E.P. Thompson had, with one or two notable exceptions, rather boring taste in music.
Thompson has always been one of my favourite historians and I’ve been learning more about him recently as 2013 marks the fiftieth anniversary of the publication of his Making of the English Working Class. We celebrated earlier with ‘The Future of History From Below’ event and I’ll be giving talks at Oxford (Nov. 29th) and at Birkbeck (Jan. 24th) on EPT’s legacy over the next few months.
So imagine my delight when I heard – via Jonathan Healey – that Thompson had been a guest on the famed BBC programme ‘Desert Island Discs’ and that the episode was freely available online. It was broadcast in 1991, just two years before his death at the age of 69, and his health was clearly not great, but he was still very intellectually sharp and irrepressibly politically engaged.
Thompson made a couple of inspired musical choices. For instance, I was struck by the raw power of Paul Robeson, the African-American communist actor and entertainer, belting out ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’, a song composed in the Börgermoor concentration camp in 1933. Even more interesting is Thompson’s second choice. He offers a beautiful recording of Rabindranath Tragore, the Bengali poet, singing a totally transformed version of ‘Auld Lang Syne’. It’s a wonderful piece of music and a wonderful encapsulation of Thompson’s close links to India. As he says in the interview, his father was a Research Fellow in Indian history at Oxford and former Methodist missionary, with close links to the Indian National Congress. Thompson recounts a childhood memory of Gandhi visiting his family home in the late 1920s or early 1930s:
‘I was just about the height of the sideboard. My main memory of Gandhi coming was the sideboard piled with all these fruits that we didn’t usually get. But there he was, and he was doing his daily stint of charkha – spinning – in the corner of our house, and it’s a very pleasant memory.’
In light of this, it is quite easy to see how Thompson’s ideas about poverty and protest emerge not only from his extra-mural teaching in the West Riding but also from his long and deep connections to South Asia.
However, almost as notable as these two striking choices of records is – to my mind – the ‘conservative’ nature of the rest of his choices. Despite being a political radical and an incredibly innovative historian, his other six records seem distinctly nostalgic and a bit earnest. There’s some eighteenth-century Irish harp music, an unbearably miserable rendition of a Yeats poem, two well-known classical pieces and an early English Baroque song. There’s nothing particularly objectionable about any of them – with the possible exception of Warlock’s composition – but they’re hardly the inspiring music one would hope for from a man like Thompson.
Where are the radical musicians of his own age, who often combined musical invention with a hard political edge? Where are the Sex Pistols or the Specials or even the Rolling Stones? Was it really possible to be an activist in the 1960s and 70s without liking rock and roll?