Friday, 29 November 2013

Ye Radicalle Stroudde Disquisitionne on Ye Speeche of Borisse Johnsonne

Boris Johnson’s Margaret Thatcher Lecture, with its implied contempt for people with an IQ of less than 85, and with its explicit patrician contempt for the lower orders, sharply reminded me, when travelling to work on the number 14 bus (now, what did Mrs Thatcher say about people who travelled on buses?), of Edmund Burke’s (in)famous late 18th century speech. Burke, MP for Bristol btw, used this phrase to describe the lower orders: ‘the swinish multitude’. I think you see my point.
Tom Paine was incensed by Burke’s insulting condescension: he feverishly wrote ‘The Rights of Man’ (sic) in reply. The book quickly sold 200,000 copies and, in a country of about 10 million, with an accelerating birth rate and a consequently low average age, and with low levels of literacy, and with a tradition of shared reading and discussion amongst the ‘swinish multitude’, this book was an intimidating red rag to a John Bull. An enormous number of lower class adult swine must have heard about this book and read it too. You didn’t need an IQ of 130 to understand its political analysis.
Who knows how many copies were bought and read in our local area? And who knows how many of our villagers in the Stroud Valleys, with or without second homes, are at the moment chuckling over Boris Johnson’s consummate command of all the arts of rhetoric? Who knows how many are guffawing at a speech that so ably segues from the demotic (‘amigos’) to the recondite and classical? Who knows how many of them know of our earlier radical traditions in the likes of Painswick, Bisley and Minchinhampton?
So, in response to Mr Johnson’s rewriting of recent history, let us go back a bit further in time. We’ll start by remembering the 1658 Quaker burial ground in Painswick: at that time, Quaker beliefs were very close to those of the Levellers and the Diggers. And there was a very sizeable Quaker community in Painswick. A sizeable proportion of the community held beliefs completely at variance with those proclaimed in the Thatcher lecture; short shrift for Boris, therefore, in 17th century Painswick.
Now we’ll skip a couple of centuries and have a look at the Miles Report (1839) on Bisley and Minchinhampton. Erasmus Charlton, Police Serjeant at Hampton, wrote to Wm. Augustus Miles: “The weavers are much distressed; they are wretchedly off in bedding; has seen many cases where the man and his wife and as many as 7 children have slept on straw, laid on the floor with only a torn quilt to cover them…has witnessed very distressing cases; children crying for food, and the parents having neither food nor money in the house…These men have a constant dread of going into the Poor Houses…witness has frequently told them they would be better in the house, and their answer has been “We would sooner starve.”  
The Reverend Jeffreys wrote thus about Bisley: “ Beggarly Bisley has long been a proverb, and the improvidence  of the people has been as conspicuous in the way they have married young in spite of this, and also the way in which they have kept their children at home hanging on to a miserable and uncertain pittance, in preference to sending them out to work for their bread elsewhere. The way in which parents keep their grown-up children at home to this day is quite vexatious…”
 “ In the winter, you must remember the frost hinders their work very much, for they cannot afford fires in their shops and working by candle-light, which they are forced to do for a full six of their sixteen hours…takes a good deal from their earnings.”
 ”The last few years of extreme distress seemed to have caused an alteration…and many of the young people now go out to service, though not before they were clean starved out.”  

I am reading the ghost stories of MR James at the moment on the bus, as the dawn comes up. So many academics, antiquarians and ancient piles are haunted by revenants and ghosts stirred up by research into the past in his tales. Perhaps this forgotten and ignored past will do something similar and haunt the lanes of our villages. The present day is a Shelley ghost-scape: ‘Rulers who neither see, nor feel, nor know.’
And glancing out of the window, at a late November apology for sunrise:
 ‘Shake your chains to earth like dew
Which in sleep had fallen on you –
Ye are many - they are few.’

