Keith Thomas interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 5th September 2009

0:09:07 Born in Wick in the Vale of Glamorgan in 1933; my father was a farmer as was his father and grandfather, who had begun as a farm labourer and become a farmer; my mother's father was a schoolmaster, son of a farmer further north in Glamorgan; my grandfather had married a Scottish teacher whose surname was Moodie, originally Macfie, from the Isle of Bute; when I was four my mother took me to the great Empire Exhibition in Glasgow, and then on to the Isle of Bute; there, there were two maiden aunts, sisters of my grandmother; my family otherwise were all Welsh and all farmers; I used to meet my paternal grandfather when my father went to market in Bridgend on Mondays; they met in the bank for some reason; my grandfather had a moustache and used to kiss me goodbye; he always had a distinctive smell that I now know was whisky; my father's mother died when he was about twelve; he was one of seven children: six boys and a girl; the boys were brought up in conditions of extreme austerity with flannel shirts, no underclothes, and a pretty rough diet; my grandfather ate very well but the boys did not; the result was that each of the six was set up on a tenant farm of their own, so by the standards of my grandfather this was a tremendous success

4:14:03 My father was a very intelligent man with quite an acute, energetic mind, but he left school at about thirteen; my mother was a university graduate from the University of Cardiff, where she did English; she came to teach and run the village school in Marcross, near Wick; it was a tiny school with thirty or forty pupils; my mother always saw herself as the educated one; my father had a slight inferiority complex about that, though I think unjustified as he was far more intelligent than she was; there was a painful period of self-education on his part; remember Carlyle's 'History of the French Revolution' which had been prescribed reading by my mother; I don't think he got very far with it; he never became a bookish person but took an intelligent interest in the world; he was a good farmer; he began on a small tenant farm in Wick but when I was about two they moved to Llancarfan, to a rather bigger farm of 250 acres which belonged to the University of Wales; it had originally belonged to the Welsh church and when it was disendowed by Lloyd George the land went to the University; there used to be an annual visitation, and I remember my mother asking if we could have a bathroom; the rather grand Principal of the University of Aberystwyth said that he always thought a hip bath was quite adequate; I remember when the water and electric light were put in; my early reading was by the light of an Aladdin lamp; after very difficult times in the 1930s, the War was a good time for farmers and my father prospered; he was of a cautious disposition so it remained a farm of 250 acres which by the ordinary course of events I should have inherited; I had a younger brother and two sisters, the younger of whom died at the age of nine; my younger brother succeeded to the farm; I was rather bookish and found to be completely hopeless on the farm from an early stage; my mother encouraged me academically; my brother really wanted to be a farmer and renounced academic things; after taking over the farm he built it up enormously; more dashing by temperament than my father, he was prepared to borrow money from the bank; his good fortune was to borrow a lot of money in the 1960s and '70s in the time of inflation and buy a great deal of land; he is now the largest landowner in the Vale of Glamorgan and runs three and a half thousand acres; he began by buying the farm from the University of Wales which my father was completely against

9:24:24 My short sight was not diagnosed until I was ten or eleven; I grew up in a world where anybody caught reading was told they would ruin their eyes; I don't know whether my myopia was a result of early reading or not; I read a lot and can't remember when I couldn't read; my mother was pretty good at knowing what you should read up to the age of nine, so I read works like 'The Wind in the Willows' and 'Treasure Island', classic children's stories; I then started reading a lot of popular history such as Marshall's 'Our Island Story' and 'The Boys Book of Heroes'; the imperial background was quite important; in the classroom was a map of the world with a significant chunk of it pink, and one had no doubt at all about our superiority to all other nations; there was a rather lunatic idea that I might become a naval officer

12:02:09 As a boy we were allowed to run free in the fields and there was virtually no traffic on the roads; I spent an enormous amount of time out of doors, making huts in the wood and, I am afraid, also stealing birds' eggs; there were very few other children in the village; my chief companion other than my brother, who was two years younger, was a boy called Billy Tucker who was the son of a farm labourer who worked on the farm; he was very much better at birds-nesting than I so he went up the tree and would say how many eggs there were; we would always try to leave one but when there were only two I remember telling him to take them both so we could have one each; I remember seeing him catch rabbits with his bare hands; I spent a lot of time camping, playing in the river and fishing for eels and trout; I had an idyllic childhood from that point of view; (on links to future work), initially I did react against that sort of thing very strongly; by the time I was a teenager and studying seriously out of interest, I was also potential labour on the farm; holidays were always a most terrible battle between my father and me; I would be sitting in deck chair reading a book and all the corn was waiting to be carried and stooked; leaving the countryside was liberation for me at the time; I suppose there was a faint spurious nostalgia in my return to it in a literary way, but I do know the difference between ash and oak, wheat and barley, and can identify a lot of birds; I used to compete in the Young Farmers' Club at tractor driving and wild flower identification, which I was very good at; so it left its mark

