don’t go barefoot to a snake-stomping!
loosen your wigs!
It’s no use hooking them both on the same circuit—
The English and American traditions.
It won’t take the play out of the loose eccentrics.
Cattlemen, sheepmen and outlaws, that’s American writing,
And few enough outlaws at that.
And it’s no use
For the lonesome radicals to raise up the ghost of Tom Paine,
Los Muertos no hablan
Them dead don’t walk, either.
No, ghost-eaters, they’d like
To cuddle up to the bourgeois liberal tradition—

These are lines from Tom McGrath’s poem Letter to an Imaginary Friend.footnote1footnote2I like to remember them because I’ve often wondered: Are the English and American traditions hooked on the same circuit? Tom and Edward were friends having met as comrades of war and comrades of the cp in 1946, they were radicals, they delved into their respective traditions. Edward sought ‘to rescue the poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the “obsolete” hand-loom weaver, the “utopian” artisan, and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott, from the enormous condescension of posterity’, and Tom said,

—I’m here to bring you
Into the light of speech, the insurrectionary powwow
Of the dynamite men and doomsday spielers
to sing you
Home from the night,
Night of America.

Each of the friends had set himself a redemptive, writing task on his respective circuit, and about at the same time. Letter was published in 1962 and 1970, while The Making of the English Working Class was published in 1963 and 1968. I looked at these books with considerable interest, since I am a person caught within these two circuits myself. My father was born in Muskogee, Oklahoma—not that he was a Wob but he had ridden bulls at the rodeo—and worked for the American Embassy in Grosvenor Square between 1947 and 1953 befriending the Labour opposition and Aneurin Bevan, while my mother who drank, smoked, and supported Spain came from a line of strong western New York women. I didn’t know whether to swing a baseball or a cricket bat. Like immigrants everywhere, I was confused by the experience—How to speak? What to say?—and for many years I sought a guide. When I came across The Making, and then Edward, I cathected politically and by feeling.

My first personal lessons (the official one in 1969 at the University of Warwick was stern: ‘Over here when we refer to Lenin, it is to John!’) were conducted on the road to his cottage at Hafodty, Llanfrothen, Penrhyndeudraeth, Merionethshire, north Wales. On the road he announced that this is where he gave intelligence tests. Yes, the gates across the roads, controlling the movement of the sheep and cows, had to be opened, the car driven through, and the gate then closed. The ingenious mind of the Welsh cattlemen or sheepmen had devised as many different ways of fastening gates closed and keeping them temporarily open as there were gates to open and shut. Worse, it was at night. Glee danced in Edward’s eye as he rammed the gear stick home, and impatiently lurched the Land Rover forward. Gate after gate after gate.

The next day he took me for a walk in the pastures. Side-stepping the cow pies, he quoted at length to me from Wordsworth. I knew at the time I was supposed to remember this, but for the life of me I couldn’t and to this day, can’t. I was stunned. He noted that when he was my age he had already published William Morris. (Who?) Then he told me that the previous American to visit Hafodty had been C. Wright Mills who’d driven a motor cycle. ‘Mills’, he looked at me inquiringly, hopefully, ‘called me “Ed”.’ I would have instantly said ‘Yes Sir’, but anti-militarist as I was and conscious of the Jeffersonian struggle against titles, the best I could manage then and ever after was ‘Edward’.

Our relationship had begun in 1965 when I read some of The Making. Characteristically, the book was outside the curriculum at least until the early seventies; its power depended on marginality, as the class was recomposing politically at the margins. Just shy of a thousand pages in the English second edition, 858 pages in the American paperback, with footnotes on most every page, without photographs, woodcuts, maps, or engravings to vary the reading or illustrate the text, quite unsuitable to the beginning student of history with its assumptions that kings and queens and prime ministers are known and that the geography is clear; with a vocabulary of dialect, of political economy, of the Bible, not to mention the Romantic poets; all the while with a working-class diction breaking into print, the book nevertheless, in the words of Bryan Palmer, ‘blew across the doldrums of the transatlantic academic community like a breeze of liberation’.footnote3 As one of several breezes, it should be said, after the Beatles tour and the boomerangs of Eric Clapton and Peter Green brought the Blues back home to American white people.