What follows is the text of a guest lecture I gave yesterday for the Life Writing
paper taught by Jack Ross at the Albany campus of Massey University. Over the last week or so the comments boxes at this blog and several related sites have been inundated with the ungrammatical, mispelt fallacies of Holocaust deniers, 9/11 'Truthers' and other conspiracy theory addicts. It's easy to see these people as a lunatic fringe, but the truth is that they do not exist in a vacuum. My lecture argued that Western societies are too often forgetful of history, and of the proper way of investigating the past.
I'm delighted, though, to report that the audience at Albany was wonderfully enthusiastic about historical research, and committed to approaching the past thoughtfully and reverently. My lecture was followed by a discussion that lasted a good half hour, and saw several students revealing complex and fascinating research interests of their own. I look forward to reading their work. Dialoguing with history: some very rough notes for a talk
I’m going to talk about my PhD thesis – that great, one hundred thousand word weight which was lifted off my shoulders last year. My thesis is a study of the deeds and works of the English historian, peace activist, cricketer, and middling poet EP Thompson. Parts of it have been published in the academic journal Thesis Eleven
, and (in very flowery, non-academic form) in To the Moon, in Seven Easy Steps
, the collection of my prose and poetry that Titus Books published
in 2007. I hope to publish the thesis in full eventually.
A PhD thesis is a major undertaking: these days students are somehow expected to complete it in three or four years, but in the University of Auckland’s sociology department there were legends of students who had been at work for fifteen or even twenty years on their tome, and who had last been seen wandering the labyrinthine depths of the Human Sciences Building with unshaven cheeks and bloodshot eyes, clutching pages of reading lists.
I was lucky to get some good advice during the period when I was choosing my thesis topic. A friend who was part-way through his own thesis told me to choose a topic that I loved – that was only way, he insisted, that I would be able to maintain my enthusiasm. I chose Edward Palmer Thompson, not because I was in love with him on a personal level, but because he was a multi-talented, protean figure who was interested in many of the things I love – things like history, poetry, unpublished manuscripts, riots, and political polemic.
Edward Palmer Thompson was born in Oxford in 1924, and died in Worcester in 1993, when he ignored his doctor’s advice and tried to pick the blackberries growing in his garden. Thompson drove a tank during World War Two, took a degree from Cambridge after the conflict, and became an adult educator in Yorkshire. He belonged to the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Great Britain from the early forties until 1956, when he left in protest at the Soviet invasion of Hungary. Thompson became famous in
1963, when he published a massive book called The Making of the English Working Class
, which described the riotous period between 1790 and 1820, when England was undergoing industrialisation, fighting the Napoleonic Wars, and dealing with peasant revolts and the Luddite sabotage of factories. The Making of the English Working Class
helped popularise a new style of history – it was often called ‘people’s history’ or ‘history from below’ – which focused on the lives of ordinary people, not Kings and Queens and Presidents. After the success of his book Thompson became first a fully-fledged academic and then a full-time writer. Before his premature death he produced many more histories, as well as books of literary scholarship, chapbooks of poems, and a fat sci fi novel.
Unlike a few of my peers, I managed to get to the end of my PhD thesis. I’m thankful for that, but I’m also thankful that the finished product is very different from the text I imagined writing when I began back in the second half of 2002. When I began the project I had a rather judgmental attitude toward my subject. I considered myself an objective and rigorous intellectual inquisitor, who would survey EP Thomspon’s act and works, and differentiate the good acts and works from the bad, in the same way that a farmer separates wheat from chaff.
With the arrogance of youth, hindsight, and dogmatism, I decided that Thompson had some great achievements to his credit, but that he had also made some great and easily avoidable blunders. I couldn’t understand, for instance, how a man insightful enough to write The Making of the English Working Class
could have belonged for a decade and a half to the Communist Party of Great Britain, an organisation that saw Stalin as a demigod and the Soviet Union as a land of milk and honey, not gulags and the unmarked graves of Trotskyists. It was lucky, I thought, that someone of my discernment had arrived to distinguish poor old EP Thompson’s errors from his insights. The perils of reading
With PhD research, as with life in general, I seem always to learn valuable lessons too late, and one of the most important lessons I learnt after starting my research is the importance of choosing a topic with an authoritative bibliography. As I stumbled upon more and more texts they didn’t mention, I soon realised that the standard Thompson bibliographies were sadly inadequate. I noticed, as well, that much of the vast literature on EP Thompson was far more circumscribed than the bibliographies – all too often, studies of Thompson zoomed in on a small number of ‘key’ works, and even in these works the same passages were singled out for attention, again and again. I was reminded of New Zealand labour historian Erik Olssen’s comment that everybody knows about The Making of the English Working Class
, but that very few people have read past the book’s preface.
