Tom Harrisson feigning fear
For anyone interested in mood as a cultural phenomenon and as a living and imaginative national form, the Second World War is undoubtedly the ‘go to’ historical period to look at. Remembering his wartime involvement with Mass-Observation and the Home Intelligence department of the Ministry of Information, Tom Harrisson claimed that they ‘sought to supply accurate observations of everyday life and real (not just published) public moods’. Mood, or morale as it was usually called during the war, was a high stake in a war that was being fought at home by civilians as well as by the services, and was understood as a ‘war of nerves’.
Of course it is easy to distrust the idea of a national mood, and Home Intelligence was, I think, distrustful of any single unified mood. What they did instead on an almost daily basis was to get a sense of different regional moods and the variations of mood in relation to class and gender. It was Mary Adams who was responsible for setting up Home Intelligence and for collating the daily reports from various officers around the country who eavesdropped at bus queues, listened-in to conversations at the post office and quizzed neighbours and workers.
One interesting aspect of their work for people today who are thinking about mood and how to attend to it, is their use of metaphors relating to weather to describe the measurement and description of mood. Mary Adams describes the task of Home Intelligence as ‘to provide an assessment of home morale. For this purpose it is necessary to study immediate reactions to specific events as well as to create a barometer for the purpose of testing public opinion on questions likely to be continuously important, e.g. pacifism’. A barometer is also the metaphor of choice that Mass-Observation uses when it claims in 1940 that ‘one of the vital needs now in this war is that the Government should be fully aware of all the trends in civilian morale. They need an accurate machine for measuring such trends; a war barometer’.
Mass-Observation was established in the early months of 1937 with a sense that war was on the horizon and that little was known about how people felt. In trying to gather such nebulous materials as ‘feelings’ and ‘moods’ the leaders of Mass-Observation knew that they were dealing with materials as all-encompassing, as hard to predict, and as inconsistent as the British weather: they would be ‘the meteorological stations from whose reports a weather-map of popular feeling can be compiled’. But it should be noted that while a storm was gathering in Europe Mass-Observation was as interested in the ordinary grey day as they were in chasing tornados or trying to fashion unusually blue skies. Indeed in a war as long and as aggressive as World War II an overcast sky with slightly blustery wind was going to be as good as it gets.