Gareth Stedman Jones interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 23rd April 2012
0:05:07 Born in a nursing home next to Hampton Court in 1942, and brought up during my first years in Teddington, Twickenham and Richmond; there were a lot of teachers in my mother's family; my mother's father came from the Channel Islands, and the Le Gros family has a genealogy that goes back to the sixteenth century; one of the family legends was that they originally came from Nantes, not so far from Jersey, and were lace makers connected with the Court and came over during the French Revolution; one, whose portrait we have, was a minor shipping magnate during the Napoleonic Wars; my grandfather had bits of property in Jersey and, much to my mother's dismay, gave it away; he was quite radical in his way and didn't believe in property; he had five daughters, and married into a middle to upper-middle class family in Middlesex; he taught - I think it became quite a struggle bringing up five daughters but they all had some sort of further or higher education; he was a great believer in education; one of my early memories, between five and twelve, he would take me up to London to look at historic sites; in those days, London was a bomb site in many areas, and we would go to see City churches, the Law Courts and so on; I have always been fascinated by historical records of one sort or another; born in the middle of the war, I received undue attention from my unmarried aunts which gave me confidence; I don't think I really saw my father until 1946 because he was in North Africa, Italy, and in the last years of the war in Austria; he came back with a very big dolls' house; I did have a sense of the immediate post-war; my father's father, a Stedman, was a smallholder in the Strata Florida area north of Aberystwyth; he left home at about twelve; his parents had died when he was young and he had been brought up by a family called Jones, hence the name Stedman Jones; he had two younger brothers, one of whom went to South Africa in the 1880's, the other went to the United States, and he himself went to the mines; my father was one of six children from two marriages and was born in 1913; of the six, the three boys did pretty well; their father ended up as a mine overseer; my father got a university education at Queen Mary College, and his elder brother was seconded to the Ministry of Food during the War; Keynes invited him to become a Fellow of King's after the War but he preferred to remain in the Civil Service, and ended up in the Cabinet Office; he was a very clever man, mathematical, a linguist, and Welsh patriot; my father was much more literary; he wanted to be a writer and, but for my mother, might have become one; he became a teacher, and became head of English when Holland Park was founded as one of the first comprehensives in London; he used to write for newspapers and morning stories for the radio; the main thing from my point of view was that he really loved literature, and his hero was Dr Johnson; after the War he collected eighteenth century books so I had the whole run of the London Magazine, which I remember reading quite avidly; we lived quite comfortably; he was very keen that I should learn to write properly so he gave me exercises to do; my enthusiasm meant that at about twelve or thirteen I read through most of Dickens; my engagement with the nineteenth century was really inspired by that; I went to the local Prep school called The Mall, at Twickenham they had an old library so I read Henty, and because I was interested in books they asked me to reclassify the library; then I went on to St Paul's
12:08:07 My mother had an iron will; she was the second of the five sisters and very much wanted to be her father's favourite; she was very practical; she slightly resented her two younger sisters who had got to the Slade and LSE whereas she had gone to Goldsmiths; she thought she would have been a good doctor but never had the chance to do a medical degree; so there was always a slight edge of disappointment; she was firmly middle-class; my father coming from just outside Merthyr was potentially out-going; he liked talking to people in pubs; as there had been a major migration of Welsh people from the valleys in the 1930s, in the '50s, when I was growing up, there was a London-Welsh diaspora which I was inducted into; they were much jollier types in some ways and all put a big value on education; my mother was, I think, much more materially minded; my father delighted in learning; he had been brought up in a very religious household though he was no longer so; the stories were of the three brothers sitting around the table discussing Plato in the mining village; his character was not strong enough to stand up against my mother; he probably could have been a good writer, but deferred to her; they sometimes argued over the superiority of the Home Counties to the Welsh Valleys, and he was much more radical than she was; I was an only child; my father had a pretty nasty temper, my mother would just go cold and lock herself in the bedroom while my father stormed around, and I would try and keep myself scarce; my life was not idyllic but was alright on the whole; I was initially brought up with my cousin as we shared a big house; she also became an academic - a philosopher at UCL; it was a bit like having a sister until the age of eleven, but on the whole I think my character traits are those of an only child
