Friday, 8 April 2016

Conversation with a Chartist Ghost

April can be a cruel month:
The magnolia in all its blossoming glory,
The cut of a keen north wind,
The Thames still high and turbid
(Pockmarked by hailstones),
As we (I have Allen Davenport's ghost as company)
Made our way to Paddington on the GWR,
And thence to Ladbroke Grove and Kensal Green cemetery,
To leave a commemorative stone taken from Ewen,
Alan's birthplace, etched A.D. in his honour,
At the Reformers' Memorial in the cemetery;
This son of a handloom weaver is in august company:
Revolutionaries such as Frost and Spence;
Radicals such as Hunt, Cartwright and Cobbett;
Christian Socialists such as Charles Kingsley;

I placed the stone on the column to photograph -
It started to rain in Dickensian buckets.

I took a few quick snaps,
Then made my way back to the canal,
Where my daughter Alice and boyfriend Josh had recently moored,
Hard by E.M. Lander Ltd.,
Monumental Masons and Sculptors,
Coincidentally, and improbably, connected to the mentor of Jim,
And it was Jim, of course, who had etched the stone from Ewen.

The talisman worked its magic in the damp air of the cemetery,
And Allen started to converse with me,
In the shelter of a yew tree:

'I desperately wanted to come down to Swindon on the new railway back in May 1839, and thence to Cricklade, Cirencester and Stroud by coach. I was intent on appearing at the Selsley Hill Chartist meeting, but bread was costly, wages were scant and times were hard. I had the intent, but not the wherewithal; so I had to stay put.
How I would have loved to have glimpsed my old birthplace; dear old Ewen ... It would have been forty years... And how I would have loved to have spoken out on those verdant Cotswold hills and to have shared a platform with the delegates from the National Chartist Convention. But we thought of you all at our branch meetings at Clerkenwell, and sent some supporters down. It must have been a fine sight with 5,000 people there with their flags and banners and with the sun sinking down beyond the Severn.’

He went silent for a few seconds.

‘But thank you for thinking of me.’

Silence again.

‘And thank you for the engraved stone. It's haunting to see such a stone engraved with my initials, gathered from where I learned to read and write, down by the banks of the infant Thames at Ewen. I remember doing such practice myself.
I shall watch your pilgrimage along the river bank from Cricklade and back to London with interest. But when you return to the Memorial, remember that I was buried in unconsecrated ground, just beyond the cemetery. That was my wish. I had and have no religion.
But I’m proud to see my name on the Reformers’ Memorial, here in Kensal Green. And strange to think that my name shares space on the column with that of John Frost - prospective Chartist parliamentary candidate for Stroud against Lord John Russell; selected on the top of Rodborough Common on Good Friday 1839, if my memory serves me well.’

More silence.

‘Well, my time's up. Got to get back. But good luck with the film. I barely saw even a photograph in my time. But don't be surprised if I make it down on the train this time. Be ready for me on Selsley. Goodbye and thanks for coming.'

And with that, he was gone.

The next day in Stroud, I mentioned my visit to an acquaintance in the Shambles; she told me that she used to live in the grave digger's cottage on the Harrow Road, next to the cemetery.

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