I first opened the pages of EP Thompson’s
Making of the English Working Class
On my 21st birthday in 1972:
It seemed to sit quite easily along
With the glass bottomed pewter tankard –
A traditional 21st father-son present back then:
Key of the door and welcome at the local too;
The glass bottom so I could see the King’s shilling,
And escape enlistment in some past imperial war –
The tankard now holds used paint brushes in the shed,
But the book sits on my shelf like a Bible:
But it wasn’t just the text that changed my life,
It was the picture on the cover of the labourer,
Foregrounded in late summer contentment,
Basket of blackberries, billy cock hat,
Puffing Billy, Locomotion, or some such,
Steaming and smoking along behind …
Like any sacred text, it is a product of its time,
But today, in 2019, I return to its pages,
Church bells ringing as I sit in the garden,
Hot on the trail of John Thelwall,
Like some government spy, checking the index,
To find, initially, this strange amalgam
Of Foucaultian-Augustan-Post Modernist-self-reflexive text:
Thelwall’s record of his Privy Council interrogation,
In the presence of no lesser personages
Than Prime Minister William Pitt,
The Home Secretary and the Lord Chancellor …
I have previously only known the name Semington from information boards on the Wiltshire and Berkshire Canal: a junction with the Kennet and Avon Canal. This is how ‘Heritage’ works: it fixes your view on space and time; it gives the past meaning. But ‘Counter-Heritage’ remembers those who are ignored, forgotten or misrepresented. It gives a different and radical meaning to the past.
Act the First
‘The orthography is irrelevant, madam.
Helliker, Hilliker, Hiliker, Elliker,
The spelling matters not a jot, madam,
Illiteracy does not mask identity,
We know who the shearman’s apprentice was
At Mr Nash’s Littleton Mill,
Semington, 22nd July 1802;
He was there in the riot, tumult and arson;
Mr. Heath says he saw Helliker brandish a pistol
And intimidate the loyal night watchman;
Mr. Heath had previous heard Helliker
Offer thanks and gratitude for the wrecking
Of honest men’s machinery and livelihoods;
And did not Mr. Heath identify Helliker
After the miscreant’s arrest in Trowbridge,
Last August the third?’
‘Charles Dickens never lived here’
Is a standout plaque on a cottage wall,
Down towards the harbour in Broadstairs –
Must take some courage to ironise
The Broadstairs branding of itself …
He first came here in 1837,
The year of Victoria’s accession,
And a year of gathering Chartist momentum,
To lodge in the High Street at number twelve,
To complete the last few monthly numbers
Of Pickwick Papers, and make so much money
That he bought the imposing cliff top house,
Fort House, built some thirty odd years before,
Where he penned his pages of labyrinthine plots,
And Pickwickian old time wistful nostalgia,
And critical observations of modern times:
Pickwick Papers, Oliver Twist,
Nicholas Nickleby, The Old Curiosity Shop,
Barnaby Rudge, Martin Chuzzlewit,
Dombey and Son, David Copperfield;
Heritage and Counter-Heritage: Are They So Very Different?
Two recent visits to ‘historic’ houses and a recent walk have made me question the usual binary opposition of heritage and counter-heritage, and got me thinking that perhaps they lie rather more on a continuum.
A visit to Dennis Severs’ house
A counter-heritage disenchantment walk http://radicalstroud.co.uk/colonial-countryside-disenchantment/,
and a visit to the National Trust cottage of Samuel Taylor Coleridge at Nether Stowey have set me a-thinking.
It struck me at Nether Stowey, that the National Trust quite-right wish for visitor-enchantment, involved counter-heritage practices too … and if the National Trust does that …
The Coleridges’ Cottage: Samuel and Sara
It sits in Lime Street, Nether Stowey,
Just off the old Minehead turnpike road,
Opposite a pub called the Ancient Mariner:
(The inn sign has no picture, just the words:
THE ANCIENT MARINER in upper case,
With a tiny inset top left: Lyrical Ballads)
The cottage of Samuel Taylor Coleridge –
The home and workplace of Sara Coleridge,
Now a National Trust Museum –
Involves an imaginative re-creation
Of how the cottage might have looked in 1797,
In that year of poetic wonderment;
With thanks to Bob Fry for the prologue and Robin Treefellow for his stream of consciousness imagery.
Dusty spikes of blue Bugle
Hemlock Water Dropwort.
Cow Parsley and May Blossom, shining white in the green hedgerows, everywhere.
Early swallows skimming the air above the buttercup meadows (where Robin recited his poems)
The Dream of Nailsworth
The waters’ intonation
washed in Nailsworth.
Before the cloth mills,
before the cars brought their disquiet
the waters sang among alders.
The world was a flicker of a fish
hiding from the heron.
Nailsworth knew nothing of Egypt’s pyramids
or the fall of Carthage.
Softly persisting to go where its water went,
Nailsworth bred dreams and spawned thousands of little worlds in marshy meadows.
The Famous Five and Enoch Powell and Walter Tull
What an extraordinary coincidence,
That on the fiftieth anniversary
Of Enoch Powell’s ‘Rivers of Blood’ speech,
Our railway stations should be awash
With ‘Five Go on Holiday’ GWR posters;
Four children – well adults really – and a dog,
Escaping to a whitewashed cottage,
In a West Country all white fastness,
Where BBC received pronunciation,
And lower class deference
Keep everyone in their place,
Abetted by kindly constables on the beat,
Who will willingly tell you the time.
STROUD COUNTER-HERITAGE WEEKEND FEBRUARY 3rd-4th
The Centre for Science and Art,
10am Doors open
The following events are timetabled, but there are events running throughout the day. Scroll down until you see the heading
EVENTS RUNNING THROUGHOUT THE DAY
10.30: The People History Forgot to Remember: tour of Stroud cemetery with Angela Findlay, artist & cemetery resident
Using poetry, diary extracts and performance to explore attitudes to death from the 1850s onwards, the hidden symbols used in gravestones, the fate of those deemed ‘paupers’ & workhouse life.
Meeting point: Lower Cemetery Lodge, 114 Bisley Road, GL5 1HG, just inside the gates of the cemetery
Tickets available at location – some parts of the walk are not wheelchair accessible, but many parts are.