I have already alluded to the increasing interest I have been taking in my identity and the question of Englishness, in more recent years. At some point in the year before I set off – I cannot say when exactly – I chanced upon an old copy of Christopher Hampton’s A Radical Reader : the struggle for change in England 1381 – 1914, published by Penguin Books under its now-revived Pelican imprint, in 1984. That would have been near the beginning of the time that I would typically be driven to Farnham, in Surrey, with my family on a Saturday excursion, or to play cricket on a Sunday, past the William Cobbett pub, which I seem to recall, used to pass by on the left hand side as the main road came into the town. Cobbett did not loom large in my consciousness as a child; it is only in recent years that I have come to know his place in English history and its radical tradition. Flicking through the pages of my new book, I noticed the name and nature of Cobbett’s best known work. Collecting together work published in serial form in the 1820s, Rural Rides was published in book form in 1830. In it Cobbett made his arguments against what he saw as the injustices of his age, supported by his own observations of the countryside, which he traversed by horse. One of Hampton’s selections from Rural Rides relates his time in my part of the world :
As I came on the road, for the first three or four miles, I saw great numbers of labourers either digging potatoes for their Sunday’s dinner, or coming home with them, or going out to dig them. The land-owners or occupiers, let small pieces of land to the labourers, and these they cultivate with the spade for their own use. They pay, in all cases, a high rent, and, in most cases, an enormous one. The practice prevails all the way from Warminster to Devizes, and from Devizes to nearly this place [Highworth]. The rent is, in some places, a shilling a rod, which is, mind, 160s. or £8 an acre! Still the poor creatures like to have the land : they work at it in their spare hours; and on Sunday mornings early : and the overseers, sharp as they may be, cannot ascertain precisely how much they get out of their plat of land. But, good God! what a life to live! What a life to see people live; to see this sight in our own country, and to have the base vanity to boast of that country, and to talk of our ‘constitution’ and our ‘liberties’, and to affect to pity the Spaniards, whose working people live like gentlemen, compared with our miserable creatures. Again I say, give me the Inquisition and well-heeled cheeks and ribs, rather than ‘civil and religious liberty’, and skin and bone. But the fact is, that, where honest and laborious men can be compelled to starve quietly, whether all at once or by inches, with old wheat ricks and fat cattle under their eye, it is a mockery to talk of their ‘liberty’, of any sort; for, the sum total of their state is this, they have ‘liberty’ to choose between death by starvation (quick or slow) and death by the halter!
For reasons which I trust are self-evident, I chose Regional Rides, as my own title.
Rough sleeping in Brighton