Mid-morning, early 1973, and my History teacher asks me to stay behind after class. Oh dear. He said, handing me a paperback book the same as the one above, “I want to lend you this. I think you’ll like it.” It was To The Finland Station by the American literary critic, Edmund Wilson.
I don’t think he realised, and I never told him, but this was a hugely significant moment for me. First, Mr Mawby had trusted me with one of his personal possessions. Second, he had lent me a book. I owned a handful and hadn’t read many more in my young life. Third, he believed that I would benefit from it (too right there) and had confidence that I could understand it (sadly, misplaced).
As soon as I got home, I began reading with the aim of marching my way from cover to cover. After a few skirmishes with the French historian Michelet and the Italian philosopher Vico,I made the tactical decision to skip directly to the chapters on Marx, Engels and Lenin. Before long ,I was in the British Museum studying for Capital, volume I, and ended up hurtling along with Lenin on the sealed train headed for the Finland Station. This move was (I think) partly influenced by a BBC drama I had seen about Marx’s life in Soho. Certainly, Jimmy Reid’s frequent TV appearances had aroused an interest in the Communist Party. I remember his address as the newly-elected rector of Glasgow University (“A rat race is for rats. We are not rats.”). In a debate with arch right-winger Peregrine Worsthorne, he cupped his hands and gently moved them as he explained that “humanity is like a flame hat has to be nurtured.”
In honesty, most of the chapters, especially those on theory, flew straight over my head. All I knew was that I was excited to find something that made sense of our lives and experience and, as importantly, pointed out what to do about it. I had always had sound class instincts instilled by my father. He would come home after a hard day’s work in an iron foundry, sit in his armchair, put his feet on the mantelpiece and rail against the ruling class. The royal family and Winston Churchill were favourite (but by no means exclusive) targets.. “The only way to solve this country’s problems is to collar all the capital and start again.”
To The Finland Station opened up a whole alternative view of the world which made perfect sense of these class instincts and gave guidance on what to do with them. . A proletarian science, no less.
In honesty, much of the book gave me brainache. I even felt some unease with parts of it. It was glowing in its admiration for the thinking and writings of Marx and Engels. Yet Wilson also spent a lot of time mocking the ‘Theory of the Dialectic’.The Thesis meets its Antithesis to produce a Synthesis. It was presented as a mechanical formula, “a Holy Trinity”, which had bewitched Marx,Engels and Lenin. How such brilliant people could fall for such a daft idea, as Wilson explained,it , left me a bit bemused. Only later did I come to see that Wilson had constructed straw man to have some fun with.
It didn’t matter. What Edmund Wilson had done was to open my eyes to a view of the world which I wanted to grasp and use,.He set me off on a quest which has never stopped. Always “Grinding the Lens” , to borrow one of his chapter titles. I don’t think that was Mr Mawby’s intention in 1973 but, whatever it was, I owe him an incalculable debt of gratitude.