This month’s edition of The Session is hosted by, er, us, on the subject of Mass Observation. Get involved, bloggers and let us know about your posts here, on Twitter, or by email! In the meantime, here’s our contribution.
Pub near harbour, small town, Cornwall. One large bar with mezzanine; dining room; outside smoking area (covered and heated); garden. All on one floor.
Three cask ales (traditional handpumps); Guinness (large illuminated font with rugby ball on handle); Korev lager (large chrome font with condensation); Guinness Hop House 13 Lager (large font with condensation); Carslberg, San Miguel, Amstel lagers on standard keg bar; Rattler (with cartoon snake head handle) and Strongbow ciders on same.
Pub is dominated by a party of nine (six men, three women) playing poker on a lage central table, formed by moving several other tables from the periphery. A green baize temporary playing board covers most of the surface. Loud discussion about the rules of the game at points.
There are five people sat at the bar: one party of three, plus a dog lying at their feet on a rope lead; and two men at the other end of the bar.
In total there are 8 women and 15 men drinking in the pub.
The men are wearing: button up shirts (8), rugby shirts (2), t-shirts (3), light roll-neck sweaters (2). One man is wearing a jacket, another has flashy red braces. No-one is wearing a tie. The vast majority are wearing jeans and trainers/sneakers.
Everyone is white. Most people between 60-45.
There is football on screen (Euro 2016 — Poland v Portugal) being watched by only two or three people. As observers enter, Poland scores, and there is a muted reaction from people standing around the bar.
Tables have beer mats advertising Pipers Crisps.
The formal dining room is empty. There is a party of four dining in the bar. During the period of observation, four more meals are served. Another customer (man with dog) is eating nuts from the packet, holding the packet in the same hand as the dog’s lead.
Most people are drinking Guinness or lager. There is one conspicuous cider drinker (a man), three obvious ale drinkers (men). Also consumed: rose wine, gin (women). Everyone drinking beer or cider is drinking pints, not halves.
There is light background music from computer or iPod, rather than a radio, and most conversations are quiet and discreet. At one point, two men talking quietly raise their voices. One says, anxiously, ‘I’m not sure now Brexit was the right thing.’ His companion says: ‘Wait and see, it’ll work out OK.’
The poker players mostly discuss the rules of the game in a tone of friendly bickering. They get louder as the game goes on and, led by an elderly man among the group, sing ‘My Way’ together. He sings the first verse, they join for the chorus, sing several more verses together, and then the group drops off and the primary singer finishes the song himself. There is a cheer when he finishes. He starts singing another song quietly but loses enthusiasm.
Behind bar the bar there are three people: a middle-aged woman, a young woman, and (occasionally) a middle-aged man in chef’s whites. There is a brief bad-tempered discussion between the older woman and the chef: ‘I can’t, I’m busy.’
There are no obvious tourists among the crowd. One party of four (dining) might be from out of town. A man and woman, 30-45 years old, are reading a free Cornwall lifestyle magazine together, laughing; they also order food.
A solo woman (25-35) sits reading the screen of her smartphone at the bar. There is one other smartphone on a tabletop, untouched.
There are two people permanently in smoking area, with dog, bathed in red light from the heaters and staring into the pub through the glass panes of the door to monitor the football match on the TV. Other smokers come and go from the bar to the smoking area (two people, one cigarette each in 25 minute period).
A man and a woman are sitting in the garden proper, at a picnic table. The man is wearing heavy work boots, a branded hooded top, and has dirt on his face and hands. The woman appears younger and is smoking.
Observation ends 20:27.
* * *
That was a strange experience and gave us a bit of insight into the problems with the original 1930s Mass Observation pub project.
How does an observer judge social class? (That’s less important now than in 1937… isn’t it?) Or the relationships between people? Are those two blokes friends, brothers, or on a date?
How does the presence of an observer affect what they are observing? We made up a substantial part of the population of the bar. We know that, back in the 1930s, observers in Worktown were conscious of being spotted, and sometimes became the subject of discussion.
We also felt like creeps staring and noting and eavesdropping. We usually do all of that naturally when we’re in the pub but doing so consciously felt weird. Intrusive. Arrogant. Again, we thought of those 1930s observers, like aliens watching the plebs from their lofty perches.
As for the pub… We were surprised at how busy it was and at how few obvious tourists there were. As often happens in Penzance (you probably guessed that’s where we were, right?) we were pleased to note (observer bias!) a real buzz and lots of varied activity. Contrary to the prejudice of the day, there wasn’t a lot of staring at screens, and there was plenty of conversation. The communal singing was the icing on the cake — like something laid on for our benefit by a stage director.
One small problem might be that demographic, though: there was hardly anyone under the age of 40 as far as we can tell. Perhaps the pub is something you mature into — maybe it’s an essentially middle-aged space these days — but if they’re not here, where are the twenty- and thirty-somethings on a Thursday night? At home with the kids, we would guess, which gives us this thought to chew on: the struggle of the pub industry can be at least partly blamed on the demise of informal babysitting. (Discuss.)