PANDAEMONIUM; The Coming of the Machine as Seen by Contemporary Observers, 1660-1886. By Humphrey Jennings. Edited by Mary-Lou Jennings and Charles Madge. Free Press. 376 pp. $17.95.
ONE PERSISTENT THEME in left-liberal politics, particularly in Britain and America, is hatred for industrial society. On continental Europe, this emotion was by no means confined to the left. Hitler, for instance, distrusted big cities. Environmentalists, what are now called "Greens" in Germany, formed an important element of his Nazi Party in its early days. Even in Britain, Christian radicals like G.K. Chesterton and Hilaire Belloc occasionally played the anti-industrial card. But usually it was left to socialists in the tradition of William Morris.
Humphrey Jennings, who was born in 1907 and died from an accident in 1950, came from this mold. He described his politics as "those of William Cobbett," the fierce farmer-propagandist who loathed London and called it "the Great Wen." Jennings deplored the Machine and what it had done to people, though oddly enough he made his living and reputation in what was then the high-technology of documentary movies. Today of course he would have been a left-wing TV producer. But in the 1930s and early 1940s, Social-Realism movies with a marked propaganda slant were the most fashionable form of activity among the left intelligentsia.
After the end of World War II, Jennings conceived the idea of transferring the technique of the movie to the written word. He spent 13 years collecting texts about the coming of the machine to Britain -- the Industrial Revolution and its consequences. The idea was to build up the story by a series of verbal images created by eyewitness accounts. Jennings did not live to sort out his material or publish it. Only now, more than 35 years later, have his daughter and one of his old friends finally fulfilled his intention.
The trouble is that, since Jennings first conceived the idea, the Industrial Revolution has been the subject of the most minute historical inquiry. Whole libraries have been written. Controversies have erupted, raged and petered out. The documentation has been enormously enlarged. None of this is reflected in Jennings' collection. Moreover, the ground he does cover is now well-trodden. Much of his material is familiar. Milton's description of the building of Pandaemonium, from Book One of Paradise Lost is superb but we all know it. Daniel Defoe's account of a visit to a lead mine in the Peak District is marvelous, but it has often been quoted. The same could be said of Byron's famous maiden speech in the House of Lords, in which he sympathized with the Luddites. Or Boswell's visit to the Birmingham works of Mr. Bolton, in which the "Iron Chieftain" tells him: "I sell here, sir, what all the world desires to have -- POWER!"
Nevertheless, many of these passages -- including a celebrated eyewitness account of the Peterloo Massacre in 1819 -- are worth rereading, and many others were quite new to me. To those who know little of this necessary but often grim and tragic episode in human progress, it will make a vivid introduction. But I could have done without Jennings' commentary, which reflects the naive left-wing clich,es of half a century ago. To a letter from John Wesley he appends the comment: "Britain was seen as a colony -- its people the savages to be exploited -- its wealth the property of the conquerors -- and its preachers the missionaries to dope and convert the natives." Jennings also had a taste for the pseudo-profound statement which, on examination, is not worth making. Thus: "The division of labor in the musical orchestra has its industrial parallel."
JENNINGS' ATTITUDE to the machine strikes me as unreflective. He ignored its capacity to solve the problems it creates. For example, one theme which runs through this anthology is the impact of coal-smoke. Even at the end of the 16th century, long before the Industrial Revolution, London was already a teeming city heated and powered by vast quantities of coal, shipped down from Newcastle and up the Thames, and therefore known as "seacoal." By the time of John Evelyn, in the 1660s, coal smoke was creating a micro-climate in and over the capital, including the famous pea-soup fog, or "London Particular." This was still more than a century before industrial capitalism arrived, but Evelyn claimed the coal-fire pollution was eclipsing the sun over London, depositing a "a sooty Crust or Fur upon all that it lights, spoyling the moveables, tarnishing the Plate, Gildings and Furniture, and corroding the very Iron-bars and hardest Stones." It was also, he claimed, killing masses of people every year.
Evelyn stated that the polluted air of London could be smelled many miles away. By 1817, another eyewitness whom Jennings quotes, calculated that the permanent pall of soot-laden air over London filled 70 degrees of the horizon, was 25 miles long by two miles wide, and sometimes stretched as far as Windsor Castle. A description of a "memorable fog" in London in December 1873 show that, by then, London fogs were sufficient of a phenomenom to be used for scientific experiments. In a lecture which Ruskin gave in 1884 he accused industrialism of creating a new kind of weather which the world had never known before, and which he called "The Storm-Cloud of the 19th Century."
All very true. But the 1817 eyewitness, Sir Richard Phillips, predicted that science would eventually solve the problem. He was right. It took a very long time, but while Jennings was still compiling his material, the Clean Air Act and other legislation was just beginning to employ modern technology to eliminate smoke-productive fuel. London became a Smokeless Zone. The effects were quite rapid, and cumulatively enormous. The last great London Particular occurred shortly after Jennings died. I remember it well. Today the pea-souper has disappeared completely, and fogs of any kind in London are rare.
Just as spectacular has been the cleansing of the Thames. Thanks to industrial science, and of course the wealth the machine generates, London's river is now cleaner than when Henry VIII used it to ship his errant wives to the Tower for execution. I live in a village on a Thames tributary 20 miles upstream. Last year a salmon-trout was caught in it. To get there that fish had to travel right through the waters of the Great Wen. It couldn't have happened in Shakespeare's day.