Barry Supple interviewed by Alan Macfarlane 3rd July 2010

0:05:07 Born in the London Hospital in Whitechapel in 1930 where my parents lived; I cannot go back further than grandparents, and I know nothing of the origins of either of my grandmothers; both sets came from Poland, my father's in the late 1890s, the other certainly in 1905 when my mother's father came as a refugee from conscription during the Russian-Japanese war; I know a little bit about their geographic origin as I am visiting Poland for the first time shortly to look at the two villages that are involved; they are in Eastern Poland; they came over with large families and numbers of siblings; the families were very close so I knew all the siblings and their descendants; there were between seven and nine siblings in each family; sadly, like so many young people I did not ask them the right questions when they were alive, so I do not know what the  did in Poland; my grandfathers came over when they were young men, probably in their late teens, so would not have much record of work in Poland; when they came to this country my mother's father worked as a casual labourer - the 1911 census described him as employed in 'cigarette box manufacture'; he subsequently went on to selling bananas from a barrow in Ridley Road; I believe that my father's father worked as a tailor but his sight deteriorated so he did not work in his middle and later years; both sets came to Whitechapel in East London; I have the addresses but have never tracked down the places; they stayed there into my parents’ generation when they moved into what were then the leafy suburbs of Hackney in the middle to late 1930s; I don't remember my first years in Whitechapel but I do remember Dalston, the part of Hackney where we lived from about 1938; the whole family moved; my mother's family was much the stronger element, and we lived with my grandmother and other of my mother's siblings before they were married; my parents married in 1928 and stayed within the extended family from then on, so it was a very large household; they were Jewish on both sides but none of them was particularly religious; whether they were observant or not rather depends on the definition one has; they did observe the two or three major holidays which social pressure and community momentum obliged them to - the Day of Atonement, New Year and Passover; I don't recall the details as I became very irreligious, but it was just a matter of attending synagogue when you ought to; I was bar mitzvahed at the age of thirteen and marriages took place in synagogue, but it was a social ambience rather than belief that prompted it

5:24:01 My father was a tailor; he was born in 1904; my mother before marriage was a seamstress in a furrier's, in a fur factory; she was born in 1907; I never asked them how they met, but I have some very nice photographs of them as a young couple; my father stayed the rest of his life as a journeyman tailor; he was a part of the structure of industry which was a putting-out system to small workshops and private houses; my mother stopped working when she married; my father did for a brief period try to be an entrepreneur, and failed, in the 1950s; my father was a relaxed and very intelligent person who would have benefitted from an education that he didn't receive; he left school at the age of twelve and commuted by train to work from Reading during the First World War; he was always ambitious for learning; he was a strongish character who fostered his two sons (I had a brother), and was sceptical in terms of religion and politics; he was quite left-wing and was an active member of the International Ladies Garment Union; that I suppose had a slight influence on me, sometimes reactionary; he was a man whom I grew greatly to respect, feeling he was a strong personality whom I admired, was tolerant of his sons and very kind; my mother was very maternal; she was the eldest of eight, and like her mother held the family together, in the sense that she took a lot of the decisions and had fairly strong opinions; she was a loving person and also very kind, perhaps more demonstrative than my father; I suppose you could say they did cosset me; I was the first born and their only child for eight years; they were full of admiration for me, and were rather proud of my achievements in school and at university; on the whole I don't think I have anything to complain about in terms of my relationship with them; in the end I suppose I admired my father more, as a benchmark of an intelligent approach to the world, of a keen view of the political atmosphere around us, more encouraging of study and reading, buying me books when I was in my early teens; on the whole I think their influences were pretty powerful; as I grew older, and even now, I still feel that my father is the one I want to impress; I am sorry that he was not around to see what happened because he died when I was still at Sussex University; he did not see me get a Chair and Cambridge or become the Master of a College, which he would have felt powerfully about

