection has spread unchecked longer than it should have. The wave of infections also spread from the hospitals to the old people’s homes, which could also have been avoided. The government is now trying to pretend to the public that it has the situation under control’. The public however are starting to see through this act. Earlier in the week I read that the Corriere della Serra described the situation in the UK as ‘like a nightmare from which you cannot awake, but in which you landed because of your own fault or stupidity’, adding that Britain seemed ‘a prisoner of itself’. I think this the most apt description I have seen for a situation that can only be described as demonstrating the complete moral bankruptcy of a nation and a ruling class. In this context the celebration of VE Day was obscene. As ‘A’ pointed out when we discussed it later over very weak gin-and-tonics in the living room at the end of the day, Britain is now once again ‘the sick man of Europe’, as they used to say in the 1970s. In the current circumstances, to go through with the final stages of Brexit according to the planned timetable, which would mean in effect a no-deal Brexit, would be an act of criminal insanity.

Looking forward to the next ten years, it is difficult to imagine anything less than extreme political and social change. There is every chance of the Covid-19 infection rate increasing in England as a result of Boris Johnson’s typically inept and incoherent statement on Sunday, with the genuine prospect of a ‘second wave’ and further spike in the mortality rate. I think the US can already be characterised as ‘a failed state’ in terms of the way in which the Trump administration have systematically failed to deal with the pandemic and instead are letting the infection spread while using it as a pretext to roll out an ‘America First’ programme. The UK may yet follow; there has been no evidence so far of any attempt to set up the kind of ‘test, trace and isolate’ programme that has been used in the countries which have successfully controlled the pandemic. Certainly, I don’t expect the UK to exist in 2030. Even if the pandemic is managed and an effective vaccine appears this year (the best case scenario), the social and economic consequences will still be immense and paradigm shifting. At the moment we are all concerned with more immediate issues of how to deal with the lockdown restrictions without succumbing to anxiety and depression and wondering when it will be safe to see friends and families, such as my parents. But we all know deep down that things are never going to be the same again and this is part of the peculiar stress and strain of the situation. On what basis can one even make plans for the future? Unlike 2010, I no longer have ambitions for the coming decade beyond very general ones for the continued well-being of family and self. I have some ideas of what I want to do over the immediate next few months, which mainly involve reading and writing, but beyond that I don’t know for sure what I’ll be doing. The only cast iron prediction that I will venture for 2030 is that I won’t be working in the UK HE sector. We’ll see when I submit my day diary for 12 May 2030.

I donate my 12th May diary to the Mass Observation Archive. I consent to it being made publicly available as part of the Archive and assign my copyright in the diary to the Mass Observation Archive Trustees so that it can be reproduced in full or in part on websites, in publications and in broadcasts as approved by the Mass Observation Trustees. I agree to the Mass Observation Archive assuming the role of Data Controller and the Archive will be responsible for the collection and processing of personal data and ensuring that such data complies with the DPA.

May 12 2010

This was the day diary I submitted to Mass Observation (MO) in 2010 when they started day diaries on 12 May. I wrote a longer piece than this which I can’t find (but is on a memory stick somewhere probably). This version was edited to 750 words for submission, which was presumably what was asked for. I’ve slightly expanded in places for context and made a minor alteration for publication. This was just after the General Election in which I’d voted Green for the first time (although I had previously in council elections) and helped elect Caroline Lucas. Until 2005 we’d been in the Kemp Town constituency and I’d always voted there for Labour and Des Turner, who was on the left. But the constituency boundary changed and we found ourselves in Brighton Pavilion. Unknown to me when I wrote this, this would be our last spring in Brighton because ‘A’ got a job in Aberystwyth later in the year. She had an interview on 9 July and we moved at 6 weeks’ notice to arrive in Aber on the August Bank Holiday weekend. Further thoughts at the end. Here is the diary (the ellipses are where it was originally cut at the time of submission from the longer draft):

I am 45 years old, a university lecturer and live in Brighton with my partner, ‘A’, and youngest two children, ‘M’ and ‘a’.

‘a’ (3yr old son) came in at quarter-past seven but it was ‘A’’s turn to get up and so I managed to doze on to about 8 and got up just after ‘M’ (13) had left for school … As went down stairs, remembered that Cameron was now Prime Minister … hmmmm … Had breakfast … and then helped ‘A’ and ‘a’ to get off in car … Went to Newsagents and bought Guardian … Went back to bed …

After paper, read some more of the recently-published James Hinton’s Nine Wartime Lives: Mass Observation and the Making of the Modern Self (2010) … My colleague P rang about 11am … went upstairs to my attic office … My father in law rang up at quarter to twelve to wish me happy birthday for 2 days before and to talk about our daughter, ‘S’, who isn’t currently living at home. I told him that she had come out to a pub meal with us the previous night to celebrate my birthday. Then I had a vicious fight with the printer/photocopier … [presumably to print notes for speaking later in the day]

By now running late, so got dressed and out of the house … Lovely sunny day (despite the unseasonal cold – probably another reason beside Tories and post-birthday blues why I felt depressed) and I walked quickly, cutting down through Hanover and then across the Steine … and got to the Jubilee Library by half past twelve for a conference organised by Brighton University: ‘Engaging Mass Observation: New Perspectives on Contemporary Material’.

Picked up badge and conference pack … Spoke to a few people and then listened to Ben Highmore’s keynote speech, which I enjoyed very much and found interesting for what he said about ‘singularity’ and the ‘future anterior’. ‘A’ had come in late after finishing her teaching and I managed to kiss her in passing as I filed out of the room at the end. Then moved on to the Life Writing workshop, where Margaretta Jolly… made me work with her dad looking at an extract from Zita Crossman’s diary on the Labour Party conference 11 May 1940 …. So I was able to tell him background about Zita having been Harrisson’s lover etc. By now I was beginning to enjoy the day and Margaretta’s main point that you have to read MO writing as literature chimed in well with my thoughts from reading Hinton …

Then we had a coffee break and it was time for my participation in the closing plenary panel …

Afterwards we had wine and I talked with M and R from UWE about Video Nation before joining ‘A’ and K and talking about taking children out of primary school, the merits of Dorothy Stringer High School (a local comprehensive) and different parenting arrangements. I drank several glasses of white wine, people dispersed, ‘A’ went off to pick up ‘a’ from a friend’s house and I went with the organisers and other speakers to Carluccio’s for some dinner. This was enjoyable … Drank several glasses of red wine and ate the sea bass, which was good … We began to disperse just after eight. M was off to the Lord Nelson to watch Fulham in the Europa Cup final and R and I joined him and assorted friends and acquaintances  there … watching Fulham lose … and talking about various things such as Brighton University, Sussex University (including how crassly it is managed), Xbox games (several fathers of teenage boys there – particularly we were talking about how the boys ‘take the piss’ out of the games: playing hide and seek in ‘Call of Duty’ and as my son did once, stealing a policeman’s bike in GTA and riding the wrong way up a one way street), Stringer (again) … R, meanwhile, had discovered that T was an enthusiast and expert on magic lanterns, which obviously dovetailed well with her own interest in mantelpieces. I’m not sure that after several pints … my contributions to this conversation were particular useful. And then it was nearly eleven and time to depart. I walked with R back as far as Wagamama, from where she could find her hotel back by the Jubilee library, and said the final goodbye of the evening.

When I got home I said hello to ‘A’, who was watching television … The next thing I remember is waking up lying face down on the pillow… but by this time I’m pretty sure it was after midnight.

I donate my 12th May diary to the Mass Observation Archive. I consent to it being made publicly available as part of the Archive and to it being reproduced in full or in part on the MOA website, on other websites and in publications as approved by the Mass Observation Archive Trustees.

Afterthoughts: despite the academic component: different person, different life! It’s been a long time since I bought the print copy of a newspaper on a daily basis. My father-in-law has since sadly passed away. There are a few things I’d forgotten about that time that I didn’t particularly want to be reminded of and have been now. Much as I love Brighton, I was glad to get out. But that was a good day and evening. I’ve no idea what I said in the panel but some of it drew on a review I wrote of Hinton’s book for the Journal of British Studies and I think the ideas then fed into this review of Mass Observation Online. But it seems an awfully long time ago: ‘a’ had just moved out of the toddler stage and is now a teenager; ‘M’ is in his twenties and lives in Bristol; ‘S’ does now live at home once more; I was ‘young’ then and I feel a lot older now. The move to Aber did mark a huge nodal point in our lives. But also the full impact of the 2008 crash and the years of Tory austerity was yet to be felt – I think I had earlier that spring been on the first couple of demos/protests that I had been on since the 2003 anti-war march in London. In many ways, this period was still the long hangover of the 1990s. Everything has changed since then.

Growing Old with the Welfare State

This is the third instalment in a short series on aging (the first two are here and here). Following the completion of the ‘Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing Project (FCMAP) described in my brief introduction to this series, my colleague Philip Tew and I received follow-on funding to produce an anthology of older people’s accounts of ageing in Britain which was published (with Jennie Taylor, who was the postdoc on the project) as Growing Old with the Welfare State (Bloomsbury Academic, 2019).

We found the self-reflexive writing of both our Mass Observation (MO) and University of Third Age (U3A) co-researchers capable of taking us as close as we could hope to get to observing ‘a new type of fourth-age selfhood’ under construction. By ‘new type of fourth-age selfhood’ we were signalling a rejection of the conventional definition of the fourth age as ‘dependence, decrepitude and death’ (Laslett 1996: 3; see also Hubble and Tew 2013: 59-61, 80) and replacing it with a self-defined period of old age, characterised by reflection rather than physical condition. Reading the narratives of our project participants, we see the wave of social change enabled by post-war stability and prosperity and the overwhelming sense of liberation felt at the moment of retirement under these circumstances as new horizons opened on what for many turned out to be the happiest and most fulfilling times of their lives; but equally, after 15, 20, 25 years of liberated life, we saw that the eventual recognition ‘and now I am old’ (discussed in the preceding ‘Ageing is Not  a Social Problem’ post), was not generally a harbinger of doom but an opportunity to move on to something different, from sailing to WEA classes perhaps, and to take pride in the ability to look back and learn from one’s life. The point is that ageing is a continual process that cannot be reduced to the essence of one particular phase of post-retirement lifestyle considered in contrast against a supposed final phase of decline and death. In fact, the experience of ageing changes as continually in later years as it does in earlier or middle years: ageing is a lifelong process! As Anne Karpf argues in How to Age (2014), ageing across the entire lifespan is about enrichment and growth and the later years in particular ‘can be actively enriching, a time of immense growth. Perhaps that’s why it’s called “growing old”’ (3). It is precisely in this spirit and understanding that we gave the title Growing Old with the Welfare State to our edited collection of older people’s accounts of ageing in Britain.

Turning to the other component of that book’s title, the ‘Welfare State’, it is worth noting that although the term is now embedded in everyday language, both the history of its usage and the extent of what it defines are varied and often-context dependent. In his The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State (1995), Nicholas Timmins notes that the term extends from the narrow American definition of welfare as payments to the poor to ‘virtually the whole of the economic and social history of Britain from 1945’ and notes that his own coverage is restricted to ‘the mainstream services of health, education, social security, housing, social services, and, in lesser detail, employment policy’ (7). In our usage of the term we followed Timmins’ own practice. Although it is perfectly valid to think of a more-encompassing sense of the Welfare State – including social-democratic and collective values as manifested through nationalised industries and corporate approaches to business – as typifying the political and social culture of post-war Britain from 1945 to 1975, the advantage of Timmins’s approach is that it allowed us to focus on those welfare mechanisms which have persisted beyond the Thatcherite rejection of the collective and corporate aspects of the post-war British State and continued to support the lives of retired generations – including the writers in our collection – into the twenty-first century.

