Saturday, November 9, 2019

Jon Lawrence's "Me, Me, Me?"

Jon Lawrence works on modern British social, cultural, and political history, and is now based at the University of Exeter. He has previously taught at University College, London, the University of Liverpool, Harvard University, and the University of Cambridge. Lawrence has published extensively on British social and political history including Speaking for the People: Party, Language and Popular Politics in England, 1867-1914 (1998) and Electing Our Masters: The Hustings in British Politics from Hogarth to Blair (2009).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Me, Me, Me?: The Search for Community in Post-war England, and reported the following:
From page 69:
[She] clearly took pride in having been a trail blazer for domestic refrigeration, but there is little sense here of competitive one-upmanship. For [Beryl] Watts, private consumption was something to be shared with friends who, like her, strongly identified with the pleasures of making their first home. Peter Willmott’s 1963 study of the massive Dagenham estate on London’s eastern fringe drew similar conclusions, arguing that ‘the process by which one family followed another’s example was the result of friendly endorsement rather than rivalry’, and concluding that ‘in the main people on the estate seem to see their fellows not as adversaries but as allies in a general advance.’

Others challenged the implications of the question more directly. Linda Jones, a hairdresser in her late forties, replied ‘Not really. Most of us have these things but I don’t see where competition comes in’ (note the use of ‘us’ here; in many ways it was a bigger challenge to the researchers’ assumptions than her denial that people were competitive). Mrs Pearce, an Irishwoman in her early thirties, took a different, more personal, tack by replying, ‘For me there’s not. I go out to work. We have them all.’ But arguably her narrower, more individualist, outlook said more about her pride in contributing to the family’s well-being, than about her love of things. Certainly, her explanation of why she voted Labour suggested strong identification with her neighbours: ‘Labour stands for me, and for next door, and for all the people in the street’. Mrs Tufnell, a bricklayer’s wife from Shoreditch tried a different approach, arguing ‘people don’t compete, but they have room now, and they like nice things’, while others simply pointed to practicalities: that young couples moving from furnished rooms to a new three-bed, unfurnished house were bound to need to focus on home-making. Mr and Mrs Bridge were in exactly this situation, having moved to Stevenage as newly-weds in 1956. They tried to explain that paying to furnish their new home was the one down-side of the move: ‘We do get very short at the end of the week. If we didn’t have everything to buy we’d be quite well off really.’ Sadly, the interviewer, almost certainly Samuel, wasn’t listening – having noted that all their furniture was new (was there even much choice about this in late-1950s Stevenage?), he commented: ‘pattern of mass media imposed misery’. It was the New Left’s ‘false wants’ thesis about the corrosive effects of ‘affluence’ reduced to a soundbite. It seems unlikely that the Bridges would have concurred.

Many people resented the suggestion that they (or their neighbours) only wanted things because others had them. Margaret Richardson, a housewife in her late twenties, insisted that ‘everyone wants them regardless of the neighbours’, and Kevin Burnaby, a maintenance fitter originally from Cornwall, replied ‘If they can afford it they get it. [They] used to be a luxury but now they’re necessities’.
In many ways this page does get to the heart of the book’s central theme in that it showcases the rich insights to be gained from re-reading historic social-science testimony ‘against the grain’. Me, Me, Me? explores how people made sense of rapid social and cultural change in England in the decades after the Second World War; how they acted as sociologists of their own lives, and how these vernacular understandings of change often challenged the preconceptions of expert observers. In short, it analyses how people sought to reconcile the competing claims of self and society across seven decades marked by rapid technological, economic and cultural change.

In this extract, the focus is on the culture wars over mass consumption in late-fifties Britain. The page discusses how residents of Stevenage New Town responded to being asked a decidedly leading question about their consumption habits: ‘Do you think there is much competition between neighbours over washing-machines, T.V. sets, refrigerators and so on here?’. This survey was conducted in the immediate aftermath of the Conservative Party’s landslide victory at the 1959 election. Prosperous southern English towns like Stevenage had swung heavily towards the Conservatives, and many on the Left became convinced that the rising prosperity associated with the ‘affluent society’, represented a fundamental challenge to the nation’s post-45 social democratic settlement. The field-work in Stevenage was conducted by the young historian and New Left intellectual Raph Samuel on behalf of the Institute of Community Studies. In an article published in the first issue of New Left Review, Samuel ended up using the survey’s findings to argue against narrowly economic explanations for the Conservatives’ 1959 victory, but, as we see here, this did not mean that he found it easy to understand working-class respondents’ practical responses to the emerging consumer society. Both the survey’s original question, and the parenthesised comment about ‘mass media imposed misery’ signal an inability to imagine the practical challenges facing young couples suddenly transported from cramped furnished rooms to a spacious new family home deep in the Hertfordshire countryside (and hence far from friends and family). More broadly, it was absurd to equate wanting a refrigerator with anything other than wanting a) to store food safely, and b) not to have to make a trip to the shops every day when there was no longer a shop on every street corner. Researchers assumed that suburban living meant atomisation, status anxiety and competitive consumption, but Beryl Watts saw things differently. On the previous page readers hear her telling Samuel’s researcher: ‘When I got my fridge the whole street came to look at it, and now they’ve all got one’. In 1959, self and society remained indivisible in vernacular accounts of the new consumerism.
Learn more about Me, Me, Me? at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue