Could you tell us something about your background and how you came to study philosophy?
I’m a classic example of British post-war social mobility. I was born in 1952, and grew up in an aspirational working-class family—my father repaired teleprinters for the General Post Office, my mother was a school dinner lady. We lived in a suburb of newly built houses on the edge of Birmingham. From my parents’ bedroom window I could look across the fields to the church spire of the nearest country town. At eleven, I passed an entrance exam and won a scholarship to King Edward’s School, Edgbaston—academically the most prestigious school in the city. The school was rife with social snobbery, which was painful for an adolescent from my family background, but it opened windows onto new intellectual and cultural worlds. I’ve been coping with the ambivalence of that experience ever since. At seventeen—after an accelerated school career—I won an entrance scholarship to Queens’ College Cambridge. For a few months I taught English in a language school in a small town in Spain—an experience which left me with an indelible love of the country and its language—and I went up to Cambridge in the autumn of 1970 to read English.
So I began by studying literature, not philosophy. I was good at English at school, and my favourite teacher advised me to apply to read English at Cambridge. But this was the early 1970s, and at that time the approach to literature at Cambridge was quite narrow, still in the shadow of Leavis and the New Criticism—it was all about responding to texts, without much consideration of the historical or political context of literature. For example, one exercise we had to perform was to date an anonymized piece of English prose, taken from any time since the Renaissance, to within twenty years, on the basis of vocabulary and stylistic features. I found that whole approach quite unsatisfactory. The only lectures I bothered to attend were those of Raymond Williams and George Steiner.
What took you to philosophy?
After I finished my undergraduate degree, I wanted to engage in a kind of study that was more connected with politics, with sociology. I was also beginning to get more interested in philosophy. I guess those theoretical interests were inseparable from my interest in what was going on in the world, particularly the Cuban Revolution, the Vietnam War and the anti-colonial struggles. I had followed the Parisian May events keenly as a schoolboy—I remember reading Daniel Cohn-Bendit’s tract, Obsolete Communism: The Left-Wing Alternative, on the bus to school—and had briefly got involved with some radical students at Birmingham University, which was right across the road from my school, leafletting, screening anti-imperialist films, that kind of thing. In 1975, after two years doing odd jobs, and travelling in North and Central America, I went to the University of Essex, where I would later teach for thirty years, and began a Master’s degree in sociology of literature. I think I already thought of this as a bridge to philosophy. Even then, in the back of my mind, I knew philosophy was what I really wanted to study.
The ma in sociology of literature at Essex was one of the first Master’s degrees in literary theory in the uk—possibly the very first. We read a lot of Marxist literary theory, authors like Lukács and Lucien Goldmann, but also Saussure, Barthes and a little Derrida, who was just becoming known at that time. Our teachers included Gabriel Pearson, who had been involved with New Left Review in its early years, and Stanley Mitchell, the roving academic and translator who was the University’s first lecturer in Russian. He had also written for nlr and had been active in the 1968 student protests at Essex. Towards the end of his life he published a wonderful translation of Eugene Onegin. What really excited me while working for the ma was French literary theory and philosophy, and I decided I wanted to write a doctoral thesis about Derrida. However, I was determined to do my research on Derrida in a philosophy department, something that was basically unheard of at the time.
How did that work out?