10:43:17 An early memory that I have is of my mother falling off a roundabout on holiday somewhere, probably at Walton on the Naze; I think the reason that it is powerful is that at that time I had mixed feelings about it; I think she must have done something that I didn't like because I was both anguished and slightly pleased about what I took to be a punishment; I have a memory, which is obviously not true, of her flying through the air; I can't identify when that was but it would have been before the Second World War, probably about 1937-8; there is a haziness because I also have other memories; I do remember the time that I first learnt that death was inevitable because an aunt, a sibling of my mother's, informed me; I must have been six or seven and was devastated by it and my parents were very upset, and they berated this aunt, Frances; that memory was quite strong, both because of the incident and seeing my parents' reaction and defensiveness towards me; I have other memories, mostly concerned with this rather riotous family of siblings who lived together in the same house

13:08:22 I first went to a school called Sigdon Road Elementary School which is in Hackney; I suppose there were about 30-40 boys in the class; I have a memory of the smell of Lifebuoy soap that our middle-class teacher, Mr Griffiths, must have used; he was very impressive, clean-shaven and well-spoken in a suit and tie; I was in that school until the war started; I was immediately evacuated with a group that included my two young aunts, who were five and seven years older, to Hockwold, a tiny village in Norfolk, where many year's later I taught a WEA class as a graduate student; we were not there for very long, but were  evacuated again in 1940, again with my aunts, for a longer period; my mother joined us with my younger brother, and her mother and another aunt, and we set up home in Witney near Oxford; it is countryside and I discovered bluebells and birds’ eggs and things of that bucolic sort; I joined the Sea Cadets in Witney, but I don't recall having hobbies; the only teaching incident that I recall there was that two of the pupils were twin sons of the headmaster; and no doubt in order to show his independence he caned them once in front of the whole school.  I do remember that the same headmaster told my parents that I ought to prepare myself as there was a chance I could get into Christ's Hospital; I suspect that he was suggesting that I ought to study hard, but Christ's Hospital loomed as a missed opportunity in those early years; we were in Witney 1940-41 and then came back to London in 1941; I was evacuated again in 1942 after I "won the scholarship" at the age of eleven, and went to King's Lynn where my London school had gone; it was the well known Hackney Downs Grammar School for boys; Harold Pinter joined the school when it returned to London in 1943; in King's Lynn we were billeted on another grammar school and I remember getting into trouble because I argued that Paris was spelt PAREE because that was how it was pronounced in French; I shudder to recall it but I know I was very obstinate; I made one or two friends there with whom I have re-established contact because Hackney Downs School for Boys is one of the few state schools that has a web site, a good magazine, and an association (the Clove Club); next week I shall be visited by somebody I was at school with from America, and we are all going over to see another friend who was Head Boy when I was his deputy – over sixty years since we were schoolmates. 

