My revolting past

April 2, 2004

In the early 1960s Terry Eagleton rebelled by wearing his tie over his sweater before finding a cause in the Catholic left

As a student, Terry Eagleton echoed Richard Hoggart's scholarship boy - the young man upwardly mobile through academic prowess depicted in The Uses of Literacy - to, in his own words, "an almost parodic extent". He progressed from a Salford Irish boyhood to reading English at Trinity College, Cambridge, and has spent his radical academic-literary career in Oxbridge, only recently moving from Oxford University to take a chair at Manchester University. He went up to Trinity in 1961. "It was still a great aristocratic college with 'Honorables' almost literally littering every staircase. You could rent rooms at different prices and the nobs monopolised the expensive suites on the Great Court. Everything, even the Labour Club, in the university was pretty much controlled by people who had been to the major public schools."

The teenage Eagleton already had rebellious aspirations: "As a sixthformer, my great heroes were the angry young men of the 1950s, but I wasn't sure what to be angry about." Class-ridden Cambridge offered a few targets but, as a new student, he did "the usual things. I bought a bicycle and a scarf, I wore a gown - you could still be fined for not wearing one - and went to lectures, although I later moved away from all of those things."

This being the early rather than the late 1960s, resistance was low level:

"We had to wear ties in hall, so some of us started wearing ties over sweaters. But it wouldn't have occurred to us to wear jeans as students were doing elsewhere. There were a few demonstrations - I remember a 'Hands off Cuba' demo in 1961 and CND marches - but not very many."

Rejection of the dominant culture was expressed through his poetry and shunning lectures other than those given by the critic Raymond Williams. He wanted to leave after graduating, but a first and Williams' influence - not least in making him the youngest fellow of Jesus College since the 18th century - persuaded him to stay.

In his own words, "a peculiar hybrid, both fellow and student", he found a political identity in another hybrid, the Catholic left that flourished in 1960s Cambridge. "Being both a Catholic and on the left still seemed new and different, but there was a great deal going on. Pope John XXIII and the Vatican Councils had been a great inspiration and triggered a move to the left. We went in for petitions, demonstrations and even a pray-in at Westminster Cathedral. There was a lot of contact with the Vietnam Solidarity Committee, and I remember collecting a large petition about Vietnam to present to the English bishops."

Forty years on, he is quizzed by PhD students studying the Catholic left and says: "It was the right time, but also the wrong time. We were too early for liberation theology in Latin America and the Troubles in Northern Ireland, both places where a Catholic left viewpoint would have been highly relevant."

His own radicalism has survived the years. "Socialism is as relevant as it always has been. The reason why a lot of people gave up on socialism is not because it is wrong but because the system proved so hard to break."

And he continues to see radical potential in his students. "I still see a lot of politically very smart students whose hearts are in the right place.

And, while energies go into the anti-capitalist movement rather than more traditional socialism, it is not a very long journey between the two."

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