A collective of bibliophiles talking about books. Book Fox (vulpes libris): small bibliovorous mammal of overactive imagination and uncommonly large bookshop expenses. Habitat: anywhere the rustle of pages can be heard.
I was inspired to pick up my copy of Rural Rides when I heard of the death of that great radical of my time, Michael Foot. Foot and Cobbett did not have one of the most obvious things in common – Cobbett was no socialist, and was the scourge of those who professed any sort of collectivism. But they were both at various times in their lives radical thinkers, great orators, champions of the oppressed, fearless witnesses against injustice. Each had a wholly distinctive voice, in their speaking out loud, and in their written word, though Cobbett’s voice is louder, more homespun, and far less under control.
Another thing that they have in common, which makes me rather angry and sad, is that both had to suffer savage attacks when alive, only to be found to be national treasures after death. Am I alone in raging against the idea of de mortuis nil nisi bonum? It seems to me to be the ultimate tragedy that someone should live without hearing the words of respect that are accorded them after death. Let’s not mention the Daily Mail’s lately found admiration for Michael Foot, and pass swiftly on to Rural Rides.
Cobbett was born in Farnham, Surrey, and his grave can still be seen in the parish churchyard. He led an extraordinary and varied life, but his heart always resided in this beautifully rich corner of rural Southern England, Southwest Surrey and Northeast Hampshire, all rolling green downland. George Woodcock, in the introduction to my rather ancient Penguin Classics edition, says
Cobbett’s life […] reads as if a character from Fielding had adventured his way through a world created by Dickens.
At various times he was a sergeant-major in the British Army, a campaigning journalist, a political prisoner (who nevertheless entertained his admirers in gaol), an exile in America, the editor of journals, including a periodical nicknamed ‘Twopenny Trash’ (a name he adopted as a badge of honour), and the Radical MP for Oldham – ironically, as this northern cotton town was the antithesis of his earthly paradise in the rural South. Throughout his career, he found the people and the causes to champion – the soldier cheated of his rations by the quartermaster, the cottager evicted by the enclosing landlord, the pauper victim of the vile Speenhamland system of parish relief that depressed his wages to just below subsistence level, the factory worker. His voice was loud in their support, and his contempt for those who oppressed them was boundless. His prejudices were utterly fixed, and make both heartening and disheartening reading – he found no room for tolerance of bankers and stockbrokers, MPs for rotten boroughs and their patrons, Anglicans, Unitarians, Quakers, Scots and Jews. He supported Catholics against the discrimination they suffered and disqualification from public life. He utterly detested London and anything or anyone who came from it, for which he coined the phrase ‘the Great Wen’ (more generally in Rural Rides ‘The Wen’.) He also coined the phrase ‘the Thing’ for the body of people who made up a large proportion of the tax burden – placemen, half-pay officers, bureaucrats. I hope I am giving you a flavour of how much fun he is to read – truly exhilarating.
In the 1820s, returned from political exile in America, he undertook a series of rides through the countryside, as the basis for a series of articles for publication in his own journal The Political Register. In 1830, he made a selection of the rides and published them in book form. The Rides are topographical narratives, but intended as a vehicle for
Economical and Political Observations relative to matters applicable to, and illustrated by, the State of those Counties respectively.
The tone of voice is idiomatic and discursive and displays his entirely distinctive personality. The description of the countryside and the people he encounters, and the agricultural and economic conditions, is frequently broken off for Cobbett to deplore an outrage, or excoriate an enemy, or even (sometimes) to praise a hero. The tone is never less than strong and vigorous, often a howl of rage, or a blast of irony. I am reluctant to use the word ‘rant’ to describe the state that he often works himself up into – every few pages. These days, the word ‘rant’ is such a commonly used term online. We apologise to one another for an occasional rant, which can be anything from a ‘rage over a lost penny’ to a heartfelt storm of passion over something that makes the world a worse place. Thinking about it, though, there is a strong parallel between 21st century online rants, and Cobbett’s constant impulse to break off and tell it how he sees it. There is a similar sense of spontaneity, courage and freedom. However, I think I’ll use a different word, inspired by Cobbett himself. The title of the first ride is
Rural ride of a hundred and four miles from Kensington to Uphusband; including a rustic harangue at Winchester at a dinner with the farmers, on the 28th September
What a splendid concept is the ‘rustic harangue’! That will do nicely. Imagine what a great entertainment that must have been, in the time when a fiery sermon, the longer the better, was the finest diversion that most country people could anticipate. So, from time to time, in Rural Rides, he breaks off for a harangue. The Rides are all about him, and his opinions, and his prejudices, but he is so unselfconscious that I read them because I want to see what he sees, know what he thinks, engage with his prejudices. He is so passionate and honest.