19:50:00 In retrospect, and obliquely perceived at the time, the school was of very high quality and had good masters; there is an interesting question about why the masters were so good and it was possibly because of the lack of alternatives for people who were well-educated; two or three of them still live very strongly in my memory; one was Joe Brearley who figures strongly in Harold Pinter’s memoirs because he was an English master who was a theatrical enthusiast; he directed 'Macbeth' and 'Romeo and Juliet' which were two outstanding productions with Harold in the lead; he never taught me but I came into contact with him because of drama where I was quite active; he was an exceptional man because he transcended the ambience and structure of the school; he was an intellectual, literary, wanted boys to talk about poetry and drama, and took us to interesting plays; at another level there was a man called Kenneth Hooton who was an historian who enthused me with a love for economic history; it was one of the few schools then that offered economic history at 'A' level; he was a scholarly influence; then there was a fine and curious man called Percy Coffin who was a geographer who retooled himself as an economist in order to teach us economics; it was a rich tapestry as there were lots of other masters whom I could talk about; drama and sport were the two principle activities I engaged in; I ran, played cricket and soccer for the school team; I played in the soccer team from an early age because I was a goalkeeper and did not need to be as robust as older players; drama materialized with the production of 'Macbeth' in 1947 when I was sixteen; we were all dressed in army cadet corps uniforms:  Harold Pinter was Macbeth and I was Malcolm; I remember Brearley rather nicely mocking me when I asked who had murdered my father in what he called, a dinner party manner (Oh, by whom?); the next year there was an extraordinary production of 'Romeo and Juliet', with Harold as Romeo; I have not seen many school productions but I doubt if many would have had the impact that this had; I played Mercutio, and the boy Henry Grinberg who played Tybalt, is the man coming over next week from New York; in our last year Harold and I wanted to do 'Hamlet' but Brearley refused.  We concocted a scheme to put it on privately but it didn't come to anything; the novel I will never write is about middle-aged men in their ‘fifties and ‘sixties who come together finally to do it; Harold was very precocious and had a pulling power on the rest of us; he was precocious both in his person - his relationship with girls, for example - but also in his literary interests; he stimulated us to get concerned with conventional people like George Bernard Shaw, but also with Henry Miller; he wrote a lot, and was a very strong personality and very likeable; he and I were great friends and it was because of this friendship that our fathers became partners in the unsuccessful entrepreneurial tailoring venture.  Harold had a strong temper; I remember claiming in the course of a hot argument that the reason he liked D.H. Lawrence was because of the dirty bits; he almost felled me to the ground because of this silly comment.  We went on holiday together - once in France when we were sixteen or seventeen, hitchhiking, when I almost persuaded him to take an interest in politics; he did once join the Army Cadet Corps but could never swing his arms with the correct legs when marching; later on he was a conscientious objector.  He was a good close friend and I knew his parents very well; many years later, Harold confessed to having had an affair with the Aunt Frances who in my infancy had told me about the existence of death.  When my grandmother was killed by a bus in 1947 I could not play in the school football team the next day, and I had to put a note through his door to tell him, and he told me later this became the basis of a short story that he never published.  Harold was flamboyantly egocentric; I went with him one day to Speakers Corner in Hyde Park, and to my embarrassment he stood on a box and told the crowd that he would like to read some poems by a gifted and up-and-coming poet called Harold Pinter! He was a good sportsman as well; he left school early and went to RADA; when I came to Cambridge as a graduate student, he was doing quite well as an actor and I wrote to him and we re-established contact, but not very much; I did not see him properly until 1958 when I came back from America, and went to see him and his then wife and child; we did re-establish contact much later when I took exception to something about me in one of his biographies

29:24:14 I became interested in politics at school in a rather self-consciously intellectual way, reading Marx, Plekhanov and Lenin; I remember being rather embarrassed when my father found me reading Plekhanov, feeling I wanted to keep his opinion at arm's length and follow my own inclinations; I was certainly left-wing and interested in the intellectual roots of socialism; on religion, I think there is an ambiguity that is distinctive to Jews, but probably Muslims feel the same, which is the pull between one's reaction to the belief which can be sceptical and rejectionist, and the ethnic element which is pretty powerful.  Quite early on, encouraged by my father, I was sceptical, but never would have dreamt of not being Bar Mitzvahed because that is what happened in that community; the only Hebrew that I ever learned was in order to read the section of the law which was relevant to the timing of the ceremony; I never went to the synagogue again, and walked out of my brother's Bar Mitzvah because I had a soccer match; over the years I have never dissociated myself from the Jewish background but never felt that I wanted to be identified as a religious Jew; the only times I have been back to a synagogue is for weddings.  My father’s family’s original name was ‘Sopel’. I have looked at the digital archives from the village they came from called Suchowola (near Bialystock), and there were Sopels there; I know that they were the same Sopels because my father always used to tell me that when his father and uncles came to this country, one was left behind – and was killed in the Holocaust.  Sure enough, that uncle was recorded in the Holocaust archive with two sons.  The name was corrupted early on by common usage into Supple.  One of my father's traits that I have inherited is an excessive respect for bureaucracy; he registered me at birth as Sopel, even though he was always called Supple, and my mother was outraged as she thought it would give me a lot of trouble in later years; sure enough, later on I had to go to a notary public and certify that my name was Supple by common usage; curiously, even the American immigration authorities accepted that.