Less controversial than the definition of the Welfare State perhaps is the widespread perception that the pattern of the human life course in Britain changed irrevocably over the second half of the last century as a direct result of the introduction of universal health, education and social security provisions, as well as a steadily-increasing possibility of entering higher education. The combined effect of the Welfare State and medical advances meant that more people lived longer, happier, and healthier lives than ever before in recorded human history. As a consequence of these changes, the experience of ageing was completely transformed. While forty years ago retirement was envisioned as pottering about in the garden and taking to an armchair, it became during the late 20C and early 21C just another different active phase of life. People in their 60s, 70s and 80s embarked on new careers, new pastimes and new relationships, and yet our existing cultural and social perceptions of ageing remained governed by increasingly dated images and narratives from a bygone era.

While the eight diarists anthologised in Growing Old with the Welfare State are not a representative sample in a statistical sense, they do cover between them a wide range of social experience which is indicative of the general British experience of growing old in the Welfare State. Their narratives collectively present an interesting multi-layered account of a general social shift away from values rooted in the deference and social niceties of the pre-war period (some of which date back to the nineteenth century) to new, more informal, ways of living that began to appear broadly from the 1960s onwards. Similar stories can be found in the work of historians who have drawn on life writing from the Mass Observation Archive. James Hinton’s Seven Lives from Mass Observation (2016) focuses on seven mass observers born between the early 1920s and the early 1930s: ‘Because the people dealt with here engaged with the defining transformations of the late twentieth century as adults, their sensibilities and expectations shaped by an earlier era, their experiences are particularly valuable in helping us to view those transformations in historical context’ (4). Two of the mass observers included in Growing Old with the Welfare State (‘Dick Turpin’ and ‘Beryl Saunders’) are also featured (under different names) by Hinton in Seven Lives (and two more of Hinton’s subjects make up the list of eight mass observers selected by Hubble in 2010 as potential FCMAP case studies from which the six included in Growing Old with the Welfare State were selected). There is something especially engaging about reading the thoughtful and detailed reflections of those who have lived through the significant social changes since the early 1930s which draws researchers to them. However, it is also fascinating to consider how that generation’s attitudes were shaped by their relationship with the following generation born in the 1940s, who also lived through interesting times but with a different set of perspectives. As Claire Langhamer notes in The English in Love (2013), her history of love, marriage, and the emotional revolution in the twentieth century, the Second World War can be seen as an ‘emotional watershed’: ‘a period of rapid discontinuity out of which emerged a subtly different set of intimate relations embedded in, and expressive of, changed gender and social relations’ (9). The pre-war boundaries between public and private crumbled and the younger generation developed very different expectations of emotional intimacy than those whose values had already been formed in the earlier period. According to Langhamer, this ‘revolution’ unfolded over several post-war decades culminating in the 1960s, which she views as not so much the age of sexual permissiveness but as a ‘golden age of romance’ (11) that included expectations of emotional and sexual intimacy within a desired ideal of companionate marriage. However, while the evolution of attitudes to sex and relationships was more gradual and nuanced than the stereotypical idea of the ‘swinging sixties’ allows, people’s understanding – especially those of the older generation whose attitudes were formed before the War – was often shaped by exactly such popular stereotypes.

In discussing the mass observer he calls ‘Len’ (but we called ‘Dick Turpin’) in his Seven Lives from Mass Observation, James Hinton describes his accounts as representative ‘of the experience of large numbers of people caught between the hammer of the 1980s and the anvil of the 1960s’ (93). That is to say he was equally alienated and upset by what he understood as the sexual and feminist revolutions of the 1960s and the Thatcherite era of privatisation, financial deregulation and destruction of the unions and manufacturing industry. ‘Dick’, as an example of a wider body of skilled manual labour (in his case a mechanic who moved into public sector transport supervision and management), manifests a nostalgia for pre-1955 Britain. Whereas the older way of life he values was once supported by the welfare state, it is the welfare state which in practice has undermined those values by enabling the social changes of both the 1960s and the 1980s to take place (this latter suggestion may seem counterintuitive but it would have been impossible for the Thatcher Government to triple unemployment in the early 1980s without a safety net in place to largely catch the resultant social consequences). To satisfy ‘Dick’ would logically require the combination of a collectivist welfare state with the repeal of some or most of the socially liberalising legislation of the 1960s and the 1970s. What this suggests is that the apparent clash between the collectivism of the Left and the individualism of the Thatcherite Right which characterised the divisive politics of the 1980s has since switched polarity. In the post-Brexit-vote society we now inhabit (and as confirmed by the result of the 2019 General Election), it is the Left which now seems aligned with individualism, in the apparent form of ‘identity politics’ and the Right which seems to be seeking the return to a more traditional collectivism (albeit without strong trade unions).

On the other hand, in discussing the mass observer he calls ‘Stella’ (but we called ‘Beryl Saunders’), Hinton points out an apparent paradox of ‘a thoroughly engaged citizen for whom politics was largely a matter of indifference’ (76). While Beryl’s embrace of the emotional and sexual revolution, anti-psychiatry and ‘New Age’ alternative therapies suggests a rejection of traditional, collective values, Hinton suggests that the consequences were ‘neither individualistic or normalizing’:

The alternative therapies with which she experimented were geared not to adjusting the individual to predetermined social roles, but to freeing them from the tyranny of norms so that ‘any problem can be looked at honestly out in the open’. Freedom from norms was not, however, a recipe for anti-social individualism. [. . .] The ethos was co-operative, not individualistic, and Stella [Beryl] saw herself as participating in a human growth movement, in its own way a politics of social transformation […]. (76-7)

The deeper message here is that, in the logic that consciously informs Hinton’s approach, by studying individual lives in detail we gain an insight into the complex, interwoven historical strands that make up our present. Arguably, it is the apparent contradictions within lives that reveals the deficiencies of the received historical cultural frameworks which we assume to be operating. Dick’s deep unhappiness with the liberalising changes of the 1960s did not draw him to the politics of Thatcher, even though she campaigned for a return to traditional values, because he identified her project of privatisation as equally part of the assault on collective social values in the name of individualism. Beryl’s marked preference for alternative psychology, group therapy and sexual and emotional liberation over politics might suggest an extreme form of individualism but actually seems to have been more in line with a form of collective social transformation. What links the stories of these two mass observers of almost identical age and other members of the interwar generation is that their stories suggest we need to rethink, or at least elaborate, the paradigms and interpretive frameworks by which we try and understand contemporary history. From this perspective, the defining characteristic of this generation is not so much a rejection of contemporary mores in Britain in favour of the attitudinal values of their youth, as a sense that contemporary Britain has either failed or not yet succeeded in changing the world of their youth into the transformed future that they sought to achieve throughout their lives by the activities they engaged in.

References

Hinton, James (2016). Seven Lives from Mass Observation. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hubble, Nick and Philip Tew (2013). Ageing, Narrative and Identity: New Qualitative Social Research. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Hubble, Nick, Jennie Taylor and Philip Tew (eds) (2019). Growing Old with the Welfare State: Eight British Lives. London: Bloomsbury Academic.

Laslett, Peter (1996) [1989]. A Fresh Map of Life. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Langhamer, Claire (2013). The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Karpf, Anne (2014). How to Age. Basingstoke: Macmillan.

Timmins, Nicholas (1996). The Five Giants: A Biography of the Welfare State. Hammersmith: Fontana.

Ageing is Not a Social Problem: How people negotiate the fixed categories of ageing created by the postwar welfare state (and why no one likes the term ‘elderly’).

This is the second instalment of a short series on ageing (the first is here). As I noted when introducing this series, this research was carried out in collaboration with colleagues at Brunel, Demos, Mass Observation (MO) and the University of the Third Age (U3A) as part of the New Dynamics of Ageing programme. Our project was called ‘Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing’, but I mainly worked on responses to the MO directives on ‘Growing Older’ (Winter 1992), ‘Age’ (Autumn 2006) and ‘Books and You’ (Winter 2009). Overall findings were published in a 200-word report with Demos, Coming of Age (2011), which is available for free download here. An article by myself and Philip Tew, ‘“There is no doubt that I’m OLD”: Everyday Narratives of Ageing’, gives a useful overview of some of the main themes of the research. Data from the reading groups conducted in collaboration with the U3A is archived online and available for secondary analysis. The particular analysis below, which focuses on MO responses, was discussed in more detail in our book Ageing, Narrative and Identity: New Qualitative Social Research (Palgrave Macmillan, 2013)

While, as Pat Thane (2000) notes, in writing about the responses to the 1992 MO directive on ‘Growing Older’, ‘Mass Observers [are] not representative of the British population in any strict sense’ (464); it is also the case, as she goes on to add, that:

They can be said come from backgrounds comparable with those of a very high proportion of the British population at the end of the twentieth century. Mass Observation provides an unusual opportunity to read the opinions, expressed at length, in their own words, of people whose views are rarely made public. (464)

So, therefore, while these views are not those of a statistical sample, they do represent the in-depth opinion, not otherwise available, of ordinary people, who are simultaneously extraordinary in the sense, discussed in the previous post, that they are at all times reflecting on their ordinariness as well as simply reporting on their doings and attitudes. The 1992 directive asked these respondents to explain the categories of ‘young’, ‘middle-aged’, ‘elderly’ and ‘old’. The age ranges given fell broadly into this pattern:

Young: 18-35/40

Middle-Aged: 40/45/55 – 50/55/60/65

Elderly: 60/65-75

Old: 75+.

[some people left gaps on either side of middle-aged hence the variations; and a few people had ‘old’ and ‘elderly’ reversed so that the latter category represented the oldest].

Clearly, what most people (who answered this part of the directive) did was divide up life into the categories provided by the question. Interesting questions thrown up by this exercise included: (a) which people did not answer this part of the directive; (b) how people described themselves in relation to these categories; and (c) how people actually described the characteristics of the categories.

While, over half of the men confidently provided age ranges in the above manner; less than a quarter of the women were prepared to do so. Some explicitly refused; but the more common reason supplied took the form of variations on the response: ‘it is what you feel like inside that counts.’ Comments from women who did not classify what they understood by the different categories included:

B1261: I am now 76 years of age and would class my body as elderly but my mind as young middle aged

B1429: I am 67 years old and I don’t feel old.

B1521: I don’t care to be an old person. People in newspaper reports are stated to be elderly at 60. At 63 myself, I don’t consider myself elderly.

However, both women and men who did classify the categories were prone to then situate themselves outside the parameters of their own classification, as did these women:

B2258, 55, (Y<40; MA<65; E<75; O>75): I would on that general perspective, see myself as middle-aged now – but I don’t feel that way.

B2645, 78, (Y<40; MA 45-65: E <75; O>75): But although I am aged 78 I do not think of myself as old but elderly.

And these men:

B1989, 65, (Y<30; MA 40-59; O<70; E>75): I would place myself in the category of old though I do not feel particularly old.

D1419, 69, (Y<25; MA 40s; E 60s; O>70): At one time I would have considered this old (perhaps very old) but now that I have reached this age. I am inclined to think that people attain old age in their late seventies or early eighties. I am even reluctant to describe myself as elderly.

There are many other examples making similar points. Clearly, as in the last example quoted, perspectives change as individuals change with age but it is also the case that perspectives change with the social values of the age. It is notable that the men and women who categorised age ranges are frequently those with specific career paths (training, appointment, consolidation, promotions, sometimes redundancy, and retirement) and sometimes, in the cases of men, the application of an age-range category carries a value judgment, for example: ‘Many men in my experience are ‘middle-aged’ from 30, lacking confidence and initiative’ (B1442, 69).

