Introduction: the infra-ordinary
‘There are more truths in twenty-four hours of a man’s life than in all the philosophies.’ – Raoul Vaneigem[i]
On Friday 12 March 1937, a series of uninteresting events unfolded across Britain. In Liverpool, a young office worker accidentally knocked down an elderly woman on his bike, and a labourer told him off for not ringing his bell. He went out at lunchtime to buy a hat for his wedding, and then ate at a Lyons Corner House with a friend. In a Birmingham suburb, a housewife was awakened from a strange dream about the author Aldous Huxley by her five-year-old son singing nursery rhymes. She waited for a man to call to read the gas meter, before going out to return some library books. In Northumberland, an accountant rose at 7.50am and decided to postpone shaving because he was going to a dance in the evening. At lunchtime he withdrew some money from the bank. On the evening train home, he noticed his fellow passengers had made little circles in the steamed-up windows with their coat sleeves so they could look out, which reminded him off ‘wiping the bloom off a plum’.[ii]
Riding a bike to work, going for lunch, waiting in for the gasman, taking back library books, neglecting to shave, commuting on trains. These banal, unconnected events – familiar even to our 21st-century eyes – had one thing in common. The people who lived through them all recorded them in their ‘day surveys,’ in which they simply described what happened to them on the twelfth day of each month, however mundane. It was part of a project called Mass-Observation, which investigated the hidden significance of people’s routine lives. This project began in January 1937, when three young men – Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge – wrote a joint letter to the New Statesman, inviting volunteers to co-operate in a new research project, an ‘anthropology at home’.[iii] Harrisson had spent a year with a tribal community in Malekula in the western Pacific, where he found that cannibals were at least as civilised as his fellow Old Harrovians, and he vowed to apply the insights he had acquired there to a study of ‘the cannibals of Lancashire, the head-hunters of Stepney’.[iv]
Mass-Observation wanted to thwart the tendency in modern mass society to live our daily lives deadened by habit, ‘with as little consciousness of our surroundings as though we were walking in our sleep’.[v] It soon became notorious for paying minute attention to apparently trifling topics. Its researchers counted the average number of chips in each portion at Bolton fish and chip shops; recorded the conversations taking place in Blackpool’s public lavatories at 5.30pm each day; and wrote reports on ‘The application of face cream’ and ‘Upper and middle-class soup-eating habits’. And they combined a voracious thirst for arcane knowledge with an ingenious approach to research methodology. A researcher in Bolton, for instance, took the subject of one of his investigations to the pictures, and ended up making love with her in a shop doorway[vi] – a form of participant-observation not generally recommended in scholarly anthropology. But while the press dismissed them as ‘busy-bodies,’ ‘snoopers’ and ‘psycho-anthropologic nosey-parkers,’[vii] Mass-Observation captured the public imagination. Thousands of people signed up as volunteers, and one of its early books, Britain (1939), sold 100,000 copies in the ten days after publication.[viii]
Why did Mass-Observation have such an intense impact? The main reason, I think, is that it is very rare to explore routine daily life in this detailed, ambitious way – to shine what one atypically appreciative newspaper article called ‘a searchlight on living’.[ix] For this is a world that we normally regard as too prosaic to be worthy of notice. The French author, Georges Perec, calls it the ‘infra-ordinary’: that part of our lives that is so routine as to become almost invisible, like infra-red light.[x] Perec spent his whole career trying to make the ‘infra-ordinary’ more visible by lavishing it with the kind of painstaking attention we normally reserve for earth-shattering events and grand passions. His book, Species of Spaces (1974), simply lists all the objects he can see in his apartment and neighbourhood. He urges his readers to do the same with the contents of their own lives, looking afresh at how streets are named, houses are numbered and cars are parked – and not to worry about whether these subjects have some pre-agreed significance. But this kind of research project is so unusual that when we read the findings – whether on the parked cars in a Parisian street or the size of the portions in a Bolton chippie – we experience both the shock of recognition and the shock of the new.
This book is also about the ‘infra-ordinary’ – the unremarkable and unremarked upon aspects of our lives. I should begin by warning you that, if you profess an interest in this overlooked research area (which to a certain extent you have already done by picking up this book), you will probably need to develop a thick skin. Some people may accuse you of trying to rediscover what a certain strain of English pragmatism likes to call ‘the bleeding obvious’. I am often asked, with a certain benevolent bemusement, why I study such obscure topics as the symbolism of the lunch break, the history of crossing the road or the politics of sitting on sofas. Sometimes, perhaps while investigating a recherché fact about the prawn mayonnaise sandwich, I have wondered this myself. We expect scholars to have a specialism, a particular expertise that marks them out from non-experts – and when it comes to familiar things like eating prawn sandwiches, crossing the road or sofa-sitting, everyone is a sort of expert.
But while we all experience these activities, we rarely give much thought to them, largely because they are social habits rather than individual idiosyncrasies. Working away at our office desks, sitting in meeting rooms, eating ready meals, flipping through the TV channels with the remote control – these are all part of what the German critic Siegfried Kracauer calls ‘a life that belongs to no one and exhausts everyone’.[xi] We share these habits with others but have little personal investment in them. Activities like queuing and commuting cannot easily be appropriated as part of a consumer ‘lifestyle,’ one of the ways in which, since at least the 1950s, we have deliberately sought to give meaning to our otherwise unconscious daily lives by making them serve a specific self-image or creative impulse. They make up the constant, unnoticed background noise of our lives.
[i] Raoul Vaneigem, The Revolution of Everyday Life, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (London, Rebel Press/Left Bank Books,  1994), p. 21.
[ii] Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge (ed.), May the Twelfth: Mass-Observation Day Surveys 1937 (London, Faber and Faber,  1987), pp. 360-97.
[iii] Tom Harrisson, Humphrey Jennings and Charles Madge, ‘Anthropology at Home,’ New Statesman and Nation, 30 January 1937, p. 155.
[iv] Tom Harrisson, Britain Revisited (London, Victor Gollancz, 1961), p. 25; Tom Harrisson, World Within: A Borneo Story (London, Cresset, 1959), p. 158.
[v] Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, Mass-Observation (London, Frederick Muller, 1937), p. 29.
[vi] Walter Hood, ‘Outing with a girl stranger, 19 April 1938,’ in Angus Calder and Dorothy Sheridan (eds), Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937-49 (London, Jonathan Cape, 1984), pp. 39-42.
[vii] Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson (ed.), First Year’s Work 1937-38 by Mass-Observation (London, Lindsay Drummond, 1938), p. 87.
[viii] Angus Calder, ‘Introduction,’ in Tom Harrisson and Charles Madge, Britain by Mass-Observation (London, Cresset,  1986), p. vii.
[ix] Cassandra, ‘What were you doing at 8.57 last night?,’ Daily Mirror, 25 June 1937.
[x] Georges Perec, Species of Spaces and Other Pieces, ed. and trans. John Sturrock (London, Penguin, 1999), p. 210.
[xi] Siegfried Kracauer, ‘Boredom,’ in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, ed. and trans. Thomas Y. Levin (Cambridge, MA, Harvard University Press, 1995), pp. 331-2.