My revolting past: pipes, tweed and velveteen jeans

October 8, 2004

In the late 1960s, Peter Hennessy established his political views at Cambridge but was on neither side of the Senate House occupation.

What did you do during the Senate House occupation?" is a question likely to be levelled at anyone who was at Cambridge in the late 1960s. For Peter Hennessy, then reading history at St John's College, the answer is "nothing".

He recalls: "A lot of my friends were in Senate House. My roommate was not a 'hearty' (sportsman), but the 'hearties' thought he was, so he received a circular calling like-minded people together to march to the Senate House and 'defend the university', presumably to rough up the occupiers. I didn't find a lot of the people who were in Senate House convincing, but I thought the possibility of a punch-up was dreadful. The counter-march never happened, but sitting in my rooms deciding to do nothing felt rather pathetic."

This was not apathy but conscious abstention. It was a reflection of Hennessy's change in political position from following family politics and standing as Conservative candidate in the mock election at Marling Grammar School, Stroud, in 1964, and his views after going up to Cambridge in 1966.

"The night before my grandmother's 100th birthday in Liverpool I heard my father and his brothers rubbishing first the Labour Government, then the interwar ones and Clement Attlee's postwar administration. I remember thinking it can't all have been that bad and when I went home I got every book I could find on the Attlee government out of the library.

I've lived in the shadow of that government ever since," he says, as occupant of the Clement Attlee chair in contemporary history at Queen Mary, University of London.

When Hennessy joined Cambridge, still "predominantly male, tweed-jacketed and pipe-smoking", he shared an early enthusiasm for Harold Wilson's Labour Government. "There was a genuine progressive consensus and when I became a political journalist I found Wilson to be a warm-hearted human being." It appeared to epitomise his kind of politics. "It was not conviction politics but a cumulative careful betterment of society with a realisation of how much it had taken to build the ladder that had given people like me our chances."

The 1967 intake brought "the odd kaftan and smells that as a pipe smoker I didn't recognise" and reinforcement for a new left he distrusted. "I felt the self-discoverers were self-indulgent and was irritated by their irrational hatred of the Wilson Government. Many are now preachy new Labour types - the one thing that hasn't changed is their capacity for self-delusion".

Nor was he interested in the union, although queueing for an oversubscribed event was how he met his wife. "She tells me I was perhaps fifth out of six in attractiveness among the men in that group."

Hennessy's enthusiasm for history, encouraged by excellent schoolteachers and his elder sister Kathleen, was enhanced by Cambridge teachers, including former Bletchley Park codebreaker Harry Hinsley. "Harry used his pipe as a weapon, gesturing with it in one hand to emphasise a point. He'd say: 'Imagine Charlemagne is on the phone to the Pope - what is he saying?"

He was practising signals intelligence to teach undergraduates medieval history."

Although he was wary of the politics and largely immune to the music, Hennessy did not entirely miss out on the fashions of the Sixties. "They had their expression in slightly longer hair and tasteless velveteen jeans, the memory of which embarrasses me even now."

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