Tuesday, February 08, 2011

A last e mail from Dorothy

I have a bad habit of waking in the middle of the night, shuffling from the bedroom to the spare room, turning on the computer I keep there, and checking my e mail.

One of the people responsible for the formation of this habit was Dorothy Thompson, the British historian, political activist and widow of Edward Palmer Thompson. Over the past five years Dorothy and I swapped hundreds of e mails. She tended to write her messages in the middle of the British day; I'd receive them eagerly in the early hours of the antipodean morning. When I was researching my PhD on her husband, I fired Dorothy, who had already met me face to face during my research trip to Blighty and been perturbed by my poor taste in liquor, all sorts of irritatingly pedantic questions about matters like Edward's reading habits in 1967, the logistics of producing a left-wing magazine on a small budget in the late '50s, and the seating arrangement at a History Workshop debate in 1979.

After I began to adapt my PhD into a book, the questions only became more frequent, and more pedantic. With commendable patience Dorothy answered all my inquiries, and she also did her best to introduce a certain levity into our exchanges, telling me stories about cats, giving me some gossip gleaned from her vast circle of friends and family members, and baiting me with remarks about the 'cosy isolation' and 'ugly forests' of New Zealand. I reciprocated with reports on the minor absurdities of the Auckland literary scene, with photos of family cats, and with deliberately provocative suggestions that the Pacific, and not exhausted Europe or exhausting China, is the most interesting region of the world to inhabit in the twenty-first century.

On the Thursday of the week before last I rose in the night to check my e mail, and was unsurprised to find two epistles from Dorothy. But only a couple of days after she had fired off these typically witty, typically astringent messages, Dorothy died in her local Worcester hospital. She was eighty-seven, and she had for some time alluded in her e mails to her physical decline, even warning me in a jokey tone that she might not live to see the arrival of my book in April, but her death nevertheless came as a shock. I feel like she has stopped speaking in mid-sentence.

I still feel too sad to write the extended tribute Dorothy deserves (fortunately, Sheila Rowbotham has produced a fine obituary for The Guardian), but I thought I'd reproduce one of the e mails she sent me on Thursday, the 27th of January. Dorothy was a regular reader of this blog, and the e mail reproduced below was her response to a post in which I discussed the conflict that often seems to exist, on the left at least, between intellectual and political work.

My blog post and the discussion which followed it had sent Dorothy's agile mind back to the fateful year of 1956, when turmoil in Eastern Europe, the acknowledgement and then effacement of Stalin's crimes by Krushchev, and the Soviet invasion of Hungary had combined to cause a massive split in Britain's pro-Kremlin Communist Party. Some of the refugees from the Communist Party dropped out of politics, or turned to the right; others, including the Thompsons, established the journals and local activist groups which marked the beginning of the anti-Stalinist, anti-capitalist, intellectually adventurous movement that became known, in Britain at least, as the first New Left.

Many of the Communist Party's intellectuals left the organisation in 1956, but a few stayed loyal, contriving justifications for the crimes of Stalin and the repression of the Hungarian revolution by Soviet tanks. The message Dorothy sent on the 27th shows that she never lost her contempt for intellectuals who put loyalty to a party line ahead of loyalty to the truth:

Your last note in which you talked about the difference between a political activist and a Marxist thinker set me thinking. I find it difficult to be charitable about... people...in positions of influence - power if you like - at moments in the actual history in which we were taking part that made a real difference. If the British Communist Party and the intellectuals who supported it had come out openly in 1956 - siding with the dissidents in the Eastern block and with the many good non-communist left people in the crashing colonial countries it might have been possible to see the emergenece of a non-communist social democratic left in Europe in the 'seventies and eighties and onwards. These people were not just chaps who had different policies. If they had been in power - as their counterparts were in parts of E. Europe, our people would have been bumped off. They did plenty of sneaky things - like reporting Peter Fryer [the journalist for the British Communist Party's paper who was sent to report on the Hungarian revolution and ended up siding with the revolutionaries] to the Franco authorities when he and his girl friend were in Spain with dodgy documents, and plenty of other bits and pieces. As it was they were mostly academic and futile but by refusing to condemn the Soviet neuclear weapons they made the work of the Peace movement much more difficult throughout Europe. So I am less indulgent about them.