It is possible to consider that these age-range categories represent a particular perspective of ageing rooted in the social values of the post-war era of full employment and the Welfare State. Before the War, these categories did not exist for the mass of people: they were young and then grown up – maturity set in at 40 and life remained much the same from then on until perhaps 70 if one was lucky (several mass-observers remember their grandparents living on the pre-war ‘ten bob’ pension and not being treated especially differently to anyone else). A 1939 MO directive investigating the relationship of social attitudes to age, simply investigates the differences between those under and over the age of 40. However, the 1945 political settlement changed the social perception of ageing to produce the categories assumed by the 1992 directive but which in fact, as the responses show, are beginning to crumble at that point. Indeed, this transition in social attitudes is an integral part of the process of which Professor Linda Partridge, the head of the working group behind the Academy of Medical Science’s 2009 report Rejuvenating Ageing Research report, was quoted in the edition of the Observer published on 27 September 2009 as saying that ‘today’s 60 year-olds have the lifestyles that 40 year-olds had a century ago’.

It is noticeable that when these questions on age categories were repeated in the 2006 directive, the term ‘elderly’ was dropped. As noted above, there was some confusion as to where ‘elderly’ fits into the spectrum of ageing and, significantly, it was clearly the most unpopular term despite being ostensibly not the oldest category. One point that was (negatively) commented on by several respondents, including a journalist, was the tendency of the media to label anyone over 50 as elderly. The more fundamental problems of the term were analysed by this man:

When I was very much younger [ … ] the word elderly, which my dictionary defines as “somewhat old: bordering on old age” was hardly used or thought of but it was politely used of people who were assumed to be old. For example to refer to an ‘elderly aunt’ was rather more correct than ‘old aunt’

   Now that I am 68 myself the markers seem to have shifted a bit [ … ] The term ‘elderly’ is now very current everywhere, particularly in describing social conditions or making special provisions, and I would define it as old and disabled, partially disabled or with capacities in obvious decline though not to the degree of senility. I do not mind being referred to as being old, but I do not consider myself elderly. (W2117, 68)

What is primarily being objected to here is external categorisation itself. It is notable that the respondent refers to the use of the term ‘elderly’ in conjunction with descriptions of social conditions and special provisions: rather as with the usage of terms like juveniles or, even, youth, there is a silent ‘problem’ implied. People do not mind being old in the same way they do not mind being young: what they do mind is being labelled. A similar point was made by Bill Bytheway (2005) in his research on age-identities, which drew on a different set of MO directives concerning the celebration of birthdays. Discussing the third age idea that dates of birth and ages should simply not be recorded for official purposes to prevent ageism, he reached a different conclusion from his study of material in the MO Archive: ‘people do not find chronological age problematic – whenever it appears appropriate, they are willing to reveal it – but many consider the implied age-identity inappropriate and unwelcome’ (475-6).

By 2006, it was also strikingly clear that the numbers prepared to categorise the age ranges were less than in 1992. The trends already discernible in 1992 had accelerated so that virtually no one, for example, considered being in the 60s as old (or elderly or any other such term):

I would class 60-75 yrs as being middle-aged! (B1215, female, 53)

   Of course, I’m ‘middle-aged’ now and I wouldn’t argue with anyone who said so, but I wonder when I’d have objected to being called this? From where I am (at 60) ‘old’ starts around 80 years of age. (B3886, male, 60)

   A long time ago I think I would probably have thought of middle aged as 50-60ish, but now I’m 60 – I even felt a bit funny writing it at the top of the page – middle age will probably be me going on to 70. (A1706, female, 60)

   At 70 I still like to think that I am on the end of the category of Middle-Aged (B1771, female, 70)

   I am 71 now, feel fine, and can do everything I could do at 30 – but sometimes a bit slower! In many young peoples’ minds, I will be well and truly over the hill, ancient, but when one gets to this age in pretty good health, it really does not feel old. (B3323, male, 71).

   I feel middle-aged (B89, female, 75)

Another related change from 1992, is that whereas people then caught themselves using the dominant categorisations, which they eschewed for themselves, for others; in 2006, the old categorisations were simply in the process of being abandoned as, for example, in the case of A1706 (who is also quoted above):

I think I sometimes describe people not by age-bands. I might call someone ‘a bit Mick Jaggerish’ meaning he’s a hip young-minded middle aged person or ‘she’s a bit Shelley Winters’ meaning the weighty gin drinking friendly sort of middle aged person.

Of course, there were also people in their 70s who did talk about themselves as being old, but here it seemed to be functioning as a self description (something along the lines of ‘I’ve earned the right to call myself old now’) and not as an external categorisation of their limitations:

   I am well and truly ‘old’ […] I suppose that from the age of 72, I was beginning to feel old, but I am happy to say that I am still active! I cycle nearly every day and go for walking holidays – preferably in the mountains and last year was able to do a ten hour day in the hills. Perhaps, therefore, one is as old as one feels. (B1509, male, 77)

 Much of the debate around usage of MO material – for a summary see Pollen (2013) – misses the point that it is typically used to provide case studies rather than for representative quantitative research on public opinion. That is to say that MO material particularly supports types of inference based on analytical induction:

This is the inference that the theoretical relationship among conceptually defined elements in the sample will also apply to the parent population. The basis of an inference of this sort is the cogency of the theoretical argument linking the elements in an intelligible way rather than the statistical representativeness of the sample. (Mitchell 1984: 239-40)

The following analysis demonstrates how responses to the 1992 and 2006 directives can be used for longitudinal case studies (five of which are provided in Ageing, Narrative and Identity) as a basis for thinking about the process of ageing, related identity formation and the relationship between the third and fourth ages. As the above example from B1509 suggests, MO allows the process of accepting one’s oldness to be traced out for a number of individuals. This is particularly the case where observers were already retired at the time of the 1992 directive, as it becomes possible to see how their attitudes have changed 14 years later. Here, the male observer B1654, responds to the 1992 directive and  reflects on the difficulty of describing his exact age status; admitting that he would be emotionally hurt to be called old:

I am now closer to 62 than 61 and find myself fallen between two stools. I am still quite active and cannot possibly regard myself as being elderly, but on the other hand how can I be middle-aged when I have no expectations of living until I am 124! Perhaps it is appropriate to heed the saying ‘You are only as old as you feel’ rather than go around wearing mental labels admitting defeat to the advance of the years.

   My friend Herbert adopts this attitude of mind. He is 78 and is soon to go into hospital for the first of two hip replacements. He is presently almost housebound, although unfailingly cheerful, and he told me recently that he hated old people. ‘They’re always moaning and groaning about something,’ he said.

   [ … ]

   No one has yet called me ‘elderly’ or ‘old’, but should this happen I believe I would feel a little sad. No one wants to be reminded that the passing of time is beginning to show …. that there are fewer years left to live than those already lived.

This man clearly wants to continue to live his life in the active manner to which he is accustomed and expresses a certain level of anxiety about being able to do so. This desire corresponds to the ideas behind the contemporary notion of ‘active’ or ‘successful ageing’. For example, Professor Ray Tallis, another member of the working group responsible for Rejuvenating Ageing Research was also quoted in the Observer of 27 September 2009:

We want people to live long healthy lives and then when they go, to slip away quickly. After all, that is how most people want to live and die and, of course, it is also attractive economically. The less time we spend in hospital the happier we are and the less we cost the state.

This might seem unobjectionable at first glance and yet if we return to our 61 year-old man in 2006, we find him still writing about aging but, now at the age of 75, with a different attitude:

I recently read an American author who claimed, rather cynically, I thought, that the best thing about old age was that it didn’t last long! This inferred that once you reached one or the other of the later milestones it would be preferable to die rather than continue to live as a slow and crooked shadow of your former self. I cannot agree – not yet, that is. At 75 years of age I have a disabling lung disease that cannot be cured. I fight for breath after the slightest exertion and there are times when I need the help of doctors and nurses, but I still enjoy my life and every day is precious – books to read, films to see, letters to write, grandchildren to spoil, driving to the shops, a good wife with whom to share so many simple pleasures. Unlike the American writer I would rather see my old age as an extended period of reward in which I am given the time to do all those things that had to be set aside in the rush and race of a younger life. Long may it last. 

[ … ]  

And now I am old. I have lost most of my hair and I have an elderly man’s ‘pot’ that requires me to wear braces rather than a belt to keep my trousers comfortably in place. I like to dress smartly and would never dream of not showering and shaving in the mornings, as I have done all my life. I read a quality newspaper and watch television news to keep me abreast of world events. I do have a habit of dropping off in my chair for forty winks in the afternoon while reading – and then find I can’t sleep much past 4.30 in the mornings! Infuriating. I enjoy my food and enjoy going on shopping expeditions with my wife. I like a tot or two of whisky after 8.30 in the evenings and I am generally in my bedroom reading by 9.30pm. I drive a 1.3 car that is now ten years old and generally speaking I am utterly content with my lot because I have long accepted that fact that I have everything that old age can hope for. Peace, quiet, comfort, to name but three essentials … the best thing about old age is that it brings wisdom – the ability to look back and learn from one’s own life.

 What is particularly interesting about this man’s two statements on ageing, made 14 years apart, is the way that the second one exhibits a dual consciousness that is not present in the first one. At age 75, he is able to accept a separation between, on the one hand, his consciousness of enjoying material pleasures and of having enjoyed his life, and, on the other hand, the pleasures themselves and the life itself. Whereas, at 61, a much more existentialist angst is discernible in him that he remain identifiable primarily as his state of being in the world at that moment. The qualitative difference between these two identities, which are nonetheless both in the retired age range, suggests the possibility of a much more sophisticated way of understanding ageing than that offered in the quote by Tallis above. Eventual frailty – for example, suffering from a lung disease as the man above – is compatible with the capacity for peaceful reflection on the pleasures of life. The lifespan should not be measured as one continuous adult stage and then a quick death because that is a philosophy based on a denial of death. If we really want to understand human life in all its stages then we shouldn’t pathologise age-related infirmities and ‘underlying conditions’. Society would be transformed by refusing to define old age in numerical terms or by reference to employment status. Instead, the term should be self-defined and indicate an awareness of having entered a reflective stage of life which will eventually end in death but might none the less last for years. Only in this manner we will move beyond the implicit designation of ageing as a social problem.

References

Bazalgette, Louise, John Holden, Philip Tew, Nick Hubble and Jago Morrison (2011) Coming of Age. London: Demos.

Bytheway, Bill (2005) ‘Age-identities and the Celebration of Birthdays’, Ageing & Society, 25, 463-477.

Hubble, Nick and Philip Tew (2013). Ageing, Narrative and Identity: New Qualitative Social Research. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Mitchell, J (1984). ‘Typicality and the Case Study’. In R.F. Ellen (ed.). Ethnographic Research: A Guide to Conduct. New York: Academic Press, 238-241.

Pollen, Annebella (2013). ‘Research Methodology in Mass Observation Past and Present: “Scientifically, about as valuable as a chimpanzee’s tea party at the zoo”?’ History Workshop Journal. 75 [advance access] (January 2013): 1-23.

Thane, Pat (2000). Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Why I Chose to Use the Mass Observation Project for My Research on ‘Ageing’

As the first instalment of a short series on ageing, this is a revised and updated version of a paper that was presented under the original title of ‘Why I Collaborated with the Mass Observation Project’ on 16 April 2013 to ‘Mass Observing Today: Opportunities for New Research’ at the Charity Centre, Directory of Social Change, London.

I researched aspects of the 1937-49 incarnation of Mass Observation (MO) for both my MA dissertation, ‘Walter Benjamin and the Theory of Mass Observation’ (1996), and my DPhil thesis, ‘George Orwell and Mass-Observation: Mapping the Politics of Everyday Life in England 1937-1941’ (2002). This research contributed to my 2006 book, Mass Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory (Palgrave Macmillan), which was republished as an extended paperback edition in 2010. Therefore, when I became interested with some colleagues at Brunel – Philip Tew and Jago Morrison – in researching ageing – leading to ‘Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing’ (FCMAP) – I already knew a lot about MO and in particular its qualitative approach to investigating not just public opinion but also the actual processes of attitude formation.

