The Intellectual Life
of the British
by Jonathan Rose Yale University Press, pounds 29.95, 534pp
Forty years ago, when I was teaching my first WEA adult education course, there was in the class the most eloquent, passionate, authoritative student that I have ever met. Far better read than me, and much cleverer, he caused me to spend most of my time trying to conceal my ignorance or to direct the class to follow his lead. His name was Jeremy Seabrook. And his appearance in this mild and magnificent book marks the place where its story ends.
Seabrook (now the author of a dozen books) speaks for Jonathan Rose, and Rose speaks for himself, a threnody over the demise of the British working-class intellectual, a noble elegy over the greatest days and highest hopes of what was always the most solid, settled, self- confident and unrevolutionary working class in industrial history. Marx would only have had to leave the British Museum and walk the streets of Clerkenwell to see how illusory was his gigantic narrative.
Not, as Rose makes absolutely clear, that this was a class with no demands to make of the impossible snobberies, stifling respectabilities and hateful inequalities of its insufferable employers. One way to review this book is simply to put in one's thumb and pull out any number of plums blooming with the fresh juice and wholesome flesh of those original students, who came to claim for themselves the exclusive fruits of class culture, and turn that fruit into the restoration of the British people.
There is a time to cheer: "I had actually arrived at the conclusion that if there was any good life, and freedom from insecurity, and beauty, and knowledge, or leisure, then the men who did the world's sweaty, dirty, toilsome, risky work, and the women who shared the life with them, ought to be the first entitled to these things". There is a time to turn, with well-timed reproachfulness, on old guardians of the cultural order like E M Forster and to answer Rose's own question, "What was Leonard Bast really like?" In Rose's memorable reply, using the words of a Ruskin College student, the self-improving clerk from Howards End was like this: "For many weeks I read and re-read this one book, and... before I had perused it the third time, its every subtlety was as much my own... as a young lover's memory of his virgin kiss."
Finally, there is a time for tears, of recognition and solidarity at the stirring vision of a people redeemed by the nobility of great art as it speaks to everybody of the best that is in them: "You'll see the time, son, when the symphonies of Beethoven and the operas of Mozart will be played in public halls everywhere. …