Tuesday, 17 December 2013


A Writer’s Notebook

No. 45, December 2013

James Watson
Friends and contributors

Notes in passing: The Birthright of the Briton
Review: An Imitation of Life
Poems of place (21): The rows of icon
Ned to Nurse Nightingale


Number 45 on ‘The 45’

A timely moment to praise a pioneer of press freedom

In Douglas Adams' radio and subsequent TV series The Hitchhikers' Guide to the Galaxy the meaning of life turned out to be – 42. If we were to look for a similar answer to the question, when did freedom of speech truly make its mark on British shores, we might offer the answer – 45, and the date when John Wilkes (1727-97) brought out the first edition of his radical paper The North Briton. In the first editorial Wilkes wrote, 'The liberty of the press is the birthright of the BRITON, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country'.

Issue No.45 attacked European peace terms then being discussed by the government of the day. Wilkes was an MP, but as editor of what the general warrant called 'a seditious and treasonable paper' he forfeited his right of parliamentary immunity, for this did not cover 'the publication of a libel, being a breach of the peace'.

As was to happen so often in the next century, and the one after that, government acted as though surrounded by warriors intent on overthrowing them and the system they represented. Wilkes was arrested and sent to the Tower of London.

What was interesting in Wilkes' case was the degree of popular support he had in his struggle for freedom of speech, not the least from the so-called under-classes or, as the writer and parliamentarian Edmund Burke later termed them in his Reflections on the French Revolution (1792), 'the swinish multitude'.

Wilkes' plea for liberty was for all, not just the privileged and the educated:

My lords, the liberty of all peers and gentlemen and, what touches me more sensibly, that of all the middling and inferior set of people, who stand in most need of protection, is in my case this day to be finally decided upon a question of such importance as to determine at once whether English Liberty shall be a reality or a shadow.
At the first court hearing in Westminster Hall a huge audience composed of supporters from the City cheered Wilkes to the rafters when he announced that the liberty of an Englishman 'should not be sported away with impunity'. As he left the court, the air rang with the call, 'Liberty, Liberty, Wilkes for ever!'

A public burning
The government shifted its ground. A proof copy of part of an Essay on Women by Wilkes was obtained and judged by the House of Lords a 'most scandalous, obscene and impious libel'. Wilkes was in the dock now for two publications. Following a Commons vote of 273 to 111, No.45 was condemned to be publicly burnt by the official hangman at Royal Exchange.

It was a bitter December day, just right for a bonfire of 'false, scandalous and seditious libel'. As the sheriffs arrived at Cornhill a vast crowd of the 'middling and inferior' blocked the way. The fire party turned on its heels and the crowd – so the story goes – rescued the North Briton from destruction by urinating on the flames.

Such were the attempts by government to destroy Wilkes that he went into exile. The Annual Register wrote of the 'ruin of that unfortunate man'; a little prematurely because Wilkes returned to London in 1768 and was hero of the capital. He was returned as MP for Middlesex.

 Light you your windows
There followed two days of joyous celebration which included the chalking of 'No.45' on every door from Temple Bar to Hyde Park Corner and a demand for those who supported Wilkes and his cause to light up their windows at night in celebration. The Austrian ambassador was dragged from his coach and had 'No.45' chalked on the soles of his boots.

Heady days! There was, of course, much smashing of windows. In terror at what was happening when a huge assembly waited to greet Wilkes in St. George's Fields, the government ordered the presence of troops. Several volleys were fired, leaving eleven dead.

The story of Wilkes suggests a more complicated popular response than merely that of calling for Liberty. Wilkes himself was prone to journalistic exaggeration. 'English liberties' were as much in his head – he was from a wealthy and privileged family – as identifiable in the real world, and much of the tenor of his support was characterised by a harsh, chauvinist nationalism: after all, No.45 was attacking a peace initiative rather than urging peace not war.

One of the dragon’s teeth
Just the same, Wilkes deserves his place in the pantheon of those British writers (such as Thomas Paine, William Cobbett and Richard Carlile) who risked much to declare freedom of expression a human right. He was a worthy successor to the poet and pamphleteer John Milton (1606-74) who had penned the most famous argument in English for the liberty of speech and publication. In his Areopagitica (1664), Milton wrote of books and their significance in words that have resonated down the centuries:

I know they are lively, and vigorously productive as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And yet, on the other hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost to kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.

Wilkes and the generation of editors and writers who followed him took Milton's words as their creed. The issue which Milton raised, which Wilkes and others fought for, is of course as alive in the 21st century as it was then: censorship is in the air we breath. Governments are as scared of exposure as ever.

After Leveson, we are witness to the freedom of the British press being placed under the interdict of a royal charter, a move not greeted by street protests but with public complacency, yet a blow to liberty of expression that would have had Wilkes roaring his protest, not sparing his tabloid vitriol, and railing at privilege, secrecy and a raft of censorial legislation; but not, readers, censorship by royal charter.

