Saturday, November 11, 2006
"If the Sun & Moon should doubt,
They'd immediately go out."
Wm. Blake, Auguries of Innocence (1803).
I've been thinking about my lineage.
Not my genetic lineage, you understand. I'm from Birmingham. There's not many Brummies who can trace their ancestry back that far, having to do with the fact that most people living in Birmingham until the nineteenth century were actually from somewhere else.
No, it's my spiritual lineage I've been thinking about, my political lineage.
Note how those two words run consecutively in my mind. "Political". "Spiritual". To me they are two sides of the same coin.
So I'm on the main shopping street of the little North Kent town where I've made my home these last twenty years - me and a few friends - handing out leaflets calling for an end to the occupation of Iraq, and it's surprising the amount of good will we're receiving. Everyone wants to sign our petition. Everyone wants to talk. Everyone wants to find out what we're doing and why.
I'm engaging people in debate, talking, laughing, sharing jokes and jibes, calling out to people across the street, occasionally arguing, stating the case and the history as clearly as I can: listening, absorbing, paying attention, looking out for the contradictions as people repeat the formulaic mantras of their mutually shared and received world-view.
It's then that I feel it, on the glinting, grey pavement outside Barclay's Bank, one sunny Saturday morning on the High Street. It's like a thread from the past. Down, down it reaches, down. Down through the concrete into the earth below. Down through the centuries, through the ages, through the generations. It's like a life-line, like a conduit, like a deep-seeking tap-root nestling into the rich, dark soil of the English soul: the proud and non-deferential, great historical tradition of radical English dissent.
I say "English" as opposed to "British" or "World" dissent, not because I don't acknowledge the more commonly remembered traditions of Welsh or Scottish or Irish liberation - or African or Asian or Latin American - but just to remind us that the English do, in fact, share these traditions too, in our bearing and in our language.
And I can feel it now, even as I sit at my computer: through the anti-war movement, through the anti-capitalist movement, through Stop the City and Reclaim the Streets, through the poll-tax protests, through the Miner's strike; through Bertrand Russell and EP Thompson and Ban-the-Bomb; through Bruce Kent and Trevor Huddlestone and all the members of the clergy and the laity who have stood up for peace and justice in this world.
On the street, however, it's an older image that comes to mind. I begin to feel like one of those anti-fascist organisers back in the thirties, and I'm reminded of a story an old guy down the Labour Club told me once, of how Moseley and the Blackshirts had arrived in this town, and how the local Fire Brigade had turned out to greet them. Moseley took on his famous heroic stance, chin up, back straight and arm vaingloriously raised, preparing to make his speech. But it was not appreciation that washed over him then. His voice was not drowned out with any kind of applause. Was he a little wet-behind-the-ears? He certainly was. They turned the hoses on him, as he and his fascist henchmen ran dripping from the town!
I guess you can say that all of these illustrations are fundamentally political in nature. True. But who are we to deny the spirit that passes through all of them? And the further back we go, the more clear it becomes just how deeply spiritual it is. Through the Suffragettes, through the Chartists, the urge for democracy is like a cry for human freedom in a world of hide-bound privilege. Through Tom Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, The Rights of Man and The Vindication of the Rights of Women: these are the radical democratic voices of English dissent as it blazoned into print in the late eighteenth century. Through William Blake (who knew them both) representing the fully evolved, spiritual-political force as it explodes in a blaze of energy and colour, like the rage of eternal humanity upon the ever turning page of history.
And further back again, about a century-and-a-half (as if we needed any more proof) to the roots of all this: to the English Revolution, to Gerrard Winstanley, William Walwyn, John Milton, John Bunyan, the Levellers, the Diggers, the Ranters, the Quakers, to the men and women of this time who were questioning everything, from the right of the clergy to hold control over the bible, to the right of the aristocracy to hold control over property, to the right of men to hold control over women. Or have we forgotten this history already?
And what is it that unites all of these voices, these movements, these peoples, and that makes them, ultimately, spiritual?
It is this: belief. Yes, belief. Because politics requires belief too. Not, maybe, belief in a supreme being, or in gods or goddesses or spirits or extra-terrestrials (these are all optional extras) - or in crystals or aromatherapy or in spiritual healing - but belief in humanity, certainly, and belief in the efficacy of action, and belief in a purpose and a cause in our lives, and, finally, belief in a meaning, because, if it all means nothing, why do anything at all?
And maybe this is the strangest thing of all: that I'm standing on these mundane early twenty-first century streets, with a member of the Socialist Worker's Party, an anarchist, a fundamentalist Christian, and someone who professes no particular philosophy, but who believes in peace and justice; and here we all are, we are all believers.
Belief. Without it nothing would ever change.