Reply to Dorothy Thompson and Fred Inglis
What initially inspired me to study the British New Left was not just an awareness of the intellectual importance and political urgency of its legacy, but a curious attraction to its charismatic personalities. As a matter of fact, and understandably since he was personally involved, Gareth Stedman Jones did not tell me more than what was absolutely necessary—preliminary reading and where to find the people whom I wished to interview. He rarely made comments about them, certainly never any gossip. As a result, and also because of my own tendency to feel nervous about bothering others, I frequently worked from common-sense knowledge of a culture which was nonetheless unfamiliar to me, and sometimes got hung up on trivial details. Before I met him, I remember being puzzled by the names Ralph Samuel and Raphael Samuel, for example, and only turned to my supervisor to confirm that they were the same person after hours searching in the library. I have always considered the History Workshop movement to be an extraordinarily valuable undertaking, as was its journal as a socialist and feminist publication—despite the recent dropping of its subtitle. Another case was my tracing of the influence of the English tradition of literary criticism on Raymond Williams, from Leavis and Scrutiny to the otherwise remote Bloomsbury group of which I knew nothing except the names of its famous members. The visible outcome in the book of all my effort at an extensive reading of Bloomsbury was no more than a footnote, but I was pleased to have done it without troubling Gareth with elementary questions. He taught me, rather, a great deal in a more general and fundamental way, about historical study. I was fascinated by his graduate course on Utopian socialism, for instance, not to mention his highly acclaimed Outcast London or The Language of Class; over the latter there has been a continuously exciting controversy. Dorothy Thompson is also an expert on Chartism, although with a dissimilar style and approach. Seeing her—generous praise aside—firmly excluding my book from the realm of history, I felt sad but not resentful.  Dorothy Thompson, ‘On the Trail of the New Left’, nlr 215, pp. 93–100. After all, it is not easy to be a good historian, especially when you try to write a story under the very noses of its most rigorous protagonists! They, moreover, would have little consensus on almost any subject in a straightforward narration of their own experiences—as John Saville warned me years ago.
Subscribe for just £36 and get free access to the archive
Please login on the left to read more or buy the article for £3