Corbyn’s Shelley

Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote ‘The Mask of Anarchy’ in response to the Peterloo Massacre, allegorising contemporary politicians as personifications of Murder, Fraud, Hypocrisy, and Anarchy. Contrasted to these is Hope, ‘But she looked more like Despair’. Hope delivers an anatomy of Freedom (incorporating Justice, Wisdom, Peace, and Love) and calls on the English to rise up against Oppression’s slavery. Jeremy Corbyn quoted from this poem during his final speech of the June 2017 election campaign. His quotation is loaded with ironies and symbols.

One irony has become horribly apparent in the last two days since the avoidable fire at Grenfell Tower in west London. Governments tend not to commit massacres against their people these days, but the process of oppression and killing is more subtle: through cutting services, cutting regulations, incentivising landlord profits. These policies led directly (according to all informed reports) to the rapid spread of the Grenfell Tower fire. The political ideology of division and social cleansing is the hidden successor to overt state violence.

The Peterloo Massacre (in which yeomanry charged at a crowd of peaceful advocates for parliamentary reform) inspired the foundation of the Manchester Guardian, a newspaper which in its current form actively opposed Corbyn’s leadership until a few days before the June 2017 election. (For an informed comment on this particular irony, see this blog)

Shelley’s poem had been circling Corbyn’s campaign for a while, activating the mutual resonance between the campaign slogan “For the many, not the few” and the lines which close the poem (repeated from stanza 38) “Rise like Lions after slumber / In unvanquishable number— / Shake your chains to earth like dew / Which in sleep had fallen on you— / Ye are many—they are few.”

The reading by Corbyn, addressing a large crowd of supporters at the Union Chapel in Islington on the eve of the election, amplified through a booming PA system, is not intrinsically beautiful, but in the context, as his audience joins in the final line, and following an impassioned speech of stridently optimistic rhetoric, Corbyn’s performance is deeply moving. (At 29’46” here.)

Corbyn introduces the poem with reference to Mary Wollstonecraft, resident of Newington Green, her Vindication of the Rights of Women, and her daughter, Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley. The connection Corbyn draws is political, befitting the occasion, but prefaced with the simple remark ‘you should never be afraid to say you love poetry’. This is perhaps in response to accusations from the philistine press of the sort that he would be better singing the national anthem or demonising immigrants than accepting a booking for an evening’s discussion with Ben Okri at the Royal Festival Hall.

There is also something implicit in this invocation of the traditions of English Romanticism. Beyond the immediate political exhortation and the Romantic contemporary context of Peterloo, the French Revolution, the counter-Enlightenment, and so on, there exists idealism, transcendence and living mythology. Symbolist critic G. Wilson Knight, commenting on Shelley’s Queen Mab, wrote, ‘The agonies of history with their paradisal goal ahead are seen in panorama, time being laid out flat beneath the Fairy’s dome’ (The Starlit Dome, 185). The temporal and the eternal meet in a panoptic symbol of communal responsibility. Corbyn’s Shelley is a vision of transcendent possibility in the political present.

The Last Wave

To ‘Pages of Hackney’ last month for a book launch. Pages is a great small independent bookshop I’d not visited before (it opened around the time I left London), with a lively programme of events and extensive second-hand department in the basement. The launch was held in the basement, where I found myself sat next to a display cabinet of pulp erotica. A couple of boxes of LPs were in another corner, and there was so much wine that bottles were stacked up the stairs.

The launch was for The Last Wave, the debut novel by Gillian Best. It centres on the life of Martha, told through the alternating first-person narratives of her family, neighbour, and Martha herself, jumping across time, non-chronologically, from her childhood, and resolving in a symbolic doubling involving her granddaughter.

The opening chapter is set towards the end of the story, boldly breaking the narrative arc by revealing the story’s trajectory, thus placing the novel’s emphasis on individual moments in a family’s life. As each chapter changes voices through the book, we are brought into lives which contain some joy and plenty of regret, and I had a better time with some members of the family than others. I was most won over by the granddaughter, Myrtle, whose combination of drive and wit optimistically counterbalanced the anxieties of adulthood.

The novel is weighted by what one might think of as hot topics for a newspaper: not just Alzheimer’s, but also cancer! Not just post-war sexual repression, but also twenty-first century lesbian coming out! But Best deals with delicate themes authoritatively, avoiding crassness, and with some subtly powerful detail, as in a quiet observation of death’s bureaucracy. When siblings Harriet and Iain are shown a catalogue of cremation urns, Harriet’s thoughts turn unexpectedly to the copy-writer: ‘I thought about the person who had had to write the copy for the brochure, to quietly and sombrely extol the virtues of a gold-plated urn over a simple and understated china white urn. […] It was absurd’ (283-84).

The sea, specifically the English Channel, provides a persistent backdrop for the book, whoever the narrator, and whatever the time-period. Martha derives spiritual strength from the sea, but this remains elusive to those around her, and the sea stops short of taking on the archetypal or transcendental status of a character itself. Yet the book begins with an archetypal image, introducing a terrifically tense opening chapter inside the mind of Martha’s husband. John reaches out for the absent Martha in their bed, her whereabouts unknown. This is a motif that goes back to the ancients: Menelaus does it to the absent Helen in Aeschylus’s Agamemnon (424-5); more recently, Mr Ramsay does it in Woolf’s To The Lighthouse (Time Passes §3). Best takes this image and embellishes it with items from the world she has created – the sand, the seabed – making it resonate freshly.