M.O. – two of the most famous letters in cultural history. Shortly before W.W.2. a group of university educated southern intellectuals got a team together to study (observe) the lives of ordinary people at work and leisure. What they called an “anthropology of ourselves”. Ordinary people’s lives had hitherto been unrecorded in theatre, film, literature and academic study.
The team included poets and writers, film makers, an anthropologist and an ornothologist. Tom Harrison and Charles Madge “headed up” the group, which also included the Spender brothers and Humphrey Jennings. In Bolton they recruited ninety observers who looked in detail at what people did at work, in the pub, in dance halls and in the streets.
This work led on to the G.P.O. Film Unit and the British Documentary Movement which produced classic films such as Drifter, Night Mail, Spare Time and London Can Take It. Tom Harrison became editor of Picture Post the weekly photographically illustrated magazine that recorded Britain at war.
This all began in the 1930’s. What would it be like in the 21st century to turn a Mass Observation eye on Fortune Green?
1. 8.10. 15th February 2015
A weak smudge of pink over the cemetery. The Christmas trees languish in their cage. Holding my newspaper I sit on a bench. The first dog walkers, two women arrive and make for the cemetery.
2. 8.00. 23rd February 2015
In the dense fog the lights of the nursery light up the arrivals, a father a boy and three girls. The daffodils make tank tracks on the grass.
3. 11.46. 23rd March 2015
A young man hooded and a young woman sit on separate benches. The sun is cold. They are both absorbed in their phones. Two boys and their father fly a remote control plane. a runner from the gym circles the green, then she too sits on a bench.
4. 9.10. 30th August 2015
I say hello to an infant that waves from a backpack. The father greets me, he is the Australian son in law of a neighbour.
5. 19.12. 4th September 2015
On the first bench up from the fountain two young men sit. One is drinking a can of lager the other turning the pages of a colour supplement without reading, the remains of a six pack is on the ground.
6. 11.25. 7th October 2015
An infant is trying to pick up his football but as he bends he is kicking it further away. Near the owl and the fox a man appears to be urinating in the bushes, as I get nearer I see he is holding up a small boy so that he can perform the function.
7. 8.32. 20th January 2016
A grey haired man, blue overcoat and brown shoes walks past the daffodils, turns and from right to left reads the notice board, puts his hands in his pockets and returns around the west side of the Green.
8. 12.00. 29th January 2016
Everything green and raining and cool. I am the only person on the Green, only myself to record then? looking for people I turn and turn again at the crossroads like a dalek. “Exterminate them”, but no one is there.
- Ted Booth
In 1948, ten years after the heyday of M.O. I was at school with Micky Hardy the son of Bert Hardy, Picture Post’s head photographer. Forty years after that I found myself teaching M.O. on a Cultural Studies degree at Middlesex University; though what this has to do with Fortune Green I’m damned if I know.
Scene on the