Austerity Britain: the way we were

Austerity Britain: the way we were

I’ve embarked upon the history of my time.  David Kynaston’s Austerity Britain is the first in a planned history of post-war Britain that begins on VE Day in 1945 and will finally close in 1979 with the election of Margaret Thatcher. I was born in 1948, so Kynaston’s remarkable project almost exactly mirrors the years of my birth, schooling, university student life, and entry into the workforce as a college teacher in the 1970s. Kynaston is a contemporary, born in 1951, the year in which this first volume ends.

Reading Austerity Britain is quite different to reading more conventional histories of a particular period.  Although Kynaston deals with the full range of topics you might expect from a social or political history, he is less concerned with the political manoeuvrings between or within parties than with trying to capture the feel of daily life as experienced by individuals of all social classes, drawing upon sources, many of which give voice to the anonymous majority who go unrecorded by the histories. Continue reading “Austerity Britain: the way we were”

Art Turning Left: a doctoral thesis on the gallery walls

Art Turning Left: a doctoral thesis on the gallery walls

Je participe

Je participe … Ills profitent: Atelier Populaire poster, Paris, May 1968

Visiting Art Turning Left, the current exhibition at Tate Liverpool, feels more like being asked to read a doctoral thesis that has done its darnedest to impress by referencing a wide range of esoteric sources alongside the obvious ones.  The exhibition subtitle – How Values Changed Making 1789-2013 – provides a hint that this will not simply be a display of left-wing art, rather that it is more concerned with questions about how socialist artists have tried (and still try) to change the way art is made and distributed in order to match their political and ethical principles.  A fair amount of the art on display is of dubious merit, some of it ephemera of only historical interest or curiosity value.  Nevertheless, there is much here to stimulate and intrigue.

Reinforcing the sense of attending a seminar, the exhibition (actually co-curated with Liverpool John Moores University) is not arranged chronologically, but thematically – divided into several sections that each begin with a question. The primary purpose of the art on display is to illustrate seven existential and philosophical questions about the relationship of art (and the artists who make it) to the struggle to change capitalist society.

At the outset the curators identify three core values common to left-wing ideologies: the belief in equality rather than hierarchy, the quest for social progress over the status quo, and the conviction that the benefits of collectivism and solidarity outweigh the advantages of competitive individualism.  The purpose of Art Turning Left is to explore how these values have affected the way that artists committed to them have approached the way in which they make their work.

So … let’s begin the seminar.

Banner for The Worker’s Union -  Solidarity of Labour, after Walter Crane c. 1898

Installation view: banner for The Worker’s Union, Holloway branch, ‘Solidarity of Labour’, after a design by Walter Crane, c 1898

Can art affect everyone?

Can art really be for everyone? The first thing you see as you enter the exhibition is an installation – dominated by a huge trade union banner – that suggests possible answers to this question.  Like the rest of the exhibition it creates incongruous juxtapositions of media, time and place.  Francesco Manacorda, artistic director of Art Turning Left, has explained how this particular installation attempts to show how the value of equality has led artists to utilise approaches like the:

Extraordinary use of public space (such as in the reproduction of Walter Crane’s images on union banners), by bringing art to a larger group of ‘users’ (for instance in the Bauhaus’ use of industrial production …), or using live performance and publications to stimulate the viewer as an active reader of art, as with Bertold Brecht’s theatre and poetry.

Walter Crane, whose design Solidarity of Labour’ is incorporated in the banner for The Worker’s Union that dominates the opening installation, was born in Liverpool and was famous in the late 19th century for his illustrations for children’s story books.  But he also illustrated socialist pamphlets and produced political cartoons for publications such as The Clarion.  Like his friend William Morris he was a member of the Arts and Crafts Movement.

Walter Crane, Solidarity of Labour, 1889

Walter Crane, International Solidarity of Labour, 1889

Crane used his art for the advancement of socialist values and placed it at the service of the trade union movement.  Crane’s design ‘International Solidarity of Labour‘, depicting workers of all continents united, was adopted as a symbol of international unity and the power of collective action, and – until the onset of war in 1914 – was incorporated widely into trade union banners, such as the one displayed here.

