Dorothy Thompson: I suppose anyone growing up in England starts asking questions about class almost as soon as they can speak and I suppose the milieu that I grew up in—a South London theatrical and craft background—cut across traditional working-class areas. Nobody in my family ever worked for anyone else, except in the short term, but on the other hand nobody ever employed more than a few people. We were the artisanal layer, I suppose, and we had a very strong tradition of independence and self-education. My paternal grandfather, a shoemaker by trade, worked part time on the music halls. Two of my uncles were full-time dance band musicians. Others were tumblers and that kind of thing. My father and mother were both professional musicians, although my father set up a business running music shops and my mother mostly spent her life teaching, but also did some performing.
Yes, I’m quite proud of being a third-generation Londoner. We are rather a rare species; people usually move out of London by the time they earn enough money to be able to afford it. I had a lot of relatives in places like Forest Gate, Woolwich and Greenwich. I was born in Greenwich and so I knew a lot of London families, mainly connected with the river or with the theatre—at the lower levels not the top theatre people. And there was also a branch of the family who were descended from Huguenot weavers in Bethnal Green. They still had their own memories of the weaving community.
It’s difficult to date this kind of thing but I do remember the General Strike in 1926. I remember my father bringing some people home—he had a little motorcar—and these people were stranded because of the strike, we were told. My brother sent the contents of his money box to the miners. I remember an item in the newspaper, in the Daily Herald, which said that Tommy Towers had sent the contents of his money box to the miners. So I can date that clearly in 1926. I don’t know how far it influenced me but certainly it’s an early memory.
My earliest childhood memories are of a time when we’d moved out of central London to Keston, in northern Kent, and we lived in a village mainly occupied by labourers’ families. I remember the little girl who was our daily maid telling me very indignantly that the people next door had taken a lift from my father to the polling station and he was only offering to take Labour voters. But she knew they were Tories because they took the Daily Mail. So I was aware of the difference between the Daily Mail and Daily Herald by the time I was about five. That’s not really politics but it’s certainly the rhetoric of politics.
Yes. The family always supported Labour and I decided I was a communist quite early on. I joined something called the Labour Monthly Discussion Group when I was about fourteen, then the Young Communist League and then the Communist Party. There was very much a political atmosphere in my family although no one ever belonged to anything. I was the first one I think to do that. But they had always read radical journals and newspapers.
I had to make my choices about subjects at university just at the beginning of the War and my first choice would have been languages, linguistics or European languages, but that was obviously out because of the War—one couldn’t travel, I couldn’t go and study abroad. We had a very good teacher at school who got us very excited by history. It was when I was about sixteen or seventeen that I realized that history was a problem-solving discipline and not just an information-absorbing one. I got interested in history because it linked up with my interest in politics, and with family memories. For instance I was always enormously puzzled that one branch of the family had actually left their native country, left a comfortable living to come and live in the East End of London, simply because their version of Christianity was different from the dominant one. This seemed to be a major historical problem of considerable interest, because in my generation nobody seemed to feel that strongly in England about religion. To have given up everything for a sectarian difference, seemed remarkable. This led on to political questions—why one group of people differ so profoundly when in fact they’re on the same side in a sense. The question of political theory, political thought, political analysis was something that I got very interested in as a teenager.
In 1942. A year after Edward. He had been there for a year by the time I went and he had already gone off into the Army. I didn’t meet him till we both came back in 1945. By 1942 the political situation was very tense, the invasion of the Soviet Union, the need to open a second front. The campaign to persuade the British authorities to invade Europe occupied an enormous amount of people’s time on the Left.