Sunday, 24 November 2013

'Convergence and Space' at the Brunel Goods Shed

I enjoyed this exhibition so much that I went twice, as did my wife. My Bristol and Singaporean relatives were also enthralled on their visit. Everything about it all seemed so perfect: the exhibits and the space seemed made for each other. Brunel’s goods shed (incidentally, Isambard Kingdom Brunel was one of the first steam engine numbers I ever underlined in my train spotter’s book) was built in 1845, when the Great Western Railway’s 7 feet and a quarter inch broad gauge met the more ubiquitous 4 feet 8 and a half inch gauge at Gloucester: this historic and numinous presence of convergence and space echoed fittingly in the atmospheric half light of the goods shed on the cold Sunday afternoon when we visited. As the Paris Situationists almost said: ‘Underneath the concrete, the 1892 week-end tearing up of the broad gauge track.’ 
Such a palimpsest and such an exhibition also suggested part of the motto of the old GWR: ‘Virtute et Industria’. We saw how an empathetic industrial archaeological sensitivity and a playful artistic perspicuity enabled rusting metal to be converted from singular utility to multiple ambiguity. Thus, the serpentine line of chain link stretched across the floor evoked, for me, that iconic image of Isambard Kingdom Brunel standing by the chains of the Great Eastern steam ship; others in our party were more preoccupied by the interplay of shape and shadow and light and the philosophical relationship between substance, presence and evanescence.
The exhibit ‘Lightness and Gravity’ similarly worked in both a literal and metaphorical sense: some of our party saw an orrery and planetary associations of Jupiter and the Moon; some saw Power and Strength; some J Arthur Rank; some ‘The King and I’; some Alignment and Connection; some the tyranny of the factory hooter and the Clock. The great thing about all this is that the deliberate omission of explanatory text for the sculptures creates a welter of definition and discussion.
So thank you very much sculptors Paul Grellier and Ann-Margreth Bohl for this marvellous exhibition. Mathematicians develop equations for time space convergence and I wouldn't stand a snowball's chance of understanding a thing about any of that. But your divergent sculptural and artistic sensibilities allowed our group to chat about our divergent thoughts, definitions and justifications in cheerful and unabashed colloquy. 
We left, in consequence, the richer, the wiser and the happier. (Although I have never written pseudier.)

Friday, 22 November 2013

A Stroud Broadsheet

A Stroud Broadsheet

In the year of our Lord, 1649,
England became a republic,
And that word: 'Commonwealth',
('In the beginning was the Word')
Another mistaken step on the road
To constitutional monarchy
And parliamentary democracy,
Or so the Whig history books tell us;
That quintessential English evolution,
From King John 1215 Magna Carta,
To Votes for Women in 1928:
A line of presumed continuity,
And peaceful, reforming contiguity;
And even when the history books mention
That un-English word 'revolution'
With a political denotation,
It is the 'Glorious Revolution'
Of 1688, which merely guaranteed
A Protestant rather than Catholic monarch.
But there is another optic to use
When scrying this Whig history:
See how the possession of property
Was a prerequisite for liberty,
See how the Law was used to impose
The tyranny of wage slavery
On those with no property and liberty,
And all in the name of the Law,
Rather than rack-renting and usury.

Whipping and branding for the motley ranks
Of vagabonds, beggars and tramps
In dear olde Merrie  Englande -
'Kicked to and fro like footballs in the wind';
Families torn apart by press gangs -
Such 'Hearts of Oak' -
'For who are so free as the sons of the waves'?
Enclosure robbing cottagers and squatters -
'Without a class of persons willing to work for wages,
How are the comforts and refinements
Of civilised life to be procured?' 
And transportation of child paupers to the colonies:
'Britons never never never shall be slaves'.

The loom. The mill. The factory. The clock.
Clocking in. Clocking out. Wage-slavery.