Bertolt Brecht is well known for his theatrical technique of alienation, designed to encourage the theatre-goer to become an active participant rather than a passive viewer of a stage spectacle. Alongside examples on video, this installation also features from several collages from The War Primer,  a work which Brecht compiled during World War 2 and published in 1955. As in the theatre, Brecht aims to break the illusion of a standard photo collection by juxtaposing war photographs with poetry and captions that encourage readers to do more than glance at the images and to reflect on the brutality of war and its connection to capitalism.

Brecht Liverpool

Bertolt Brecht: collage from ‘The War Primer’

Among the selection from ‘The War Primer’ the curators have aptly chosen one collage in which Brecht has combined a photo of Liverpool, presumably taken from a German bomber during the wartime raids on the city.  The caption reads: ‘Liverpool harbour, England’s second biggest, is well-known to be the target of many German aerial bombardments and took many direct hits.  This photograph gives a clear picture of the harbour – the smoke at the top shows that it has just been visited by German bombers’. Beneath photo and caption, Brecht has added a few lines of poetry:

I am a city, but soon I shan’t be –
Where generations used to live and die
Before those deadly birds flew in to haunt me:
One thousand years to build.
A Fortnight to destroy.

Next to the Brecht we find examples of the work of the Modernist graphic designer, Gerd Arntz who was a leading member of the Gruppe progressiver Kunstler Koln (the Cologne Progressives), a radical group of artists who were active in the Weimar years.

Gerd Arntz, The Third Reich, 1934

Gerd Arntz, The Third Reich, 1934

The Cologne Progressives were active in communist trade unions, making prints and posters (usually from woodcuts or linocuts) that promoted worker’s revolution by calling for workers to abandon parliament and form worker’s councils.  Their goal was to use art at the service of the revolution, and to that end Arntz and his fellow artists invented a visual language able to communicate ideas visually to everyone, avoiding art elitism and designed for mass distribution.

Later, in collaboration with Austrian sociologist Otto Neurath, Arntz developed Isotype, a universal, transnational visual language of repeatable pictograms that could be used to address issues such as social inequality, exploitation and war – the forerunner of modern infographics.

The Third Reich is a prophetic vision of the Nazi regime then in its infancy. Hitler is at the top of a pyramid, above capitalists, military and judges. At a lower level, SA guard the concentration camps and employees work in armaments factories where the Communists are trying to inform them. Produced in 1934, Arntz said of the print:

The fact that the whole composition is a bit crooked, gives a ‘falling’ impression, is on purpose. The Third Reich wouldn’t last very long, I thought then.

Several examples are displayed from Society and Economy, a series Gerd Arntz worked on with Otto Neurath from  1925 to 1949.  In Strikes, against an abstract background of factories, raised red fists illustrate the post-war strike statistics for Great Britain, France and Germany.

Gerd Arntz, Strikes, 1930

Gerd Arntz, Strikes, 1930

In the photo of this installation (above) a gigantic photo of a man’s face stares out across the room.  This is an image from a series made in the 1970s by Braco Dimitrjevic called Casual Passer By.  The artist took photos of anonymous people which were then enlarged to monumental proportions and displayed in public places, such as on hoarding on public buildings.  The idea was to give the common man a status normally accorded to celebrities of historical figures, and to highlight the fickle nature of a society which glorifies famous people.

Braco Dimitrijevic, Casual Passer By, displayed at Trinity College Dublin, 2011

Braco Dimitrijevic, Casual Passer By, displayed at Trinity College Dublin, 2011

Do we need to know who makes art?

Now here’s something I recall well! A left-wing student at Liverpool University at the same time as the May events in Paris in 1968, I was enthralled by the posters that came out of Atelier Populaire, established by art students and protesters in the Ecole des Beaux Arts on 16 May with the aim of producing bold, uncompromising graphic art that expressed the defiance of workers and students whose protests seemed to bringing France to the point of revolution.