I found this neglect of Thompson’s full body of work frustrating and exciting – frustrating, because it left me with a lot of donkey work to do; exciting, because it gave me the sense of being a pioneer. Thompson is one of most influential historians of all time, and the examination of his whole back catalogue might yield all sorts of discoveries. I was determined, then, to read all of Thompson’s work. I kept thinking of Louis Althusser, who in the 1950s and 60s insisted that French Marxists like Jean-Paul Sartre actually had to read Marx, and not just glosses of Marx. (They didn’t take his advice.) Althusser likened Marx’s writings to a forest, and talked of the need to cut a path through this forest. I suppose I saw myself trying to hack a path through the forest of Thompson’s writings.
Not all of my path-cutting was particularly useful – there was, for instance, a work with the intriguing title ‘Glue by Candlelight’, which had showed up on a database search. After quite a bit of effort I managed to locate this text on a dusty shelf, only to find that it was the title that had been given to a short letter that Thompson had written to the journal New Society
back in the 1970s. New Society’s
book reviewer had claimed that Thompson’s collection of essays Writing by Candlelight
suffered from bad glue binding, and tended to fall apart quickly. Thompson strongly disagreed, suggesting that the reviewer must be at fault, and ought to handle books more carefully. All in all, I didn’t think 'Glue by Candlelight' was worth the hours of effort I put in to tracking it down. Luckily, other discoveries were more fruitful.
As I kept cutting my path, I gradually became aware that a large amount of Thompson’s writing had never even been published. No amount of interloaning, orders from storage, and purchases from Amazon Secondhand could hope to plug the gaps that existed. This might not have worried me – there ought to have been enough published material to keep me busy – if it wasn’t for the fact that some of the best studies of Thompson referred to unpublished texts. Usually, these studies had been turned out by old friends and comrades, who had been able to refer to their own copies of unpublished manuscripts. Thompson was both a gregarious and a disputatious man, and over the course of his life letters, internal political discussion documents, internal academic memorandums, and thesis examiners’ reports all became vehicles for his insatiable need to argue with friend and foe alike. I began to realise that this corpus of unpublished, polemical writing had been a sort of quarry for some of Thompson’s most important published texts. The unpublished Thompson cast a long shadow over the published works.
I only began actively seeking out Thompson’s unpublished work after reading the autobiography of his old friend and comrade John Saville in 2004. In his book Saville mentions that Edward’s letters to him are preserved in the Saville papers at the University of Hull’s Brynmor Jones library. I knew then that I had to visit the majestic city of Hull.
Before I visited the archive in Hull I met and stayed with Dorothy Thompson, Edward’s widow and an important historian in her own right. Dorothy lives in a lovely three-storey Georgian house on a small hill with a view over Worcester – in the distance you can see the cricket ground where Glenn Turner used to bat for Worcestershire. Inside the house photos of Edward and his brother Frank cover the walls, and Edward’s books sit on the shelves.
Dorothy was pretty unimpressed with the drinks I’d brought over to have with the dinner she'd been cooking for me. I’d wanted to bring some New Zealand beer, but I hadn’t been able to find any in Worcester’s shops, and had had to settle for XXXX, which I figured was at least Antipodean. Dorothy was horrified at this offering, and gave me a lecture on how important it was for researchers to develope a taste in wine. As the evening wore on, and a good deal of her wine was consumed, I was able to ask Dorothy about Edward and his work. Dorothy was, and has remained, very supportive of my research into her late husband.
I moved on to Hull, and met John Saville. I was looking forward to talking to John, partly because the autobiography is so full of fascinating stories. It tells of how, posing a salesman, he used to smuggle messages from the Communist Party of Great Britain into Hitler’s Germany, and of how on one mission he was shipwrecked in the English Channel and had to swim ashore at Dunkirk. Then there are the stories about Saville’s war service in India, where he used his leave time to work secretly with the independence movement, and the story of how at the end of the war he got a job at the fledgling University of Hull, and helped establish oral history and labour history as important fields of academic study in Britain.