MO was founded in 1937 by Tom Harrisson , Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge and ran in its first phase until 1949 – for an overview see Caleb Crain’s New Yorker article, ‘Surveillance Society: The Mass-Observation Movement and the Meaning of Everyday Life’ (2006). Their projects included a study of the industrial working class in Bolton (‘Worktown’) and the establishment of a National Panel of volunteers, who answered monthly questionnaires about various aspects of their everyday lives and were, from the outbreak of the War, asked to keep day-to-day personal diaries; the most famous of these was that of Nella Last (1981), memorably portrayed by Victoria Wood in the 2006 TV drama Housewife 49. MO was unique in terms of its participative research techniques, capacity to simultaneously reveal and interrogate narratives of everyday life modes of data collection and pioneering analysis of public opinion (see Hubble 2010). In 1939, Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge wrote in their Penguin Special, Britain by Mass-Observation (1939):

Opinion is made in two ways. It is made by each single person looking at the facts, as far as they are available, and then framing his own judgment on them. It is also made by the reaction of each single person to the opinions of other people. Few are so confident of their own judgment (whatever they may say) as to be uninfluenced by knowing what other people are thinking. It is here that the newspapers play an important role. For the newspapers not only state their version of the facts—they also state their version of the public opinion of the moment (32).

In this context, the personal view may be elusive, as Tom Harrisson details in ‘What is Public Opinion,’ objecting to ‘crude stratification’ (368) and reminding us that genuine public opinion represents huge numbers of people:

each one with a private opinion, with private prides and prejudices, personal antagonisms and loyalties. This is the stuff of Britain, tough, solid, stolid stuff—the rhythm essentially slow. When we talk about public opinion, we should mean the top level in this great conglomeration of private opinions. There is not, anywhere, a separate entity called public opinion. Public opinion only comes from the minds and the tongues of the people. But there is an important distinction between the two areas of existence—the area of the minds and the area of the tongues. In the mind is the private thought; and on the tongue, the public statement. Logically, a person’s ‘real opinion’ is the opinion he holds privately. He will not necessarily voice publicly, as public opinion, certain parts of his private opinion, which is a complex of feelings, often conflicting. (369)

Harrisson adds ‘Public opinion is only a part of private opinion and only that part which, so to speak, dare show itself at any moment’ (373). Diaries of course have the potential (as implicitly suggested by Harrisson) to unlock something of the very privately held opinions that other methods of engagement tend not to access and MO’s central method might be seen as encouraging members of the public to keep a variety of diaries ranging from the day diaries they collected for the twelfth day of each month during 1937 to the vast diaries kept by observers, including Nella Last and the novelist Naomi Mitchison, during the Second World War. In Nine Wartime Lives: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self (2010), James Hinton notes the unique specificity of these diaries: ‘Mass-Observation offered a discipline and a context which transcended the purely private, meeting a need to frame individual quests in relation to larger public purposes’ (6). Therefore, he argues that they ‘take us as close as a historian can hope to get to observe selfhood under construction’ (7). And clearly a sufficient number of such diaries taken together can also offer some view of the manner in which social opinions either emerge or are responded to, as well as providing, through analysis, an informal cartography of aspects of collective group identities. Crucially, Hinton refuses to give ground to those critics who question MO on grounds of how representative it is, by stating explicitly that the biographical examples he discusses open a window on to the personal opinion and everyday life of postwar Britain and are definitely ‘not “case studies” narrowly designed to sustain a particular theory or test a particular hypothesis’ (20). This was also how the original mass observers understood their project; their analysis involved sifting and accounting for the influence of imposed cultural views upon personal perspectives thereby allowing them to reveal private opinion at odds with publicly-accepted norms as, for example, in their prediction of the 1945 Labour election victory eighteen months in advance (Harrisson 1944). Moreover, in today’s ‘politically correct’ age, when people may be even more wary of candid public utterances, diaries retain this potential to unlock private views and reveal their interaction with wider social and cultural narratives.

However, my interest in MO was not just related to its historical significance. Since 1981, a contemporary MO Project (MOP) has been run from the MO Archive (MOA) at the University of Sussex. This is one of the longest-running longitudinal life-writing projects anywhere in the world. Three times a year, MO participants receive a seasonal “directive,” which is a set of open questions that invite them to write freely and discursively about their views and experiences. Anne Jamieson and Christina Victor’s edited collection Researching Ageing and Later Life: The Practice of Social Gerontology (2002), includes an article on the MOP by Dorothy Sheridan, which enumerates the particular attributes that make it particular suitable for ageing research. First, the majority of respondents [at that time and still broadly the case in 2013] are not only over 50 but also well-distributed across the older age ranges. Second, the longitudinal nature of the MOP means that, for example, at the turn of the millennium they had 18 respondents in the over-80 age range who had been writing for over 15 years, providing a vast wealth of material. The same holds true across all the age ranges, as Sheridan observes:

The project itself is a record of the ageing process over 20 years, whether someone goes from 32 to 52, or from 62 to 82, and if again is taken to means the process of growing older at any point in one’s life, then we have access here to a huge amount of information about the life span (75).

Third, the particular quality of MO, as opposed to other forms of life writing such as memoirs and autobiographies, is that it does not provide one single monolithic account of a life. Rather, reading across the directive replies of an individual over the years reveals layered life stories made up of description and re-description, which ‘enable us to have access to the contradictions of everyday life, and to the changes of people’s perceptions of themselves and the world they inhabit’ (75). MO material has been used successfully in ageing research ranging from Pat Thane’s Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues (2000) to Bill Bytheway’s work on ageing and birthdays (2005, 2009, 2011).

For these two reasons, that is its capacity to reveal private opinion and its pedigree in ageing research, FCMAP made MO diary-keeping techniques central to the two major studies it set up, following Chris Phillipson’s (2007: vii) proposals for a critical gerontology, both to give voice directly to older subjects and to include them centrally in the research process: one involving the present-day MO and the other ninety volunteers from the older age ranges organised into reading and discussion groups. For the first of these, an MO directive (‘Books and You’) was commissioned by the FCMAP team, and issued in Winter 2009, concerning participants’ responses to representations of ageing in political and media discourse. The directive was send to the panel of around 600 people and 193 written responses were returned. In conjunction with earlier directives concerning ageing in Winter 1992 (‘Growing Older’), whose responses are featured in Thane (2000), and Autumn 2006 (‘Age’), it was possible to collate high-quality longitudinal qualitative data regarding how ageing is understood in society, how this differs between generations and how social expectations regarding ageing relate to self-understanding.

MO – ‘the most studied, and arguably the most important, social research institution of the mid-twentieth century’ (Savage 2010: 57) – gave us the primary data and the methodology for a reliable mode of investigation capable of capturing something of the multiplicity of intersecting narratives that constitute everyday life. While MO was founded in 1937, its underlying ideas first began to take shape the year before, in a list by Charles Madge written under the perhaps surprising title of ‘Popular Poetry’ (see Hubble 2010: 77). The ideas here, including ‘Coincidence clubs’ and ‘exercises for imagination’, were discussed with Jennings and other members of a group that met at Madge’s home in Blackheath and eventually realised in MO’s idea of the image, which evolved from Ezra Pound’s concept of ‘that which presents an intellectual and emotional complex in an instant of time’ (cited in Jones 2001: 39); mass observers were famously asked to record the dominant image of the day.

The importance of this technique cannot be underestimated because it represents an alternative mean of recording knowledge other than straightforward discourse. Importantly it draws upon the material form of poetry, which is woven together from images and so embodies paradox and ambiguity as famously recorded by the critic and poet William Empson, a participant in early MO, in his influential volume, Seven Types of Ambiguity (1930). The culminating idea of Empson’s book is the un-resolvability of the seventh type of ambiguity, which creates not a contradiction but the possibility of simultaneously satisfying impulses that otherwise appear to conflict at a societal level. For example, he discusses Richard Crashaw’s ‘Hymn to Saint Teresa’ in which the saint is praised for chastity with subtle metaphors alluding to the sexual act (see Hubble 2009: 178-9). As we will see, the metaphoric possibilities of such language are suggestive of multiple and complex narratives and meanings. Therefore, for Empson, poetry becomes a tool for revealing the ‘stereoscopic contradictions that imply a dimension’ (193) thus permitting people to see things in more than one way and opening up the possibility for social change. More recently, Slavoj Žižek has theorised such a mode of apprehension as ‘the parallax view’ (2006). MO, with its central paradox by which everyone is both observer and observed, represents another related form of stereoscopic observation.

Therefore, MO in practice was not just a collection of positivistic data but a collection of social imagery; ‘overheards’, surreptitious observation and intimate reflections as well as reportage. As Highmore (2002) notes, in sharp contradistinction to the fascist homogenising forces at work elsewhere in Europe in the late 1930s and, we might add,  once again in the second decade of the twenty-first century, MO’s imagistic technique was central to ‘the practice of promoting a “totality of fragments”, of a society “united” by a heterogeneous everyday, a commonality of diversity’ (92). By presenting this social imagery through the means of ‘a complex montage’ (Highmore 2002: 93), in books such as May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937, MO was able to produce work that reflected the textured and contradictory, essentially intersubjective, nature of social reality. Appropriately, Madge reflected on this process in his 1939 poem, ‘Drinking in Bolton’:

Not from imagination I am drawing

This landscape, (Lancs), this plate of tripe and                                                                                       onions,

But, like the Nag’s Head barmaid, I am drawing

(Towards imagination) gills of mild

The industrial drink, in which my dreams and theirs

Find common ground. (108)

Here, the poem nicely foregrounds the fact that it, itself, is a product not of imagination but of material description and yet its purpose is to move towards social imagination, which may be understood as the means by which the contradictions of social existence are transformed into a perspective for considering different possible futures. However, as Madge goes on to imply in the poem, social imagery is not in itself sufficient to effect social transformation; intellectual and emotional complexes in an instant of time are, in the final analysis, merely instants, which do not last in and of themselves:

And in this hour are crowded all men’s lives,

For, as they drink, they drown. So final night

Falls, like a pack of cards, each one of which

Is fate, the film star and the penny pool.

You sit there waiting for the spell to break. (ibid)

This differentiation between the ‘mass’ and the mass media, which threatens to obscure the contradictions of everyday mass social existence underneath an homogenising and totalising set of values, is typical of MO’s approach. As Highmore observes:

[ … ] rather than seeing people as passively led by the mass media, Mass-Observation instead sees a huge gulf between mass media representations and the experience and understanding of the world in everyday life. Mass-Observation continually juxtaposes newspaper by-lines on current events with the heteroglossia of everyday life, where responses vary from antagonism to cynicism, from outrage to bewilderment, from refusals to acquiescence. (2002: 107)

Acutely aware that social solutions are never immediate, MO ‘set in motion an archival practice of the present that tried to attend to the conscious and unconscious aspects of everyday life’ (111). As Pollen (2013) notes, ‘Inconsistency, heterogeneity and even incoherence are part of the world we live in. the mixed and disruptive methods of MO provide a unique means of access to that experience and offer a satisfying challenge to established ways of thinking in contemporary history’ (18). Furthermore, although MO’s imagist and surrealist ideas originated in the wider modernist movement, their understanding of everyday life was not, as Highmore notes, limited to notions of the modern and the metropolis. Savage makes this point more specifically in his analysis of responses to a 1939 MO directive asking observers to discuss where they would situate themselves on the class scale, which concludes:

We can read, then, the accounts of the 1939 Mass-Observers as seeking out an intellectual space, one which did not reproduce existing class divisions, but which creatively sought to use Mass-Observation to distance itself from gentlemanly, artistic, highbrow motifs in favour of a more ‘technical’, scientific intellectual vision, once concerned to free itself from fixed spatial location (2010: 64).