Atelier 2

A display of Atelier Populaire poster art

Hundreds of silkscreen posters – ‘weapons in the service of the struggle’ – were created anonymously and distributed for free. No one was allowed to sign the work and the gallery was the street where the posters were pasted for everyone to see. This was self-consciously art produced collectively rather than by a single person. The Atelier promoted the principle that everyone could come and produce art work. The silkscreen machines were there for everyone to use to express themselves.

Atelier 1

A display of Atelier Populaire poster art

Just two years later, in our own struggle against Liverpool University’s links to South African apartheid, we used the same methods as the Atelier to get our message across.

Can art infiltrate everyday life?

This question is one that is uppermost in the minds of revolutionaries, especially after they have achieved power.  In an ironic parallel to the utilisation of artists in the service of consumer advertising in capitalist society, the curators offer a response from avant-garde artists in post-revolutionary Russia. I must admit that Productivism was an ism that I hadn’t previously heard about – a movement of artists who advocated the move of ‘art into life’, arguing that the role of the artist was not to paint or sculpt, but to play an active role as co-workers in the factories helping to build a new world by designing objects which could be easily manufactured and which had a practical use in everyday life.

One such artist was Aleksandr Rodchenko who, in 1921, went into partnership with the futurist poet Vladimir Mayakovsky to offer what was, in effect, the services of an advertising consultancy to state enterprises suddenly facing competition from private enterprises that Lenin, in a reversal of Bolshevik policy triggered by food shortages and famine, had announced in the New Economic Policy.

Rodchenko and Mayakovsky designed posters or packaging for products such as cigarettes, bread, sweets and biscuits. Against those who condemned advertising as irredeemably capitalist, Mayakovsky argued that ‘it is necessary to employ all the weapons used by our enemies’. One example is displayed here: the design for an advertisement for the Moscow agricultural industry cafeteria, produced in 1923.

Aleksandr Rodchenko

Aleksandr Rodchenko, design for an advertisement for the Moscow agricultural industry cafeteria 1923

A more interesting example of Rodchenko’s work was a series of posters illustrating the history of the Bolshevik party, incorporating archival images, excerpts from newspapers and other documents. Rather than imposing an overarching narrative, Rodchenko’s design encouraged viewers to immerse themselves in the historical material, sift the evidence and make their own assessment.

Curiously, though there many examples in the exhibition of artworks from the early years of the Soviet Union, the curators have made no mention of the fate of many of the avant-garde artists who at first enthusiastically supported the revolution.  No mention, for instance, that towards the end of the 1920s, Mayakovsky became increasingly disillusioned with the course the Soviet Union was taking under Stalin, finally killing himself in 1930.

Alexander Rodchenko, History of the VKP(b), 1926

Alexander Rodchenko, History of the VKP(b), 1926

Does participation deliver equality?

If the ideal of creating art anonymously and collectively represents the rejection of the romantic and bourgeois notion that art is the the product of individual genius and self-expression, it follows that projects which encourage the widest participation in the process of making art must represent a means of achieving that ideal.  Art Turning Left offers several examples of schemes from different times and situations that have pursued this goal – not all of them convincing.  There is William Morris rejecting of mechanised production and establishing methods of  producing beautiful things such as textiles and wallpapers which avoided worker alienation by fusing craft values and artistry with modern production techniques. And there’s the Worker Photography Movement which mobilised amateur worker-photographers to document the social evils of capitalism in the 1930s.

Art Turning Left offers several other examples of schemes that have aimed to widen public participation in the making of art. Judge for yourself how convincing they are.

Deller 1

Display of examples from Folk Archive, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, 2000-2006

Folk Archive is a mixed media presentation from an archive compiled over six years by Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane documenting ‘the rich and varied visual culture that exists in the UK outside of the art world which would not normally be seen in a gallery context’. Items displayed here are from the sections of the archive relating to Home, Performance and Politics, and include graffiti, painted eggs, costumes for village festivals and protest images. The central banner was made by Ed Hall who made banners in his garage during the 1980s for trade unions and political protests.