An extract from Media History: From Gutenberg to the Digital Age, to be published as a Kindle Reader in 2014.

Issues 42 and 43 carried extracts from Laura’s novel, reviewed below.

Laura Solomon’s Imitation of Life (Solidus, 2009) is a very singular novel. Its central protagonist, Celia Doom, arrives in the world a grotesque. Delivered in a banana box, she falls into the category of ‘unmentionable things’ with one black eye and one white; her teeth are fangs and her craving is for insects, butterflies, spiders and moths, and for Fanta in gallons. At the age of three she is five feet in height; at six she stands 6’3” and weights 150 kilos.

For those around Celia, destruction and death are commonplace; even the locality of Provencia suffers devastation on her watch. Befriended by Jacob who wreaks havoc with his chemistry set, she learns the art of explosions. Molotov cocktails become their plaything; what they blow up (including Celia’s adoptive parents, Lettie and Barry) they film on super 8. ‘This one’s for you, Celia,’ says Jacob as he blows himself up.

The event that puts Celia on a meaningful track is the gift of a camera from her Uncle Ed – ‘the instrument I would cling to for the rest of my days’. Ed we eventually discover is her real father; a conjurer of remarkable powers (of appearance and disappearance) and worrying proclivities.

Celia proves herself a photographer of vision, focusing on the everyday, and a career develops until those that market her work exploit it, and her, to the point when they use a rival, a stripper, Lucinda Fortune, whose photos are so uncannily reminiscent of Celia’s that both images and careers shape themselves into double-focus; until, that is, Lucinda removes her dark glasses – and reveals one black eye and one white. Welcome to Celia’s Mum.

Celia confesses to have lived a ‘muddle old stew of a life’. Her talents as a photographer are duly exploited by relatives and ‘carers’. Arty pampers her with Fanta and bags of bugs at the same making a good living for himself out of her work. Then there’s George, her critical friend, selecting her photos for exhibition: ‘Where’s the sense of flow? Where’s the continuity?’ Such questions the author takes on board arguably as comments on the novel itself, and it’s true that at times the switching, in a scenario teeming with characters, most of them eccentric and bordering on the grotesque, is often abrupt and momentarily confusing.

It is a tale, then of the unexpected, the core of it treating the reader to an account of the life, talents and exploitation by others of a photographer, eventually to the point when we get used to, and momentarily forget, the physical grotesqueness of our heroine.

Imitation of Life treats us to a galaxy of originals, such as Celia’s two grannies, united by mutual loathing, Uncle Ed, careless with snakes in the company of kids, not averse to setting himself on fire but who invites his own demise by entering a glass house containing 300,000 bees, applauding himself as he dies.

It’s a story teeming with eccentrics, though its message is not easy to locate. Perhaps Ed sums it all up in his final letter to his daughter Celia: ‘Blessed are the cracked for they shall let in the light.’ It’s a rumbustious text and on film the novel would take off as a piece of surreal effects that might shock as it surprises.

The writerly talent demonstrated in this novel is impressive, prompting the reader to wish to reach beyond the narrative to the author herself, the creator of a macabre scenario that walks the edge between comedy and tragedy, defying a commitment to either. The critical question might be – what’s next?

 Poems of place (21)

                                          THE ROWS OF ICON

                               You can walk the rows of icon.
                               Witness the changeless centuries:
                                Not a sliver of evolution, except
                               An arresting detail, a tentative risk
                               Withheld; always solemn, pursed lipped.

                               The saints George and Mamas
                               Awkwardly perched on horse and lion,
                               Close down all narratives but one.

                               After marvelling at occasional line and colour,
                               An eye or a hand well-wrought
                               And jewel-fresh in dry Cyprus air,
                               The mind cries out for sensations of another sort,
                               A return of greater gods and better tales.

                                With respect it has to be admitted
                               The sombre story of Christ crucified
                               Never matched the wild absurdities of Olympus.

 Dear Nurse Nightingale
Pardon me, Madam, for rushing straight in to things, without even a by-your-leave, but we are in considerable trouble; and I thought, as I was at one time a near neighbour of yours, albeit separated by a good three miles as the crow flies, I would appeal to you; as it were, throw myself on your mercy.

The situation is thus: arrangements are being made for the most notable event in the history of the Wickerstaff-cum-Fernhaven Pantomime and Light Opera Society – but virtually at the last minute, the St. John’s Ambulance service in these parts have only discovered a prior arrangement with the Lower Beasley (in my frustration I might be tempted to say ‘Beastley’) Gymkhana which has been switched from June to July on account of a variation of swine flu among the horses.

