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‘WHO THE HELL ARE ORDINARY PEOPLE?’ ORDINARINESS AS A CATEGORY OF HISTORICAL ANALYSIS

  • Claire Langhamer

Abstract

Ordinariness was a frequently deployed category in the political debates of 2016. According to one political leader, the vote for Brexit was ‘a victory for ordinary, decent people who've taken on the establishment and won’. In making this claim, Nigel Farage sought to link a dramatic political moment with a powerful, yet conveniently nebulous, construction of the ordinary person. In this paper, I want to historicise recent use of the category by returning to another moment when ordinariness held deep political significance: the years immediately following the Second World War. I will explore the range of values, styles and specific behaviours that gave meaning to the claim to be ordinary; consider the relationship between ordinariness, everyday experience and knowledge; and map the political work ordinariness was called upon to perform. I argue that the immediate post-war period was a critical moment in the formation of ordinariness as a social category, an affective category, a moral category, a consumerist category and, above all, a political category. Crucially, ordinariness itself became a form of expertise, a finding that complicates our understanding of the ‘meritocratic moment’.

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Mass-Observation material is used by permission of the Mass-Observation Trustees. I would like to thank the Institute of Historical Research Durham for the Fellowship during which some of the early research for this paper was conducted. I would also like to thank Stephen Brooke, Lucy Robinson and Penny Summerfield for their comments on earlier drafts, the audience at the 2016 Northeast Conference on British Studies for their questions about an earlier version of this paper and the Royal Historical Society audience for their own questions and comments.

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References

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1 J. B. Holmes and Jack Lee, Ordinary People (1941).

2 Fox, Jo, ‘Millions Like Us? Accented Language and the “Ordinary” in British Films of the Second World War’, Journal of British Studies, 45 (2006), 819–45 (quotation at 820).

3 Chapman, James, ‘British Cinema and the People's War’, in Millions Like Us? British Culture in the Second World War, ed. Hayes, Nick and Hill, Jeff (Liverpool, 1999), 60.

4 Robinson, Victoria, ‘Reconceptualising the Mundane and the Extraordinary: A Lens through which to Explore Transformation within Women's Everyday Footwear Practices’, Sociology, 49 (2015), 903–18 (quotation at 904).

5 Mass-Observation, People in Production. An Enquiry into British War Production (1942), 2.

6 Quoted in John Baxendale, ‘“You and I – All of Us Ordinary People”: Representing “Britishness” in Wartime’, in Millions Like Us?, ed. Hayes and Hill, 318.

7 George Orwell, The Lion and the Unicorn (orig. publ. 1941; 1962), 59. For more on Orwell's ‘modest celebration of ordinary Englishness’, see Colls, Robert, George Orwell. English Rebel (Oxford, 2013), 168.

8 Waters, Chris, ‘“Dark Strangers” in Our Midst: Discourses of Race and Nation in Britain, 1947–1963’, Journal of British Studies, 36 (1997), 207–38 (quotation at 210).

9 Williams, Raymond, Keywords. A Vocabulary of Culture and Society (1983), 225–6.

10 Raphael Samuel, Island Stories: Unraveling Britain. Theatres of Memory, ii (1998), 225.

11 Burnley Express, 15 Nov. 1950, 1.

12 Richard Bessel and Dirk Schumann, Life after Death. Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe during the 1940s and 1950s (Cambridge, 2003), 3.

13 David R. Mace, Marriage Crisis (1948), 8.

14 Karpf, Anne, ‘Constructing and Addressing the “Ordinary Devoted Mother”’, History Workshop Journal, 78 (2014), 82106.

15 Lancashire Evening Post, 30 May 1947, 6.

16 Maggie Andrews, Domesticating the Airwaves: Broadcasting, Domesticity and Femininity (2012), 122.

17 Burnley Express and Burnley News, 21 Sept. 1946, 1.

18 Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 17 Jan. 1947, 7.