Folk Archive was acquired by the British Council in 2007 and has been made accessible to the public in the form of a self-contained touring exhibition and through an online virtual exhibition.

Jukebox

Ruth Ewen A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, 2011

Ruth Ewan’s installation, A Jukebox of People Trying to Change the World, consists of  a jukebox that contains an ongoing archive of protest and political songs.  It is presented as a participatory work in that visitors are invited to browse through the pages of the index and select and play the music of their choice (!) while, in addition, Ewan  welcomes suggestions for songs to be added to the collection.

Jukebox 2

There’s a lady plays her favourite records
On the jukebox every day.
All day long she plays the same old songs,
And she believes the things they say. (The Kinks)

Arranged in categories such as, poverty, feminism, peace, civil rights, ecology and slavery are songs by a wide range of performers from different cultures and traditions. All of the songs address social issues, some directly political and related to specific subjects or events, whilst others are vaguely utopian or carry a universal message. Ewan describes her practice as being ‘conceptually led but socially realised’  with ‘audience participation and engagement’ playing an important part in the creation of her work.

As for me – I can’t see the difference between this and me making a playlist for my mp3 player and, like countless others, sharing it via social media.

My Room

 My Room, 1982, created at the Black-E community arts centre

My Room was created at Liverpool’s Black-E community arts centre in 1982 inspired by Virginia Woolf’s essay A Room of One’s Own, and begun during a week long celebration of the centenary of Woolf’s birth.  Over the next six months, participants were invited to pick a space and create something to place in it which said, ‘This is my room!’

Hmmm… But then, I think, as I sceptically inspect this object, it was never intended to be an exhibit in an art gallery.  The same is true for a great many of the other exhibits here: their authors did not intend their work to be displayed in this way – indeed, in many cases, utterly rejected the idea on political grounds.  Which is what makes this exhibition such a curious experience, the thought constantly occurring that it would have made a better book.

Morris

William Morris, Rose and Thistle textile design, 1881

Can pursuing equality change how art is made?

From those pretty questionable examples, we move on to a more convincing set of exhibits that explore schemes to create equality of access to the means of artistic production and thereby increase the agency of ordinary people.

We’re on firm artistic ground with William Morris.  But, lest we forget, Morris was a Marxist and revolutionary. In How I Became a Socialist he wrote:

What I mean by Socialism is a condition of society in which there should be neither rich nor poor, neither master nor master’s man, neither idle nor overworked, neither brain-sick brain workers, nor heart-sick hand workers, in a word, in which all men would be living in equality of condition, and would manage their affairs unwastefully, and with the full consciousness that harm to one would mean harm to all—the realization at last of the meaning of the word COMMONWEALTH.

Morris believed that the most critical problem in capitalist society was the alienation of workers caused by the division of labour.  Who can gain any pleasure from work if it involves the endless repetition of the same monotonous movements? How can a worker feel any sense of pride in the job if they have no sense of how their actions contribute to the final product?  Who can feel other than cheated when the wage the boss pays isn’t enough to buy the thing you’ve helped to manufacture?

I accounted the greatest of all evils, the heaviest of all slaveries, that evil of the greater part of the population being engaged for by far the most part of their lives in work, which at the best cannot interest them, or develop their best faculties, and at the worst (and that is the commonest, too) is mere unmitigated slavish toil, only to be wrung out of them by the sternest compulsion, a toil which they shirk all they can– small blame to them. And this toil degrades them into less than men: and they will some day come to know it, and cry out to be made men again, and art only can do it, and redeem them from this slavery; and I say once more that this is her highest and most glorious end and aim; and it is in her struggle to attain to it that she will most surely purify herself, and quicken her own aspirations towards perfection.
– William Morris, Hopes and Fears for Art, 1880

From the 1860s, Morris, at first in partnership with Ford Madox Brown, Edward Burne-Jones, Dante Gabriel Rossetti and others, established his own company to create and sell hand-crafted stained glass, carving, furniture, wallpaper, carpets and tapestries.  On display here is Rose and Thistle, a hand-printed design on cotton from 1881, and a wallpaper sample book from 1905, along with printing blocks.

