I reviewed Pandæmonium by Humphrey Jennings in the latest edition of Idler magazine. You can buy copies of Idler magazine at all good newsagents and other shops as listed here:

Here’s the review:

Humphrey Jennings
André Deutsch, 1985

Humphrey Jennings was a filmmaker, poet, painter and intellectual who died in 1950 aged just 43, having fallen from a Greek clifftop while researching a new documentary on European healthcare. The director Lindsay Anderson (If, etc) said he was “the only real poet the British cinema has yet produced.” Along with Charles Madge, he founded the Mass Observation movement in 1936, helped arrange the infamous Surrealist Exhibition in London the same year attended by everyone from Salvador Dalí wearing a deep-sea diving suit to Dylan Thomas handing out eggcups filled with string, and he made several wartime documentaries including Listen To Britain and Fires Were Started.

Jennings was a magnetic personality. The wealthy arts philanthropist Peggy Guggenheim had a brief affair with him in Paris in the 1930s, and remembered him jumping up and down on the bed shouting: “Look at me…don’t you think I’m beautiful?” His wartime documentaries for the Crown Film Unit were masterpieces but he could be a fierce taskmaster.

His attention focussed increasingly on the way in which art could faithfully record and celebrate the innate qualities of “ordinary” life, and he began to collect writings which in his view illuminated what he saw as “the coming of the machine age” from the late 17th century to the late 19th century, an age which he increasingly believed “was destroying something in our life.” By the time of his death he had collected over a thousand pages of quotations and notes which were finally edited into publishable shape by his old colleague Charles Madge and published as Pandæmonium in 1985.

Pandæmonium was the capital of Hell described by Milton in Paradise Lost, built by the angels on the instruction of Mammon. Amongst his notes, Jennings had written: “Pandæmonium is the Palace of All the Devils. Its building began c.1660. It will never be finished. The building of Pandæmonium is the real history of Britain for the last three hundred years.” Elsewhere he wrote: “The poets are the guardians of the Animistic system, the scientists of the Materialist system.”

Jennings, with his filmmaker’s eye, referred to his collection of texts as “images” which “present the imaginative history of the Industrial Revolution.” The book is a dazzling collection, featuring famous names — Charlotte Brontë, Friedrich Engels, Edward Lear, Charles Darwin — alongside the forgotten and the obscure. Here’s an engineer named James Nasmyth writing in 1830 on the coalfields of Yorkshire:

Amidst these flaming, smoky, clanging works, I beheld the remains of what had once been happy farmhouses, now ruined and deserted…In some places I heard a sort of chirruping sound, as of some forlorn bird haunting the ruins of the old farmsteads. But no! the chirrup was a vile delusion. It proceeded from the shrill creaking of the coal-winding chains.

Or the priest and poet Charles Kingsley in 1848:

Beauty is God’s handwriting — a wayside sacrament…where [the townsman] may walk through green meadows, under cool mellow shades and overhanging rocks, by rushing brooks, where he watches and watches till he seems to hear the foam whisper, and to see the fishes leap.

Perhaps too sentimental for some — Jennings has over the years incurred the wrath of the furious Left for romanticising rural poverty — the texts which he collated in Pandæmonium compose a beautiful portrait of a far simpler world where meaning was to be found in the relation between man and nature. It is a romanticism which sits alongside Orwell’s vision of a Lost England or William Morris’s advocacy of traditional craft skills and vernacular art forms. To Jennings, this was animism: the secret heart of the individual’s relationship to the earth which the materialist machine age wished to stamp out. He put it this way:

At a certain period in human development the means of vision and the means of production were intimately connected…I refer to the Magical systems under which it was not possible to plow the ground without a prayer — to eat without a blessing, to hunt an animal without a magical formula. To build without a sense of glory.

After Jennings had died so unexpectedly on that Greek clifftop, he was found to have just one pound in his bank account. Most of his work, including his documentaries, he considered a necessary obligation, to enable him to continue to pay the rent and support his family, while he occupied his time in imagining. This collection, Pandæmonium, would take another thirty five years to see publication, thanks mostly to the persistence of his daughter, Mary Lou Jennings, and it remains a unique and vital witness to the changing character of the English nation. Beautifully arranged and edited by Charles Madge, it is perhaps now more than ever, a talisman to clutch close amid the clamour.

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