Working Class Movement Library

A blog from the Working Class Movement Library in Salford

Making words work – an attendee’s perspective on Saturday’s EP Thompson event

Posted by wcmlibrary on April 17, 2013

The day held at the People’s History Museum on 13 April to celebrate 50 years of The Making of the English Working Class took place in the context of the death of Mrs Thatcher earlier in the week. Many speakers felt that they could not ignore such an event and, indeed, added some anecdotal material. The real triumph of the day was not the disparagement or veneration of any individual (even E.P. Thompson himself) but the extent to which the importance of the word emerged.

Whilst this might initially not be obvious in the efforts of Christopher Eccleston and Maxine Peake to read aloud that which was not written to be read aloud, what actually happened was that actors with the skill and commitment to read scholarly prose illuminated exactly what that prose was about. The Making is about words, about hearing the words of those with high ideals who thought that their words would change society but were met with the response of starvation, imprisonment and, for some, the scaffold. By the end of the day the ‘poor stockinger, the Luddite cropper, the ‘obsolete’ hand loom weaver, the ‘utopian’ artisan and even the deluded follower of Joanna Southcott’ were successfully rescued ‘from the enormous condescension of history’.

The programme itself, put together with a wonderful sense of balance, celebrated the word in all manifestations. It was a testament to the power of the word that few people left early. When a less interesting contribution came along (and there were some) there existed the reassurance that what came next would be different.  The readings did not simply occupy the space between the personal stories and the academic readings they formed the glue: they gave the day cohesion.  They also reminded the audience that E.P. Thompson wrote with a profound respect for the intellect and the words of working people.  It is that respect which makes the book readable.

The People’s History Museum and the Working Class Movement Library clearly put substantial effort into the organisation of this day.  It even finished on time, which is an achievement in itself. But, more importantly, the programme was a reflection of the purpose of both establishments.  The galleries and the archives record the stories and struggles of working class people and the centrality of the book, the speech and the pamphlet is shown in their collections of images, voices and, above all, words.  E.P. Thompson rightly celebrated the self-taught and showed in The Making the extent to which those seen as ‘ignorant’ were capable of sustained and sophisticated argument.  If they could not read, then newspapers and pamphlets could be read aloud and argued about.  The celebration of words that took place to celebrate The Making is a reminder that there are still many stories to be uncovered and many campaigns to be run.  The legacy of this day, and of The Making of the English Working Class itself, is to get out there and make those words work.

DW Hargreaves, WCML volunteer and attendee at the conference

[WCML would like to thank Craig Horner from the People’s History Museum for the huge amount of energy he put in to make this event such a success]

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