All through his short life Shelley loved bizarre happenings and unpredictable human behaviour, so he would have enjoyed himself a lot at Windsor Girls School on 22 June. About a hundred and fifty people came together to celebrate his work. Was this an academic gathering, a place where scholars could show off their latest pedantry to their peers? Not at all. It was organised by Val Price, who works in computers, and Brian Edgar, a secondary-school teacher, on behalf of the Windsor and Maidenhead Labour Party. The idea came to Val Price about a year ago. Shelley, she knew, had lived at Marlow. Should not the Labour Party organise a function there to celebrate his contribution to British radical ideas over nearly two centuries? A committee was promptly set up. They couldn’t find a suitable room in Marlow, so they settled for Windsor Girls School, and fixed on 22 June as the anniversary of Shelley’s drowning at the age of 29.
Tickets were sold; auditions held for poetry readings; invitations sent out. The result was a grand gathering. Edward de Souza read some of Shelley’s political poems with tremendous force. The winner of the audition to read ‘Men of England’ was a young black woman. Lesley Saunders, a Greenham Common campaigner and local Labour Party member, read some of her poems, including a rumbustious reply to John Betjeman which she called ‘In Praise of Slough’ – ‘those bombs aren’t such a huge joke any more.’
The main session over, we were offered Judith Chernaik on Shelley’s feminism or Elma Dangerfield on Byron and Shelley or Marilyn Butler on the background to the politics of the Romantic poets. I had heard Judith a few times before, and reckoned Elma Dangerfield probably a bit right-wing for me, so I plumped for Marilyn Butler. After about two minutes I found myself longing to be an undergraduate at St Hugh’s College, Oxford, reading English literature and specialising in the Romantic poets. Butler was terrific.
Five out of six of the Romantic poets, she said, were overtly and obviously radical, if not revolutionary, at least for long periods of their youth. Yet the attitude to these poets in modern places of learning is less political than ever. The field is dominated by American critics who place the poets, not in the setting of revolutionary France (where their ideas sprung from), but in counter-revolutionary Germany of the same period. This period is fashionable in modern America because it has ‘strong vibes for the right wing’. Critics there (and here) saw in the Romantic poets a ‘recovery of the religious tradition’ overlaid with a lot of mystical claptrap. ‘What is out of fashion,’ said Marilyn Butler, ‘is what the poets were saying.’
She called this ‘pure intellectual escapism’, and proceeded to prove it with an analysis of the treatment of India and the Orient by the Romantic poets. In the 1780s, she said, Warren Hastings had hoped to rule India through Indians, without imposing a British civil service or a British army. For this purpose, he needed to sow a gentle, rather radical view of the Hindu people and their customs and art in the minds of cultured Englishmen. So he arranged for two brilliant hacks to come out and translate Hindu folklore. The result sold well among the gentry and the rising bourgeoisie in Britain. Hindu gods and especially goddesses were portrayed as peaceful, prosperous types who meant well. Wives had a lot of husbands and the stories about them were overlaid with an exciting aura of sexual liberation. The more restrictive tales of Christian folklore (like Eve and the apple) were stood on their head.
Then came Napoleon and his expansive imperialism in the East, which threatened the most profitable of all British plunder abroad – in India. It now became necessary for the British to protect their ‘trade’ with a much more ruthless show of force against the Indians, and especially against those treacherous princes who were hobnobbing with Napoleon. At once, the whole of British literature about the Far East changed. Poor old Bob Southey (he who in his youth had written the revolutionary epic Wat Tyler) was whistled up to deliver the goods. The Curse of Kehama (1810) showed the Hindu princes (especially those who flirted with Napoleon – the worst of them actually looked like Napoleon) as vile, degenerate tyrants representing an intolerable culture which only good old Christianity could civilise. The stage was set for the brutal ‘civilising’ imperialism necessary to keep the other ‘civilising’ super-power out of India.
Marilyn Butler then mentioned a name I had not heard for a long time: Constantin François Volney, author of The Ruins: A Survey of the Revolutions of Empires. This great book (written during the French Revolution, and kept in print by British radical publishers from the time it was first translated in 1795 until the early years of this century) exposed among many other things the intellectuals who are bought by society and subject their skills and their learning to the power and profit of the people who run the world. It was the duty of intellectuals, Volney argued, to resist such prostitution, to think for themselves, against the stream, before they could put their abilities to proper use. Volney was a powerful influence on the British Romantic poets, on Byron and especially on Shelley. When Byron came to write Childe Harold, he was hard enough on the great Oriental tyrants, their cruelties and their despotisms, but he was just as hard on the Christian alternative. You cannot supplant one tyranny with another, was his theme (forerunner, perhaps, to the modern slogan: Neither Washington, nor Moscow).
Marilyn Butler finished her talk by restating the duty of people who teach Romantic poetry to examine what the poets are saying and the toadying pusillanimity (she would not use such language) of academics and teachers who dare to present Byron or Shelley or Keats as purveyors of ‘literature’ which might just as well commend itself to Reagan or Thatcher. Most of this was new to me. The combination of scholarship and commitment was intoxicating. I felt a bit like some watcher of the skies when a new planet swims into his ken, or even like the stout imperialist bastard Cortez on his peak at Darien. And all this happened, not a stone’s throw from Windsor Castle, at a function organised by the Labour Party in a constituency where the Tory majority is something more than 23,000. As the man said, if winter comes, can spring be far behind?
