Convenient Death of a Hero

Arnold Rattenbury

  • Beyond the Frontier: the Politics of a Failed Mission, Bulgaria 1944 by E.P. Thompson
    Merlin/Stanford, 120 pp, £12.95, December 1996, ISBN 0 85036 457 4

E.P. Thompson, historian and peacemaker, known as Edward to his friends, died at his home near Worcester in 1993. Four years on, Beyond the Frontier is a volume of material set aside far earlier. Indeed, there occurs in it a passing reference to ‘the raw material for half-finished books on William Blake and Customs in Common’, works long since published. From the mid-Eighties mountainous illness surrounded Edward, from which he nonetheless retrieved the last big works: Customs in Common (1991), which traced a disappearing culture back over ground where he had earlier seen ‘the making of the English Working Class’; the hugely original Witness against the Beast (1993) about Blake; the far less noticed Alien Homage (1993), about his father’s see-saw relationship with Rabindranath Tagore (his father, also Edward Thompson: Indianist, novelist, Georgian poet, polemicist, editor, hereinafter Old Edward – which is how I knew him). All these books are of a piece, inveighing against an academicism which mythologises history, against his hated ‘anti-history’ and attempting a greater order of clarity. In Alien Homage he abominates ‘abbreviated categories which too often close enquiry before it has commenced. Some in the West are prisoners of vast undiscriminating categories ... and bring those ready-made slide-rules to measure, and often to obliterate, the complexities of the past.’ That could stand as motto for all three works. Beyond the Frontier is hacked from the same hard material, and came first.

The book is basically three lectures given at Stanford University in 1981 about the war-time murder, in Bulgaria, of his admired and beloved brother, and about so-say histories and myths arising from that event. The lectures have been reconstructed, from extensive notes and drafts, by the historian Dorothy Thompson, Edward’s widow, who also supplies a brief Introduction and a briefer Epilogue. All this is done with astonishing reticence. Although Dorothy Thompson shared in the determining research both in Bulgaria and in War Office archives during the Seventies, the voice is indisputably Edward’s, even down to the habit – his since schooldays – of sliding a verbal whoopee-cushion under any undue solemnity and, for that matter, of inventing solemnity in order to do so: ‘Bowed with years I stand before you and offer you my methodological advice, the fruit of many years of research. It is this. If you find yourself in the back of an official Volga car, talking through an interpreter to a high military officer of a Warsaw Pact country, then watch it.’

On 31 May 1944, Major Frank Thompson, wearing the British uniform that should have protected him, was captured along with the Bulgarian Partisans to whom he was attached, near Likatova, north of Sofia, found guilty at a staged trial, and publicly shot on 5 June. His bearing throughout was by all accounts courageous, even blithe. News of the event was slow to reach Britain, but by 1947 Frank’s mother Theodosia and Edward, now demobilised – he had been fighting in the Italian campaign at the time of Frank’s death – were able to publish a memoir, There Is a Spirit in Europe. This included such material as was then available, gathered both in Britain and in Bulgaria: an apparently eye-witness account of the trial and shooting, many of Frank’s poems, journal entries and letters to his parents, to Edward and to Iris Murdoch. Such memorials had become almost a convention of the times, at least on the intellectual left – Frank was both intellectual and Communist – following similar books in memory of John Cornford, Julian Bell and David Haden-Guest, all killed in the Spanish Civil War. (The present title, Beyond the Frontier, nods towards Stansky and Abrahams’s 1966 Journey to the Frontier, a reworking of the lives of Cornford and Bell.) Immediately after the war Frank became for many of us an emblem of anti-Fascist heroism – a glorious simplicity where much was soon to become murky. And indeed, his story has remained emblem-simple in the mind. Beyond the Frontier is largely about the many ways in which it never was straightforward.

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