The English intelligentsia – a contradiction in terms

One of the interesting aspects of Tony Judt’s Thinking the 20th Century (which I’ve nearly finished) is the insider-outsider perspective he has on England. He grew up in London, the son of an immigrant father and second generation immigrant mother, and emigrated to the US in his late 20s. So he has a nice combination of familiarity and objectivity about his birthplace (and I mean England, not the UK, as he has a very London-centric view).

Given that I spent my teenage years in a small Lancashire mill town pining to be a philosopher sitting in a French cafe, I was particularly taken with Judt’s comments about the way the English dismiss intellectuals – ‘English intellegentsia’ is not a meaningful social concept. His hypothesis is “that the intellectual agenda which drove ideologically configured political movements in continental Europe was quite absent in London.” This lack of ideology was a blessing for most of the 20th century. As Judt points out, the penalty Eric Hobsbawm paid for being a lifelong Communist was no more serious than having to be a professor at the University of London rather than Cambridge. That tolerance would surely not have played out in the same way on the Continent.

There is also a nice passage describing the way the furthest reaches of Empire – George Orwell’s Burma, India, the Caribbean – seem comfortable and familiar to the English thanks to language and cultural references, whereas the Continent seems wildly exotic. Even for Shakespeare the “coast of Bohemia” was a mysterious distant land, and as for Slovenia or Bulgaria, or even the longingly imagined Paris of my adolescence….

Thinking the Twentieth Century

Burmese Days