E.P. Thompson at 100

As a former tank commander, Edward knew his way around an internal combustion engine.  Once at a gathering in Toronto someone’s car wouldn’t start up and Edward was under the hood and had the engine running in a jiffy.  It was a surprise.  He was not afraid to explore how the world actually works.   Once there was a problem in north Wales at a cottage he had.  The water wasn’t running.  It was past daylight but he put on his boots and strode out into night with his torch or flash-light swinging its beam back and forth in the muddy grass looking for the pipeline.  He found it and on the spot repaired its stop-cock.  I was impressed by these traits of the scholar of The Making of the English Working Class.

Of course, he was a man of ideas, and his reach with them was across the world.  When Allende died he turned his tears to a powerful poem.  He lived in the Worcestershire countryside.  Behind his house a tulip tree grew and surrounding the tulip tree were cyclamens grown from Palestine.  His mother and father and brother had deep ties to India and the Levant.  He loved wildflowers and could name them with English names such as the poet, John Clare, may have used.  It was one of his links to the English commons, both the knowledge and the names.

His sleeves were often rolled up. His jacket or jumper often had chalk dust mixed with the ashes of the cigarillos he smoked.  He conveyed the look and style of mid-20th century English intellectual grunge.  A seminar might happen anywhere.  He lay flat on the pinewood floor, and comrades and colleagues joined him there.  He loved the cut and thrust of debate; he could recite Wordsworth at length; in lecture he could build to a climax.  Theatre was in his bones.  When listening his eyes might be sharp conveying acuity.  He had a beautiful voice with versatile accents and registers of great range.  He liked to tease us by saying that Marx was English too.  Not just German or Russian.  He had a massive capacity for work, and generally knew what he was talking about.  When he didn’t, he’d ask, or study.  He aimed to put an end to nuclear war at least.

Edward Thompson, presente! 

Peter Linebaugh is the author of The London HangedThe Many-Headed Hydra: the Hidden History of the Revolutionary Atlantic (with Marcus Rediker) and Magna Carta Manifesto. Linebaugh’s latest book is Red Round Globe Hot Burning. He can be reached at: plineba@gmail.com