The Morris Company was organised so that artists and craftsmen could work together with a common purpose, with every employee fulfilling their potential according to their level of ability.  Morris explained the political thought that underpinned Morris & Co in How I Became a Socialist:

The love and practice of art forced me into a hatred of the civilization which, if things were to stop as they are, would turn history into inconsequent nonsense, and make art a collection of the curiosities of the past, which would have no serious relation to the life of the present.

But the consciousness of revolution stirring amidst our hateful modern society prevented me, luckier than many others of artistic perceptions, from crystallizing into a mere railer against ‘progress’ on the one hand, and on the other from wasting time and energy in any of the numerous schemes by which the quasi-artistic of the middle classes hope to make art grow when it has no longer any root, and thus I became a practical Socialist. […]

Perhaps some … will say, what have we to do with these matters of history and art? We want by means of Social-Democracy to win a decent livelihood, we want in some sort to live, and that at once. Surely any one who professes to think that the question of art and cultivation must go before that of the knife and fork (and there are some who do propose that) does not understand what art means, or how that its roots must have a soil of a thriving and unanxious life. Yet it must be remembered that civilization has reduced the workman to such a skinny and pitiful existence, that he scarcely knows how to frame a desire for any life much better than that which he now endures perforce. It is the province of art to set the true ideal of a full and reasonable life before him, a life to which the perception and creation of beauty, the enjoyment of real pleasure that is, shall be felt to be as necessary to man as his daily bread, and that no man, and no set of men, can be deprived of this except by mere opposition, which should be resisted to the utmost.

Morris’s ‘true ideal’ was set forth in the utopian vision of  News From Nowhere, the novel written by Morris and initially published by his Kelmscott Press in 1893.  There’s a copy here, open at the frontispiece to display its woodblock title page, ornamental lettering and typeface.

NFN Morris

News From Nowhere, Kelmscott Press edition, 1893

The Worker Photography Movement began in Germany and the USSR in the early 1930s before spreading across Europe and the United States.  The movement spread through Communist-affiliated groups, and encouraged worker-photographers to expose, in a ‘hard and merciless light’, the iniquities and social ills of capitalism:

Photography has become an outstanding and indispensable means of propaganda in the revolutionary class struggle.

AIZ Magazine, 1931

AIZ Magazine, no 38, 1931: 24 Hours in the life of a family working in Moscow

The display presents examples, from Germany and the United States, of the kinds of photo essays which the movement’s worker-photographers produced.  They reminded me of some of the best of the photo spreads in Picture Post magazine in the 1940s and early 1950s.  I’d like to see more of this work.

How can art speak with a collective voice?

The curators respond to this question with examples of projects which have sought to express or document the collective experience, rather than that of the individual.  The best-known example is that of Mass Observation, the British movement of the 1930s which aimed to produce a collective picture of British society which was ‘of the people, by the people, and for the people’. The pioneering social survey organization was founded by Tom Harrison, Charles Madge and Humphrey Jennings (who compiled Pandaemonium, the documentary history of the Industrial Revolution that, decades later, was the inspiration behind Opening Ceremony for the London Olympic Games, crafted by Danny Boyle and Frank Cottrell Boyce) with the aim of producing an anthropology of the British people and giving a voice to the under-privileged and often ignored working classes.

On show here is documentation from the project which among a wide variety of methodologies, asked people to keep diaries of their daily routines, and employed teams of anthropological observers instructed to observe behaviours such as:

the behaviour of people at war memorials; shouts and gestures of motorists; the aspidistra cult; bathroom behaviour; beards, armpits and eyebrows; anti-Semitism; the distribution of the dirty joke; female taboos about eating….