19 Western Daily Press and Bristol Mirror, 16 Oct. 1950, 1.

20 Aberdeen Evening Express, 5 Mar. 1953, 10.

21 Sunday Post, 3 Feb. 1946, 7.

22 David Howell, Attlee (2006), 2.

23 Observer, 11 Apr. 1954, 11.

24 See McKibbin, Ross, The Ideologies of Class: Social Relations in Britain, 1880–1950 (Oxford, 1990), 289.

25 Hartlepool Northern Daily Mail, 12 Nov. 1951, 10.

26 Daily Mirror, 11 Sept. 1957, 12.

27 See Bingham, Adrian, Family Newspapers? Sex, Private Life and the British Popular Press 1918–1978 (Oxford, 2009), 97–9.

28 Ibid., 97. See also Beers, Laura Dumond, ‘Whose Opinion?: Changing Attitudes Towards Opinion Polling in British Politics, 1937–1964’, Twentieth Century British History, 17 (2006), 177205.

29 The Daily Mirror had, according to Donald Tyerman, editor of The Economist, ‘performed a revolution in communication by talking to ordinary folk in ordinary folk's language about things ordinary folk are interested in’. Daily Mirror, 11 Aug. 1959, 9.

30 Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 27 July 1946, 4.

31 R. S. Lynd and H. M. Lynd, Middletown. A Study in Modern American Culture (1929). In its early publication, Britain, Mass-Observation explained that ‘there has been much talk about the social relations of science, the need for extending the Science of Ourselves and for studying the everyday lives and feelings of ordinary people, a well as the customs of primitive people and the feelings of neurotics’. Mass-Observation, Britain (1939), 9.

For a history of Mass-Observation, see Hinton, James, The Mass Observers. A History, 1937–1949 (Oxford, 2013).

32 Mass Observation Archive (hereafter MOA), File Report A26, Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, ‘They Speak for Themselves’, BBC script broadcast 1 June 1939, 3; Charles Madge and Tom Harrisson, Mass-Observation (1937), 31.

33 Hinton suggests that ‘many of the panel members did not think of themselves as “ordinary”. They tended to see themselves as unusual people, distinguished by their desire to self-fashion their lives free from the conventions of their social milieu.’ Hinton, The Mass Observers, 374.

34 ‘The Poet and the Public’, 10 May 1938, http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/58271ee8952a45f19712e00d52dc3ae9.

35 Daily Mirror, 25 June 1937, 12.

36 Mass-Observation, An Enquiry into People's Homes (1943), 5.

37 MOA, File Report 2397, ‘Second Report from Mass-Observation on World Organization and the Future’, June 1946, 1; Mass-Observation, Puzzled People (1947), 12; MOA, File Report 2462, ‘The Language of Leadership’, Mar. 1947.

38 Savage, Mike, Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940 (Oxford, 2010), 244.

39 Pearl Jephcott, Rising Twenty. Notes on Some Ordinary Girls (1948), 19.

40 Elizabeth Bott, Family and Social Network. Roles, Norms and External Relationships in Ordinary Urban Families (1957) 8.

41 Ibid., 10–11.

42 Savage, Identities and Social Change in Britain since 1940, 151.

43 Stacey, Margaret, Tradition and Change. A Study of Banbury (Oxford, 1960), 105.

44 Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, 2 Aug. 1945, 1.

45 House of Commons Debates, 17 Feb. 1971, vol. 811, cc. 1852. Heffer was speaking in a debate on industrial action.

46 Yorkshire Post and Leeds Mercury, 2 Sept. 1949, 1.

47 Bucks Herald, 2 Jan. 1953, 7; Buckingham Advertiser and Free Press, 27 July 1946, 4.

48 MOA, Topic Collection 76, General Elections, 76-6-D, Liberal Party Election Publications, Who's Who of 475 Liberal Candidates Fighting the 1950 General Election (1950).

49 Monica Jackson and Elizabeth Stark, Tents in the Clouds. The First Women's Himalayan Expedition (1957).

50 MOA, Topic Collection 88, Local Council Elections: 1937–51, 84-1-D, Councils: Aberdeen to Bristol, ‘Birmingham City Council By-election, Labour’, 22.6.50.

51 MOA, Topic Collection 88, Local Council Elections: 1937–51, 84-1-E, Councils: Cheshire to Hornsey, ‘Liberal, Hampstead Borough Council’, 12.5.49.

52 MOA, Topic Collection 88, Local Council Elections: 1937–51, 84-1-F, Councils: Kent to North Riding, ‘Leeds City Council, Conservative’, 1.11.47.

