Monday, 6 September 2010
“In darkness, and with dangers compassed round...”
It’s January 22, 1942. Six years to the day since Edward VIII was proclaimed King, and now the proclamation is to be repeated. Beside Edward is his Queen, Wallis, née Simpson. His brother, described these days by the State-run Press as “the usurper Albert,” is in hiding (Canada? New Zealand?) with his wife and their two daughters.
The honour guard at St James’s Palace consists of Royal Horse Artillery and Waffen SS.
There is jubilation among the people – at least the bombs have stopped falling and the boys are home – but there’s also fear, loathing and anxiety.
Winston Churchill died in the early Summer of 1941. Hitler seized the moment to redouble the blitz, adding what he called “influential” to strategic bombing. Surrey, Middlesex, Essex and Buckinghamshire were on the way to becoming wastelands when the appeasers resumed power and the public clamour – “why are we fighting this war?” – caused Parliament to sue for peace.
The invasion, therefore, happened without a shot being fired. There was supposed to be an “amnesty,” but you watched as friends of yours, associates in the struggle, were arrested and publicly tortured to death.
You were yourself imprisoned and expected the same cruel ending. But a young M.P. who’d switched sides, and whom you’d once helped, interceded.
You were released. Not so much to freedom as to be a public spectacle: jostled and jeered by the mob (a couple of times you feared you’d be lynched and torn limb from limb, as Orpheus was lynched and torn limb from limb); at night, youths in their new khaki uniforms shouted obscenities outside your home and pelted the windows and walls and door with shit.
Rumour says (the Press don’t report it) that people are sickening and dying from the winter's viruses all over London, and particularly in your overcrowded slum, because medicines and hospital equipment are being confiscated and shipped to the “Fatherland.”
Friends find you a bolthole, a cottage in the country.
They do this because you are a genius. You put aside your artist’s career to become the government’s arch-propagandist. Your pen stung and your wit wounded. You excoriated the dictatorships that had infested Europe, vituperating the tyrants of Spain, Italy, Russia, and Germany.
More than that, you were a radical. You wanted the House of Lords abolished, the bishops dethroned, the priests unfrocked, the church disestablished. You wanted small government, not big. You wanted free education for every child, everywhere. You believed that an educated people could make reasonable choices and govern themselves and be able to distinguish between true freedom, which meant social responsibility, and mere “licence” (as you called it) – the false freedom to do as one pleased which brought only misery and chaos and led to dictatorship.
Now you are 57, but looking and feeling much older. You are ruined, beggared, frightened and blind.
It is eleven in the morning. You have been up since four. At night, the fire subsides and ashes are spread all over the coals, so when you fumble your way down to the little study in the early hours you can feel for the warmth, and a couple of gentle kicks uncover the coals, which start to burn up again.
In spite of all adversity, you are composing your masterpiece. Not writing it down, because, of course, you can’t write any more. You sit by the little fire, fitting words together, rehearsing them aloud, your voice echoing around the sleeping cottage, memorising, memorising, fifty lines each session. Now, your daughter arrives, with a modest something for you to eat and drink, and you dictate to her...
“... Thus with the year
Seasons return, but not to me returns
Day, or the sweet approach of ev’n or morn,
Or sight of vernal bloom, or summer’s rose,
Or flocks, or herds, or human face divine;
But cloud instead, and ever-during dark
Surrounds me, from the cheerful ways of men
Cut off, and for the book of knowledge fair
Presented with a universal blank...”
* * *
For a few days now I’ve been trying to imagine what the world must have been like for John Milton, writing Paradise Lost after the Restoration of the Monarchy, and this, fanciful as it is, was the best I could come up with.
The reason for the exercise is that a few days ago a friend and I walked across country from Amersham to the cottage in Chalfont St Giles which Milton escaped to, for a while, in the mid 1660’s.
Over nine or ten miles, and lunch, and rest stops, we talked about the poet, and his sufferings and his vision, and his extraordinary, beautiful, extravagant book, whose characters and drama and ideas are so powerful that they sometimes seem to escape his control. One thing we agreed on: there has never been, in the history of English literature, so courageous and compassionate a hero as Milton’s Adam.
He could have said, “you silly bitch. Here, God, bin this one: have another rib and we’ll start again.”
Instead, he shuts his eyes and bites the apple. Not because he is lustful, or greedy, or vain or envious of God, but because Eve has already eaten some of the forbidden fruit, and even though it means the loss of Paradise and immortality, he loves her, and cannot bear to be parted from her, or tolerate the thought of her suffering and dying alone.
In Book III, the Son volunteers to die to redeem mankind, but says to God: “Thou wilt not leave me in the loathsome grave... nor suffer my unspotted soul/Forever with corruption there to dwell/But I shall rise victorious.”
Adam, however, has no access to a get-out clause. If he sticks by Eve, all he can look forward to is “the loathsome grave” and the rest of it. But stick with her he does.
Contrast that behaviour with the performance by the “hero” of John Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, published in 1678, eleven years after Paradise Lost, when he is “for certain informed that this our city will be burned with fire from Heaven,” and everyone and everything annihilated:
“The Man began to run. Now, he had not run far from his own door, but his Wife and Children, perceiving it, began to cry after him to return; but the Man put his fingers in his ears and ran on, crying Life! Life! Eternal Life!”
Adam realised by Milton: an ancient story; a modern sensibility. What does it teach us? I’m unsure.
Weird excursion, that trip to Milton's Chilterns. At Marylebone Station, early a.m., the banner headline in The Times leapt out at us: “Hawking: God did not create the Universe.” Bugger. Should we turn back? But when we read on, Hawking said: “It is not necessary to invoke God to light the blue touch-paper and set the Universe going.” To which Milton would have replied: “Sure, but God is the Universe. And the blue touch-paper.”
Milton’s Cottage in Chalfont St G is really more like Milton’s Antiques and Bric a Brac. There are a couple of good paintings, one chair the poet purportedly sat on, a few interesting manuscripts, and a whole mass of irrelevancies – miscellaneous weaponry, laundry equipment from the 1930’s, a model railway in a glass case ("cowls, hoods and habits... relics, beads," that sort of stuff). The gardens are pretty, though, and you can picture the ageing poet sitting there, turning toward the sun “these eyes, that roll in vain to find thy piercing ray.”
The wind, continuing crosswise, blew us into another Paradise of Fools, the Fox and Hounds, where we lunched, and where boisterous locals crowd strangers from the bar, forcing you to duck and slide between them to get your beer from the surly landlord or either of his rather miserable-looking helpers. One of these women brought our lunches out to the garden, which was a plus, and then sent us indoors to collect cutlery for ourselves, thus maintaining the great British tradition of ambivalent customer service.
On the way home a public footpath crossed a vast field of dry mud and stubble. A young man on a tractor, with a pretty girl by his side, forced us off the path. At the crown of the field we sat for a while to admire the view. The tractor reappeared, avoided the huge barren spaces all around, bore right down on us and compelled us to move again, and a few minutes later returned from the opposite direction to get us up on our feet and backing away for a third time.
Judging from the lubricious expression on the young man’s face, there was clearly some sort of aphrodisiac effect to be got from harassing these two middle-aged ramblers. His girl looked quite excited too. The Farm, would you believe, is called Upper Bottom.
And just for half an hour or so, but only in miniature, we had an sense of what it must be like to be persecuted.