The historian as DJ
The proliferation of suburbs of the web devoted to paranoid conspiracy theories, and the apparently endless 'news' items, at corporate sites like Yahoo and Hotmail, on the state of Kim Kardashian's bottom or Britney Spears' marriage fill me with a mixture of self-righteousness and despair, and make me wonder whether human civilisation might have reached an intellectual and aesthetic peak back in the 1980s, when I owned a twenty-four colour Amstrad computer and used a bright red rotary dial telephone rather than a modem to communicate.
When I visit New Zealand's most popular blog and find people arguing there for hours on end about whether Obama is a secret Muslim, a secret communist, a secret Kenyan, or all three, then I wonder if such a deep rot must have begun before the era of the modem. If Kiwiblog is the legacy of mass literacy, then perhaps the Gutenberg revolution and the Reformation were not such good things, after all?
But I can never quite convert to the curious creed known as primitivism. Every time I'm about to smash up my creaking laptop and take to the backyard with a trowel and potato seeds in an attempt to escape modernity I discover, more or less by chance, some strange and wonderful corner of the internet. Today, for instance, I somehow found my way to the doorstep of the online archive of the BBC's Desert Island Discs programme.
For seven decades now, the Beeb has been asking a series of famous and not-so-famous guests to imagine being sent alone to a desert island, and to consider what music and books they might bring with them into solitude. In between listening to excerpts from their favourite pieces of music, guests are asked generally good-natured questions about their life and work.
Despite or because of its whimsical premise, Desert Island Discs often makes fascinating listening. Politicians, writers, and academics who might watch their words carefully during a 'serious' interview relax and reveal themselves as they spin their favourite tunes in Bush House.
In November 1991, less than two years before his death, the British historian and political activist EP Thompson turned up on an episode of Desert Island Discs.
By the beginning of the '90s Thompson's health had been ruined by Legionnaire's Disease and several related illnesses, and during his chat with Sue Lawley, the long-time host of Desert Island Discs, he can often be heard struggling for breath. Knowing that his body was failing, Thompson had shelved the anti-nuclear activism which had taken up much of his energy in the 1980s, and devoted himself to finishing several books. When he appeared on Discs Thompson was hard at work on a study of his missionary father's friendship, early in the twentieth century, with Rabindranath Tagore, the Nobel-winning Bengali poet and critic of the West. He was also attempting to write up some lectures he had given in the 1970s on his brother Frank Thompson, who had fought in World War Two alongside Bulgarian partisans before being captured and executed in mysterious circumstances. As if the extraordinary lives of his father and brother weren't enough to keep him busy, Thompson was also at work on a book about his longtime literary and political hero, William Blake. Thompson's poor health and the nature of his books-in-progress meant that he became accustomed, in the early '90s, to looking back reflectively over his life and times. After a little prompting from Lawley, he tells the Desert Island Discs audience about growing up in his parents' 'radical liberal' Oxford home, where lunch guests included Jawaharlal Nehru and Mahatma Gandhi, about commanding a tank brigade during World War Two, about his time in the pro-Moscow Communist Party of Great Britain and his decision to leave in 1956, after the exposure of Stalin's crimes and the invasion of Hungary by Stalin's successor, about the research that produced masterpieces of scholarship like The Making of the English Working Class, and about his decades of toil in Europe's anti-nuclear movement. Thompson's reflections on his life and works are punctuated by observations about the events of the late '80s and early '90s, especially the collapse of the Soviet bloc and the end of the Cold War.
Thompson is famous for popularising a 'history from below' which focuses on the experiences of weavers and mill workers rather than Kings and Prime Ministers. Unlike many of the scholars he inspired, though, he was never keen to use oral history in his books. Thompson accepted that storytelling is widely favoured as a way of preserving and transmitting history, but he believed that stories change uncontrollably as they pass from one teller to another, so that they quickly become unreliable. Thompson preferred to oral history the testimony of written documents - court records, letters, diaries, and so on. He recognised that these documents reflected the ideologies of their makers, and the prejudices of their times, but he believed that he could, through a process of 'interrogation', tease out biases and arrive at something resembling truth. Thompson may have mistrusted old stories, but he would have been happy, I think, to study the fragments of talk which we can preserve and transmit using modern technology. Like the nineteenth century documents Thompson loved to interrogate, and unlike a folk story, an audio or video interview can't be altered as it is transmitted. It therefore allows us to enter a particular historical moment.