18:00:22 I collected coins for a bit as a hobby, and then I collected old books; I was quite keen on sport but not very good; I followed cricket quite a lot; I had friends at various schools and the local youth club, but I also had quite a strong intellectual side; when I was about seventeen at St Paul’s, Ritchie Blackburn, brother of Robin, arrived there; I got to know the family quite well and that was the way I got into the New Left; at St Paul’s I had two very inspirational teachers, one in French and the other in history; one was Frank Parker, and I remember him producing a list of about fifty books that one should read, not only French works; I did French A level and got more and more francophone as the time went on; the other was an exceptional history teacher called Philip Whitting he produced people like Max Beloff and Mark Elvin; I did pretty well and was compared to Elvin; some of the teachers could be quite eccentric and although Whitting was not radical in the ways that one would now recognise, his reputation was as a radical, mainly because he was ironic about organized religion, which at that time was part of the definition of the school; he knew all about Byzantium, he was very good on Louis XIV and I was inspired to read Aldous Huxley's stuff on that, and the Memoirs of Saint Simon; he dictated masses of notes which were very good; he had a little study under the staircase and would give supervisions like you would get here, so when I went to Oxford it was no big deal; he was good at making sure you didn't write clichés and made a clear arguments, so I learnt a lot from him; last year I was invited to give the Philip Whitting Memorial Lecture which they still have at the school, so he obviously made an impact there; St Paul’s contained many bright students and the scholarships mattered more than just A levels; they put me in a year early thinking I would eventually go to Balliol, but I went to Lincoln instead of hanging around for another year at school; my father had got to know someone who was a French exchange teacher who was now a journalist working for Agence France Presse; I got the scholarship in December, left school and went to Paris, and got a job as a copy boy at the Press; I went with three school friends who were also keen; one was David Aukin who became a well-known theatre producer at the RSC, the other, John Gilbert, later worked for the BBC; the third was Paul Grinke, who became an antiquarian book dealer we had originally thought we were going on a university course, but as I had a job, I did not bother, though I did read quite a lot; my hours of work were from six to midnight, so rather antisocial; it was only at the end of my stay that I had earned the resources to enable me not to work for the last couple of months; this was in 1960 and while there, I witnessed the attempt of the French Generals at a coup against General de Gaulle and in the last couple of months I also got to know some Germans whom I still see, and they were quite keen on doing little errands for the FLN, so I did have a sense of what was going on, and of course from Agence France Presse where you were literally taking the news off the machines for the relevant journalists
26:09:24 At St Paul’s there were bits that were compulsory that I really disliked; the school was divided into eight houses and there were compulsory boxing competitions between them; it was a nightmare trying to get out of that; another thing that I disliked was the CCF; I tried going into the Scouts as an alternative, or doing games instead, but eventually, I felt compelled to join. In 1956 Field Marshall Montgomery, an old boy, came to address the school; he made us sit down on the tarmac; it was a hot day and all the tarmac was melting and we didn't have CCF for the rest of the term as our uniforms all had to be sent to the cleaners; those were the main things I didn't like and I played truant several times trying to avoid them; I was in the school orchestra and played the oboe, which I was quite keen on; we set up a drama/culture society; I remember we managed to get Graham Greene to speak and we organized a trip to see a Pinter play; we called it the Gallery Club, and that was quite exciting; I wasn't terribly good at sport but quite enjoyed it; in school I did classics, so Latin and Greek at 'O' level, then Latin, history and French at 'A' level; I basically enjoyed the time there, and by the end of it, particularly once I had got to Oxford, they allowed me to give mini-lectures; at that stage, because the New Left had seeped into my consciousness, 1956 was the big change with both Suez and Hungary; I remember thinking initially that maybe Suez had something to be said for it but eventually it just seemed monstrous; that was the year I thought I should join CND and began defining myself against the conventional school; I also developed a hostility towards the suburbs and their provincialism; going to Paris made it worse; you had to go to school on Saturday morning to play sport; for the first year or two I wore cavalry twills and a cravat; then I remember we were taken on a trip because one of the parents worked at Gillette or Firestone Tyres; we were taken round the factory and then allowed to spend half an hour in a cafe; there was a juke box and that was the first time I heard Elvis and 'Blue Suede Shoes'; up until then one felt under social pressure to learn to do foxtrot and quickstep, and I think I had even started at some little dance academy; the great liberation was giving all of that up, and move from cavalry twills to jeans; in some ways it felt an exciting time which then extended to the seventies, and changed in good ways on the whole; in retrospect I think I was lucky to have that post-war prosperity without having a memory of the war itself
