“Red verse in Horsham” – ‘Articles of Resistance’ by Paul Foot [Bookmarks 2000] – pp. 81-82
In 1892 the playwright and critic Bernard Shaw was invited to Horsham to take part in a lunch to celebrate the first centenary of the birth of the poet Shelley.
Unhappily for important people in this market town, Shelley is probably the only famous person ever to have been born in Horsham, so they had to make the best of it. In 1892 they had their lunch and opened a public library.
Shaw mocked them mercilessly:
“On all sides there went up the cry: ‘We want our great Shelley, our darling Shelley, our best noblest highest of poets. We will not have it said that he was a Leveller, an atheist, a foe to marriage, an advocate of incest.'”
Shaw got the 5.19 back to London and went to another Shelley celebration meeting in the East End, composed almost entirely of working people which, he reported, ‘beat Horsham hollow.’
A hundred and four years later the chief executive of Horsham District Council (controlled by the Liberals, with a Tory opposition and no Labour representation at all) rings me up.
Would I come and speak at the opening of a huge sculpture, commissioned by the council and paid for by Sainsbury’s to celebrate the second centenary of Shelley’s birth?
I went through the usual preliminaries – was he sure he had the right member of the Foot family? Did he realise (a) Shelley’s politics, and (b) mine?
Yes, yes, yes, he said – my name has been put forward by someone from the Workers Educational Association.
OK, so I went. It was a cold November evening. The magnificent sculpture of a fountain is by Angela Connor, who said enough to me to make it clear she and I were the only socialists on the platform.
I and the secretary of the Fountain Society were the only speakers and were both very glad (because of the cold) to stick to our five minute limit.
On the train down I wondered whether the district council had taken leave of its senses, and reckoned that there would be (at most) half a dozen people shivering in misery.
In fact there were more than 1,000 people crowded round the fountain.
After the short ceremony, as the huge fountain started rather falteringly to spurt its jets into the air, most of them stayed, cheerfully chatting and shuffling their feet to keep out the cold.
I simply could not, cannot understand it, unless it is that people are interested in the place where they live, and especially in the giants of history who have lived there in the past, and on whose shoulders we try to light up the present.
Anyway, I said that Shelley was by any reckoning among the five greatest poets who had ever written in English; that his control of language, rhyme and rhythm was as unsurpassed as his intellect was all-embracing.
Why had so little of what he wrote been published in his lifetime? Because he was a Leveller, an atheist, a feminist and a republican – but above all a revolutionary who wanted the whole social order overturned and replaced by an egalitarian democracy.
When I said that Shelley had to contend all his short life with a Tory government, three times re-elected, which finally drowned in its own sleaze, I thought I heard people laughing.