Once he moved into an old folks’ home, my grandfather Edward Bloor, for most of his working life a skilled mould maker first in the Potteries then in South Derbyshire, kept very few belongings. Among them was his photographer’s touch-up kit along with a set of photographic plates of the fire at Selby Abbey in 1906, the surviving trace of what had once been an earlier career, but mostly they comprised only a few prized books. Some of these were commemorative (like King Albert’s Book: A Tribute to the Belgian King and People from Representative Men and Women Throughout the World, published in 1915), but were otherwise emblematic in one way or another. As I grew older, he began marking my birthdays with a gift from this collection, not usually with any explanation (I remember him as a brooding, surly old patriarch of very, very few words), but definitely freighted with meaning. One year my birthday present was John Bunyan’s The Pilgrim’s Progress (in the 1887 Hodder and Stoughton edition), which definitely needed no gloss. For anyone growing up Methodist in the 1950s the message was self-explanatory. Bunyan’s allegory was all over my childhood, whether at Sunday school or at home, or for that matter on tv or in school. “He who would valiant be” rang out from morning assembly with great frequency, just as Pilgrim’s successive trials were a ready source of metaphors for parents and teachers alike.
I’m not sure, at this distance, how I responded as a child to Pilgrim’s journey. As a teenage intellectual impatient with institutional religion of all stripes, bridling against the cultures of parents and school, I had no intention of “laboring night and day” to get to the Wicket Gate and enter the Celestial City. All of that imagery had acquired unlikeable connotations, aptly captured in Lindsay Anderson’s use of “To Be a Pilgrim” for one of the school chapel scenes in if … (1968). Yet on the other hand, those stories helped create an architecture of the imagination. As Philip Pullman reminds us, religious allegory lends itself to all sorts of compelling and enjoyable literary purposes, and if The Golden Compass speaks now to a very different sensibility, one modernist and secular as well as a readership more mature, then Bunyan’s characters could vividly enrich a small child’s imagination. When wrestling with this or that problem, I still wander that metaphorical landscape, the one I learned all those years ago, thinking with the Slough of Despond or Giant Despair, perhaps with the Delectable Mountains and the River of Death. How exactly our adult propensities for certain outlooks as against others, our receptiveness to particular bodies of thought, are laid down by early exposure to one set of cultural influences as opposed to another is a fascinating topic not just for [auto]biography, but for social history too. [End Page 213]
In the same year I saw Lindsay Anderson’s if … I was also reading Edward Thompson’s The Making of the English Working Class. I’ve written elsewhere in much detail about the impact of that great book, which appeared in paperback just as the political situation in Europe was exploding all around us. The Making was a remarkable mixture of historical recuperation, ebulliently oppositional grand narrative, and ethico-political crusade – in Eric Hobsbawm’s words, an “erupting historical volcano of 848 pages,” or as Gwyn Williams called it, “less a book than one continuous challenge,” an impassioned incitement to think about familiar histories in new and troublesome ways.1 The main focus of the book, the substance of its empirical research and the bulk of its length, reached from the 1790s to 1832. It was an epic account of a popular democracy forged from resistance to drastic social transformation under conditions of extreme political repression. While offering a social history of capitalist industrialization, it did so as an inspiring narrative of the political hopes of ordinary people, grounding the possibilities for democratic citizenship in the necessary popular struggles against violence, inequality, and dispossession.
Thompson’s account of the social...