Listening to Thompson's appearance on Desert Island Discs, we are able to enter a moment in history which has grown surprisingly distant. Speaking a couple of months after the fall of Mikhail Gorbachev and the banning of his Communist Party and a few weeks before the formal dissolution of the Soviet Union, Thompson argues that the peace movement he led played a vital role in defeating Stalinism and ending the Cold War, and looks forward to a better world where violence will be a less common way of settling disputes. Today, Thompson's claims for the peace movement seem dubious, and his hopes for the post-Cold War era seem misplaced.
As Thompson himself knew, though, snap judgments about the past and predictions for the future are both risky enterprises. The author of The Making of the English Working Class had no real desire to be a pop historian or a soothsayer. What is most interesting about Thompson's Desert Islands Disc appearance is the conflict between his sense of himself and the public legend which had, by the last years of his life, grown up around him.
As Sue Lawley repeatedly tries to present him as some quintessential left-wing firebrand - an incorrigible "fighter" who was wildly popular with radical students in the 1960s and '70s, and who has refused to mellow with age - Thompson becomes noticeably uncomfortable, stammering and muttering and eventually insisting that he believes that "politics and scholarship" should not mix, and that teachers should not "abuse" their positions by seeking to influence their students' opinions.
Despite his reputation as some sort of English Marcuse or Fanon, Thompson had a troubled, ambiguous relationship with the radical students he taught in the '60s and '70s. Thompson got his politics from nineteenth century Romantics and from English plebian movements like Levellers and the Chartists. His vision of the future relied heavily on the British past.
Thompson disdained the youth counterculture of the 1960s, with its drugs and odd clothes and odder music, and the 'Third Worldism' which saw young Briton radicals of the time idolising Che Guevara and Louis Althusser, rather than Blake and Morris. He rather unfairly denounced the youth uprisings of 1968 as a 'rich kids' revolutionary farce', and advised some of the 'hairy' and 'lazy' students he taught at Warwick University to 'join a really well-disciplined organisation, like the Officer Training Corps or the Communist Party'.
Thompson's misgivings about the radical youth of the 1960s and '70s reflect a broader unease with the world of the second half of the twentieth century. Thompson saw the period from the outbreak of the Spanish Civil War until the defeat of Hitler as a 'decade of heroes', when the creation of a new and better world was a real possibility, but felt that history had taken a wrong turn in the postwar decades. The pot smoking Baby Boomer students were only one aspect of a generalised decline.
It was in the clash between Thompson's romantic political vision and a less than romantic reality that his best work was forged. He was inspired to write The Making of the English Working Class, for instance, by the contrast between the heroic history of struggles against tyranny and capitalism in early nineteenth century Yorkshire and the apathetic society he found after moving to the West Riding in the late 1940s.
We can see something of Thompson's character if we examine the music he chose for Desert Island Discs. Sue Lawley might have presented him as a modern radical, but Thompson displayed no interest at all in the music that acted as a soundtrack for the protests of the 1960s and '70s. Instead of The Beatles or Dylan or the Stones, he reaches for Henry Purcell, who created an English form of classical music in the seventeenth century, and Peter Warlock, the Anglo-Welsh occultist who turned some of the more romantic poems of Yeats into songs and died in obscure and possibly sinister circumstances in 1930.
We are reminded of Thompson's involvement in the fight against fascism when we hear Paul Robeson's version of 'Peat Bog Soldiers', a song written by an inmate of a Nazi slave labour camp and taken up as an anthem by the armies of Republican Spain. Thompson honours his family's link to India with a song by Rabindranath Tagore - but he chooses to play Tagore's version of 'Auld Lang Syne', rather than some tune drawn from Bengali tradition. He favours popular music over highbrow symphonies and concertos, but he consistently chooses the popular music of the past over post-war fashions like rock and jazz. Musically as well as politically, Thompson resists easy categorisation.
[Posted by Maps/Scott]