OBITUARY:Charles Madge

Angus Calder
Sunday 23 October 2011 06:58

Charles Madge was a gently charming man, with an air of diffidence and melancholy. He seemed all too easy to overshadow.

His mentors were I.A. Richards, T.S. Eliot and J.M. Keynes, yet his name is rarely connected with any of these men. His first wife, the poet Kathleen Raine, and his brilliant friend the film-maker Humphrey Jennings have sustained fame eclipsing that once enjoyed by Madge's own verse. The foundation of Mass- Observation as a social survey in 1937 was more his work than anyone else's, and his co-authorship of early publications gave it reputation and credibility, but Tom Harrisson took over the organisation, and most of the credit. When Birmingham University made Madge its first Professor of Sociology in 1950 this was a brave appointment. The subject itself was still deeply unfashionable in British academic circles, and Madge, furthermore, had no degree in any discipline. These things too have been forgotten.

Madge was at fault in reluctance to beat his own drum. A biography - which someone must write - would cast light on the highways of 20th-century life, as well as in many interesting corners.

He was born in 1912 in South Africa, where his father was one of the arch-imperialist Milner's "young men", rebuilding the country after the Boer War. But Lt-Col Madge was killed in the First World War, and Charles was brought to Britain. A scholarship to Winchester promised orthodox success, but Charles early displayed an attraction to deviance. Interested both in science and poetry, he was drawn to I.A. Richards (whose methods in pioneering "practical criticism" of literature actually prefigured certain aspects of Mass-Observation). As Scholar of Magdalene College, Cambridge, he became Richards's pupil.

The early Thirties were famously a great period for Cambridge science, with the massive Rutherford and charismatic Bernal. The ambience affected others beside Madge. J.B. Bronowski was one brilliant contemporary who wrote verse and practised science. Cambridge, accordingly, was more open than Oxford to the influence of continental Surrealism. This wasn't merely a movement of melting watches and snook-cocking stunts. Surrealism claimed to be "scientific" in the sense that it extended knowledge of the subconscious. Madge's Cambridge friend Jennings was deeply attracted, as was Madge himself. Meanwhile, the beautiful and strong-willed Raine swept Madge off his feet and down to London before he had completed a degree.

Madge professed Communism, yet the "reactionary" T.S. Eliot, all-powerful over poetic reputations as commander of Faber's list, liked his verse and took him up. One of Eliot's friends was a leader writer for the Daily Mirror, and when Madge needed a job Eliot referred him to that paper. As a reporter Madge was fascinated by the discrepancy between what people actually thought and what politicians claimed they did. The Abdication crisis of 1936 crystallised interest in the issue.

Raine and Madge were living in Blackheath, south-east London, near the famous GPO Film Unit where Jennings, and other friends, worked. On 2 January 1937, Madge announced in a letter to the New Statesman that a group had been formed to study public opinion. He called for "mass observations" to create "mass science". This attracted the attention of Harrisson, a self-taught anthropologist recently returned from the New Hebrides who was setting up a survey of the culture of south Lancashire. Within a month, the two ventures fused as "Mass-Observation".

While Harrisson led fieldwork in Bolton, Madge organised from Blackheath a "panel" of volunteers ready to send in material about their daily circumstances and to reply to regular "directive" questionnaires - on their attitudes to class and race, for instance. There was implicit divergence. While Harrisson's survey methods generated a kind of "documentary in depth", panel replies, and the later and related "War Diaries", created a rich and random mass of material in which hundreds of people, mostly obscure, mostly unknown to each other, made their confidential confessional. Ironically, most among the hordes of researchers latterly attracted to the Tom Harrisson Mass Observation Archive at the University of Sussex have probably found the "Madgeian" material more intriguing than the Harrissonian "reports".

The two men collaborated on Britain by Mass-Observation, a Penguin Special of 1939, then on War Begins at Home (1940). But differences of emphasis became painful. Madge drifted out of the organisation. Under the aegis of Keynes he studied, with statistical rigour, wartime patterns of working- class saving and spending for the National Institute of Economic and Social Research. Then, in 1943, he joined the research staff of PEP (non-government "Political and Economic Planning"). The emphasis on post-war planning continued when he moved on to direct the Pilot Press and edit a series of "Pilot Papers" under the rubric "Target for Tomorrow". In 1947 he was appointed Social Development Officer for the New Town of Stevenage - "my task", as he wrote, "being to act as a sociologist-executive on an equal footing with the other chief officers of the Development Corporation." But the town's growth was disappointingly slow and Madge left in 1950 for the Chair in Birmingham, which he occupied for the next 20 years.

He fell into the role of dignified social scientist, going on missions for the UN and its agencies to "developing" Asia and Africa. His published work, which was rather scanty, included both theoretical study (Society in the Mind, 1964) and empirical research (Art Students Observed, 1973, and Inner City Poverty in Paris and London, 1981).

But his main contribution to the development of social science in Britain had surely been the invention of Mass- Observation, at a time when Gallup had barely arrived, market research techniques were unsophisticated and the study of popular culture, later developed at Birmingham in the 1960s by Richard Hoggart and Stuart Hall, was hardly heard of.

Madge had been regarded as a leader of the younger generation of poets in the 1930s. Faber published The Disappearing Castle (1937) and The Father Found (1941). The spate of verse became a mere stream in the 1940s, and had petered out altogether by the mid-Fifties. When Anvil Press in 1994 gathered together the two books with unpublished work, as Of Love, Time and Places, the latest poem included was dated 1971. His style changed little over time. Originally athletic and experimental, later rather sedate, it was always marked by distance from the "real world". In its tendency to abstraction it suggests the work of Edwin Muir, another poet published by Eliot. (It might be remarked that both Madge and Muir seem to have influenced the discourse of Four Quartets.) Surrealism is a presence, notably in "Flight of the Margarine" (1938). But the language always shows the early influence of W.H. Auden, so inescapable for so many. At his most "concrete", Madge is endearingly awkward in a "Mass- Observation" poem from 1939 - "Drinking in Bolton".

Not from imagination am I draining

This landscape (Lancs), this plate of

tripe and onion,

But, like the Nag's Head barmaid I

am drawing

(Towards imagination) gills of

mild . . .

However, the body of his verse has strengths which may yet find fresh admirers.

Madge's second marriage, to Inez Pearn, a novelist, ended with her death in 1976. Two children with her had followed two with Raine. His third wife, Evelyn Brown, died in 1984. When I last saw him some years ago, he was talking happily of a new relationship, and of new poems . . . But what became of these? I think he was heavily critical of his own work. Taken too far, diffidence disables talent. Yet Madge certainly made his mark, or marks.

Angus Calder

Charles Henry Madge, poet and sociologist: born Johannesburg 10 October 1912; co-founder, Mass-Observation 1937; Professor of Sociology, Birmingham University 1950-70; married 1938 Kathleen Raine (marriage dissolved; one son, one daughter), 1942 Inez Pearn (died 1976; one son, one daughter); 1979 Evelyn Brown (died 1984); died London 17 January 1996.

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