When he set out his famous statement of intent, in a sentence in the preface to The Making of the English Working Class (1963) from which Luke Fowler’s new film takes its title, to rescue those proletarians whose experiences did not form part of orthodox historical accounts of the early 19th century from “the condescension of posterity”, E.P. Thompson did not imagine the technical array and language of cinema as part of his method, still less the necessary corollary of it. And yet, when we read Konvolut N (‘On The Theory of Knowledge, Theory of Progress’) of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project, a body of work that sets out to do the same for the architecture and class movements of 19th century Paris, what is implied by the Kaiserpanorama of historical images that Benjamin parades before the reader, his organisation of them into a species of historical knowledge, is, precisely, the fission of cinema. There is, of course, a cut here: Thompson was older than the generation of New Leftists who excavated the Frankfurt School for British Marxism, and came from a background of bourgeois orthodox communism at Cambridge; in the 70s he attacked the continental influence on the left, the same body of theory that was then brilliantly animating film scholarship. Making…, for all its achievements, is doggedly empirical, piling up statistics and testimony rather than cross-cutting them.
Which is what makes Fowler’s choice to direct a film on Thompson both strange and, potentially, apposite. Fowler’s ‘lyrical documentary’ on R.D. Laing, All Divided Selves, with its astonishing flurries of archive footage and audio, suggested a kind of hallucinatory historical analysis, an atomisation of the recorded past into new, enveloping patterns that scry that past’s secret constitution. The Poor Stockinger… is, it’s immediately clear, a much less stylistically complex film, although there is, it becomes clear, still a fair amount going on. Questions are nestled within questions. The film focuses only on Thompson’s time in the Workers’ Educational Association (WEA), based in the West Riding of Yorkshire in the late 40s and early 50s. But it was during this period that Thompson first became interested in material – instances of local history, urban legends, northern townscapes, broad organisations of cultural memory in the industrial working-class – that would feed into The Making…; he was still a lecturer in the extra-mural department at the University of Leeds when he published the book. One of the most important threads running through The Making… is its description of the nascent working-class’s intellectual culture – auto-didacticism, reading-groups, evening classes – which was intimately connected with political agitation, organisation, sabotage and (in its most extreme cases, as with the Despard affair and the Cato Street Conspiracy) terrorism. Historical materialism, as the structuring and expression of the practice of a conscious working-class, finds its roots in the experience of self-education. We are invited, then, to see the pre-history of a work that itself describes the almost heroic pre-history of the class with which we are presented.
But the images that Fowler gives us are, invariably, not of that period. He revisits the towns and buildings (church halls, schools, miners’ and engineers’ institutes) where Thompson taught; the archive footage of Thompson, lecturing to a class on Blake’s ‘London’ for the cameras, and addressing a WEA conference in Oxford, is temporally to one side of his activities. The only archival material from that period is Thompson’s termly reports, mostly rueful, sometimes frustrated, read on the soundtrack: attendance is poor to moderate, the students aren’t interested in talking about historical methodology but about what so-and-so’s father got up to, the classrooms are cold. Excerpts from an internal WEA document written by Thompson, ‘Against University Standards’, voice his frustration at the need to treat pupils as part of an ‘inclusive’ environment, a notion that he saw as the product of a foreign (middle-class) milieu, and one that led to no learning being done – but then, the film prompts us to ask, whose idea of learning? The period when Thompson worked there, an interviewee reflects, was the last gasp of the WEA. In the towns where Fowler films, the steel mills and factories that employed the WEA’s members have been replaced by insurance call-centres (there’s a shot of a car attempting a three-point turn on a steep slope next to the grey Bradford & Bingley headquarters); there are steady shots, in wintery sunlight, of sloping redbrick terraces that once housed industrial workers.
How are we to unpick all of this? Part of the problem here is that Fowler’s style is much less hectic and much more empirical. He presents his images, mostly from the present day, calmly, reserving commentary or counterpoint to a sparse scattering. To encounter Fowler’s film is to think firstly that its effect is fairly simple (a deflation of the idealistic claims for self-education made by Thompson and the old left in general); then, to think that it’s much more complicated than that – that it historically traces the lived complexities and ambivalences of class struggle, its historical recession in every moment (Benjamin: “The past carries with it a secret index by which it is referred to redemption… there is a secret agreement between past generations and the present one”) without resorting to a baroque formal language; then, to wonder again whether it isn’t really simpler than that, the droll presentation of artefacts of real but squandered hopes – of the power of working-class culture and social democracy. I’m still not sure which if any or all of these thoughts is most convincing, although I lean towards the last of them. But the film itself provides hints that lead into its own intellectual hinterlands. Most notable is its sound: designed by laptop composer Ben Vida, it’s immensely careful and thrilling in its marshalling of ambient sound, voices clear and muffled (including the grain of Thompson’s own Oxford accent), and, in its closing minutes, song. Richard Youngs (who has collaborated with Fowler before on a film for his song ‘Another Day of Gravity’) sings lyrics adapted from ‘London’ and the ballads of Spitalfields weavers (both of which feature heavily in The Making…). The voiceover of Thompson’s reports, delivered by artist Cerith Wyn Evans in a congested Welsh accent, is often very funny in a Verfremdungseffekt way, tripping up with mistakes, coughs and mumblings whenever it seems too natural. Altogether it’s a less rewarding film than All Divided Selves, and part of that is this ambiguity as to what the film wants to do formally. But our ears don’t lie, and they at least lead us towards what’s fascinating in it.