But we shall rescue this past perspective
'From the enormous condescension of posterity',
And instead of kings and queens and admirals:
Robin Hood! Poachers! Smugglers! Dick Turpin!
The gypsy liberty of John Clare's vision!
Democratic pirate ships! Free Man Friday!
Free-born Forest miners! The Diggers! The Levellers!
Quakers! Stroud hand loom weavers!
Outside the law but not outlaws!

As Gerard Winstanley said in 1649:
'Quietly enjoy land to work upon,
That everyone may enjoy the benefit of their creation
And eat their bread by the sweat of their brow.'

Tuesday, 19 November 2013

The National Agricultural Labourers' Union

     The End of the 19th Century
They called it ‘The Golden Age of Farming’:
The end of the Corn Laws, 1846,
Until Depression, 1873,
When foreign competition, the prairies,
Refrigeration and also steam ships,
Saw farm jobs drop by a third in our county,
With hardly a farm job left for a woman;
A 10 hour day with extra at harvest,
Shepherds and cowmen working the whole day,
Damp, cramped cottage for a home, no rights,
Children working long hours as well;
Some farm workers were content, I don’t deny,
But our children lacked an education,
And we had no vote – it was degrading,
We were backward and poverty stricken,
That’s why Joseph Arch’s union spread here,
The National Agricultural Labourers’ Union!
Imagine! A nine and a half hour day!
Thanks to William Yeats, the Stroud mechanic,
And Joseph Banks, the Slad Road chemist,
We had a lot of hot summer meetings
In Stroud and the Valley villages,
In 1872, I think it was,
With Mr Banks calling for an end to truck,
Calling for shorter hours and higher wages:
‘In sterling money, not fat bacon …or a couple of swedes,’
Is what I remember him eloquently saying
At the meeting in Stroud we all went to.
We went to another big meeting too,
All about emigration and empire,
Thomas Connolly, a London stonemason,
Talked about the wonders of Canada:
‘ Which could accept up to 100,000 people
Every year without causing a glut on the labour market.’
He said you could get three meals a day and good wages -
That’s why I am so lonely; all my boys have gone,
And my daughter is about to emigrate, too.
The joy has gone from my life,
An occasional letter ends up wet with tears,
And I don’t see how I can escape the workhouse,
Mr Hardy might write his novels about these things,
And the painters might paint their pictures,
But there is no romance in the story of my life

Monday, 18 November 2013

The Source of the Frome: A November Walk

‘No sun-no moon!
No morn- no noon –
No dawn- no dusk – no proper time of day.
No warmth, no cheerfulness, no helpful ease,
No comfortable feel in any member –
No shade, no shine, no butterflies, no bees,
No fruits, no flowers, no leaves, no birds! –
Thomas Hood – with happy memories of my mum, who used to recite this each year at this time. Out there in that cold, cold kitchen on a Sunday.
Source to Miserden and back:
I know that geology and hydrology explain springs; I understand that gravity and scientific laws explain why water flows in the direction it does. But, at the same time, isn’t there something magical, alchemical and beyond imagination about it all? The John Keats as well as Isaac Newton trope sort of thing: I’m not invoking a deity – just metaphorically standing jaw-dropped at the is-ness of it all.
For there we have the confluence of two springs, determined by the shape and content of sky and landscape, dropping down to Caudle Green. Here on a delicately balanced watershed, on the finest of lines, gravity’s scales of justice direct some water west via the Frome to the Severn and the Bristol Channel; other droplets drift east via the Churn to Cricklade, then on to the Great Wen and the English Channel. Conjoined droplets of water, slipping apart to opposing cardinal points of the compass, yet still conjoined by history and language: the Celtic ‘fra’, denoting a ‘brisk’ river; the Celtic ‘chwern’, indicating a ‘swift’ flow.

We shall be walking the Frome from its source to its confluence with the Severn in the following stages:
1.   Source to Miserden and back
2.   Miserden to Sapperton
3.    Sapperton to Stroud
4.   Stroud to Eastington
5.   Eastington to Framilode
Stage 2 probably the 2nd Sunday in January.