15:16:03 My first memory in terms of public life, I remember the village sports to celebrate the coronation of George VI; I have a very clear memory of listening to the speech by Neville Chamberlain in 1939 telling us we were now at war; I was very disappointed that he didn't say "I declare war", which is what we boys used to say; I also expected fighting to break out in the road outside; I remember going to the village school when I was four, similar to the one my mother had taught at; it had a board saying how many pupils there were which usually said forty eight or forty six; there were three classes; I remember all the teachers; the infants were taught by Miss Griffiths, the middle class by Miss Thomas, and the Headmaster who taught the top class was Mr Davies; I think already I was rather a prize exhibit there, partly because my mother had been a schoolteacher; I peaked then really; my greatest achievement was to get 150 out of 150 for arithmetic in the 11+ exam, and top of the county; I then went to Barry County School; that initially was much more traumatic as I was going from this cosy rural haven into a much busier urban seaport, as it still was; at school there were A, B and C forms, and the C forms were extremely rough; I developed a stammer, no doubt in reaction to the prospect of it, and have never completely thrown it off; we were all day boys; had to get up fairly early and there was somebody in the village who worked in Rhoose, on the way to Barry,  then I caught a bus from Rhoose to Barry; in the afternoon there was the horror of having to ask to go with the country boys, as they were called, who were allowed to leave ten minutes early to catch the only bus back; this was always a matter of great irritation to the teacher; I would take the bus to Aberthaw and would walk about a mile and a half home

19:10:02 The Glamorgan grammar schools were culturally very important; very few people in Glamorgan would have been sent away to public schools given the social structure of the place; there were two Welsh public schools, Brecon and Llandovery, but on the whole the children who went there were middle class who had failed the 11+; Barry had had a very distinguished headmaster between the two wars called Major Edgar Jones; it was during his time that John Habakkuk and Glyn Daniel, the archaeologist, were there; there have been three professors of economic history at Oxford or Cambridge, Habakkuk, David Joslin and Martin Daunton, who is now Master of Trinity Hall; in my case, looking back I can see that some of the teachers were better than others; I was fortunate to have a very good history master, Teifion Phillips; he had come from Swansea, he was leftish, a pillar of the Labour Party, and was intellectually ambitious for his pupils; I remember the textbook we used was M.M. Reese 'Tudors and Stuarts', but he leavened that by lending me a copy of the 'Modern Quarterly', the Communist journal, which contained the article by Christopher Hill on 'The English Revolution, 1640', and he also introduced me to Tawney's 'Religion and the Rise of Capitalism'; there was a boy in the previous year who had sat the Balliol scholarship and had got an exhibition, David Rees, who became a monk and died recently; I was not going to do history but chance plays such a large part in peoples' lives; I had to say what subject I wanted to do for Highers and was going to do English, French and Latin; that would have been disastrous as I would have learned Latin without any Greek, and French without any other modern language; on the way to the place where you had to register your choices I was intercepted by Teifion Phillips, who said, "You are going to do history aren't you?"; I have always been a complete feather in the wind and said "Yes, of course", so I changed and did English, History and Latin; in my first year in the sixth it was suggested I should try for Oxford; the headmaster was against it, thinking it was aiming too high and too soon; thus I entered to Balliol really on my own; we did get a copy of the University Gazette and I did look at the list of awards, and was very tempted by the Bracegirdle Exhibition in St Catherine's as I liked the name; I went in for the scholarship at Balliol and got it

24:18:00 One of my great regrets, and something that I have been trying to make up for over the years, is that in my childhood there was absolutely no music or art; all that came to me later; I played cricket and enjoyed it; I was an actor; I out-auditioned an exact contemporary, Keith Baxter, who did become an actor, and played Prince Hal in the Orson Welles film 'Chimes at Midnight'; I loved play-reading, acting and debating - there was a literary and debating society; I really discovered music after I got married because Valerie, my wife, is very fond of music; my tastes are pretty conventional - Bach, Mozart, Beethoven and Schubert, also Stravinsky but not more contemporary; I hate the idea of background music, partly because I think it doesn't help the work or the music; never learned to play an instrument as I have no manual dexterity