Humphrey Spender, This is Your Photo, 1937

Humphrey Spender, This is Your Photo, 1937

There are examples of the photographs which Humphrey Spender took in Bolton for Mass Observation, including one of chalked graffiti in a wall, entitled This Is Your Photo. Mass Observation was interested in graffiti because it could be seen as a type of primitive art.

Then there are a couple of the paintings made by Julian Trevelyan while he was working for Mass Observation in Bolton.  Trevelyan was the first artist to be recruited by Mass Observation in 1937. In Bolton Trevelyan recorded his observations of ordinary people going about their lives in photographs, water-colours and collage. In his autobiography, he recalled carrying with him a suitcase of scraps and magazines, scissors and glue to his chosen site. He would work on the spot, battling with the elements and often attracting attention of inquisitive passers-by.

Rubbish May be Shot Here 1937 by Julian Trevelyan 1910-1988

Julian Trevelyan, Rubbish May be Shot Here, 1937

The locals commented that he had caught the mood of current anti-litter campaigns in Rubbish May be Shot Here and accurately conveyed ‘the worker versus royalty feeling’ of Coronation year.  Most of the cut-out heads in this collage are taken from newspaper photographs of the coronation or represent successive generations of the royal family. The smiling child, however, is taken from a Shredded Wheat advertisement captioned ‘the food for general fitness’.  Trevelyan contributed three paintings to the International Surrealist Exhibition in London 1936, and this collage follows the classic surrealist technique of combining different realities. Rubbish May be Shot Here is, the curators suggest, ‘revolutionary in both form and content: hierarchies are subverted, pomp and pageantry ridiculed.

Office of Useful Art

The Office of Useful Art: rules to live by

In an adjacent small room is the Office of Useful Art which I learn promotes the new movement of Arte Util or Useful Art. The Office is not an art installation but a working room that acts as part of a long term campaign to develop a renewed understanding of art, as a process that plays a fundamental role in shaping the world; that has a real effect in peoples lives. The project is a collaboration with Grizedale Arts, based in the Lake District, and Liverpool John Moores University – part of a five year project with the Internationale Confederation of European Museums.  The Office will function as a recruitment centre for the Association de Arte Util (Association of Useful Art), with the aim of developing an active community of people committed to art that works to effect change and is valued for what it does.

Are there ways to distribute art differently?

In her review for the Observer, Laura Cumming notes that Art Turning Left ‘asks whether art can find alternative distribution systems outside the market and gallery circuit, and then presents a wall of almost parodically obscure artist-run newspapers as if this was any kind of answer’.

True, but that frustrating room also contains the exhibition’s one true masterpiece which is presented also as a convincing historical answer to the question, ‘Are there ways to distribute art differently?’

David, Marat

Jacques-Louis David and studio, The Death of Marat, 1793. ‘n’ayant pu me corrompre ils m’ont assassine’: ‘they could not bribe me, they murdered me’.

Painted in the months after Marat’s murder, David’s work has been described as the first modernist painting, for the way it ‘took the stuff of politics as its material, and did not transmute it’.

Not by pleasing the eye do works of art accomplish their purpose. The demand now is for examples of heroism and civic virtues which will electrify the soul of the people and arouse in them devotion to the fatherland.
– Jacques Louis David

Created in response to the murder of the uncompromising political theorist and journalist Jean-Paul Marat in 1793, David’s painting became an iconic image of the French revolution. With the artist’s permission, the painting was copied in oil and reproduced in engravings that were distributed throughout the land. It is probable that the painting on display in the Tate is one of the copies, and examples of the engravings made of Marat’s head are shown alongside.

Welcome

The Tate welcomes fellow socialists!

Seminar over and with my brain screaming, ‘Enough!’, I made my way down to the foyer where I noticed the Tate’s welcome sign. Has it been adapted specially for this show – or has it always had this radical edge?  A relaxing lunch followed, and then I went to one of the film screenings that accompanies this exhibition.  It was Jonah Who Will Be 25 in the Year 2000, directed by Alain Tanner and scripted by Tanner and John Berger in 1975.  I hadn’t seen the film  – which follows eight key characters, all in their twenties or thirties, and affected  in some way by the events of May 1968 – since it first came out.  But – more about that in my next post.