Dorothy was never a grim person, and the second half of her e mail turned to lighter matters, and took on a playful tone:

The other thing that occurred to me when I was looking at the great row of biographies and autobiographies on my shelf - Doris Lessing, Iris Murdoch, Peter Worsley, Ralph Russell, John Saville, Eric Hobsbawm, John Lucas, Ralph Miliband etc.etc. is that the version of their lives that these books present is very different from the ones in my memory. Some one whose name I can't recall for the moment, tho the book is next door on the same shelf, wrote a little volume on "The Iris Murdoch I knew" when Peter Conradi's book came out. It was very irreverent and very funny. I could do a book on foibles of famous lefties which might be quite a revelation. In fact, the experience of knowing people who are the subjects of books has made me even more suspicious of biography and autobiography as sources for the history of a period than I was before. I always told my graduates that such sources should rarely be used without support from other sources and I have always been extrememy suspicious of the so-called "oral history", not because reminiscence is not of value but because it is so very dodgy. Still I don't think that book will get written. Best D

Dorothy didn't get to write a last, scandalous book, but she made a good start on it in the many wonderful e mails she sent me as I was writing first my PhD and then my book about her late husband. I'd like to think that some of her insights and asperities have made their way into my text. I will miss those late night e mails.


Blogger Dougal said...

Thanks very much for posting this, Maps.

Dorothy Thompson's work on the Chartists has been a real source of inspiration, ideas and thought: she was a fine writer, a sharp mind, and a committed socialist. I've got a copy of that 70s collection "The Early Chartists" which I treasure.

We're all the poorer with her passing.

4:28 pm  
Blogger Liz said...

Very sorry to read this Scott. She came across as a fascinating sharp witted and very highly intelligent person. I'll echo Dougal's sentiments We're all poorer for her passing. Thanks for posting this.

5:06 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Yes, it is very sad that she missed the publication of your book Maps.

She sounds like she was a very insightful, highly intelligent, committed, concerned, warm, and a very human person.

7:23 pm  
Blogger Carey said...

What a shame - on a personal level for you Scott but also to lose a survivor from one of the most intriguing and unique moments in the thought of the British left.

It sounds like she enjoyed her email banter with you anyway - despite the blatant tropical chauvinism!

10:44 pm  
Anonymous Phil said...

Sorry to hear this. My only contact with DT was when I sent her copies of some correspondence with EPT; shouldn't think she did much with it.

Have you read Lisa Jardine & Julia Swindells' attack on EPT, by the way? Very negative & quite caustic in parts, but I felt (regretfully) that they made some telling points.

10:58 am  
Blogger maps said...

Here's a tribute to Dorothy from one of her more wayward students:


Phil, I expect that your correspondence with EPT is now sitting with his papers in the Bodleian library, waiting for the magical year of 2043, when the embargo Dorothy placed on those papers will expire!

Were you talking about the discussion of EPT in Jardine and Swindells' book What's Left?

'Tropical chauvinism' has a nice ring to it, Carey. Do you still obstinately deny that Tonga is the strategic centre of contemporary geopolitics and the world-historic centre of proletarian revolution?

Richard, I sent Dorothy a copy of Private Bestiary for Xmas and she was reading it with great interest (well - that's what she told me anyway!). I think the fact that Smithyman had been at the University of Leeds in 1969 and had been knocking about the 'Thompson country' of the West Riding writing poems intrigued her. A meeting between Smithyman and the Thompsons would have been quite an intellectual event.

5:20 pm  
Blogger Richard said...

Maps - she would she would have enjoyed Bestiary - that and your poetry book is a great start to your career... Ted and I met up the other day and talked of poetics etc and lit and so on and some politics and he said that while we mustn't tell Scott (!!), his work is very very good...!!

But, yes, Smithyman. When I recall the very skilled mix of he gritty and the "tough" and the "real" with the allusions, the imaginative leaps, and the lyrical (influence of Modernist poetry but also Elizabethan and even some surrealist & symbolist techniques); and his unique almost halting style. A style whereby he is almost musing aloud and then sometimes he almost turns on the reader (perhaps following Eliot with his: "Hyprocrite lecteur, mon semblable, mon frere...!" borrowed from Baudelaire...it becomes clearer all the time that Smithyman is possibly NZ's greatest poet ever. Certainly for the time and for most of the years that he was active as a writer. I feel that he surpasses or is on a par with Allan Curnow.

So with his wide knowledge of history, literature, even natural history, etc they would have found him very interesting. Perhaps their politics wouldn't coincide, but then whose does?

9:29 pm  
Blogger Carey said...

Everybody knows the epicentre of mankind's revolutionary struggle and the engine of global-historical development is Sheffield - to suggest otherwise is insidious bourgeois propaganda!

4:21 am  
Anonymous Phil said...

Yes, What's Left. As I remember it the argument was that whenever EPT was called on to define socialist humanism he gestured vaguely towards Raymond Williams, who didn't have a political philosophy so much as an impressionistic mixture of Marx and Leavis. Which sounds cartoonish, but it seemed fairly convincing at the time. Mostly I was taken aback by how lacking in reverence they were towards Raymond W. - I'd studied under Lisa at Jesus College Cambridge, with Raymond in residence (although he almost never got involved in the life of the English Faculty), and I'd assumed that they were all friends together.

12:27 pm  

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