Talk of intellectuals who serve governments brings me quite naturally to Sir Woodrow Wyatt, who has been serving this government pretty consistently in the columns of Sunday newspapers over the last six years. The reviews of Sir Woodrow’s latest book, Confessions of an Optimist,have been suitably dreadful, though he did find quite a good one in an obscure journal, and promptly reproduced the most flattering quotation from it in his column in the News of the World on 17 June. In the same column, he cheerfully added his own plug for the book, urging News of the World readers to get it out of the library (at a penny a time for Sir Woodrow) if they couldn’t afford to buy it. I’m not sure what even Rupert Murdoch, who owns the News of the World, thinks about his independent columnists plugging their own books in their columns, but since the book was published by Collins (proprietor: Rupert Murdoch) and serialised in the Sunday Times (proprietor: Rupert Murdoch), I suppose he’s unlikely to complain.
I retain a morbid fascination with people who are very left-wing socialists in their youth and end up on the rabid right. I’m interested in the process of change, what leads to the disillusionment, and so on. Young Woodrow (the second youngest Labour MP in the 1945 intake) was very left-wing: indeed, he joined the very left-wing Keep Left group which savaged the Labour government in 1947 for compromising with capitalism. There were only 15 Labour MPs out of 390 or so who were members of the group, so it really was very extreme. On reflection, Sir Woodrow can hardly bear to contemplate how nasty those left-wingers were. ‘A flavour of Marxism added to the outlook of the Levellers is an unpleasant brew,’ he writes. So why was he in the group? ‘I felt honoured to be included in so grand a gathering,’ he writes. There is no further clue. Two and a half years later, when he came to write his manifesto for the 1950 Election, he tells us: ‘I made no mention of socialism or nationalisation.’ The government which in 1947, he had argued, was not going far enough was by 1950 going too far. What happened to Woodrow’s young idealism, the desire to change the world? Well, it just vanished. The Labour leaders were quick to detect a bright young turncoat, and promoted him to High Office, which he loved.
Is there (as so often in such biographies) a whisper of nostalgia for the ‘first fine careless rapture’? Not at all. ‘If with the benefit of hindsight I could have my life again I should plan it differently,’ writes Sir Woodrow. ‘I should have sought, as my mother once suggested, to make money before going into Parliament.’ If only he’d done that, he concludes, he would have been more mature when he decided to go into politics. ‘I might have gone into politics on the Conservative side. There, it is likely, I would have been more successful.’ Alas, that flush of socialist youth was probably all a mirage. Sir Woodrow ends his book with a quotation from Rose Macaulay, who apparently told him (at a publisher’s party, needless to say) that ‘she felt the same enthusiasms and had the same attitudes at 70 as when she was 18: merely the body had changed.’ ‘The same with me,’ concludes the shameless Thatcher knight, and former extreme leftie. Then, to sum it all up, he declares his optimism: ‘Tomorrow is another day, with new sensations and new adventures.’ But please, no new autobiography.
‘Dickensian’ is an adjective often used to describe the grim dark days of Victorian England which have passed away for ever. There were some frightful examples of this in the BBC’s marvellous recent serial of Bleak House. What more wretched scene could be imagined than that of the law stationer’s shop where the constable has collared the helpless street-orphan, Jo? The boy, the constable explains to the stationer, won’t move on.
‘Oh, my eye! Where can I move to?’ cries the boy, clutching quite desperately at his hair, and beating his bare feet upon the floor of Mr Snagsby’s passage.
‘Don’t you come none of that, or I shall make blessed short work of you!’ says the constable, giving him a passionless shake. ‘My instructions are that you are to move on. I have told you so five hundred times.’
‘But where?’ cries the boy.
‘My instructions don’t go to that,’ replies the constable. ‘My instructions are that this boy is to move on.’
Dickens then soliloquises:
Do you hear, Jo? It is nothing to you, or to any one else, that the great lights of the Parliamentary sky have failed for some few years in this business to set you the example of moving on.
The next day, I am back at the Mirror, leafing through the letters which come in greater and greater numbers, most of them a horrible catalogue of what life is like for the poor in modern Britain. This month, there is a consistent part-furious, part-pathetic cry. It comes from young people who are told they can no longer stay in their cheerless lodgings. They are out of work, and out of hope. And now, because some great lights of the Parliamentary sky think that young people are having it easy off the state, they are being told to move on. Their rent is cut off. To get it paid again, they have to move out of town, at least twenty-five miles away, and cannot return for at least six months.
‘But where? Where can we move to?’ they cry.
‘Our instructions don’t go to that,’ say the great lights, the Social Security Ministers. ‘Our instructions are that they are to move on. Move on!’
Thank heavens for the Victorian values which made this country what it is today.
Send Letters To:
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN
Please include name, address, and a telephone number.