It soon became apparent, though, that I was not going to be able to conduct a very fruitful interview with John. He sat down to talk with me alongside his wife, who soon proved to be an indispensable intermediary. When I explained to John that I was from New Zealand – he had repeatedly referred to me as ‘the boy from Tasmania’ – he turned to his wife, and said ‘Constance, have I ever been to New Zealand?’ John’s memory has been severely affected by his advancing age.
Matters were not helped by the way that I had prepared a brace of absurdly detailed questions, about such burning issues as editorial decisions that Saville made forty years ago. (Being immersed in research makes me lose perspective, and believe that everybody is as interested as me in the minutiae of my subject.) Even when I asked John more detailed questions he tended to answer: ‘I’m sorry, I know I should remember, but I don’t.’ My hopes rose briefly when I asked him about George Orwell, whose path had crossed with his on one or two occasions. John nearly jumped out of his chair, exclaiming ‘George Orwell – he was a shit! A real shit!’ But when I asked why Orwell was a shit, John could only reply ‘I’m sorry, I know I should remember why Orwell was a shit, but I don’t. He was a shit though.’
The Brynmor Jones library is a curious place – one of Hull’s few pieces of avant-garde modernist architecture, it looks on the inside like a shrine to its former manager, the ultra-conservative Philip Larkin. Larkin’s famously grumpy face stares at visitors from photos, paintings, and sculptures. The small archives reading room was virtually empty, apart from a few desks and two supervisors whose job seemed to be to stare silently and intently at me as I took notes and filled out photocopying requests. A day in the room felt a bit like sitting an exam, for eight hours on end.
In Hull I worked my way through the Saville papers, moving from the 1950s through the ‘60s to the '70s. It was exciting to be handling some of Thompson’s own manuscripts and letters, which were often yellow, stamped by coffee mugs, and covered in corrections, exclamations, and curses in his wild handwriting. In all, I found about a dozen unpublished essays or articles, the longest of which ran to 15,000 words, hundreds of letters from Thompson to John Saville and others, and a smaller number of letters from Saville to other collaborators discussing Thompson and his work.
Because Saville had edited journals which had published Thompson, I was able to observe the composition, submission, and anguished revision of several classic texts, simply by following the letters between editor and writer. Each time I observed this process, I felt a little like I was peering over the shoulder of a midwife, watching the troublesome birth of a beautiful baby. Learning to listen
After I returned to New Zealand late in 2005, I found myself unpacking folder after folder of photocopies and notes, and pondering the complexity of Edward Palmer Thompson’s life and works. As I read my through more of his unpublished oeuvre, I began to lose some of the dogmatic confidence I had brought to my PhD.
There are many examples that could illustrate my change of heart, but I’ll use only one. I’d been inclined to judge Thompson harshly for belonging for a decade and a half to the pro-Stalin Communist Party, but then I read letters from Edward talking about the stark political situation of the late ‘40s and ‘50s, when the party seemed to be the only organisation in Britain that was prepared to oppose Britain’s brutal efforts to hold on to its empire in places like Kenya and Malaya, and when communists were the only trade unionists with the courage to stand up for causes like equal pay for women workers and the right of women schoolteachers to keep working after they married. I started to understand why Thompson stayed in the party so long, and how wrenching it must have been for him to leave his old comrades in 1956. Instead of imposing my own preconceptions on Thompson I listened to his voice.
I didn’t quite realise it at the time, but I was following in the path of Thompson himself when I began to listen to the voice of the archive. I still thought I was sitting in judgment of the man, but I was actually learning from him.
It is hard to believe now, but EP Thompson never intended to become a historian, and didn’t even consider himself a historian until at least halfway through his remarkable life. As a young Communist in the years after World War Two, Thompson joined the party’s literary organisation, not the legendary group of historians that included Eric Hobsbawm, Christopher Hill, Rodney Hilton, and John Saville. Until the late 1950s, at least, Thompson considered his main vocation to be poetry. Thompson came to history accidentally, as a result of his research into the great English painter, poet, and designer William Morris.
Thompson was a huge fan of Morris, and in the late '40s and early '50s he was appalled by the way that both sides of the Cold War were turning the man into a weapon in the battle between Moscow and Washington. Moscow’s allies in the leadership of the Communist Party of Great Britain claimed Morris as a communist, even though Morris advocated a decentralised, democratic form of socialism that had little in common with the society Stalin was creating in the Soviet Union. Conservatives in the West, on the other hand, saw Morris’ socialism as a childish mistake, which should be discussed separately from his art and literature.
