Coming home one evening in the last weeks of 1962, I found a bottle of wine in the vacated room, with a note underneath. Edward Thompson had been completing The Making of the English Working-Class. He lived in Halifax, and needed a final couple of weeks in the British Museum. In those days I lived in Talbot Road, newly wed to Juliet Mitchell. She was teaching in Leeds, while I was working for New Left Review in London. After hours Edward and I would exchange notes on our day, and fence amiably about history and sociology. ‘Do you really think Weber is more important than Marc Bloch?’ he would ask me with an air of mischievous puzzlement. If we were more circumspect about politics, this was partly a question of tact – he didn’t want to lean on me too heavily, as a cub editor of the journal of which he was a founder. But there was also a trick of perception to which I was subject.
Edward seemed not just one, but virtually two generations older, since between us lay those – the cohort of Stuart Hall or Raphael Samuel – who had co-founded the New Left, from beginnings in the Fifties rather than the Forties. His looks assisted the illusion, the handsome features at once melodramatically mobile and geologically deep-set, a landscape of wild scarp and gulley. It was the conjuncture, of course, that clinched it – never did differences of age, however slight, loom so large as at that time. Larkin got the date about right, even if he skipped over the Stones. But at the time the librarian from Hull was probably no wiser than the historian from Halifax, who viewed talk of generational divisions impatiently, as a way of avoiding difficult arguments. The result was the same, even if it felt more like an inhibition than evasion to me. We had few political discussions. I was on the train down from Leeds as he came up from London, work complete, leaving behind what seemed like a still-life of baffled goodwill. It was not until the Seventies that I realised, to my astonishment, that he was then 38.
In the following year, the connections between the founders of NLR and its new editors unravelled. The journal had been stranded by the ebb of CND, and was struggling without much success for a new direction. Practical disputes and intellectual differences left Edward increasingly out of sympathy with the crew in Carlisle Street. He felt, justifiably, that the journal was drifting amorphously away from its past without having settled any account with it, and had no political confidence in its future. There were occasional explosions. But his attitude to the youngsters was fundamentally generous, and when the time came he ensured a clear hand-over of the old board to them, without rancour. Whatever his forebodings, he was not possessive.
When the journal found its feet, in the shape it more or less still has today, Edward’s position altered. By the end of 1964, NLR had developed the kind of political perspective he had taxed us with lacking, and a set of historical theses about the relationship of the national past to the present British crisis, as we saw it. Edward liked neither part. But now, at last, a real confrontation was possible. Would the review, he wrote me, be ready to publish a full-length critique by him – ‘presumably written in my notoriously ill-natured polemical manner’? We would welcome one, I nervously replied, but didn’t want a slanging match. Sensibly, Edward let fly in the Socialist Register instead. The result was one of his most celebrated essays, ‘The Peculiarities of the English’. Stung by its ferocity, I replied in kind. The exchange had a sort of back-handed symmetry. Edward attacked us for inaccurate reading of historical evidence: I attacked him for inaccurate handling of textual evidence. What had astonished me were the corners be cut in representing the arguments he wanted to refute, which I couldn’t match with anything he stood for as a historian. This was a generic mistake on my part. Polemic is a discourse of conflict, whose effect depends on a delicate balance between the requirements of truth and the enticements of anger, the duty to argue and the zest to inflame. Its rhetoric allows, even enforces, a certain figurative licence. Like epitaphs in Johnson’s adage, it is not under oath.
I was not alone in failing to see this. A few years earlier, Edward had published a review of Raymond Williams’s Long Revolution in NLR, which was more temperate in tone than his treatment of Tom Nairn and myself, but more wounding in effect. One of his charges was that Raymond had become half-absorbed, in manner and preoccupation, by the ruling-class academy. ‘Oh, the sunlit quadrangle, the clinking of glasses of port, the quiet converse of enlightened men!’ It is not surprising the signalman’s son took this amiss. In fact, Edward had admirably explained his address. Speaking of ‘genuine communication’, Raymond had said: ‘You can feel the pause and effort; the necessary openness and honesty of a man listening to another, in good faith, and then replying.’ Edward replied: ‘Burke abused, Cobbett inveighed, Arnold was capable of malicious insinuation, Carlyle, Ruskin and Lawrence, in their middle years, listened to no one. This may be regrettable: but I cannot see that the communication of anger, indignation or even malice, is any less genuine.’ Here, en toutes lettres, is the polemicist’s warrant. Edward’s own indignations of this period were literary carmagnoles, without personal animus. A few months after my counterattack on him, I ran into him into a pub off Tottenham Court Road. Edward, whom I hadn’t seen for three years, was good nature itself.
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