Sunday, 21 June 2020

The decline of Bolton

The Town That Vanished Ian Robinson's The Town that Vanished uses the Mass Observation Worktown investigation of the late 1930s "as a frame of reference for exploring why industrial towns like Bolton disappeared." It is a descriptive study rather than an academic attempt to answer a research question. The author's intention is also to "introduce the Worktown project to people who have little or no knowledge of it", primarily Boltonions.

Each chapter covers a different aspect of working class life, with the most enjoyable and informative being The Bolton Odeon, Burnden Park, and King Cotton.

Robinson's narrative is to some extent driven by personal background and family lore, rather than objectivity, which is not a criticism, especially as the original Worktown investigation was also biased. The Oxbridge, public school educated Tom Harrison and his Observers had little if any knowledge of the northern industrial working class. In the chapter about Blackpool we learn that one researcher turned up "to peer at the working class in his Bentley motor car", others "were often appalled by what they saw as the grotesque, tacky commercialism", and Harrisson himself "expected to see copulation everywhere [but only found] petting and feeling".

One glaring omission is a chapter on religion, which is surprising since the book was inspired by the life of his mother, who "as a child ... was a Rose Queen". Perhaps Robinson had intended to cover the subject, as some of the chapters mention the importance of churches in their first paragraphs. The subject is as important to explain the female working class experience as the pub and the football are for that of the male.

In spite of this, it's an enjoyable trip down memory lane for those whose parents were born in Bolton around the time the Mass Observation took place.

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