27:15:16 My parents were Anglicans, or more precisely Church of England in Wales; my father was a church warden; after the death of my younger sister, my mother went completely off religion of any kind forever; my mother became a flat unbeliever while my father remained a conformist for social reasons; I started off following my parents; that was itself quite a statement because the division between church and chapel was very important socially and politically; in that part of the world at that time church meant Conservative, chapel, Liberal and possibly Labour; there was certainly a class difference; that is what I inherited and I even taught in a Sunday school when I was about thirteen; I was also confirmed; when in the Army I went to church occasionally, and in Balliol, to chapel occasionally; after that I completely dropped religion; I suppose I am an atheist, but having said that, I have considerable affection for church architecture and church music, and subscribe to the upkeep of sundry churches; I would hate to see them go; one of my favourite buildings is Cholsey Church which you can see on the way from Didcot to London from the train; its silhouette is enchanting; when I was President of Corpus Christi College I almost never went to Chapel; I think that although the secular outlook seems to be the only one which intellectually makes any sense at all, the secular world would be extremely deficient without unifying rituals of one kind and another; the point about the church service in principle was that all the parish gathered together; now there is no such occasion; in colleges that was particularly the case, and I lament that; I lament the absence of a satisfying secular ritual of burial as funerals are very important, but I can't believe in the resurrection of life; I have no desire to disabuse other people of what gives them comfort even if I happen to think it is a spurious source of comfort; I greatly respect most of the Christian ethic though I am less respectful of the ethics of some other religions

32:57:15 By the time I embarked on 'Religion and the Decline of Magic' I was quite settled in the state of disbelief; I suppose it could be said, and critics have said, that it meant I did less than justice to the religious belief of people in, for example, the fifteenth century; I remember one reviewer saying there was no sense of the numinous there, and I would agree; I think I was probably a little bit too literal in my account of all that but it wasn't designed as an atheist or agnostic tract, just an account of how people thought at the time; I was not surprised to find how garbled the beliefs of people were; I suspect if you interviewed people coming out of church today they might not do too well either

35:07:06 I got my scholarship at Balliol when I was just seventeen and the College expected people to come up after they had done national service; that was my saving really because if I had gone up at seventeen I would have sunk without trace; having got this scholarship which then qualified you for a state scholarship I did not need to do Highers; I spent two enjoyable terms in school reading around and doing other subjects and then I went to the Army in the autumn of 1950; that was another trauma initially; I went into the infantry, initially the Welch Regiment, and was posted to Brecon; I found the first couple of weeks in the barrack room pretty ghastly, not so much the military routine as the company of the unregenerate; although I had always thought of Barry as quite rough I then realized what rough actually was; that wouldn't bother me at all now but it bothered me then; by great good fortune I was transferred to the Royal Welch Fusiliers because if I had stayed in the Welch Regiment I would have gone to Korea and might well not be sitting here now; instead I went to Jamaica; I became a corporal in the orderly room, played cricket, and explored the island; the camp was Up Park Camp which was just outside Kingston; it was very beautiful with a marvellous view of the Blue Mountains and of the sea on the other side; I thought the climate was delightful; Kingston was a rather seedy place with a large red light area; the poverty was pretty obvious though one had the impression of great cheerfulness; as far as I could see there was relatively little political discontent, though there was some; after all the reason the army was there was to police the Caribbean and periodically battalions were sent out to Grenada, Antigua, British Guiana, to put down what were called “labour problems”; I was very struck by the beauty of the place; on leave we went to the Cockpit Country and were captured by the Maroons because we were not supposed to go there; we had a mock trial when we discussed the details of the treaty of 1730 or whenever it was; I thought the landscape was ravishing but the social setup very unsatisfactory; our food was mainly army rations; the cricket was good; what I could see at a glance was an incredible ethnic mixing but we were in the camp most of the time and only let out at weekends; the style was absolutely laid back, and when one went into the countryside you were very conscious of that; at the same time there was a certain amount of violent crime and violent punishment; the only time we were issued with live ammunition was when there was a very spectacular hurricane which blew down the walls of the prison, and we were sent out to try and recapture the prisoners, which we totally failed to do, but they were hanging people there all the time

42:34:22 I remember my entrance interview for Balliol very well; we waited in a room that I think belonged to Hugh Leech whom I never met; in I went and there were a number of people there and it was never quite clear who was who; the Master, Sir David Lindsay Keir, Christopher Hill, Hugh Stretton and A. B. Rodger, were my interviewers; I was asked what I did in the holidays and I said, with a thick Welsh accent, that I didn't have any holidays as I worked on the farm; Teifion Phillips was alert enough to know that it helped to have an answer when somebody asked what you had been reading, and I had read D. B. Quinn's 'Raleigh and the British Empire', a volume in the Teach Yourself History series; I was asked about that by Christopher Hill who clearly approved of Quinn; remember Keir asking me what sort of history I liked best and I said social history; asked what the main development in social history in my period, I am ashamed to say my answer was the rise of the middle class; it seemed to go well; I was sharing a very gloomy room  with Keith Thompson, who went instead to New College, when Christopher Hill appeared; he said that if they gave me any award I shouldn't bother about “bloody Highers”, which rather shocked me; on the Monday morning I had a letter from him wanting to be the first to congratulate me on the Brackenbury Scholarship; I was by then back home; you went up for a week to sit the exam in Keble Hall, a very daunting experience as there were hundreds of people there