The fight over Morris reflected the politicisation of the past during the Cold War. When George Orwell wrote 'he who controls the past controls the present' he might have been describing the mindset of the ideologists of Soviet communism and Western capitalism, who were determined to reinterpret the past to justify their poliical positions.
Thompson dived into the archives, and found the real William Morris there. The result was a nine-hundred page biography, which was published in 1955, at the height of the Cold War. William Morris: Romantic to Revolutionary
failed to satisfy either communists or conservatives, but in the more tolerant climate of the 1970s it was adjudged a classic, and reprinted. Today it remains a much-loved book.
‘When I wrote William Morris
...the material took hold of me’ Thompson once said. Throughout his career as a historian, Thompson emphasised the importance of careful research amongst primary sources - of 'listening' to the voices left in letters, diaries, court records, and even the reports of spies. In a 1976 interview he explained that:I think it is like being a painter or a poet. A poet loves words, a painter loves paint. I found a fascination in getting to the bottom of everything, in the sources themselves...[the scholar] has got be listening all the time. He should not set up a book or a research project with a totally clear sense of what he is going to be able to do. The material itself has got to speak to him. If he listens, then the material itself will begin to speak through him. And I think this happens.
Thompson’s argument that the scholar should not begin a research project with a completely clear idea of where he or she wants it to go is an important clue to his practice as a historian. For Thompson, documents like letters, diaries, and court transcripts mustn’t just exist to furnish prefabricated arguments with convenient examples and quotes - they must be allowed, or rather enabled, to speak to us, to challenge the prejudices we bring to them and, where necessary, to force us to change our interpretations of the past.
Thompson was a ferocious book reviewer, and he liked to put hatchets deep into the backs of historians and social scientists who didn’t share his passion for dialoguing with the past. He disliked historians who tried to approach their subjects scientifically, using tables of data and computers. He also tired of more conventional historians who filled their books with too much detail, and forgot that it was the job of the historian to dialogue with the past. In his review of Religion and the Decline of Magic
, a very influential book by the distinguished historian Keith Thomas, Thompson complained that:
[Thomas] proceeds, again and again, by the accumulation of instances, presented in rapid sequence…it is like flicking through a card index, when every now and then one glimpses an unusual card and wants to cry ‘stop!’…
To boil down 20 instances to a line or two apiece must, after all, entail much selectivity and the suppression of much attendant evidence. The reader must still place his confidence in the historian…
In the end, however ‘scientific’ our pretensions, we must make an act of faith…in the judgment of the historian…History today
What relevance does Thompson’s concept of a dialogue with the past have for us today? The Cold War finished long ago, and Thompson has been dead for fifteen years. Thompson’s biography of William Morris and The Making of the English Working Class
may be classics, but are they not the classics of another age? As you’ve probably guessed, I think that Thompson’s ideas about how to do historical research have a great deal of relevance for us today. The Cold War may be over, but the societies of the West still have trouble with history.
In our digital twenty-first century capitalist world, the past is all too often forgotten, as we succumb to the lure of the eternal present created by twenty-four hour news broadcasts and continually updated fashions. If the past does figure in our lives, as a source of entertainment or information, it is often presented to us in terms of the present.
We are arrogant enough to see our market-driven consumerist society as the culmination of - perhaps the consummation of - all history, and we judge history by our own standards, rather than submitting ourselves to its standards, or simply wondering at the otherness of distant epochs and societies. Some of us who are unhappy with the society of the twenty-first century show a strong interest in the past, but these people tend to treat history simply as an escape from the present. They try to vanish into the past, instead of setting up a dialogue between the past and the present.
(An analogy might be made here with our attitudes to the environment. All too often, we treat the environment as a sort of standing reserve – a mere resource, subordinated to our needs. We cover indigenous grassland with quick-growing radiata forests, which we harvest and turn into toilet paper. We turn hilltops into wind farms. We dam rivers so that our carparks can have all-night lighting. There is a reaction against this blatant subordination of nature to humanity, but it tends to involve a veneration of ‘virgin’ nature – that is, nature apart from humans. The importance of relating humans to the environment in a balanced way is forgotten.)