While this specific form of cultural distinction did break down during the Second World War and afterwards into an external conflict described by Kynaston (2007) between the needs of  ‘activators – politicians, planners, public intellectuals, opinion-formers’ and ‘ordinary people’ (22), the heterogeneous approach of MO held these possibilities together through an implicit understanding that

‘ordinariness’ is only ever one aspect of the rhetorical claim to be ‘ordinary’ that necessarily also implies a concurrent ‘extraordinariness’: an ability to stand outside the ‘ordinary’ at the same time as standing within it, which is not just the possibility of reflecting on ‘ordinariness’ but the very act by which ‘ordinariness’ is constituted. Indeed, it might be argued that MO – because of [its combination of the roles of observer and observed], the experience of its wartime diarists, its bridging of the divide between postwar ‘activators’ and ‘ordinary people’ and its role in the transition of social identities – has the best possible claim to talk for the apparently ‘ordinary’ people of contemporary British society because it necessarily recognises them as more than ordinary. [ …] Therefore, it seems more appropriate to describe these mass observers as extra/ordinary people: a term which acknowledges a full stereoscopic vision.  (Hubble 2010: 241)

Therefore, alongside its unique capacity to document the intersubjective nature of everyday social experience, it is this further capacity to bridge the gap between policy makers and other such ‘activators’ and ‘ordinary people’ that makes MO so essential to the study of ageing in general and, in particular, to the consideration of the relevance of a narrative understanding of ageing to public policy that was central to the FCMAP project (see Bazalgette et al 2011; Hubble and Tew 2013).

As will be discussed in more detail in the following posts, this narrative understanding of ageing is even more important to public policy during the Covid-19 crisis in which Government attitudes to older people appear to have reverted to an earlier model of treating them as a vulnerable liability and a social problem to be solved.

References

Bazalgette, Louise, John Holden, Philip Tew, Nick Hubble and Jago Morrison (2011) Coming of Age. London: Demos.

Bytheway, Bill (2005) ‘Age-identities and the Celebration of Birthdays’, Ageing & Society, 25, 463-477.

——– (2009) ‘Writing about Age, Birthdays and the Passage of Time’, Ageing & Society, 29, 883-901.

——– (2011) Unmasking Age: The Significance of Age for Social Research. Bristol: Policy Press.

Empson, William (1961) [1930]. Seven Types of Ambiguity. Harmondsworth: Peregrine.

Harrisson, Tom and Charles Madge (1939). Britain by Mass-Observation. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

——–  (1940). ‘What is Public Opinion.’ Political Quarterly. XI (42): 368 – 83.

——– (1944). ‘Who’ll Win?’ Political Quarterly. XV (1): 21-32.

Highmore, Ben (2002). Everyday Life and Cultural Theory: An Introduction. New York: Routledge.

Hinton, James (2010). Nine Wartime Diaries: Mass-Observation and the Making of the Modern Self. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Hubble, Nick (2009). ‘The Intermodern Assumption of the Future: William Empson, Charles Madge and Mass-Observation.’ In Bluemel, Kristin (ed.).  Intermodernism: Literary Culture in Mid-Twentieth-Century Britain.  Edinburgh: Edinburgh UP, 171-188.

——– (2010). Mass Observation and Everyday Life: Culture, History, Theory. Rev. 2nd ed. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

——– and Philip Tew (2013). Ageing, Narrative and Identity: New Qualitative Social Research. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan.

Jamieson, Anne and Christina Victor (eds.) (2002). Researching Ageing and Later Life: The Practice of Social Gerontology. Milton Keynes: Open UP.

Jennings, Humphrey and Charles Madge (eds.) (1937). May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day-Surveys 1937. London Faber and Faber.

Jones, Peter (ed.) (2001).  Imagist Poetry. Harmondsworth: Penguin.

Kynaston, David (2007).  Austerity Britain. London: Bloomsbury.

Last, Nella (1983) [1981]. Nella Last’s War: A Mother’s Diary 1939-45. (Eds)  Richard Broad and Suzie Fleming. London: Sphere.

Madge, Charles (1994) [1939]. ‘Drinking in Bolton.’ In Of Love, Time and Places: Selected Poetry. London: Anvil Press, 108.

Phillipson, Chris (2007). ‘Foreword.’ In Miriam Bernard and Thomas Scharf (eds.). Critical Perspectives on Ageing Societies. Bristol: Policy Press, vii-viii.

Pollen, Annebella (2013). ‘Research Methodology in Mass Observation Past and Present: “Scientifically, about as valuable as a chimpanzee’s tea party at the zoo”?’ History Workshop Journal. 75 [advance access] (January 2013): 1-23.

Savage, Mike (2010). Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Sheridan, Dorothy (2002). ‘Using the Mass-Observation Archive.’ In Anne Jamieson and Christina R. Victor (eds.). Researching Ageing and Later Life: The Practice of Social Gerontology. Milton Keynes: Open University Press, 66-79.

Thane, Pat (2000). Old Age in English History: Past Experiences, Present Issues. Oxford: Oxford University Press.

Žižek, Slavoj (2006). The Parallax View. Cambridge, Mass. and London: MIT Press.

Ageing, Self-Reflection, and the Run-up to 12 May 2020

This blog has been dormant for a few months due to a variety of reasons (a period of illness, a deadline for manuscript submission, disruption to travel by flooding, and a global pandemic) but I have managed to keep going with the research for ‘Understanding Social Change through Autobiographical Narrative’. Last Autumn, I was in Brighton researching in the Mass Observation (MO) Archive in the Keep and I have been progressed with a number of the strands of the project as listed in my first post on this blog. In particular, I have been working on my own self-reflexive writing so that in best MO fashion I can observe my own subjectivity as part of the project: examining both my own motivations for doing research and how I myself respond to social change by writing about it. To this end, I have been writing a Covid-19 journal for MO, which has turned into a quite substantive diary dealing with many facets of my life. Indeed, I think one way to take this project forward would be to continue this diary and expand its focus more generally to social change in the twenty first century. In the meantime, I am going to take part in the MO call for day diaries for #12May2020. This is the tenth anniversary of this annual call and in celebration of that I shall be posting the day diary (now posted here) I submitted for #12May2010 on this blog on Tuesday 12 May 2020 and then on the following day, I will post the day diary I have written for #12May2020 (now posted here).

I’m also going to post a short series of blogs about my research on ageing carried out in collaboration with colleagues at Brunel, Demos, MO and the University of the Third Age as part of the New Dynamics of Ageing programme. Our project was called ‘Fiction and the Cultural Mediation of Ageing’, but I mainly worked on responses to the MO directives on ‘Growing Older’ (Winter 1992), ‘Age’ (Autumn 2006) and ‘Books and You’ (Winter 2009). I want to blog about this project because it was about the representation of older people and one of the things we emphasised was older people’s dislike of the term ‘elderly’ because of its connotations of vulnerability. We are currently living in a situation in which the media has been discussing the vulnerability of the elderly continually for nearly three months. This cannot be good and therefore I am offering a series of posts on this blog discussing my research on ageing to register a contestation of those representations. At the same time, I will use these posts to reflect on my past practice as a researcher using MO and what I feel about that now.

Ageing Series

  1. Why I Chose to Use the Mass Observation Project for My Research on Ageing (13 minutes)
  2. Ageing is Not a Social Problem: How people negotiate the fixed categories of ageing created by the postwar welfare state (13 minutes)
  3. Growing Old with the Welfare State (9 minutes)
  4. Ageing, Gender and Moving Beyond Binary or Hierarchical Thinking (9 minutes)

Text of my Working Class Studies Association Conference Paper on Heslop

My paper to the Working Class Studies Association Conference (3-6 September 2019) held at the University of Kent, Canterbury. This is different (especially after the first couple of paragraphs) from the Literary London version of the paper (which immediately precedes this on the blog). I will say more about this conference and more about the changes to the paper and how they affect the project in due course. There is still more to do on the idea of British Proletkult (mentioned at the end of this paper). Other side projects that have suggested themselves to me are (a) to organise a conference/collection on the relationship between proletarian (and working-class fiction) and modernism because in some countries, such as Sweden, modernism is proletarian and the key writers are working-class writers; (b) to rewrite Alick West’s Crisis and Criticism from the kind of perspective I’m trying to get at in this paper (esoteric – maybe I’ll have to self-publish – but a project I think would be interesting to write). Here, though is the paper given on the morning of Friday 6 September 2019:

“Nearer the gate of a strange field”:

Beyond Class and Gender in Interwar Proletarian Autobiografiction.

Nick Hubble (Nick.Hubble@brunel.ac.uk)

The Durham miner Harold Heslop was one of the key proletarian writers of the interwar period and Britain’s representative at the Second Plenum of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers in 1930 in Kharkov in the Soviet Union. While his novels are principally set in the Durham coalfields, the contrast with London (where he lived from 1924-5 while attending the Central Labour College and then from 1928 onwards when blacklisted from the mines) forms a direct or indirect element. In this paper, I focus on The Gate of a Strange Field (1929) and Last Cage Down (1935) as autobiografictional negotiations of complex class and gender politics, which, through navigating the intersections between respectability, sexuality and trade unionism led the way towards a transformed socialist politics, which pointed in more radical directions than the eventual 1945 welfare state, and still holds lessons for the twenty-first century.

‘Autobiografiction’ is an Edwardian term that has been recently revived by Max Saunders. It describes a category of writing which is more than just autobiographical fiction in that it allows writers to transform themselves through their creative practice and not only represent, but also discover, a different, fuller and more complex understanding of selfhood:

Autobiografiction can include material that writers may prefer not to own in their own person; but rather than suggesting that their fiction gives them away, either consciously or unconsciously, they are claiming that the fictional permits a fuller autobiography. This is partly a matter of its being able to include the shameful as well as the honourable, and thus assemble a more complete, more human, picture. (Saunders 2010: 205)

The ability to self-reflexively narrate the self became an alternative source of agency to power rooted in the Victorian systems of patriarchy, class and empire. What we think of as modernism – a self-reflexive technique that incorporates what is ‘unconscious’ to bourgeois consciousness – was originated by those, such as Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson and D.H. Lawrence, marginalised by class and/or gender from Victorian power structures. Following Lawrence, working-class writers – especially those like Heslop who also came from mining communities – rejected autobiography as too complicit with 19th century discourses of progress and the hierarchical ordering of society.

In Crisis and Criticism, first published in 1937, Alick West identified the question facing modernist writers, such as Virginia Woolf and James Joyce, in the interwar period: “When I do not know any longer who are the “we” to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who ‘I’ am either” (19). The work of these writers may be characterised as an autobiografictional move beyond the limits of the bourgeois self in search of intersubjective social relations. West considered Ulysses (the subject of his penultimate chapter) to be an important step in this direction because it related self to society. However, West goes on to argue in his final chapter that a full answer to the modernist question can only be found by relating self to society in terms of the production process as Heslop does in The Gate of a Strange Field (which is thereby elevated above Ulysses in importance).

This is perhaps rather too much freight for most novels to bear and it appears to be a claim that has not fared well against the test of time. When Crisis and Criticism was republished in 1975, the final chapter on Heslop was omitted and rather than The Gate of a Strange Field being bountifully available to teach as a regularly reprinted Penguin Classic, copies are pretty near impossible to locate and I had to read it in the British Library. However, nonetheless, I think that West was correct and the best way to vindicate his arguments is to consider a range of proletarian literature written by men and women, such as I outline in my book, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question (2017).