53 MOA, Topic Collection 88, Local Council Elections: 1937–51, 84-1-D, Councils: Aberdeen to Bristol, ‘Berkshire County Council, Labour’, 8.3.46.

54 Sunderland Echo, 20 Aug. 1951, 2.

55 Julia Laite, Common Prostitutes and Ordinary Citizens (2011), 198.

56 Sheila Patterson, Dark Strangers. A Study of West Indians in London (1963), 1.

57 Sheridan, Dorothy, Street, Brian and Bloome, David, Writing Ourselves. Mass-Observation and Literacy Practices (Creskill NJ, 2000), 48.

58 Ibid., 214.

59 Ibid., 174.

60 Ibid., 218.

61 Gloucester Citizen, 22 July 1948, 4.

62 In his study of discourses of race and nation, Chris Waters argues that ‘it was largely in the 1930s and 1940s that Britons were reinvented as members of an essentially unassuming nation, a quiet, private, and ordinary people, defined by their modesty, kindness to others, loyalty, truthfulness, straightforwardness, and simplicity’, Waters, ‘“Dark Strangers” in Our Midst’, 211.

63 Gloucestershire Echo, 7 July 1948, 1.

64 Daily Mirror, 20 Sept. 1955, 1.

65 Daily Mirror, 29 June 1961, 2.

66 Gloucestershire Echo, 22 June 1950, 6.

67 Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 2 Jan. 1948, 1.

68 Anderson, Michael, ‘The Emergence of the Modern Life Cycle in Britain’, Social History, 10 (1985), 6987 (quotation at 69).

69 King, Laura, Family Men. Fatherhoood and Masculinity in Britain, 1914–1960 (Oxford, 2015), 196.

70 Lorraine Sim, Virginia Woolf: The Patterns of Ordinary Experience (2010), 8; ‘Music and the Ordinary Listener’, 7 May 1929, http://genome.ch.bbc.co.uk/b1446a0769bf4a259c4395b9924b1799.

71 Todd, Selina, ‘Class, Experience and Britain's Twentieth Century’, Social History, 39 (2014), 489508 (quotation at 501).

72 Working on a slightly later period, Sam Wetherall has shown how the terms ‘ordinary’ and ‘working class’ were used interchangeably by community artists of the 1970s who framed a dichotomy between ‘posh’ and ‘ordinary’ art and who searched for ‘a set of ordinary class-based experiences around which art could be made’, Wetherell, Sam, ‘Painting the Crisis: Community Arts and the Search for the “Ordinary” in 1970s and ’80s London’, History Workshop Journal, 76 (2013), 235–49 (quotation at 242).

73 Savage, Mike, ‘Working-class Identities in the 1960s: Revisiting the Affluent Worker Study’, Sociology, 39 (2005), 929–46, at 938.

74 Lawrence, Jon, ‘Social-Science Encounters and the Negotiation of Difference in Early 1960s England’, History Workshop Journal, 77 (2013), 215–39 (quotation at 234).

75 Neveu, Catherine, ‘Of Ordinariness and Citizenship Processes’, Citizenship Studies, 19 (2015), 141–54 (quotation at 141).

76 Clarke, John, ‘Enrolling Ordinary People: Governmental Strategies and the Avoidance of Politics’, Citizenship Studies, 16 (2010), 637–50 (quotation at 642).

77 Dominic Sandbrook, Never Had It So Good. A History of Britain from Suez to the Beatles (2005), 259.

78 Neveu, ‘Of Ordinariness and Citizenship Processes’, 141.

79 Hilton, Matthew, ‘Politics Is Ordinary: Non-governmental Organizations and Political Participation in Contemporary Britain’, Twentieth Century British History, 22 (2011), 230–68.

80 Ibid., 235.

81 Ortolano, Guy, The Two Cultures Controversy. Science, Literature and Cultural Politics in Postwar Britain (Cambridge, 2009), 1718.

82 Langhamer, Claire, ‘Everyday Advice on Everyday Love: Romantic Expertise in Mid-Twentieth Century Britain’, L'Homme. European Journal of Feminist History, 24 (2013), 3552.

83 Speak for Yourself: A Mass-Observation Anthology 1937–1949, ed. Sheridan, Dororthy and Calder, Angus (Oxford, 1985), 236.