46:13:07 My contemporaries at Balliol included Raphael Samuel, with whom I used to have breakfast; he was a chaotic person; he had a year out so we didn't take Schools the same year; he was very precocious; remember having coffee in his room and glancing at his books; I saw Adam Smith's 'Wealth of Nations' which was a set book for prelims, but the inscription inside was "To Raphael for his eighth birthday"; he was a Communist then and I was very interested too; I went to a few meetings, and even became an officer of the OU Past and Present Society which had hitherto been known as the OU Karl Marx History Society; the other well known person was Charles Taylor, the philosopher; I had a number of very good friends there as an undergraduate; Tom Bingham was two years behind me; I applied offering history to read law as I was going to be a barrister; I was interviewed by a Balliol law Don, Theo Tylor; I knew there was something strange about it but was too stupid to work out what; in fact he was totally blind; I then went to the historians who noted that I wanted to read law but they dissuaded me; I have always been interested in the law and the legal profession; I knew Bingham and Maurice Keen, who was a year behind me, and liked them both very much; I belonged to a debating society in Balliol, rather pretentious as they wore red bow ties, called the Arnold Society; there was a tremendous split in the society and one lot hived off and became the Brackenbury Society; after all the people concerned had gone down they reunited and it is now again the Arnold and Brackenbury Society; that was really a social split and the smart set were the Brackenbury, and I suppose Tom and Maurice were the smart set and I was not

51:15:24 As an undergraduate, Christopher Hill was undoubtedly the main influence on me; Dick Southern, whom I got to know better later when he became President of St John's, as a tutor was rather remote and threw you in at the deep end; I had done no mediaeval history at all and the first essay he gave me was on Asser's life of Alfred, the next on the Regularis Concordia, then the Domesday book, followed by Walter Daniel's life of Ailred of Rievaulx, so all on sources; in the third year I asked if I could write four essays on topics of my choice; did the Barons' Revolt and the Norman Conquest, and that sort of thing; on the modern end, Hugh Stretton was easily the most sophisticated of the tutors; he was famous for setting essay questions such as "Which is the better portrait of Mr Asquith, the one in the Hall or the Senior Common Room?"; there was extreme contempt for the Schools, the university examinations; the only time I saw Christopher Hill lose his temper was when an undergraduate queried an essay topic by asking whether it would come up in Schools; at the freshmen's dinner we were addressed by Sir David Lindsay Keir who impressed upon us that we hadn't come to Oxford, we had come to Balliol; there was a good deal about tranquil consciousness of effortless superiority; what it did was to give people tremendous intellectual self-confidence; Balliol was the college to which a large proportion of the leading historians had come - Namier, Tawney, Toynbee all spoke at the history society; Christopher Hill was a fanatical Balliol man in that whatever his political views, the College trumped everything; none of my tutors would have satisfied modern quality assessments; Christopher Hill expected you to choose your essay subject, he would suggest some reading, but having suggested something that I found only existed in the library of Trinity College, Dublin, he was less forthcoming afterwards; he didn't make many comments, but I just had the feeling all the time that nothing but the best would do; the chemistry of these encounters is very subtle but I wanted him to think well of what I did; I did know that he had read everything and was not at all idle; his room was strange as although it was lined with books there was never a paper on his desk; he had a stammer which was rather more obvious in his lectures; I went to some but they were not particularly notable events for me; the lectures I remember were John Prestwich on early mediaeval history, which were very original; Habakkuk was a first rate lecturer; again, Balliol was very snooty about the University and there wasn't much outside the College that was recommended; I never heard Isaiah Berlin lecture, I didn't hear Taylor lecture until I was a Don; I did go to lectures by him on the causes of the First World War; he put his notes aside and said he wasn't going to talk about the causes but why there was peace before and afterwards; I did go to some lectures by Trevor-Roper which were narratives of the Civil War and I think the subtleties of that escaped me at the time

58:44:13 I entered for the Gibbs Prize and shared it with James Campbell; the two examiners were Betty Kemp, a modernist, and Lionel Butler, a mediaevalist; I was apparently the mediaevalist's choice and James, the modernist’s; I also did a University Prize essay, the Stanhope Essay for which the prescribed subject was Anthony Wood, of whom I had never heard; he was a seventeenth-century Oxford antiquarian and all his manuscripts are in Bodley in a beautifully legible hand; I had a very enjoyable time doing that and it got me interested in the antiquarian movement of the seventeenth century; I won the prize