Mark Thompson on literature, Leavis and leather

Maddy Airlie 23 January 2016

Arts and humanitites students often fear that a jobless existence awaits them post-graduation. However, this was not the case for Mark Thompson, who graduated from Corpus Christi in 1981. For Mark, life after Cambridge has been vibrant and various: author of an award-winning book on the Italian experience of the First World War, The White War; biographer of Serbian novelist Danilo Kiš; and worker for the UN in Croatia in the 1990s. 


You studied English at Cambridge, but I know journalism was very important during your time as a part of the experience that you could really enjoy. How did writing with peers, or for peers, change how you felt about your degree, or your essays?

For several terms I co-edited a magazine called Black & White. It was started by an elegant chap at Trinity Hall, whose parents were tax refugees on the Isle of Man. Wealth was his destiny; it sat on the shoulders of his tailored camel-hair coat. He actually sold the magazine to a printer in Mill Road! We had no idea about design or layout, but we published a few good pieces.

There was no contact of any kind between this journalism and my degree. They occupied separate compartments. I was at Corpus (1978-81), the only college without an English don. The director of studies wore leather trousers and lashings of Aramis. I was a diehard Leavisite, terribly earnest. I was supervised by Q.D. Leavis herself – presumably her last student, for she died in 1981. It took years to recover from Leavis; the acrid influence soaked in very deep. By no means all negative, looking back, but paralysing at the time. Escape was essential, and arduous. My contemporaries were thrilling to Barthes and structuralism, remember.


We’ve talked before about the usefulness of biography in literary criticism – I find it illuminating and that it can be a more personal response as opposed to some of the more canonical critics we have to grapple with in Tripos. What was it like for you writing a biography, did you feel that you were rebelling against any sort of Cambridge training, did it open up a different way of writing about literature for you?

I don’t remember biographies being recommended, but I might have ignored any pointers. The tradition of close reading was the part of Cambridge English that meant most to me. Empson’s pre-war books were the glory, they still are, but close reading was the best of Leavis too. ‘'What we have to look for are the signs of something grasped and held, something presented in an ordering of words, not merely thought of or gestured towards.’' That’s Leavis. When I came across it recently, I stopped breathing for a moment.


You have multiple interests – literature, history, languages, translation – did you feel that they could be catered for here within your degree, or did you feel constricted? I feel this is especially relevant now when the English Tripos no longer carries the foreign literature paper which can open up how we read in English.

With hindsight, a degree in comparative literature might have been a better fit. But it wasn’t available (I think), and I wouldn’t have gone for it anyway. I’m sorry the foreign literature paper is lost; it wasn’t taken seriously in my time, but I liked it. Flaubert, Trois contes: inching through them with a graduate student in a long woollen skirt and a bobble hat. One day I told her – she was exasperated by something – that it was fine, not to worry, I didn’t expect to understand Flaubert until I was forty. A pretty accurate forecast. I’ve always been slow. 


These wide-ranging interests have led to a varied and exciting career, down many different paths, you worked for the UN in Croatia for example, worlds away from the Cambridge experience. Was there anything in your time at Cambridge that encouraged you to think about diplomacy?

Nothing, unless it was a drawn-out reaction against my time in Cambridge. Literature, my girlfriend, journalism, films, several friends: that was Cambridge. And the leather-clad don. And someone close who killed himself in 1980. Public affairs meant very little. In 1981, the Solidarity movement was challenging Communist power in Poland. When I asked what the red and white Solidarnosc lapel badge meant, I barely understood the reply. Hopeless! Politics came with Thatcher and the anti-nuclear campaigns of the mid 1980s. I joined the UN in 1994 because I was in Croatia as a freelance journalist, my wife (Croatian, a doctor) was on a wartime salary, we had a baby and wanted a proper income. It was a privilege, very fascinating and educational, and well paid. I don’t think I could have written about the First World War if I hadn’t worked with soldiers. But thank you for the kind word ‘career’.


You supervise Oxford PhDs now – what’s it like being on the other side of the supervision in a different faculty from where you started?

I don’t see an essential difference between teaching history and teaching English, not that I’ve done much of either. For me, though, literature matters most in alien contexts; where it is also most vulnerable and absurd, to be sure. Likewise the study of literature; doesn’t its chief value of its training lie in transferability? Analysing propaganda in a war zone, I drew on Cambridge close-reading skills. Because they were all I had, perhaps; but I didn’t need more; they worked very well, in the democratic spirit of Empson and I.A. Richards.

The teacher—undergraduate relationship has changed so much, broadly for the better, though a risk of spoonfeeding may exist. We thought we should be more grown-up than we were; now we keep the therapists busy. The students I know are courageous in other ways. Economic pressure is sharper, and the prestige of the humanities has been battered (partly self-harm, but that’s another story). I’d like to help students to feel inspired by the splendour of the humanities.