I want to use a couple of quite well-known biographical films from the past decade to help make my point about our problem with history. The first film I’ll mention is Richard Eyre's Iris
, which tells the story of Iris Murdoch, the novelist and philosopher. I did a bit of research on Murdoch, because she was a lover of EP Thompson’s brother, and I was fairly unimpressed with the picture of her presented in Iris
. Much of the film focuses on the young Murdoch’s adventurous sex life, ignoring her writing and her philosophy. This is not in itself bad – many people would say sex is as least as interesting as literature and philosophy - but the context in which the young Murdoch’s flings are portrayed was all wrong, because it assumed that a bit of playing around had the same meaning in the staid 1950s as it does now, when we have TV programmes like Sex and the City
and much more tolerant attitudes to female sexuality.
Back in the ‘40s and ‘50s, Iris Murdoch’s casual sex with men and affairs with women were very rebellious; now, they would be almost mainstream. Certainly, they wouldn’t have the political edge which they had in a much more repressive society. Rather than present Irish Murdoch as a daring rebel, who was a young communist, a career-oriented woman, and a sexual libertine in a sexist, repressive society, Eyre's movie shows her as an apolitical hedonist. Iris
views the fifties through the prism of the noughties, and consequently fails to do its subject justice.
Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ
is a very different movie. Those who have had the dubious pleasure of watching it will know that it is a very long drawn-out and bloody depiction of the last hours of Christ. On the surface, the film appears to be painstakingly historical: in the interests of authenticity the actors have gone to the trouble of learning the now-dead language of Aramaic, and no expense has spared on period sets.
Gibson espouses an extremely conservative brand of Roman Catholicism, and regards the modern world, with its sex shops and strip malls and mini-skirts, as an abomination. His movie’s versilimitude reflects his desire to escape into a purer past. And it is just this feature of Gibson’s film which prevents it from being truly historical, despite all its period pretensions. Gibson’s Christ is a collection of pious details, not a flesh and blood character, and his crucifixion does not move us. The Passion of the Christ
won’t help Christians grapple with any of the problems they face today, because the film is designed to have nothing at all to do with the world of today. It deals in absolutisms that are alien to those of us who live in a complex and contradictory world. It is an escape into the past, not a dialogue with the past.
In their very different ways, then, both Iris
and The Passion of the Christ
fail to deal properly with their subjects, and with history.
How do we dialogue with the past? How do we dialogue in ordinary life – with a friend, for example? Creating a dialogue may seem like an easy thing to do, but in fact it takes skill. If I sit down with a friend and talk a great deal about myself or my interests, dominating the conversation, then I am are not taking part in a dialogue. Conversely, if I withdraw, and let my friend dictate the subject and tone of the conversation, then I am not dialoguing. I can only create a dialogue if I find the correct distance between myself and an other – if I let the other be an other, yet also engage with him or her.
We need to find the same sort of balance when we deal with the past. We can’t withdraw from the past – we have to interrogate it, and the questions we ask it have to reflect the problems and preoccupations of the present. At the same time, we have to acknowledge the distance and the otherness of the past, and make an effort to understand it in its own terms. Technical points
You’re probably thinking that this talk about hearing the voice of the past and respecting the mighty dead is all well and good, but also rather vague. How exactly do we apply such talk, as researchers and writers? I want to discuss a couple of techniques which EP Thompson used in his historical research, and which I found useful in my PhD research. Both techniques can help us to escape from the arrogance of the present, without falling into mere antiquarianism.
The first technique was pioneered in Germany in the nineteenth century, and imported into Britain by the left-wing sociologists Sidney and Beatrice Webb at the beginning of the twentieth century. It involves the scholar writing out the information gathered in research on a series of cards; often, just one fact, event or name is kept on each card. Once scored or hundreds of cards relating to a given topic of research have been accumulated, they can be shuffled and viewed in many different orders.
I know it sounds rather old-fashioned, in this digital age, but the card method of research allows us to reassemble reality in all sorts of interesting ways. By letting us mix up different people and events and dates in arbitrary orders, it helps us to escape the teleogical tyranny of chronology, and to ignore conventional ideas about what is important. Beatrice Webb, who was normally a rather dour woman, wrote of the fun that she and Sidney had on long winter evenings, sitting beside the fireplace and playing what she called ‘games with reality’ with their piles of cards.
EP Thompson loved to play games with reality, and some of his most famous works had their origin in a pile of dog-eared research cards. His essay on the sale of wives in nineteenth century England, for example, had its origin in a set of cards he began keeping after reading a description in hardy novel of a man taking his wife to the market and selling her for a few shillings. Over twenty years, Thompson repeatedly bumped into references to wives being sold as he worked away in archives and old books researching various other subjects. Every time he found a reference to a wife sale, he wrote it on a card. Eventually he had a fat pile of cards, and as he shuffled them about he realised that the traditional interpretation of the sale of wives, which said that the practice was a barbaric expression of male chauvinism, was badly flawed.