84 MOA, File Report 2270B, ‘First Report on the Post-War Homes Exhibition’, July 1945, 7.

85 Dundee Courier and Advertiser, 9 Nov. 1945, 2.

86 MOA, File Report 2370, ‘World Organisation and the Future’, Mar. 1946, 27; MOA, File Report 2474B, ‘Scientists – Magicians or Monsters?’, Apr. 1947, 8.

87 House of Commons Debates, 21 Feb. 1949, vol. 462, cc. 1590.

88 Daily Mirror, 22 Mar. 1956, 2.

89 Aberdeen Journal, 13 Apr. 1946, 4.

90 Times, 22 Nov. 1947, 5.

91 Daily Mirror, 7 Aug. 1958, 1.

92 Sunderland Daily Echo and Shipping Gazette, 30 Sept. 1946, 3.

93 Gloucestershire Echo, 14 Aug. 1948, 1. Within the historiography of Germany, attempts to explain the events of the 1930s and 1940s have increasingly focused upon psychological and/or ideological explanations for the violence and murders perpetrated by ‘ordinary men’ or ‘ordinary Germans’. For an overview, see Overy, Richard, ‘‘‘Ordinary Men”, Extraordinary Circumstances: Historian, Social Psychology and the Holocaust’, Journal of Social Issues, 70 (2014), 515–30. Key texts include Browning, Christopher R., Ordinary Men: Reserve Police Battalion 11 and the Final Solution in Poland (New York, 1992); Goldhagen, Daniel Jonah, Hitler's Willing Executioners. Ordinary Germans and the Holocaust (New York, 1996). See also Nicholas Stargardt, The German War: A Nation under Arms, 1939–45 (2015).

94 Picture Post, 1 May 1954, 47.

95 Benedict Anderson, Imagined Communities: Reflections on the Origin and Spread of Nationalism (1983).

96 Ben Highmore, Ordinary Lives. Studies in the Everyday (2011), 5.

97 Daily Mail, 28 Dec. 1954, 1.

98 Quoted in Alan Sinfield, ‘The Government, the People and the Festival’, in Labour's Promised Land? Culture and Society in Labour Britain 1945–51, ed. Jim Fyrth (1995), 181.

99 Daily Mail, 8 Feb. 1954, 6; Daily Mirror, 13 June 1945, 7.

100 Valerie Walkerdine, ‘Dreams from an Ordinary Childhood’, in Truth, Dare or Promise. Girls Growing up in the Fifties, ed. Liz Heron (1995), 63–77 (quotation at 63).

101 Daily Mirror, 11 Nov. 1968, 22.

102 Daily Mirror, 20 Nov. 1964, 10.

103 Daily Mirror, 26 Nov. 1964, 6.

104 On Powell, see Schofield, Camilla, Enoch Powell and the Making of Postcolonial Britain (Cambridge, 2013).

105 Whipple, Amy, ‘Revisiting the “Rivers of Blood” Controversy: Letters to Enoch Powell’, Journal of British Studies, 48 (2009), 717–35.

106 Quoted in Perry, Kennetta Hammond, London is the Place for Me. Black Britons, Citizenship, and the Politics of Race (Oxford, 2015), 190.

107 Two of the most interesting interventions from anthropology and cultural studies respectively are Stewart, Kathleen, Ordinary Affects (Durham and London, 2007) and Highmore, Ordinary Lives.

108 Sim, Virginia Woolf, 2.

109 Sinor, Jennifer, The Extraordinary Work of Ordinary Writing: Annie Ray's Diary (Iowa City, 2002), 56.

110 Neveu, ‘Of Ordinariness and Citizenship Processes’, 148.

111 And here I am critiquing my own use of the category, as much as anyone else's.

Mass-Observation material is used by permission of the Mass-Observation Trustees. I would like to thank the Institute of Historical Research Durham for the Fellowship during which some of the early research for this paper was conducted. I would also like to thank Stephen Brooke, Lucy Robinson and Penny Summerfield for their comments on earlier drafts, the audience at the 2016 Northeast Conference on British Studies for their questions about an earlier version of this paper and the Royal Historical Society audience for their own questions and comments.

‘WHO THE HELL ARE ORDINARY PEOPLE?’ ORDINARINESS AS A CATEGORY OF HISTORICAL ANALYSIS

  • Claire Langhamer

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