See also

Queueing for Beginners: ‘the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up’

Queueing for Beginners: ‘the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up’

People queuing for the cinema.

In 1973, Georges Perec wrote, ‘What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front page splash, the banner headlines…The daily papers talk of everything except the daily …We sleep through our lives in a dreamless sleep.’  Joe Moran’s book Queueing for Beginners, which I’ve just read, aims to wake us from that sleep, to gaze awhile at (again, in Perec’s words) ‘the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual’.

Joe Moran is Professor of English and Cultural History at Liverpool John Moores University who researches and writes extensively on the mundane aspects of daily life, especially British everyday life from the mid-twentieth century until the present day.  I discovered Joe’s writing when I stumbled upon his excellent blog, aptly described by his colleague Professor Roger Webster as ‘entertaining, erudite, whimsical, and encyclopaedic’, dazzling in its breadth of subject matter and the range of media he draws upon.  He’s published several books and also writes columns for the New Statesman, Guardian and Financial Times.

Queueing cover

Queuing for Beginners – subtitled ‘The Story of Daily Life from Breakfast to Bedtime’ – follows the daily routine of an ordinary British day, bringing into focus the humdrum and the overlooked: the patterns of daily routine where change happens, but with imperceptible slowness, so that we hardly notice the small changes that can end up transforming our lives.  We rarely give much thought to activities like working at office desks, sitting in meeting rooms, eating ready meals, flipping through the TV channels with the remote control.  These things are all part of what the German critic Siegfried Kracauer (quoted here by Moran) calls ‘a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone’.

The silence of daily life can be deafening, writes Moran. The very nature of habits and routines, activities repeated again and again, makes it hard to think of them in historical terms. Daily life seems to be the way things have always been, and always will be. By excavating the meaning and origins of daily behaviours, Moran is following in the tradition of Mass-Observation, the project begun in 1937 when Tom Harrisson (anthropologist and ornithologist), Humphrey Jennings (painter and film-maker) and Charles Madge (poet and Daily Mirror journalist) invited volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, which they called an ‘anthropology at home’. They were keen to develop what they called ‘a science of ourselves’.  Joe Moran has said of Mass-Observation that:

They hoped that their investigators would develop some new insights into subjects such as: ‘[The] behaviour of people at war memorials … Shouts and gestures of motorists … Anthropology of football pools … Beards, armpits, eyebrows … Female taboos about eating’.

Thanks to Mass-Observation, he writes, we have some idea of what it was like to smoke a cigarette or drink beer in a pub in the 193os and 1940s. But, he continues, we don’t know much about how those habits changed from the 1950s to the present; his aim in this book is to try to unravel ‘a sort of alternative history of post-war Britain – one that does for habits and routines what other historians have done for more momentous political, social or lifestyle changes’.

The way that Moran has chosen to organise his findings is to focus on the pattern of the banal during the course of the day – the daily grind, or what Parisians call ‘metro, boulot, dodo’ (commuting, working, sleeping). He notes that writers have for a long time used the structure of the day to paint a kaleidoscopic picture of society and look again at neglected areas of everyday life: from Charles Dickens, with his chronological accounts of a morning and night of London street life in Sketches by Boz, to  20th century milestones like James Joyce’s Ulysses and Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway, novelists have use the structure of a single day ‘to juxtapose the profound and the banal, the weightiest matters of life and death with the most trivial quotidian detail’.  In the structure of a single day, everything receives roughly the same amount of attention – however dull or boring it might at first seem. Moran’s book similarly uses the pattern of a single day to explore the history of everyday life:

Some of these routines would be immediately familiar to anyone alive at the end of the Second World War: having breakfast (although they would be horrified by our propensity to skip it or skimp on it), commuting (although they didn’t call it that) and queuing (although it took up much more of their time, and the queuing barriers and recorded voices announcing ‘cashier number one, please’ would have seemed like sci-fi inventions). Other habits – checking emails, watching telly, eating ready meals – would be almost entirely new and strange to them, but they might detect some residue of older social habits even in these activities.

