The Cookson Story

Stefan Collini

  • The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose
    Yale, 534 pp, £29.95, June 2001, ISBN 0 300 08886 8

Reading may not make the world go round but it can make it go away, for a while. If one’s world is dirty, poor, oppressive and unfair, then that may be no small service. Books furnish the mind in a form that the bailiffs cannot repossess. If we could recover the reading practices of past generations, we would be in touch with an experience that was at once intimate and formative, on a par with, even part of, the history of love. But reading is, for the most part (at least in recent centuries), a private activity. What can we know of all those quiet hours that have left so little direct trace in the historical record? The literary tradition yields some evidence for select members of the well-connected, articulate, document-preserving classes, but what of the little recorded majority? In Britain, the ‘working classes’ (pragmatically defined) made up more than 70 per cent of the population until at least the middle of the 20th century. Can there be a proper history of working-class reading?

Jonathan Rose believes that there can be, and after five hundred pages, 24 tables and more than 1600 footnotes it’s clear he has a point. His introduction (still more the publisher’s blurb) makes much of the book’s ‘innovative research techniques’, the need to shift attention from text to reader, from elite readers to working-class readers, and so on. Such work has not been unheard of in the last decade or so, but Rose certainly demonstrates how much can be learned by the energetic and resourceful combing of some familiar, and some less familiar, types of evidence. The sources on which he relies most heavily are the various kinds of autobiography and memoir written by those from working-class or other modest backgrounds, people who had usually received very little formal schooling, at least until the middle years of the 20th century. He also makes good use of library records, educational archives, oral histories and Mass Observation and early social surveys.

The real subject of his book is not ‘the intellectual life of the British working classes’, but ‘the reading habits of the autodidact tradition within the British industrial working class from the early 19th century to the mid 20th’. It’s still a big and underexplored subject, and the results of his enterprising research make fascinating reading. But his attempts to arrive at historical generalisations run aground on the awkward, indeed insuperable, difficulty that the autobiographers on whose testimony he so largely relies were, by the very fact of their writings, exceptional. At times he acknowledges this, and tries to get round it by supplementing their testimony with other forms of evidence. But the fact remains that what we mostly have here is anecdotal evidence, drawn from those who had a particular fondness for telling this kind of anecdote about themselves later in their lives.

No doubt experts in the burgeoning field of the ‘history of the book’ will want to take issue with Rose on this and similar grounds, but his work provides a great deal of information enlivened by often moving individual stories – weavers propping books up on their looms, miners disputing the merits of their favourite poets while digging coal, office boys reading far into the night to sustain themselves through the tedium of another day in the counting-house. We hear of feats of reading that would merit a place in some literary equivalent of Wisden (‘the largest number of multi-volume histories read by a Lancashire cotton-spinner’). And on a few occasions we stumble on episodes that would be more at home in the Alice books or even Monty Python, such as this account of a group of London police constables between the wars:

They clubbed together to buy used BBC classical records from a Shaftesbury Avenue shop. They circulated among themselves copies of the New Statesman and a collective season ticket to the Promenade Concerts at Queen’s Hall. They read Proust and Spengler, Macaulay and Gibbon, Tom Paine and Cobbett, Hume and Herbert Spencer. They never missed a Harold Laski public lecture. They went in a solid phalanx to hear Shaw, Belloc and Chesterton debate at Kingsway Hall. And they formed an archaeological group to look for relics of Norman and Roman London whenever they happened to have freshly excavated building sites on their beats.

Policemen don’t only look younger these days: they read less Proust, too.

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