As Master of St Catherine's in 1984-93 I used to go to evensong quite often, which I suppose I rationalized on two grounds - one, that I could listen to the preacher who was not necessarily religious, the other was that it gave me a contemplative moment away from the stress and strife of the College.  I thought of it as a collegiate ritual; actually admitting Fellows is a much more explicit form of that and I accepted it as such, even though I was usually averse to ritual, as I saw it as part of the obligations. The admission ritual is expressly Christian at St Catherine's, but there was a way of avoiding the word Christ which I did for Jewish Fellows

36:58:13 I went to the LSE as an undergraduate.  Given my future appointment as Director of the Leverhulme Trust, one of the pleasant ironies of life was that I got a Leverhulme scholarship to LSE. At the time of my interview I was reading 'The Horse's Mouth' by Joyce Cary and that greatly impressed my interviewers including T.S. Ashton who was chairing; I was also interviewed at University College London, but went to the LSE to read economics in 1949.  I suppose in retrospect it would have been more interesting to have gone to a residential university and then as a graduate student to have gone there, but it was pleasant.  I was quite active athletically and socially, as well as academically.  I did quite well as a student, being very much influenced by Jack Fisher:  at that age one is very impressed by the sort of relaxed cynicism of someone like Jack, and his perception and cutting-edge of his mind was pretty powerful; I did his special subject, sixteenth-century economic history, so got quite close to him.  When I composed a proposal for research for Cambridge Jack’s one comment was that I had obviously read a lot of Ernest Hemingway.  He was a good lecturer for those who were keen, rather like Lance Beales whose lectures were difficult because few people understood what he was saying. Jack was probably a much better small group teacher.  T.S. Ashton was the most straight-forward, good lecturer.  I was also very active in LSE sports and in the Students' Union where I took the role of grants officer.  Tawney had retired by the time I got to LSE although I did go to some lectures he gave on Lionel Cranfield.  Later, when I was a Cambridge research student I thought I really ought to see him as I was working on the 1600-1640 period, the period he was interested in with Cranfield.  He entertained me in his flat in Mecklenburg Square, but I was disappointed because, although he was a lovely man, he wasn't really very interested in what I was doing.  I am not sure how old he was then (in 1953-4), but he was very disorganised and the notorious herbal tobacco that he smoked hit me.  His wife was even more disorganised and used to come in late when he lectured on Cranfield; I was struck also by the fact that when Tawney lectured in his beautifully modulated prose, I believe he had it committed to memory; there was one point where he was interrupted by his wife coming in late and be went back three sentences and they were exactly the same as the first time around.  Tawney was saint-like - a man without obvious faults, but Jack Fisher was rather cynical about him.  In fact, Jack only ever produced a few articles and his work on Cranfield never appeared.  However, his influence lived on because of the seminal articles and the people he influenced; I used to see him in later years when I was at Sussex, when other devotees entertained him to lunch every few months and I used to come up to London.  He suffered very badly from arthritis but refused to acknowledge it; he did attract a lot of devotion.

In my first year at LSE I was influenced very briefly by Karl Popper; I went to his lectures as a first-year student and was so profoundly impressed that I was tempted to change from economics to philosophy.  I went up to him after one of his lectures to try to arrange a meeting to talk about it, but he was obviously too busy, and that turned me off it completely; in economics, there was Phelps Brown whom I met in later years when I went to Oxford, who was not so much an influence but one whose lectures were attractive; there was also the formidable Arnold Plant, a very conservative economist who stimulated us; the other important lecturer was Harold Laski who died in my second year; although I hadn't thought of it like that, when he did die I felt somewhat bereft as he was someone I could have got to in need; I learned later that he was in fact very good with and to students, and many years later I found that my wife, who had been at the LSE at some stage, had gone to see him for advice; in economic theory, I did have a little run-in with Lionel Robins because I studied what were then called the BSc(Econ) under new regulations, and he rather progressively organised a meeting with students to see what they felt.  There, I had the temerity to say something mildly critical, I can't remember what, but he slapped me down.  My personal advisor was the economist Alan Peacock, and I had to tell him the disappointing news that I wanted to change from economics to economic history.  But he was very understanding and I kept in touch with him over the years