In Queueing for Beginners, Moran investigates the uninteresting events that unfolded yesterday and the days before that across Britain:

Millions of people woke up and had instant coffee and a cereal bar for breakfast. They all rushed for the train and stood pressed up against each other in a crowded carriage. They all arrived at the office, went to their desks and spent the morning there, occasionally getting up to go to the photocopier or the staff kitchen for a gossip. At lunchtime, they all stood in the queue at the bank, then they all bought a sandwich and came back to eat it at their desks. They all checked their emails, and then nipped outside for a smoke. They all had to attend a boring staff meeting. At half past five, they all walked out of the office, weaving in between the rush~hour traffic. They all had a quick, after-work drink with each other, then they all went home and stuck a ready meal in the microwave. They all ate it on the sofa while zapping through the television channels. After they had all watched the late-night weather forecast, they all went upstairs, tucked themselves up in bed and drifted off to sleep. Nothing out of the ordinary happened…

Britain by Mass Observation published 1938
Britain by Mass Observation published 1938

Moran’s interest in the unobserved and banal was piqued whilst studying for a DPhil at Sussex University, where he stumbled across the Mass-Observation Archive.  On a more mundae level, Moran has credited his interest in taking note of what normally goes unnoticed to the I-Spy booklets he consumed as a young boy. Quoting the geographer Doreen Massey, Moran says that despite every generation’s emphasis on change, much of life for many people ‘still consists of waiting in a bus shelter with your shopping for a bus that never comes’. He describes himself as ‘trying to find a critical language to talk about these empty, purposeless moments of daily life, filled with activities such as commuting and office routines, that we generally take for granted but that take up so much of our lives’. Ultimately, his focus on the banal suggests a serious idea: that ‘anything might be interesting if we look carefully at it’.  There are parallels here with the recent interest in the similarly unnoticed edgelands, described by Paul Farley and Michael Symmons Roberts in their recent book as a ‘zone of inattention’ and a ‘richly mysterious region in our midst’ which is both interesting and strangely beautiful.

George Perec

The spirit that pervades Queueing for Beginners is that of Mass-Observation – and of Georges Perec who in 1973, five years before the appearance of his defining novel Life: a User’s Manual and nine years before his death, wrote an essay called ‘Approaches to What?’, in which he remonstrated against the neglect of life’s ordinary things:

What speaks to us, seemingly, is always the big event, the untoward, the extra-ordinary: the front-page splash, the banner headlines. Railway trains only begin to exist when they are derailed, and the more passengers that are killed, the more the trains exist. Aeroplanes achieve existence only when they are hijacked. The one and only destiny of motor-cars is to drive into trees. [ …]

The daily newspapers talk of everything except the daily. The papers annoy me, they teach me nothing. What they recount doesn’t concern me, doesn’t ask me questions and doesn’t answer the questions I ask or would like to ask. What’s really going on, what we’re experiencing, the rest, all the rest, where is it? How should we take account of, question, describe what happens every day and recurs everyday: the banal, the quotidian, the obvious, the common, the ordinary, the infra-ordinary, the background noise, the habitual?

Queueing for Beginners is endlessly fascinating and, for those who have trudged through the days of more than a few decades, will reawaken many lost memories of the trivia that has filled the days: free gifts in cereal packets, Vesta curries, green-man, panda and pelican crossings, fax machines, three-piece suites, prawn cocktail sandwiches, Watney’s Red Barrel, theme pubs, teletext and TV remotes, and meetings structured around Powerpoint bullet points (in the index, under ‘meetings’, the first sub-entry is ‘bullshit’).

Somewhere along the way, Moran quotes Siegfried Kracauer as declaring:

We must rid ourselves of the delusion that it is major events which most determine a person. He is more deeply and lastingly influenced by the tiny catastrophes of which everyday existence is made up.

See also