Lions after slumber

Up on the crags, the south-westerly wind can be felt more keenly, chilling the fingertips and ears. The morning’s sleet has left the limestone slicked with a dull sheen, the colour of tarnished pewter. Ribs of grey stone protrude from the stretched skin of the earth. The highest point of the crags, a prow of gnarled limestone beneath a wind-pruned hawthorn, forms a natural pulpit, a shelf of soft turf behind the rock allowing a person to stand with shelter and support, overlooking the ground which falls away to the road and the valley, sedge-filled and sodden with winter’s rains.

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From this pulpit, in 1657, it is said that George Fox preached to an assembled crowd of hundreds. “I visited friends till I came to Pardsey-crag,” he wrote later in his journal, “where we had a general meeting, which was large, quiet and peaceable, and the glorious, powerful presence of the everlasting God was with us.” We can imagine them ranged on the pock-marked grass below the crag, their necks craning upwards, feeling unnaturally stiff in their Sunday best starched collars, the mud brushed from their twill waistcoats and heavy labourer’s shoes. For it was the rural poor, the disenfranchised and landless, who gathered in huge crowds to hear Fox preach. The English Civil War was passing into memory; even the power of Cromwell was bending to the slow drift to a restored monarchy. In the countryside, people were exhausted, poor, downtrodden. Fox was offering a view of heaven which was theirs to command, a challenge to the hegemony of the church, the nexus of power between religion and state which kept these people in poverty, which took their slim earnings as taxes in order to line the walls of country houses in silks and mahogany. Most of all, he was offering them a view of freedom, a self-determinism which could be exercised in meeting-houses and drawing-rooms, which needed no mediation or authority.

Fox had preached from this same pulpit at least once before; the village below had become a centre of dissenting thought; a Friend’s Meeting House had been established here in 1653, a school shortly after. In time, this village would become a minor epicentre for Quakerism, a node in the collective memory of those years of religious fragmentation. From the top of the crags, it is easy to understand why the place drew such crowds when Fox preached: it commands a view across fields and mosses, across receding lines of hills and farms, out of all proportion to its modest height. The landscape below is splayed like the view from a hunting hawk; hedgerows and fields, the valley sketched brown with sedges. Faintly, threading through copses and crags, it is only just possible to make out the main road leading westwards to the towns on the coast.

On the 3rd of February 1812, Percy Shelley travelled along this road by coach on his way to Whitehaven, where he was to catch a boat for Dublin. He had lived in Keswick for four months with his new wife Harriet, who by then was exasperated by this itinerant life, this shiftless existence from rented cottage to borrowed apartment, this chasing after literary and political fame. Shelley was a seeker of another sort; not for religious truth, in the way of Fox and his followers: Shelley’s hunger was for justice and equality, fuelled by the lean energy of youth familiar to anyone who has toyed with political activism. Keswick was a staging-post on his journey, a chance to circle in the orbit of the great poets of romaticism, although Shelley himself was equivocal about the attractions of the Lake District, writing “tho’ the face of the country is lovely, the people are detestable”. The trip to Ireland was his next great adventure, a chance to spend some of his desire for radical engagement, his wish to nurture some of the spirit of the French Revolution, which had not yet been trodden into the muddy fields of Belgium. His Address to the Irish People reads now like a sixth-form essay on politics; earnest, heartfelt, naïve.

For Shelley, drowned at a young age in the Gulf of Spezia, his life was marked by that anger and radicalism, that earnestness and passion, spinning wildly between the idealism of the cause and the hubris of his own chaotic personal life. After Ireland, he oscillated between England and Italy, forever at one remove from the political change that was taking place in northern Europe. Eight years after his stay in Keswick, from another temporary home in Italy, he wrote the poem that would, years later, crystallise his radicalism: The Masque of Anarchy was dispatched in immediate response to the murder of innocent protesters in St Peter’s Fields in Manchester in 1819, although published much later:

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 Peterloo Massacre, as the Manchester Observer rapidly dubbed it, was the flash-point in a longer struggle, urged by a desire for voting reform, by disgust at the sickness and corruption of an over-powerful parliament in the hands of an ignorant elite. It was about unfair taxation and the increasing levels of poverty in the growing cities; as much as anything, it was about the lack of voice which ordinary working people had. Its point of connection with George Fox and religious dissenters almost two hundred years earlier are those things which so often collude in social struggle: land, liberty and the power of the spoken or written word; the right to organise and congregate, the right to speak or write unpopular truths; ‘speaking truth unto power’, as the early Quakers dubbed it. The dimensions are timeless, although the settings might change: these are the ingredients of dissent on St. George’s Hill and Kinder Scout, at Greenham Common and outside St Pauls Cathedral, tapped out on the wires of that generation’s new media, whether by telegram or twitter, in the shadowed spaces of public houses or internet forums.

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On Pardshaw Crag, George Fox’s pulpit is still washed by south-westerly rains. The pock-hole in the limestone, scoured over years by pebbles and rain, where he is said to have propped his pipe while he spoke, is filled with muddy water. Even on the dullest of days, the view extends across low lines of hills and woods to the coast, to the wind turbines flapping lazily in the winter wind, to the factory chimneys and nuclear installations on the coast, and beyond, to the grey immutable sea. It is a fancy to imagine his words echoing still amongst these crags, echoing in the voices of the patient crowd as they shuffle home to Pardshaw and Lorton and Eaglesfield, to Prague and Budapest, to Cairo and Homs, like lions after slumber, an unvanquishable number.

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