Forest of Dean & Wye Valley

THE MAKING OF AN ACADEMIC “Beyond Nab End”, by William Woodruff. Reviewed by RUTH RICHARDSON

In R.Richardson, Reviews on December 18, 2012 at 1:39 pm

This book is the sequel to the autobiographical Road to Nab End, a best seller of 2000.

It is a tale of three journeys – of time through the depression years of the 1930s, of space from Bow in East London to Oxford, and of class mobility, from the life of a “sand rat” in an iron foundry to that of an Oxford scholar.

Making this journey, William Woodruff went on to become a world historian, and it was only in old age after a number of scholarly books that he could look back to his formative years. The result is “absolutely fascinating as a social as well as a family history,” wrote Eric Hobsbawm in The Guardian. Woodruff has an eye for character and place. His own personal story, his quest for education through night school and the WEA is interposed with comment on historical events and well-known figures of the 1930s.


The personal journey that Woodruff travels has several aspects. The one that caused him perhaps the most anguish was the relinquishing of his pacifist ideals.

The Labour Party pursued a policy of pacifism in the 1930s, and against this the challenge of Fascism grew. Woodruff had a great admiration for the pacifist George Lansbury, who lost his leadership of the Labour Party over the proposed use of force against the Italians in Abyssinia. “I was young,” writes Woodruff, “and my sense of rightness was typical of the pacifist and anti-militarist stand of many of my generation. I felt wholly right. Time would prove me… wholly wrong.”

Woodruff examines his conscience all over again at the time of the Spanish Civil War and sees off comrades who join the International Brigade. But it was only when World War Two is declared that Woodruff decides that Nazi aggression must be halted. “To fight was the lesser of two evils” – and so he joins up.


One day Woodruff sees a notice in the underground: “Do you want a better job? Education is the key. Join a LCC night school. There is one in your area.”

This was the beginning of Woodruff’s long journey to become educated. Interestingly he has to pay no fees and is given vouchers for the books he needs. Indeed, at each stage in his education, he seems to be able to gain access to grants to see him through, even to the extent of going on a study tour of the industrial centres of Belgium, Luxemburg and North West Germany. Could that happen today?


When at nineteen Woodruff gains entry to the Catholic Workers’ College in Oxford, his life is transformed. It is a steep learning curve and the academic demands are extreme. He felt that he was in a world into which he did not fit naturally. “I was an outsider,” he writes, “with a deep-seated feeling of social inferiority.”

But excellent tutors stimulated Woodruff’s naturally inquiring mind and these formative years were the foundation for his professional life. Sometimes tensions are evident between the working class mores he is leaving behind and his present situation. When his childhood friend, Harold, visits, Woodruff writes: “It was obvious that our lives were drifting apart.” Harold say to him, “when that’s famous don’t forget me or where tha’s cum frae.”

Later Woodruff acquires a posh girl friend who takes him home to meet her family. To many going into that family would have been like going over to the enemy. “They belonged to the class who owned; I belonged to the class who worked.” So in spite of moving in the exalted circles of Oxford academia, Woodruff remains with his feet firmly on the ground. Indeed, he writes about all the many characters who inhabit his pages with perspicacity and warmth. There’s Mrs Tinker in her man’s trilby decorated with a large wax flower and her private jug of beer behind the aspidistra. Equally vividly portrayed are his Oxford tutors, such as A.B. Rodger whose “flushed face and large bald head which was cocked quizzically to one side gave the appearance of a bulldog about to bite.”

There is an excellent website devoted to William Woodruff. After the war he went back to academic life and went on teaching until the age of 80. During this period he wrote a number of books and many articles. He went on writing until his death at the age of 92 (following a fall from his exercise bike!). Well worth reading is an article from 1999, “On Iraq, a policy gone bad”, which begins: “America’s stand on Iraq increasingly seems fraught with danger.” Woodrow was insistent that Britain should not allow America to drag us into armed confrontation with Iraq.

A fact that I was not aware of was that as early as 1995 the US Congress set aside 100 million dollars to “take out” Saddam Hussein.

From our perspective, with the Iraqi war nearly a decade in the past, this article makes very interesting reading.

It is clear that all his life William Woodruff was at heart a pacifist and saw aggression as absolutely a last resort.

“Beyond Nab End” by William Woodruff, published 2003: IBSN 0-349-11622-9.


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