There are famous bits, and favourite bits. One famous passage is an account of him hiring a man at a pub to guide him through a stormy night from Hampshire into Surrey, going by any route, so long as it was not via the turnpike at Hindhead. Cobbett hated turnpikes, as they taxed travellers, and he hated Hindhead for reasons that are rather less easy to explain. It is an odd corner of Surrey, scrubby heath, and a bottleneck through which the traveller has to pass. I think it is just that no one makes him do what he does not want to do, Everyone has to pass over Hindhead, so he won’t have it that way. Anyhow, the poor man from the pub gets lost, they do end up on Hindhead, and Cobbett is so enraged that he refuses to pay the man what he promised him. This story he tells against himself.
I have some favourites. Topically, last year a splendidly right-on folk duo called Show of Hands have recently inveighed against the bankers on an album entitled ‘Arrogance, Ignorance and Greed’ (oh go on, Show Of Hands, please tell us what you REALLY think). Listening to them, I could not help thinking of Cobbett’s description of the country round Whitchurch in Hampshire, where there are many paper mills, not least the mill of the Portal family that made banknotes; red rag to Cobbett, who harangues us so:
From this coppice to Whitchurch is not more than about four miles, and we soon reached it, because here you begin to descend into the vale in which this little town lies, and through which there runs that stream which turns the mill of ‘Squire Portal, and which mill makes the Bank of England note-paper! Talk of the Thames and the Hudson with their forests of masts; talk of the Nile and the Delaware bearing the food of millions on their bosoms; talk of the Ganges and the Mississippi sending forth over the world their silks and their cottons; talk of the Rio de la Plata and the other rivers, their beds pebbled with silver and gold and diamonds. What as to their effect on the condition of mankind, as to the virtues, the vices, the enjoyments and the sufferings of men; what are all these rivers put together compared with the river of Whitchurch , which a man of threescore may jump across dry-shod, which moistens a quarter of a mile wide of poor, rushy meadow, which washes the skirts of the park and game preserves of that bright patrician who wedded the daughter of Hanson, the attorney and late solicitor to the Stamp Office, and which is, to look at it, of far less importance than any gutter in the Wen! Yet this river, by merely turning a wheel, which wheel sets some rag-tearers and grinders and washers and re-compressers in motion, has produced a greater effect on the condition of men than has been produced on that condition by all the other rivers, all the seas, all the mines and all the continents in the world.
Although the Rides take in counties as far afield as Worcestershire and Bedfordshire, the main landscape for them is Surrey and Hampshire, with the odd foray into Kent and Sussex. This is my home turf, and I love to see the landscape (that I take for granted) through Cobbett’s keen and expert eyes. He can tell which is the productive land and which is the barren (he describes Chobham Common as ‘villainous’). He loves the fertile land that can feed the population, and riding through it stokes his hatred of those who are not sharing it fairly, and are cloaking their greed in cruelty, neglect and injustice. In the Ride Oct. 19th to 21st, 1825: Across Surrey he devotes a long passage to my home town, and a biography of one of the most extraordinary people who lived there, the deeply conservative, backward-looking Francis Maseres, Baron Cursitor of the Exchequer, and mathematical savant, who did not believe in negative numbers, and who founded the science of annuities and as a result the Actuarial profession. No particular meeting of minds there, you would think. However, even though from a family of Huguenot refugees, Maseres nevertheless gave charity to French catholics, exiled during the French revolution, and this even-handed championing of the oppressed endeared him to Cobbett (as you can tell, Cobbett is no package-dealer – his sympathies lie with the powerless wherever they come from, and his scorn is for the powerful oppressors, whatever their ideology). Maseres also visited Cobbett in Newgate, dressed in his official robes, as a mark of disapproval of his imprisonment. Such an unlikely friendship, wonderfully described. Cobbett’s biography of Maseres is an amazing story, with many twists and turns, and I recommend it.
Then Cobbett rides away through the lovely landscape I travel most days, from Reigate towards Dorking, past my parish church, and describes it thus:
Friday Evening, Oct . 21.
It has been very fine to-day. Yesterday morning there was snow on Reigate Hill, enough to look white from where we were in the valley. We set off about half-past one o’clock, and came all down the valley, through Buckland, Betchworth, Dorking, Sheer and Aldbury, to this place. Very few prettier rides in England, and the weather beautifully fine. There are more meeting-houses than churches in the vale, and I have heard of no less than five people, in this vale, who have gone crazy on account of religion. To-morrow we intend to move on towards the west; to take a look, just a look, at the Hampshire parsons again. The turnips seem fine; but they cannot be large. All other things are very fine indeed. Everything seems to prognosticate a hard winter. All the country people say that it will be so.
There is so often snow on Reigate Hill when there is none elsewhere. It has its own climate. I can see what he sees, trace his path. And I can smile indulgently as I wonder about the five people, no less, who have gone crazy on account of religion, and wonder if I know any of them.
You can read William Cobbett’s Rural Rides online on the website Vision of Britain.
Penguin Classics, 2001. (First published 1830.)
ISBN 13: 9780140435795 576pp