October 1, 1985
This is the masterwork of an extraordinary man who was denied wide recognition by a tragically early death.
It is a history of how the human imagination produced and experienced the Industrial Revolution, which unfolds through a collection of texts.
Jennings called the texts “images”: The story is being shown rather than told. He found in the works of men as famous as Milton, Pepys, and Carlyle, and also in the writings of factory workers and farm laborers, and of scientists, inventors, journalists, amateurs of geology, dukes, actresses, quakers… At one end of the spectrum they give us the intoxication of discovery and achievement; at the other end, the ugly consequences of the orientation toward materialism which took place as a result of discovery and achievement. There’s a glorious variety of subject and tone, but all the texts have two things in common: They are relevant to Jennings’s theme; and, even when a writer’s purpose was prosaic, he happened at the moment to be taken beyond himself into an intensity of expression more like that of poetry than of prose.
In Humphrey Jennings’s own words: “there are at least three different ways in which you may tackle this book. First, you may read it straight through from the beginning as a continuous narrative or film on the Industrial Revolution. Second, you may open it where you will, choose one or a group of passages, and study in them details of events, persons, and thoughts, as one studies the material and architecture of a poem. Third way, you begin with the index – look up a subject or idea, and follow references, skipping over gaps of years to pursue its development.” For this third way, Charles Madge (following Jennings’s intention) has compiled a special index titled “Theme Sequences.”
Humphrey Jennings was born in Suffolk in 1907. He first worked in the theater and moved on into documentary films in the early 1930s. He was a painter and poet, and in 1936 was on the organizing committee of the International Surrealist Exhibition in London. He worked on Pandemonium for over thirteen years, but made his name with the wartime films Listen to Britain, Fires Were Started, and Diary for Timothy. He died, as a result of an accident, in 1950.