E.P. Thompson’s Desert Island Discs

Brodie Waddell

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.

William Blake's 'Songs of Innocence and Experience' (1789): Thompson's choice of reading material

William Blake’s ‘Songs of Innocence and Experience’ (1789): Thompson’s choice of reading material

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?

The Specials (1979)

Sorely lacking from Thompson’s playlist.

Track listing for E.P. Thompson on Desert Island Discs, 3 Nov. 1991, BBC Radio 4

1. Derek Bell, ‘Carolan’s Receipt’ (3:10)

2. Rabindrath Tragore, ‘Auld Lang Syne’ (7:45)

3. Paul Robeson, ‘Peat Bog Soldiers’ (11:50)

4. John Dowland, ‘Battle Galliard’ (16:05)

5. Beethoven, ‘The Prisoners’ Chorus’ (21:50)

6. Peter Warlock, ‘He hears the cry of the sedge’ (24:35)

7. Mozart, ‘Trio for Clarinet, Viola and Piano’ (28:50)

8. Emma Kirkby, ‘Hark! Hark! How All Things’ (31:45)

14 thoughts on “E.P. Thompson’s Desert Island Discs

  1. E.P. Thompson did have some interaction with popular youth culture. He did appear at Glastonbury on several occasions, as noted here:

    Being ignorant of current trends in popular youth culture was not something unusually specific to Thompson and many other leading lights of the British left were equally lacking knowledge of contemporary music, particularly in relation to punk. Matt Worley has shown how the left in the UK reacted to punk and it was really something that was alien to many of those in far left activist circles in the 1970s. See the article here: http://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/13619462.2012.703013

    An example of this is leader of the SWP, Tony Cliff. While the SWP were key to the organisation of Rock Against Racism, Cliff didn’t like punk rock at all, but accepted that others were responding to it. Ian Birchall wrote:
    “Asked by the New Statesman about his cultural tastes, he responded, “I don’t listen to music.” Yet the key figures in the ANL and Rock Against Racism acknowledge their debt to Cliff. He may not have appreciated the melodic subtleties of The Clash, but he knew that punk was the music of rebellion and that Marxists could not ignore it.”

    • Good point. In contrast to the image of the 60s (and 70s and 80s) passed down to us, it’s important to remember that not all political activists of the time were young and hip. Many were, frankly, pretty culturally ‘old fashioned’. Many male activists’ attitudes towards women are a case in point.

  2. He would have been 39 in 1963, too old to get into rock I think. Hobsbawm talks in his autobiography about the divide between the generation that wore blue jeans and an older one that didn’t. “The generational gap between those for whom the Rolling Stones were gods and those whom they were just a creditable imitation of black blues-singing was virtually unbridgeable”

    • Great example, Will. I think you’re right: EPT doesn’t strike me as a jeans-wearing kind of guy.

      That said, I don’t think age is necessarily an impediment to appreciating contemporary music. I’m often impressed with Paul Krugman’s Friday Night Music picks, despite the fact that he’s a sixty-year-old Nobel-prize winning economist and political commentator.

  3. Bit like Terence Davies’ rubbishing the Beatles in Of Time and the City, his marvelous documentary film about Liverpool in the 50s and 60s. Though Davies was born in ’45 and his taste is better — Mahler and the Great American Songbook.

    • Interesting. Actually, I’d be quite interested to know what Thompson made of the Beatles. Their ‘peace’ message seems to fit his later activism rather well, though I suppose he would regard them as hopelessly politically naïve and probably musically cacophonous.

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  6. Edward really didn’t listen to any music; it wasn’t his thing. He wasn’t madly into art. He was pretty rubbish at languages and I can’t recall him ever going to the movies. He didn’t watch television although the one program he loved was the Rockford Files.. But he was the most widely read person you could hope to meet;; from fiction to biography to you name it. It wasn’t that he dismissed rock or pop in any way; all of his children worked with music of various genres (me included) and it interested him and he was supportive but he just didn’t click. His Desert Island Disc choices were completely a matter of association with people or events in his life. I can honestly not remember him ever sitting down to listen to music any more than many of the famous musicians I’ve worked with sit down and read books. Each to their own.

    • Thank you so much for your reply, Mark. It is wonderful to have a personal perspective on this. Having never meet him, it is fascininating to hear a bit more about his life and habits. I suppose I can sympathise with his approach to music in some ways … although I listened to music constantly in my younger years, since my first son way born I barely ever sit down to listen to something. If I have spare time, I’d rather have my nose in a book. That said, I may need to check out the Rockford Files – if it was good enough for EPT it must be good enough for me!

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