My aim in that book was not to create an alternative canon but to try and lay out a different approach to reading and a different way of thinking about literature that isn’t hierarchical. However, this is not to deny the unofficial existence of a proletarian or working-class canon which includes, for example, Robert Tressell’s The Ragged Trousered Philantrophists (1914) and Lewis Grassic Gibbon’s A Scots Quair (1932-4). Despite Lawrence & Wishart’s 1984 republication of Last Cage Down with an introduction by Andy Croft, Heslop has never quite been accepted into that unofficial canon because of the way his novels don’t fit the changing political positions of the Communist Party over the 1920s and 1930s. As Croft explains, The Gate of a Strange Field was published during the Comintern’s ‘Third Period’ of ‘Class against Class’ at a time when the Russian Association of Proletarian Writers (RAPP), ‘a proletcult organisation who argued for a militant class-conscious literature rooted in Communist-led industrial struggle’ held sway:

A fellow-traveller and ILP novelist like Heslop, writing about the industrial defeats of politically-confused individual trade-union leaders, clearly did not meet the sectarian demands of RAPP literary criticism. . . . [In 1932] International Literature carried a long and damning study of Heslop’s fiction, accusing him of being ‘infected’ with ‘social-fascist bacteria’. In The Gate of a Strange Field … the article complained, Heslop only regarded ‘the workers’ movement from a purely aesthetic point of view … [depicting] the social only though the prisms of the personal … under the influence of sentimental individualism’. (Croft 1984: x)

Croft goes on to argue that Last Cage Down, ‘bears all the marks of a penitent attempt to answer these criticisms’ (Croft 1984: xi). More recently, John Connor has described the novel as informed by ‘pure Third Period orthodoxy, the trade-union movement cast as an adjunct of bourgeois class rule and its leaders as “social fascists” undermining the interests of the workers’ so that ‘the charismatic labour leader Jim Cameron … betrays the men he leads while the quiet communist Joe Frost argues the correct course of action’ (Connor 2019: 325-6). The problem was, however, that by 1935, when Last Cage Down appeared, the sectarian ‘Class against Class’ position had been superseded by the inclusive Popular Front line. Both Croft and Connor cite the contemporary criticism of Charles Ashleigh, who reviewed the novel for both Left Review and the Daily Worker, that it was ‘perhaps a little too sectarian and formalist for these days’ with the character of Frost appearing ‘somewhat dated … rather more in the spirit of a few years earlier’ (qtd Connor 2019: 326; qtd Croft 1984: xii).

Such readings simultaneously illustrate some of the pitfalls of being a working-class writer during the politicised 1930s, account for Heslop’s reception history, and suggest why Alick West came to be embarrassed about his earlier advocacy of Heslop over Joyce as the pinnacle of modern writing. Nevertheless, they are misreadings of Heslop; not only because he is a complex and, at times, satirical writer but also because such readings focus on perceived male class politics and miss the intersectional dynamics of the novels.

For example, The Gate of a Strange Field is a Bildungsroman in which we see Joe Tarrant’s progression from school to pit and on to full-time union representative. In London as an elected representative of the national committee running the General Strike, he spends his time in bed with a prostitute as the Strike falls apart. Unsurprisingly, critics, such as David Bell, have seen the novel as a ‘negative apprenticeship’ in which the protagonist makes all the wrong decisions resulting in personal and political failure and we the reader are supposed to learn the message that we should make the opposite decisions (i.e. think like a Communist, don’t treat strikes as just local issues, don’t fornicate etc.). Yet this is not really how the book reads. In fact, the prostitute who Joe meets in London is his estranged wife, Molly. Previously, Heslop has described in Lawrentian tones how, following an enforced marriage due to pregnancy, they had ‘lived a strange, loveless, over-sexed life, each pulling a different way, each so pitiful’ (Heslop 1929: 139) before separating. Joe then goes on to scandalise the respectable morals of the coalfield by moving in with modern, as signified by her page-boy haircut, ILP socialist, Emily Ritter, who represents a very different model of female agency to Molly: ‘Emily Ritter had completely lost her head. She had to smash through all the Northern conception of morals. It could not be said that she went into the matter blind as a mole, for she knew exactly what she was doing.’ (Heslop 1929: 169). Yet, Joe still feels stuck within the conventions of the coalfield even as he flouts them by living outside marriage with his girlfriend, hence the pleasure he takes in his trips to London on union business:

 In the parochial wilderness of the North men and women had small minds. In London it was different. There nobody knew anybody else, and so morals did not count. Morals were changing. To blazes with morals. (Heslop 1929: 180)

But the irony is, even while indulging himself in London, Joe is still caught up in the limited ‘respectable’ moral outlook of the coalfields. This is made spectacularly clear when Molly interrupts his post-coital mansplaining of the politics of the General Strike: ‘You’re not in the market at Shielding, Joe,’ she said ‘You’re in bed . . . with me.’ (Heslop 1929: 229). The logic of the novel suggests that only an intersectional politics that moves beyond ‘respectability’ would liberate Joe and Molly and Emily. Or, to put it another way, Heslop does not fall into the trap of ‘sentimental individualism’ and an aesthetic focus on personal problems that he was criticised for by International Literature; rather, through fictional exploration of his own feelings and experiences he shows the necessity of moral revolution in order for collective industrial struggle to be successful. He is not trying to slavishly follow the Party line and failing; he is criticising the Party line.

Turning to Last Cage Down from a similar intersectional perspective, we can see that the novel is not intended as a penitential corrective to The Gate of a Strange Field. Yes, Joe Frost is ‘a proletcult literary type’ as Croft suggests, but he is a satirical take on that type; he might understand Marx and listen to the radio but he is also obsessed with his waistline and has the local butcher weigh him once a week by hauling him up on his hook (205), which is hardly a militant, heroic pose. Yes, Jim Cameron, the protagonist, does come to realise he was wrong after losing his position as secretary of the miner’s lodge and going to prison for nine months, during which time his mother is evicted from her cottage. But the novel’s epiphanic moment is not his acceptance that Joe Frost might actually be right about how to conduct a strike, but when he finds himself helping his girlfriend with the washing up:

   She nodded. ‘Good,’ she said, rising to her feet. ‘Now, help me to clear away because I’ve got to be up at the Lion in time for six.’

   Funny. He’d never done this for his mother in all his life. He had never thought about it. He had always taken it for granted that the clean crockery would be placed before him and the dirty crockery carted away from before him and cleansed. And here he was helping the girl to clear way the dishes. Well . . . he was damned . . . ! (Heslop 1984: 195)

As the novel moves to a conclusion (involving, as in The Gate of a Strange Field and other Heslop novels, a mining disaster), Joe Frost is trying to organise an anti-Fascist rally to protest at a Mosley-like figure visiting ‘Tynecastle’ (Newcastle) and dreaming of a Communist revolution following on from it. But then there is an explosion in the mine trapping him and eventually he is rescued by Cameron. The novel’s closing scene finds Frost convalescing in bed, receiving a visit from Cameron and another miner, Paddy O’Toole – suggesting the multi-ethnic composition of the proletariat as discussed in Wednesday’s keynote lecture [at the WCSA conference] by Satnam Virdee – and the last words in the novel are given to Joe’s wife: ‘I’d like to see any of you dare to stop fighting. Just any of you dare, that’s all!’ (361).

Therefore, in the conventional reading of 1930s politics according to communist positions, Last Cage Down might be seen as calling for a ‘United Front’ of socialists, communists and trade unionists rather than the proletcult position that Croft and Connor associate the novel with. Alternatively, Heslop’s fiction might be considered as sharing more in common with the revolutionary politics of ILP writers such as Ethel Mannin and George Orwell. However, I think we need to move away from a criticism that seeks to fit British writers, and working-class writers in particular (and even more so miner writers), to political positions and then finds them failing. Why do we assume that the default ‘proletarian’ position is one of unyielding militant, masculinity – is it purely because the struggle is presented as man versus material nature in the mines? Better to follow the example of McKenzie Wark in Molecular Red (2015) and rethink proletcult from outside the parameters of the Bolshevik Party line and view the struggle -as called for by Mrs Frost – as ‘in its origin and ends not fundamentally against the ruling class’ but rather the quest to find ‘in and against nature’ ‘a totality within which to cultivate the surplus of life’ (11, 23). The reason why Heslop has appeared a politically confused writer to critics is because his work is not orientated towards the shifting political goals of the 1930s but towards an as-yet-unrealised utopian-because-proletarian worldview beyond class and gender.

Works Cited:

Bell, David. Ardent Propaganda: Miners’ Novels and Class Conflict 1929-1939. Uppsala: Umeå University, 1995.

Connor, John. ‘Anglo-Soviet Relations in the Long 1930s’ in Benjamin Kohlmann and Matthew Taunton, eds, A History of 1930s British Literature. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019: 317-330.

Croft, Andy. ‘Introduction’ to Harold Heslop, Last Cage Down, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1984: vii-xiii.

Heslop, Harold. The Gate of a Strange Field, London: Brentano, 1929.

Heslop, Harold. Last Cage Down, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1984 [1935].

Hubble, Nick. The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Saunders, Max. Self-Impression: Life-Writing, Autobiografiction, & the Forms of Modern Literature, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010.

Wark, McKenzie. Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene. London: Verso, 2015.

West, Alick. Crisis and Criticism, London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1937.

Text of my Literary London Conference paper on Heslop and some brief thoughts on Proletkult.

This is the text of the paper I gave at the 2019 Literary London Conference (11-12 July) this year. It is mainly a condensation and refocusing of my previous post, ‘Working-Class Autobiography and Proletarian Autobiografiction: Harold Heslop’ (bibliographic details can be found here). Apart from the fact that it might be of interest to those who heard the paper, I’m putting it up because I’m trying to trace the evolution of this project as it progresses. For me, ideas often develop through writing something up and then leaving it a bit until I realise that actually I might think something different on reflection. I do now think something different, which I will try and work in to an updated version of the paper that I will be giving at the Working Class Studies Association Conference to be held at the University of Kent at the beginning of September. Returning to topic of categorising literature in terms of Communist Party lines (which is something I’ve said we can usefully dispense with in the 21st Century), I’m now thinking that the standard reading of Heslop as out of step does him an injustice. Rather than see him as responding to criticisms of The Gate of a Strange Field (1929) during the ‘class against class’ period by making Last Cage Down (1935) more proletarian and thereby condemning it to be received as ‘sectarian’ during the ‘popular front’ period, I’m now thinking maybe we should read him as a Proletkult writer in the sense discussed by McKenzie Wark in Molecular Red: Theory for the Anthropocene (Verso, 2015). Because in Heslop, more than any other British proletarian writer, the key conflicts and actions are determined by the interaction between the labour point of view and nature. Read this way, Heslop’s work is important for thinking about the expansion of proletarian culture into a general account of the experience of the world. It offers a way of thinking about what Wark calls the ‘progressive selection’ of ideas and social values. As such, it is very relevant to twenty-first century concerns as I shall investigate in future posts.

Here, though, is the version of the paper yet to be updated in terms of Heslop’s British Proletkult status:

“In London it was different”:

Class, Gender, and Metropolitan Values in Harold Heslop’s Proletarian Autobiografiction.

Nick Hubble (Nick.Hubble@brunel.ac.uk)

 

The Durham miner Harold Heslop was one of the key proletarian writers of the interwar period and Britain’s representative at the Second Plenum of the International Union of Revolutionary Writers in 1930 in Kharkov in the Soviet Union. While his novels are principally set in the Durham coalfields, the contrast with London (where Heslop lived from 1924-5 while attending the Central Labour College and then from 1928 onwards when no longer able to find work as a miner) forms a central element of his novels The Gate of a Strange Field (1929) and The Journey Beyond (1930). On one level, this contrast is framed in terms of neighbourhood and community:

In the parochial wilderness of the North men and women had small minds. In London it was different. There nobody knew anybody else, and so morals did not count. Morals were changing. To blazes with morals. (GSF 180)

In practice, however, Heslop’s texts display fascination with a female sexuality, often figured through prostitution, that is located within the capital in contrast to the ‘respectable’ values of the coalfields. In this paper, I will read these texts as part of an autobiografictional negotiation by Heslop of not just the complex class and gender politics of the time but also of the apparently insurmountable divide between London and the regions.

