Inspiring Older Readers

posted on 31 May 2017

The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes by Jonathan Rose

This is an extraordinary book in many ways. For a start it tries to do something that looks completely forbidding – to establish just what a great swathe of the population did for entertainment and intellectual stimulation before television and the growth of a mass media accessible by all – and then it goes on to challenge a number of long held but ultimately erroneous assumptions about working class life.

I think it’s a shame that the book has a slightly pompous and overly academic title because in the end I don’t think it does the body of ideas here any favours. In many ways this is a study of the indomitable spirit and intellectual curiosity of  sections of the working class who were effectively cut off from education and exposure to ideas and artistic expression by the middle class establishment.

A good proportion of the book is in fact a study of the temper and attitudes of the working class autodidact and sets out to draw a portrait of the different pathways towards the goal of self-improvement. And, it’s important to note, this wasn’t simply a process of self-education designed to help climb the ladder of social status but frequently a desire for knowledge for knowledge’s sake. What is really interesting about Rose’s book is that we see how this desire to learn wasn’t all about what we now call ‘social mobility’ – moving from the working class to the middle class – but about becoming an educated member of the class in which they lived their lives.

Rose does, of course, face a formidable research challenge – finding the evidence for what might be seen as untraceable or ephemeral pursuits. What books did people read? What newspapers did they have access to? What conversations were they party to? Who went to evening classes or WEA organised courses? Much of this seems impossible to trace or pin down but Rose has done a truly remarkable piece of academic detective work to pin down a body of evidence that’s never been available before. He draws on diaries, memoirs, library records, school roles and other, sometimes unconventional, sources that have rarely been brought together in this way. Students of research in the social sciences will be familiar with the term ‘triangulation’  - the process of drawing in data from a variety of different or lateral sources and approaches to help verify your analysis – and what Rose does here is a text book example of that approach.

There are elsewhere individual studies of workers who have used their trade union or WEA branch as a route through education and into radicalism and this autodidactic tradition lies at the heart not just of Britain’s Labour movement but also the rise of the British Communist Party in the 1920s and 30s. Whilst Rose acknowledges this he is also points out this route through to radical ideas has not been the common experience of the majority of the working class who have demonstrated a temperamental inclination towards a considerably more conservative set of ideas and entertainments. And, he usefully reminds us, even those working class readers with a radical turn of mind didn’t spend significant time and effort trying to conquer Marx – preferring instead interpretations filtered through more accessible and amenable sources.

The author Ian Sansom reviewed the book for The Guardian when it was first released in 2001 and concluded more concisely than I could – so I’m taking his words :

One does still occasionally come across people who seem to assume that the words "working class" are a synonym for "stupid" or "wicked" or "lazy" or "dumb". The people who make such assumptions would do well to read The Intellectual Life of the British Working Classes , but most of them are probably too busy working in TV, or on newspaper colour supplements, or writing fancy books that nobody wants to read.

Copies of this book are available on the second hand market for well under £10 in both paper cover and hardback.


Terry Potter

May 2017