32:50:15 On religion - I was confirmed at school; I remember thinking that it could be true so I didn't have strong anti-religious feelings; on the other hand the school Chaplain who taught us divinity was not very bright, so we made jokes and regarded it as ridiculous but I don't think we were fundamentally alienated from religion though we were from organized religion as it was practised at school; over time I have been sort of agnostic; Bernard Williams once said to me that Anglican atheism was his belief; I quite like the rituals of the Church of England, but I don't believe in God and all that; my position was reinforced by reading Hegel, Anglicanism happens to be the religious culture of this island and I don't feel any strong urge to disrupt it; I think the Dawkins-Hitchens attack is a bit childish; my question is not "is there a god" but "what is God?" and Hegel has an interesting answer to that, that it's just everything; if England had stayed as it was in the 1950s - at school I did read Bertrand Russell's explanation of why he was not a Christian - I would have supported the Dawkins line; but now it seems to me to be attacking something that really isn't that central; I find myself in the slightly ridiculous position of observing that the people who seems to say sensible things are in the Church of England, senior judges, and people in the House of Lords; I don't with any comfort approve of any of these things particularly, but on the other hand it is one of the areas where a certain pluralism survives, and for that reason I feel that the alternatives might be worse
36:30:19 I had already had girlfriends before going to Paris; I used to meet girls from the Grammar school in the local youth club; one was a musician, and to follow her I joined the Middlesex Youth Orchestra; but I was determined I had to make my way in the world and desperate to leave the suburbs; when I went to Paris it was a pretty barren time sexually; I do remember going to see an early Brigitte Bardot film, 'God Created Eve', in Hounslow, and being attacked in an alley afterwards, so I was obviously interested in sex and had hopes for Paris; in fact, French girls then were hardly seen; it wasn't until later on, when I was at Nuffield, that I met two anthropologists, students of Levi Strauss; one was Dan Sperber and the other was Pierre Smith, and through them I got to know other people in Paris; in the sixties, for all the interest in Sartre etc., I thought that Britain was a more culturally enlightened place; the idea of my French friends in 1967-8 for a Saturday night was to play bridge and listen to Louis Armstrong; I did think that they had a lot to learn; however I did keep up the French connection, and when I was at Oxford my girlfriend was someone who had been to Paris, so we had this shared knowledge; she became an anthropologist and worked on gipsies - Judith Okley; the person I married, Gay Webber, was also an anthropologist; we used to go down to the pub where Evans-Pritchard went; her supervisor was Rodney Needham, and when I wrote 'Outcast London' I had read Mauss and gift exchange and all that sort of thing which to historians at the time was quite novel.
41:46:05 At Lincoln, the other history scholar was placed in the room next to me; he was a larger than life person called Angus Hone; he was about six foot five; he came from Malvern but he had a Scottish mother, so when he came to Oxford he insisted on wearing a kilt, so everyone knew who he was; he was a great enthusiast and wanted to meet everybody, so I met a lot of my generation whom he thought worth meeting through being next door to him; we continued into the third year when we lived out in Woodstock Road with Roderick Floud and Charles Drace-Francis, who became an ambassador in somewhere like Honduras; it was an enjoyable time and I was very happy to have ended up at Lincoln; now I gather it is near the top of the league, but then it was not especially distinguished; one of the tutors was V.H.H. Green who became the model for Smiley in the Le Carré novels, as he had also been at Lincoln; Green had a room that allegedly belonged to John Wesley at some time, about twice as large as this, but all along the wall were teddy-bears sitting in rows; although he was Chaplain of the College he always wore a suede suit; he was actually a much less interesting person than that suggests, and his history wasn't terribly inspiring; the other history tutor, called John Owen, was a much sharper person who had been one of the early followers of Namier; I got very interested in economics while I was in Oxford, first of all from this New Left connection there was a Leavisite New Left paper called 'New University' which was terribly worthy in a David Holbrook sort of way; one of my friends through Oxford was Alexander Cockburn and we tried to set