mass observation

Andrew’s Corner by Kayo Chingonyi

I have just finished reading Selina Todd’s amazing “The People: the rise and fall of the Working Class, 1910-2010”, which wasn’t the best of reads in a run-up to what turned out to be a disastrous election result. Some of her detailed research of the first half of the 20th century, was drawn from the Mass Observation project; this was set up by a group of volunteers who wanted to create an ‘anthropology of ourselves’ and so carried out interviews with people about their daily lives. It was stopped in the 1950s then revived in the 1980s and continues today. There is also a similar project in the US called Humans of New York.

It got me thinking about how we observe people in their daily lives. One aspect, which Kayo Chingonyi’s poem Andrew’s Corner revived in me, was observations by sociologists in the US of street corner life. One of the first that I know of is William Foote Whyte’s Street Corner Society, which mapped the lives of poor Italian Americans in a Boston slum in the 1940s. Then a more famous study, Eliot Liebow’s ‘Tally’s Corner’ which has sold over a million copies. Liebow sought to show another, more positive side to the way in which African American men responded to poverty during the 1960s. It showed them not to be feckless and non-caring parents; “Leroy bathed the children, braided the girls’ hair, washed their clothes at ‘the Bendix’ (laundromat), played with them, and on their birthdays went shoplifting to get them gifts.”

 kayo chingonyi picObservation is a key quality of a poet, and Kayo does this so well in Andrew’s Corner that maps the generational experiences of a particular corner of London, “Where an old man comes, to practise/standing still, tutting that the street he fought to keep is gone.” And we are given all of the senses of change, “the world of bass,” “the smell of weed and too much CK One” and the detritus of objects that tell their own stories, “condom wrappers, kebab meat, a ballet pump”. Then finally the crossover of night to day, where “joggers dodge a dead pigeon, offer wordless/greeting to the night bus’s army of sanguine-/eyed ravers, nursing bad skin and tinnitus.” Top notch. (more…)