‘Autobiografiction’ is an Edwardian term that has been recently revived by Max Saunders. It describes a category of writing which is more than just autobiographical fiction in that it allows writers to transform themselves through their creative practice and not only represent, but also discover, a different, fuller and more complex understanding of selfhood:

Autobiografiction can include material that writers may prefer not to own in their own person; but rather than suggesting that their fiction gives them away, either consciously or unconsciously, they are claiming that the fictional permits a fuller autobiography. This is partly a matter of its being able to include the shameful as well as the honourable, and thus assemble a more complete, more human, picture. (Saunders 2010: 205)

The appearance of autobiografiction over the fin-de-siècle can be seen as related to the changes in subjectivity referenced by Virginia Woolf’s famous declaration in her essay ‘Mr Bennet and Mrs Brown’ that ‘on or about December 1910, human character changed’. A mixture of technological change, mass education and new thinking (Marx, Darwin, Freud) resulted in the old Victorian hierarchical order tipping over into a fluid modern society which could be navigated by self-invention: or rather, the ability to self-reflexively narrate the self became an alternative source of agency to power rooted in the systems of patriarchy, class and empire. What we think of as modernism – a self-reflexive technique that incorporates what is ‘unconscious’ to bourgeois consciousness – was originated by those marginalised by class and/or gender from those power structures, such as Katherine Mansfield, Dorothy Richardson and D.H. Lawrence. Lawrence, in particular, set the template for working-class writers – especially those like Heslop who also came from mining communities – to write autobiografiction rather than straightforward autobiography (which had hitherto been the dominant genre of working-class writing) which was too complicit with 19th century discourses of progress and the hierarchical ordering of society. However, self-reflexive autobiografiction plays out differently for working- and middle-class authors creating the divide between what we know as proletarian literature and modernism.

In Crisis and Criticism, first published in 1937, Alick West identified the question facing modernist writers in the interwar period: “When I do not know any longer who are the “we” to whom I belong, I do not know any longer who ‘I’ am either” (19). What characterises high modernist texts such as Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925), James Joyce’s Ulysses (1922) and T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land (1922) is the autobiografictional discovery of modern subjectivity through exploring intersubjective relations with the working class, albeit with the suggestion of a conscious-unconscious relationship (i.e., in crude terms, the modernist subject is made conscious of their unconscious through the interaction with the working-class other). On one level, proletarian literature showed an equally full working-class subjectivity which interacted with the bourgeois individual as other. Furthermore, however, proletarian literature automatically placed the working-class subject in a relationship with other working-class subjects that was not othered but collective; enabling the pronoun ‘we’. We can consider the key works of proletarian literature, alongside those of Woolf and Joyce and some others, as the collective expression of a changed subjectivity that was orientated towards a transformed future, which was dependent on an autobiografictional move beyond the limits of the self as defined by the culture of the period. West considered Ulysses to be an important step on this trajectory and therefore made it the subject of the penultimate chapter of Crisis and Criticism – but he still saw the novel as limited by Joyce’s tendency to focus on acts of consumption while more-or-less ignoring the social relations of the production process and the class conflicts surrounding it. As an example of a novel which does organise the social energy of productive activity, West names Heslop’s The Gate of a Strange Field, to which he devotes the final chapter of Crisis and Criticism and thereby in effect elevates above Ulysses in importance. This is perhaps rather too much freight for most novels to bear and it appears to be a claim that has not fared well against the tests of time. When Crisis and Criticism was republished in 1975, the final chapter on Heslop was omitted and rather than being bountifully available to teach as a regularly reprinted Penguin Classic, copies of The Gate of a Strange Field are pretty near impossible to locate and I had to read it in the BL. However, notwithstanding the current context, I think that West was broadly correct but that in order to vindicate his arguments it’s necessary to consider a range of proletarian literature written by men and women, such as I outline in my book, The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question.

However, Heslop might also be considered particularly unsuitable for representing the superiority of proletarian literature over modernism because the trajectory of his fiction appears to lead to an almost stereotypically crude version of the worker as all-powerful male hero, such as Jim Cameron, the miner protagonist of Last Cage Down (1935):

The whole being of a man must be in tune with the silver rock before him and the frowning strata about him. He must know when to kirve, when to knick, when to smash down the ‘caunch’. He must make this dead coal speak, speak with many tongues of coal, weep as a woman weeps when she mourns. If he is skilful he will make the coal leap voluntarily from its fastness with a shriek of joy […]. (Heslop 1984: 3)

The only other time Jim Cameron feels like a proper man is when he is with Betty, the barmaid from the Red Lion: ‘She was a likeable lass, one with whom a man could become a man because she was essentially a woman possessed of the rich virtues and treasures of a woman’ (Heslop 1984: 55). This apparently unreconstructed sexual politics seems to be linked to what some critics, such as John Connor, have described as Last Cage Down’s ‘class against class’ position which the Daily Worker found ‘a little too sectarian and formalist’ for the now popular-front times of 1935. Yet, a different reading – one not determined by the lines taken by the Communist Party over 80 years ago – might think about Heslop’s fiction as concerned with liberating his subjects and himself from the remnants of a restrictive nineteenth-century subaltern consciousness. In his autobiography, Heslop relates that restricted consciousness to ‘proletarian dreaming’:

The year 1919 was a year of intense proletarian dreaming … Despite the overwhelming victory of Lloyd George and his coalition, the proletarian world of men did not cease to dream. The most outrageous fantasy was the Sankey Commission. … How we gloated over the possibility of the mines becoming nationalised. How we dreamed. How we stretched out our hands towards the towering pit head gearing to take it, and all it signified, into our own dear keeping. Poor, soft, deluded people that we were. (Heslop 1994: 146)

Joe Tarrant, the protagonist of The Gate of a Strange Field falls prey to such ‘proletarian dreaming’ and ends up a comfortable union representative. In London as an elected representative of the national committee running the General Strike, he spends his time in bed with a prostitute as the Strike falls apart. Unsurprisingly, critics, such as David Bell, have seen the novel as a ‘negative apprenticeship’ in which the protagonist makes all the wrong decisions resulting in personal and political failure and we the reader are supposed to learn the message that we should make the opposite decisions (i.e. think like a Communist, don’t treat strikes as just local issues, don’t fall into proletarian dreamings of Sunday outings etc.). Yet this is not really how the book reads. In fact, the prostitute who Joes meets in London is his wife, Molly. They had (with shades of Lawrence) ‘lived a strange, loveless, over-sexed life, each pulling a different way, each so pitiful’ (Heslop 1929: 139) before separating. Joe scandalises the morals of the coalfield by moving in with modern, as signified by her page-boy haircut, Emily Ritter, who represents a very different model of female agency to Molly: ‘Emily Ritter had completely lost her head. She had to smash through all the Northern conception of morals. It could not be said that she went into the matter blind as a mole, for she knew exactly what she was doing.’ (Heslop 1929: 169). Yet, Joe still feels stuck within the conventions of the coalfield even as he flouts them by living outside marriage with his girlfriend, hence his pleasure in his trips to London on mining union business (returning to the quote I had at the beginning):

In the parochial wilderness of the North men and women had small minds. In London it was different. There nobody knew anybody else, and so morals did not count. Morals were changing. To blazes with morals. (Heslop 1929: 180)

When Joe ends up in bed with Molly, Heslop is not implying criticism of him for neglecting his proper union business. Indeed, Molly has to remind him that he is still too stuck in the mental outlook of the coalfield: ‘You’re not in the market at Shielding, Joe,’ she said ‘You’re in bed . . . with me.’ (Heslop 1929: 229). The logic of the novel suggests that a liberalised, transformed and expanded socio-cultural context, as represented by the London scenes of the novel, would liberate not only Joe but Molly and Emily as well. If the novel can’t quite manage to formally resolve all of these possible outcomes it is not for want of Heslop exploring a range of outcomes and subjectivities autobiografictionally.

In Journey Beyond, he took a step further – at least for the opening chapters of the novel by making the autobiografictional protagonist, ‘Martha Drake’, which allows him to directly criticise the patriarchal values of the coalfield:

On the floor were a couple of lead soldiers and a sort of spring cannon that shot matchsticks into the air. That was it! No love. To destroy! It is the only task that man can perform successfully. To kill. To maim. To wound. How man loves such tasks! Brutality rising beyond the heights of fiendishness. . . . With a breaking heart she had gone back home. (Heslop 1930: 11)

Reading between the lines, one can see how Heslop’s experiences of London – living there first while studying on a miners’ scholarship at the Central Labour College from 1924-5 and then permanently from 1928 onwards – changed his attitude to his northern birthplace. The differences are figured through women in particular: ‘A woman of the North has not obtained the outlook of her sisters of the South. She knows neither the clicking of a typewriter nor the eternal cigarette.’ (Heslop 1930: 38). Martha’s experiences in London during the depression – having to work as a char, stealing money from an office, getting caught and being sent to prison for a month, and losing a child – turn her to the brink of prostitution and her southern husband, Russell, whose experiences of the labour exchange and various short-term jobs are drawn directly from Heslop’s own, to the brink of jumping off the embankment into the Thames. Their survival, due to Russell getting a factory job after strikers have been laid off, leads them to a version of the modernist question concerning the ‘I’ and the ‘we’ as they ponder whether individualism is really the answer: ‘I suppose we’re all for ourselves in this world?’ (Heslop 1930: 252). This clearly isn’t the political position that Heslop is advocating but it indicates the width of his thinking about possible subjectivities before returning to the problem of how to build a collective class consciousness that doesn’t simply replicate the constraints that Joe, Molly and Emily kick against in The Gate of a Strange Field.

Looking again at Last Cage Down from this perspective, it is possible to see that the establishment of Jim at the beginning of the novel as the stereotypical worker-hero of prodigious activity is something of a set-up because the plot of the novel involves him losing everything, including his position as secretary of the miner’s lodge, and going to prison for nine months, during which time his mother is evicted from her cottage. He realises he is wrong about many things and consequently he changes his behaviour in many respects including in relation to Betty. In this manner, Heslop’s metropolitan consciousness is introduced back in to the Durham coalfield:

She nodded. ‘Good,’ she said, rising to her feet. ‘Now, help me to clear away because I’ve got to be up at the Lion in time for six.’

Funny. He’d never done this for his mother in all his life. He had never thought about it. He had always taken it for granted that the clean crockery would be placed before him and the dirty crockery carted away from before him and cleansed. And here he was helping the girl to clear way the dishes. Well . . . he was damned . . . ! (Heslop 1984: 195)

The eventual conclusion of the novel (involving as in The Gate of a Strange Field and other Heslop novels a mining disaster), in effect, calls for a ‘United Front’ of socialists, communists and trade unionists (as opposed to the broader ‘Popular Front’ of all anti-fascist forces which included liberals and conservatives). Heslop therefore remains opposed to the ‘proletarian dreaming’ implicit to labourism (and as a consequence his books were not compatible with the values of the postwar British state) and committed to an altered form of class consciousness embracing liberated and equal gender relations that he has mapped out through the autobiografictional practice of his writing.

To conclude, the capacity of a working-class writer such as Heslop (aided of course by his socialist education and values) to free himself from the structure of feeling of his background and understand the extent to which social (i.e. class and gender) relations would change outside the sphere of working-class respectability suggests how proletarian autobiografiction might be seen as a means of understanding and adapting to social change, which at the same time generates new cultural forms and social values. Heslop’s novels and proletarian literature in general suggest that the emancipation of women was a key catalyst for the shift from working-class autobiography to proletarian autobiografiction. In terms of Heslop’s texts, this works out in practice through the way a female sexuality that is located within the capital is not just contrasted with but also used to critique the ‘respectable’ values of the coalfields. Reading his novels, it is possible to see how taking an autobiografictional approach to his experiences allowed him to discuss (and analyse) parts of his own life – his response to metropolitan values of gender and sexual fluidity – that would have been difficult to include in an autobiography at the time. However, the autobiography he did finally write in the early 1970s helps us see how those complex autobiografictional negotiations of intertwined class and gender politics reconciled regional and metropolitan values and pointed the way towards the transformed culture of postwar Britain that would emerge in the 1960s, with its social and sexual (or emotional) revolutions. Rethinking literary history and the importance of interwar proletarian fictions like Heslop’s, which are not just regional texts but very much about the intersection and transformation of cultural values across Britain, is also a way of rethinking contemporary British history and the apparent binary divide between ordinary people and metropolitan liberals. Morals have gone to blazes in the London of Heslop’s novels because his characters have been taken outside the respectable constraints of their local neighbourhoods but if they can survive the transition, they become the agents of change.