The local constabulary have informed us – no medicals, no Miguel Cervantes! In short, it is the hope of our committee, and of our chairman, Councillor Gilbert Stokoe, whom we affectionately refer to as Lord Gilbert, that the Heroine of Scutari will come to our aid; and such is your reputation for getting things done in the teeth of prejudice, inertia, downright ignorance of the importance of cleanliness, using swabs only once and generally being antipathetic to swarms of flies and other undesirables, that we feel you will be pleased once more to be the darling of all that is wholesome in the life of the nation.

 The committee can assure you that you and your team of ministering angels will encounter none of the horrors that greeted you during the Boer War. On the contrary, we are hoping that there will be little for you to do other than to look pretty in your blue costumes (Mrs. Stokoe is assembling these at this very moment).

Usually our shows pass without incident or injury, though my boy Benjie fell through a poorly erected marquee at the Annual Flower, Vegetable and Livestock Show, quite without intention destroying Lord Gilbert’s prize exhibit of Icelandic Nasturtiums. (He was, nevertheless, presented with the first prize in compensation, Lord Gilbert that is, not our Benjie – who, you will I know be pleased to learn, sustained only a bruised elbow and a telling off from his Mum).

We are fully aware of how busy you must be lobbying parliament for a decent health service, but confident that you, the Soldiers’ Sweetheart, will not only receive a warm welcome from the crowds that will be coming to Wickerstaff from far and near. Now that we have buried the hatchet with the Russians, we hope a few who have settled in the area will take time out from property speculation and even bring along their ballylayakers to serenade early arrivals.

 In fact, the only worry we have with regard to possible injuries concerns how the Russians, the Poles, the Bulgarians, the Romanians and the Geordies will get on with each other. With regard to this, we are still in two minds whether to go ahead with the five-a-side soccer tournament which ended up last year with a set-to the like of which hasn’t been seen in these parts since Peterloo.

 Dr. Ivan Arbuthnot, a committee member, and incidentally my wife Betty’s tutor – she is at present studying for an Open University degree – believes that your presence, Miss Nightingale, will bring about peace and harmony. Dr. Arbuthnot, by the way, is an expert in 18th and 19th century corantos and chapbooks, but he has also written a slim volume entitled ‘Why The Invasion of Iraq Was The Stupidest Action in British History Since The Charge of the Light Brigade’. We plan to sell this, as it were, ‘under the counter’ in order not to upset certain arms manufacturers who have second homes in the vicinity and who recently generously contributed to the parish church roof fund.

 Madam, we are fully aware that the challenge we are offering, which carries no remuneration except for the satisfaction of doing a good, Scutari-style job of work, means your coming briefly out of well-earned retirement. We are confident, however, that you might regard as ample compensation the fact that none other than Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart is likely to write the incidental music and that the show’s scenery will be the work of Mr. Billy Blake, who has promised not to read any of his Proverbs from Hell in public.

Oh, I had almost forgotten: our musical play which features Lord Gilbert as Don Quixote and your humble servant as Sancho Panzer (my Betty was planning to audition for the part of the fair Dulcy Naya, only for it to be awarded to our next door neighbour and Lord Gilbert’s half-cousin, Jill), will be followed by The Epic Battle of the Titans, The Greeks versus the Anglo Saxons, Robin Hood and his Merry Men doing the honours for the Saxons (along with King Harold if he can make it).

We have positively banned bloodshed, but once these warriors get the scent of battle in their nostrils you cannot be sure what excesses may scupper their good resolve.

As you will see, Nurse Nightingale, we have every need of your good services. Refreshments for the ‘workers’ are being provided at her personal expense by Lord Gilbert’s wife who also auditioning for Dulcy Naya (though in confidence I confess that not only is she too old for the part, but too round). Ideally, we’d have cast Helen of Troy for the part but since the shinanegins over the Wooden Horse and that, her husband doesn’t let her out at nights, and we’ve only got the village hall for rehearsals between seven and nine.

 Mind you, with reference to Mrs. Gilbert, there’s nobody in Wickerstaff, or in adjoining villages, who can make scones, rock cakes, plate custards or Chorley cakes like Beryl. In fact, a display of her specials would, I have no doubt, have stopped your Lord Raglan in his tracks before he led the poor Brits into the jaws of death and glory.

Please write to the above address as a matter of urgency. Without your assistance in this matter, The Charge of the Light Brigade will be nothing in comparison to the cancellation of what Joe, the captain of our pub team, has called ‘the biggest thing in Wickerstaff since sliced bread’.
Yours etc.
Ned Baslow

PS: My Grandad Barney used to rent a house just outside Crich, home of the Tramway Museum, which is just up the road from your stately manse. He often used to say, ‘Why don’t we drop in at Florence’s place for a cuppa tea?’ But we never did. I think he was joking.

Happy Christmas!