up a snappier newspaper called 'The University Messenger'; eventually I got involved in 'Isis' and so did Angus and Mary Kaldor, and we were more or less running that for a term or two; we were interested at that time in theories of the Third World and economics of development; there were a number of sympathizers and seminars on the subject, and my interest continued when I went to Nuffield; at school I had read Christopher Hill very thoroughly and that was the sort of area that I knew best when I went to Oxford; he was rather disappointing as a lecturer; I read Trevor-Roper as well; I went to one or two of his seminars, but disliked the fact that he would send people away if they were not wearing gowns; the person I was most enthusiastic about at the time was Lawrence Stone; he was giving the lectures that became 'The Crisis in the Aristocracy', and I definitely made a point of going to all of those; I got to know him a little; another person whose lectures I did go to was Jack Gallagher; although I was at Lincoln, the circles I was closer to, were in Balliol, particularly round Richard Cobb and Gallagher who had gone there too; I also liked Hoskin's lectures; there was a nice paper called 'Sixteenth Century Economic Documents' and Hoskin's was quite inspiring in his way; the other person who was a bit of a guru because he didn't publish much was K.B. McFarlane, and his work on bastard feudalism was really exciting; I went to Keith Thomas's lectures on Rousseau, Aristotle and Hobbes; I ran the Stubbs Society for a year and invited him to give one of the talks; that was exciting as he was bringing together history and anthropology; on the Cuban Missile Crisis, I remember turning up to a protest meeting in St Giles; when I first came to Oxford they parachuted me into being secretary of the Oxford students' CND together with Nick Humphrey, Adam Roberts and Jonathan Howard, the son of Marghanita Laski, so I got to know quite a few people straight away through the CND connections; I remember we did a march round Oxford which was supposed to follow the edge of a crater that would be made if a bomb landed there; it was a period when nuclear war didn't seem inconceivable; I remember the committee being invited to SHAPE to hear the NATO case; I also got involved in the Labour Club alongside Simon Jenkins; I have never been an organizer but preferred to be a foot-soldier; later I had connections with Ruskin College; Jonathan Howard had a rather beautiful sister called Lydia and I was very keen on her; before me, Tim Mason had been keen on her, and before him, Raphael Samuel; Raphael got to know me because he was worried about Lydia; he had just been given some sort of position through Christopher Hill in Ruskin, though he may have lectured there part-time before then; he had been in retreat from politics in Ireland; I got to know him as an undergraduate and by the third year had been to his house in Spitalfields; when he did come to Ruskin he had the idea to put on history workshops which started as a much more modest affair, but were basically getting the students to do dissertations, then pairing them with sympathetic academics - that would have been 1965-66; I remember participating in those workshops; at the time I was intrigued by the earlier history of the New Left; another person that I got to know was Edward Thompson and Perry Anderson; Perry didn't like the old New Left, Raphael didn't trust Edward; I thought of myself at the time as a sort of mediator as I admired Anderson's 'Origins of the Present Crisis' but with my interest in history I greatly enjoyed the company of Edward; I must have got to know Eric Hobsbawm at the same time; I knew them all but tried to manoeuvre between them; Raphael I got to know more closely; I didn't agree with him much of the time as I had always been rather sceptical about history from below; my fantasy was that an historian is rather like a dramatist and could see the different players from different positions; it wasn't that practising history from below couldn't be interesting, it was just the moralistic ethos that went with it; but it made people do some oral history, give voice to people who were generally ignored; I remember editing one of the essays that Raphael had set up about railwaymen's slang, and it was very interesting; we both agreed that history was important, that we could change the world by changing history; it was a time when history seemed to have something to do with emancipation, though it is harder to conceive now quite why one thought that; it was a time when Edward and Raymond Williams had taken education out of the ivory towers to the people; one of my early experiences was when I went to stay with Edward Thompson; he was living in Halifax at the time and we drove up to Cleveland where he gave a talk on the Peterloo Massacre, or something like that; it was quite inspiring and really was a sort of secular creed; one of the members of the class had been Sidney Webb's electoral agent in 1924 so there was a strong sense of labour traditions having some real vitality at the time, which was why I didn't entirely go along with the New Left; the new New Left had a lot of contempt for the New Left clubs, and said we shouldn't go to pubs but to cocktail bars, so a very strong modernist style, while the old New Left were keener on getting to know the people