Tuesday 13th December

Churchman the Spanish follow (6)

How did PB Shelley and TJ Hogg respond to the indignity of being sent down back in 1811? One of their contemporaries, CJ Ridley, described the aftermath thus:

Towards afternoon a large paper bearing the College seal, and signed by the Master and Dean, was affixed to the hall door declaring that the two offenders were publicly expelled … The aforesaid two made themselves as conspicuous as possible by great singularity of dress, and by walking up and down the centre of the quadrangle, as if proud of their anticipated fate.

In their own minds, they had struck a blow for freedom of speech and enquiry. They had published not one but two incendiary pamphlets, one attacking the established Church, the other (the Poetical Essay on the Existing State of Things, thought to be lost for almost 200 years and only re-published in 2015) a broadside against the government of the day, its domestic and imperial policies, its suppression of free speech, etc. They ensured their agitprop was displayed in a shop window on the High and seen by their enemies. They went out with all guns blazing, like Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid taking on the entire Bolivian army. Shelley and Hogg asked to be shot down. Anything less would have been failure, disappointing proof that free speech was possible. They left Univ as conquering heroes and headed for London to spread fresh enlightenment to its citizens.

I, on the other hand, go home to No. 8, Swan Street and have a jolly good whinge to my Dad.

“It sounds like you’ve been shockingly treated, old son,” he concludes. “If I had even the slightest influence at college, I’d …”

“Don’t worry, Dad. I don’t expect you to get me my job back.”

“There will be plenty of jobs in the new year.”

“Ah yes, the new year …”

Having owned up to my sacking, should I tell him about the much larger axe suspended over my lilywhite neck, poised to fall on the penultimate day of the year? Somehow the time has never been quite right to mention it. Dad’s heading off to the bridge club after his tea and I let the moment pass once again. There are some things we all must bear alone.

Not for the first time, I think of Sir Gawain taking his leave of Camelot’s Christmas party, perhaps taking a few cocktail sausages to sustain him on his journey, and heading out into the snowy wastes to meet the Green Knight and receive the fatal blow. On December 30th, Gawain is unexpectedly holed up at Sir Bertilak’s castle, staving off the advances of his hostess (English literature’s first MILF?), and it is not until New Year’s Day that he makes his way to the Green Chapel. I take some comfort from the fact that Gawain comes back alive, courtesy of his Teflon-coated neck and his old-school moral code. I take slightly less comfort from the fact that Gawain and the Green Knight are fictional characters.


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