Homage to Pandemonium

Diana Athill had a lovely piece in yesterday’s Guardian which starts like this:

When factory chimneys reared up during the Olympic opening ceremony I thought at once: “Pandaemonium – he must have read it” – then “Oh nonsense, it was published almost 30 years ago and one never sees it around nowadays.” But Danny Boyle had, indeed, read it. Humphrey Jennings’s great work did inspire an occasion with which nearly everyone in this country was going to fall in love.

It made me sit up because Humphrey Jennings also flashed into my mind when I watched the recording of the Opening Ceremony. (We were travelling on the night and so missed the live transmission.) Pandaemonium 1660-1886: The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers has been one of my favourite books for years, and nestles on my bookshelves as a kind of antidote to the ravings of Paul Johnson (see picture). What astounded me when I first read it is how clearly and perceptively the people who lived through the first Industrial Revolution saw and understood what was happening. As we live though another industrial revolution are we as perceptive? I don’t think so.

What I didn’t know until I read the Athill piece is that she had been its editor at Andre Deutsch. She writes knowledgeably (and movingly) about its genesis:

It came about when, as a thankyou to the people of a Welsh village where he had been making a film, Jennings gave a series of talks about the industrial revolution for which he collected extracts from many sources. From then on he never ceased collecting, and his purpose was clear: he was going to make a book presenting not the political or the economic history, but the human history of the industrial revolution. He would not describe or analyse; rather, people who had experienced it would show what it was like.

Jennings died before the book was published so it was edited for publication by his daughter and his friend, Charles Madge. Jennings was a documentary film-maker, and in a way Pandemonium is actually a film in print format. It lets its witnesses speak for themselves. It’s lovely to know that it has been revived and reissued.