A Book for 1939 or 2019? Ethel Mannin’s Women and the Revolution

Perhaps you who read this are a housewife with no ambition to make a career outside the home; perhaps you will say that the coming of Fascism would make no difference to you. But you would be wrong. (202)

 Ethel Mannin’s Women and the Revolution was written in 1937 and first published by Secker and Warburg in 1938 but the copy I have is the US first edition published in 1939 by Dutton. Therefore, I can claim this piece as a celebration of its eightieth anniversary. The contemporary relevance of a book following a very particular and decidedly minority line might seem negligible. Mannin was a member of the Independent Labour Party (I.L.P.) and a supporter of the P.O.U.M. in Spain. The most likely place people will have come across discussions of her politics (very few indeed will have come across any discussion of her fiction) are in books about her fellow I.L.P.-member (and soldier with the P.O.U.M.), George Orwell, such as John Newsinger’s Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left (2018). However, unlike Orwell, Mannin did not abandon the I.L.P. position after the outbreak of the Second World War but remained opposed to it as an imperialist war and adopted a specifically pacifist stance. (It should be noted that this sometimes led her into anti-Semitic positions such as arguing that Jewish interests wanted the war and downplaying Nazi atrocities against the Jews at least up until 1942 – see Newsinger, p. 88).

While those arguments lay ahead in the future, Mannin was aware of a different set of contradictions embodied in her dedication of Women and the Revolution to her friend, Emma Goldman. In the opening ‘Dedicatory Letter’ to Goldman, Mannin writes:

There will be those who will no doubt find it paradoxical that a book which quotes from Marx and Lenin and advocates social revolution for the establishment of a Workers’ State along Marxist lines (though not as interpreted by the Stalinist bureaucracy) should be dedicated to you, an Anarchist, and as such opposed to any Centralized State. (np)

She goes on to specify that the difference between herself and Goldman is that rather than see Marxism as inevitably flawed, she still believes in ‘a real dictatorship of the proletariat which would not deteriorate into the dictatorship of a bureaucracy’. Mannin argues that such a free workers’ democracy would become indistinguishable from the ‘Libertarian Society of Anarchism’ advocated by Goldman. But this isn’t just a hypothetical discussion, the possibility of common ground between the two is rooted specifically in the collaboration between the P.O.U.M. and the Anarchist-Syndicalist C.N.T. –F.A.I. in the Spanish Revolution of 1936 (the details of which are best known today to a British readership from Orwell’s Homage to Catalonia [1938]). Therefore, Women and the Revolution is written for a particular political context as a political intervention during a particular moment in which a window of opportunity had opened up (rather like Walter Benjamin’s concept of the Jetztzeit or revolutionary now-time, when it is briefly possible to act outside the normal circumscriptions of tradition and historical weight). However, as Mannin was aware, this window of opportunity was rapidly blinking out of existence:

At the time of writing this (October 1937) the most that can be said is that though the revolution received a severe set-back after the May rising, all is not lost, though the effects of the revolutionaries are yet to be seen. (185)

Her arguments carry a sense of urgency which speaks out of its time – and the now-dated concerns of the respective ‘lines’ of the I.L.P., the Anarchists and the Communist Party – to us today in the midst of the political and cultural crises of 2019. Mannin focuses on the situation of Spanish women, who, under the influence of the Catholic Church, were kept away from public life and within narrowly delineated passive roles. They didn’t have the social freedom of women in England; a fact presented by Mannin as completely outside the norm for modern life. From the beginning of Women and the Revolution, she seeks to establish female emancipation as not just a facet of modern life but the defining feature of modernity, which has come about not just through progress and reform, but through the radical agency and revolutionary activity of women:

 There has been in our time a revolution for women – the revolt of Woman against the oppression of Men, which culminated in the full enfranchisement of women in 1928. … (30)

Therefore, her discussion of the struggle of Mujeres Libres (Free Women), a group backed by the Anarchist trade unions, ‘to emancipate women from the triple slavery of ignorance, traditional passivity and exploitation’ and find new ways for men and women to live and work together without excluding each other, while supporting women nurses, teachers, doctors, artists, chemists and skilled workers, is key to the whole book. The rapid progress of women in revolutionary Spain by the summer of 1937 is attributed to ‘women’s emancipation marching side by side with the revolutionary movement’. However, all these advances are threatened:

. . . since then the Mujeres Libres organisation has been suppressed – part of the work of the counter-revolution which suppressed the P.O.U.M. after the May rising. But nothing short of a Fascist regime can now suppress the feminist movement itself; the women have tasted freedom and will no more tamely retire behind their grills, to be dominated by husbands, fathers, priests, then the women of England retreated from their new found place in commerce, industry, professions, when the [First World] War was finished. (190)

 Viewed from the condescending and often uncritically historicist perspectives that we so often adopt from our present to the past, the struggles of the Women’s Movement before the 1960s and 1970s often seem like merely precursory steps to a modern progressive, feminist consciousness but Mannin makes clear the absolute centrality of these issues to 1937. While the situation in Spain hangs in the balance, the dystopian spectre of what is already happening in Nazi Germany menacingly overshadows the prospects of all European women:

 All that progressive women have worked for for years has been lost. Women professors, doctors, civil servants, have been sacked. Women are no longer eligible for Government posts, and may not be appointed to municipal positions. That women should be displaced in medicine and teaching, two spheres in which women can do such valuable work, seems fantastic, but it is all in line with the Nazi policy of woman’s subservience to male domination. (196-7)

As discussed in my previous post on Mannin’s Confessions and Impressions (the Penguin paperback version of which was another direct intervention in to 1937 British public life), Mannin addresses her readership as sharing a progressive perspective with her but she is not assuming they are an educated or middle-class reader; rather the assumption seems to be that her readership are the same working- and lower-middle-class women readers who read her fiction in large numbers. The implication of her writing is that there is a mass audience for what she has to say and that she is articulating values with a wider social currency. It is difficult, for example, to pigeonhole Mannin as a highbrow writer such as Virginia Woolf and therefore claim she is only speaking for a minority (although we know from the letters Woolf received, that Three Guineas didn’t just speak for a highbrow readership). Rather, Mannin, her books and her readership suggest that the 1930s were a self-consciously modern decade and that the Fascist project to reverse the emancipation of women was seen as just as much of an antiquated, regressive, reactionary backlash as manifestations of Trumpism and related reactionary movements are seen today. It is in this context, that suggestions of a return of the politics of the 1930s are problematic because Fascist or Trumpist politics were not characteristic of the 1930s but were as much an alien intrusion at that time as they are now. A modern, emancipated society was in place and it is the culture and structures of feeling of that society which we should be trying to make links with from the perspective of 2019. Only a mature, feminist public sphere could give rise to all the cultural, social and economic networks necessary to support the publication in 1938 alone of books such as Women and the Revolution, Three Guineas and Naomi Mitchison’s The Moral Basis of Politics. Mannin’s insistence that there has been a revolution for women and her discussion of the Communard Louise Michel (45-50) remain relevant as interventions today and, indeed, can be found in the work of an activist-journalist such as Paul Mason (see Mason 2015: 290; Mason 2019: 283-8).

To be sure, women in 1930s Britain didn’t have the same abortion and divorce rights as they do in the 2010s but Mannin’s discussion of ‘Marriage and Divorce’ (214-227) argues that this is an anachronism resulting from pre-contraceptive and pre-state-support history. Here, her argument is again directed at the mass of working- and lower-middle-class women and can be seen as a continuation of positions advanced in her novels, such as Venetian Blinds (1933):

The Mord divorce had an unsettling effect on the street. Feminism ran riot amongst the women. Mrs. Wray expressed it as her opinion that the time would come when women would be able to get divorces as easily as men; a man could divorce a woman for a single act of adultery, whereas a woman had to prove cruelty as well as adultery; it wasn’t fair, and when women had the Vote the men would have to sit up and take notice; things wouldn’t always be as they were, with the men having it all their own way. It was all very well to laugh at the Suffragettes, but there was more to it, all the same, than smashing shop windows, slashing Academy pictures, and knocking off policemen’s helmets; even her husband admitted that. (Mannin 1933: 71)

This scene is set before the First World War but it is written for a 1930s female readership, who had the vote, and therefore could reasonably expect equalisation of rights in these other areas. But Mannin’s wider point is that only revolutionary change can ultimately achieve full emancipation:

Reforms of one kind and another can do much to make the lives of women freer and easier and happier, but women’s real need is for moral revolution in the society in which she lives, and you cannot get moral revolution by reformist methods; to achieve that the whole of the existing form of society must be smashed and something new fashioned nearer to the heart’s desire. (208)

The deployment of the phrase ‘heart’s desire’ by a writer who was certainly regarded in some contexts as a women’s writer or a romantic novelist is significant here because it privileges desire as a source of agency and a force for change. The epigraph for Mannin’s Confessions and Impressions is Edna St. Vincent Millay’s ‘My candle burns at both ends:/ It will not last the night;/  But ah, my foes, and oh, my friends,/ It gives a lovely light!’ This concept of having it all resonates with what I have described as the post-scarcity emotional economy in Mitchison’s We Have Been Warned: ‘there is no inherent conflict between individual self-realisation and group welfare if the type of society is one which is capable of giving expression to, and support for, a diverse range of identities and relationships’ (Hubble 2017: 20). Both Mannin (225-6, 276-7) and Mitchison use the experience of women in the Soviet Union – despite both having criticisms of that society – as support for the argument that revolutionary change is necessary for women to be able to freely express themselves:

These free, natural women will be beautiful with health and freedom and happiness – can you not see them, with their fine teeth, their natural healthy hair, their strong athletically graceful bodies, their good skins whose loveliness is more than skin-deep? These emancipated women getting the most out of life in both work and play. They are the women of To-morrow, the women of the Revolution. (270)

This remarkable book gives the reader a direct sense of what was at stake in 1937 – and, by implication, what is also at stake in 2019 – and implies that there was no default position by which the social situation of that time could have been somehow preserved. There was only social change or social regression – revolution or reaction – on offer. People understood that in the late 1930s and chose accordingly. Even if we view the 1945 political settlement in Britain as a small ‘c’ conservative resolution of the much wider range of possibilities for social transformation opened in the interwar years, it still marked a society radically different from that of before the War. In Women and the Revolution Mannin frames the social questions confronting ordinary women in the late 1930s in explicitly political terms. Although this book is not anywhere near as overtly self-reflexive (it does include reflections on her own schooling and other acknowledgments of personal experience) as Mannin’s autobiographical and autobiografictional output of the period, it raises questions about the relationship between social change, self-reflexive writing and political consciousness that are central to this project.

Further Reading:

Hubble, Nick. The Proletarian Answer to the Modernist Question, Edinburgh University Press, 2017.

Mannin, Ethel. Confessions and Impressions, Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1937 [1930].

Mannin, Ethel. Venetian Blinds, London: Jarrolds, 1933.

Mannin, Ethel. Women and the Revolution, New York: E.P. Dutton & Co, 1939 [1938].

Mason, Paul. Clear Bright Future: A Radical Defence of the Human Being, London: Allen Lane, 2019.

Mason, Paul, Postcapitalism: A Guide to Our Future. London: Allen Lane, 2015.

Newsinger, John. Hope Lies in the Proles: George Orwell and the Left, London: Pluto Press, 2018.

 Orwell, George. Homage to Catalonia. London: Secker and Warburg, 1938.