47:27:16 I can't entirely remember why I wanted to come to Cambridge, but there was an open scholarship at Christ's; I suppose I was influenced by the thought of winning a scholarship and getting some sort of financial base, as well as by making a change, and because Cambridge was the home of economic history - Postan was here, Charles Wilson, and others.  I was awarded the research student scholarship to my father's ill-concealed delight; I established contact almost immediately with Jack Plumb who was Graduate Tutor; I got on very well with him and he was kind to me; I think that with Jack Plumb, his own origins as a grammar school boy coming into the slightly alien atmosphere of Cambridge, made him very sympathetic to people, not only to those like Neil McKendrick from his own school, but to people like me; he invited me to tea-parties to meet other fellows; there was a time when I was feeling rather unhappy and lonely so I went to see him, and he was very good; he organised teaching for me right from the start, which was a strange experience since I had never lectured or taught before; my actual supervisor was Charles Wilson at Jesus, who was equally nice but in a quite different way; he hardly interfered with my work, and offered very little advice.  Rather, he seemed to want to do nothing but talk about the bursarship of Jesus, which he then occupied.  Over the years I remained close to Jack Plumb, and when I came back to Cambridge in 1981 he bullied the fellows of Christ's to give me a professorial fellowship.  I got to know him quite well when he was Master of Christ's, but his influence was very long-lasting.  Quentin Skinner, Roy Porter, Simon Sharma and Neil McKendrick, were all his students; I met them all on his eightieth birthday when they gave a dinner party for him; he seemed very pleased by what I said then and rewarded me by offering me the opportunity of giving lunch to Princess Margaret, which I accepted. Jack could be very hurtful, but could also be a charming, even endearing, man and patron. I only came across Geoffrey Elton when I came back to the Chair of Economic History.  Like some others, he was without any conscience when it came to supporting his own students; I also met Eric Hobsbawm when I was a graduate student; he asked me where I had come from and I said "the School" rather pompously; he quite rightly asked me which school it was; at the time he was the Ehrman Fellow at King's – a post that Plumb encouraged me to apply for later.  (I was unsuccessful.)

54:10:04 My PhD was very much a derivative from Jack Fisher’s interests:  it was on commercial crisis and change from 1600 to 1642 which later became a book; initially I had intended to take the whole hundred years from the middle of the sixteenth to middle of the seventeenth century but that was too big a bite so I halved it.  It was a continuation of the work initiated by Jack, and no doubt he was capable of writing it but didn't.  He had written on fluctuations in the wool trade in the late sixteenth century, so it was with his advice that I did it.  I had to work on archives in the Public Record Office in London for a fair amount of time, and it was at that point that I wondered if I should have gone to  Cambridge as an undergraduate first and then to LSE as a research student.  Charles Wilson gave me a lot of free rein as he did not know much about the topic, although he was quite interested and encouraging.  He was very conscientious on reading my drafts and came to Postan's seminar when I talked.  Flatteringly, he appropriated some of it to use himself at a later stage.  But he was also very helpful and wise when at some stage I stumbled across papers of Thomas Mun in the Public Record Office.  Mun was a seventeenth-century economist who really devised the concept of the balance of payments.  He propounded this in a pamphlet, published posthumously, called 'England's Treasure by Foreign Trade'.  I discovered the submission he had made to a commission of enquiry in 1621 which had it all there; but just as I was about to publish it, someone else found it and did so; I went in some distress to Wilson but he calmed me down and said I could publish it as well, since there was room for more than one act of publicity and the issue was not all that grave.  Charles was very philosophic in the same way that Jack Plumb was in later years when I failed to be elected to the Mastership of Christ's.  In Jack’s words, "Doors Open"  -  and that is what I called my autobiography.  I did not meet Hugh Trevor-Roper at that time, but did later, once when he came to Sussex to give lectures on Christian Europe, and then when I was Master of St Catharine's and he became Master of Peterhouse, but I only knew him socially and not academically; Lawrence Stone I knew a bit but was not close to him.