Thompson noticed that often the wife consented to being sold, that the sale usually involved only a small, symbolic amount of money, and that it tended to be followed by a party. Looking closely at the reports he had gathered, and ignoring famous but fictional cases like the incident in Hardy’s novel, he realised that the sale was a way that a married woman who was unhappy with her husband could leave him for a new man. Thompson concluded that, far from being a sexist barbarity, the wife sale was a working class substitute for divorce, in an age when an official divorce was only available to the wealthy.
I wrote the outline of each of the hundreds of letters I found in the archive at Hull on cards, and then arranged and rearranged them. As if by magic, unexpected correspondences and new avenues for research emerged.
The other technical trick I wanted to mention is sometimes called the 'keyhole effect'. It has been used very effectively by my PhD supervisor Ian Carter, who moved in the same scholarly circles as EP Thompson in the 1970s and was powerfully influenced by the man.
Last year Carter published a book called British Railway Enthusiasm
, which investigates the mysterious world of train spotters, builders of model railways, rail line preservationists, and others for whom rail is much more than a means of transport. Despite its author’s labours in the archives, British Railway Enthusiasm
is not the work of a detached academic observer: Carter admits to having spent much of his youth chasing trains, and suggests that his academic research into railway enthusiasm can perhaps be considered ‘an indulgence’. In a long, elegant introductory chapter he mixes a narrative of the history of British railways with memories of his own adventures on the station platforms and in the rusty repair sheds of post-war Luton.
When does indulgence become self-indulgence? Is a mind as supple as Carter’s wasted on a subject as modest as railway-related hobbyism? Should this senior scholar not be devoting himself to an analysis of the crises of capitalism, or a study of the social implications of global warming, or an examination of the state of Western democracy? Questions like these have been muttered by sociologists who mistake grand research subjects for important research results. Such people misunderstand the method at work in British Railway Enthusiasm
, and in some of EP Thompson’s finest works. Thompson and Carter both like to select a single, relatively limited subject as a sort of ‘keyhole’ through which he can view a whole society and era.
What can we see through the keyhole that is British Railway Enthusiasm
? On one level, the book is a series of studies of different aspects of the railway enthusiast’s ‘life world’. Carter documents the explosion of train spotting in the forties, and the rise of a sophisticated railway modelling hobby in the same period. He laments the decline of these and other railway enthusiasms in more recent decades, and casts a cool eye over Britain’s burgeoning ‘railway heritage’ industry.
Carter is not content simply to describe milieux that have frequently been shrouded in mystery and misrepresentation: he also has something important to say about the Britain of the second half of the twentieth century. His book shows that, far from being the product of some odd English quirk or a mass outbreak of Asperger’s Symdrome, the rise of railway enthusiasm was a product of the particular qualities of post-war British society. Despite being superseded by the United States as the world’s pre-eminent capitalist power, post-war Britain remained an industrial superpower, with a huge, highly skilled working class. The ‘brief flowering of social democracy’ which began with the election of the Attlee government increased the spare time, job security, and incomes of many workers. What is sometimes called the ‘leisure sector’ of the economy increased enormously, absorbing workers’ free time and disposable income. Carter notes that railway modelling, in particular, represented a way that Britons could use their work skills for pleasure, away from the demands of the market and managers.
The ‘keyhole’ technique but can be an important tool in study, and also in exposition. Often when we consider a subject – the whole life of a person, or a whole historical era – we can become intimidated by the amount of detail available for study. Where do we start? Where do we end? By choosing a particular area through which to view the whole, we can find ourselves a research foothold. A ‘keyhole’ view can help us when we write, as well – rather than spending thousands of pages describing an enormously detailed subject, we can filter that subject through an interesting angle in a few hundred or few dozen pages.
I used the 'keyhole' technique by focusing my PhD thesis on four texts that Thompson wrote between 1959 and 1978, and collected in his book The Poverty of Theory and Other Essays
. By filtering Thompson's extraordinary life and vast body of writing through the prism of four relatively short texts, I was able to deal with a wide range of subjects, from World War Two to post-nationalist Indian politics to William Blake's religious beliefs, wthout becoming one of those unshaven, red-eyed spectres shuffling down the endless corridors of the Human Sciences Building.
I wish you all the best of luck with your own adventures in research.