Charity is the opiate of the people

January 7, 2013

It will take a bit of time to get to my twist of Marx's famous comment on Religion, and a tirade against Dickens.  The clue is in the picture – one of a series of statutes which commemorate the so called Newport Riots arising from the Chartist march in 1839.  Newport is a town with a history and rather like Warsaw it wears that history on its sleeve and with good reason.  Its located on the River Usk, bypassed by the M4 and the Brynglas Tunnel of traffic report fame.   I was there to use the Passport Office's same day service as I  had to surrender an old friend for clipping.  I could have taken the risk and posted it but that always seems risky, especially as I will fly flying out to Halifax Nova Scotia on Saturday.  So, as I have in the past, too the early morning train down to Newport, handed over the form, two semi-representative photographs and £137 (which I hope is tax deductible) and then had four hours to kick my heels in Newport.

I'll keep it in the drawer in my desk with the other expired passports that tell the story of peripatetic decade and which I thumb through from time to time.  That small drawer also has my Mother's passport from when she studied in Germany immediately after WWII with some wonderful stamps from the occupying powers.  She won scholarships to both Grammar School and University and ended with a First Class degree confined immediately to the role of a housewife; a double symbol of a period of change.   Its not something she ever really complained about and after our return to Wales she found an outlet in a reborn political activism which was as much a part of my childhood as bed time stories.  I was on the first Aldermaston march in 1958 in a push chair and I am told that somewhere there is a picture of me on Bertrand Russell's knee!   I grew up in the context of a radicalised South Wales working class and it shows too this day.  My heroes were Nye Bevan, Lloyd George and Dic Penderyn; Churchill was remembered for, as Home Secretary, ordering troops to fire on the Miners.  Uncles who had volunteered for, and died in the International Brigade during the Spanish Civil War were held in great honour and George Orwell was bed time reading at the age of 5.

In contrast, these days my visits to Newport seem confined to cold and rainy days around Rodney Parade.  More good memories than bad there, but it shows the value of a dedicated Rugby Ground over a shared stadium.   The atmosphere is intimidating, the team less so.  My first visit here was way back before the M4 was built when I forced my father to divert on one of the frequent journeys to Cardiff, so that I could tick of the Transporter Bridge in my I-Spy book of bridges.  He wasn't happy as in those days it could take as long to get along the choked A48 from Newport to Cardiff as it had taken to drive the length of the Marches.  I think on that same trip we drove out the Roman Legionary fort at Caerleon and listened to Larry the Lamb on a transistor radio in the back of the car.  Its funny what you remember, but ToyTown was one of the great BBC Home Service Children's Hour series.  Otherwise Newport was always somewhere to be transited on the way to somewhere more interesting, either home in North Wales or Home at 6 Pencisely Avenue depending on if you were talking to my father or mother.

Returning to the present; at 0818 I left the Passport Office with an injunction not to return for at least four hours.  Breakfast occupied an hour although I got a sense that it was probably a mistake to wear a Blues shirt to the home of the Dragons just after completing back to back victories in the Pro12.  There was a level of hostility in the air.   I then saw a sign to a museum so I wandered down to it.  It was an odd mixture of the display cases of the old municipal museums where I spent a lot of my childhood (in Cardiff, Chester & Liverpool) and the more modern themed exhibits.  Its more than worth a visit, even a diversion from the M4 although the setting – a modern shopping centre – is not ideal.   Newport has a long history dating back to the major Legionary Fort of Caerleon to a modern industrial and revolutionary history.  It was also a significant port in medieval times, contested in the War of the Roses and so on.  All of that is well represented in a remarkable uncluttered display.

I was especially interested in the Chartist exhibit.  This 19th Century movement campaigned for the most basic of liberties, all of which bar one have been achieved in the modern age.   However the early part of the 19th Century was informed in Britain by feat of the French and American revolutions and there were draconian laws in operation.  Two petitions, one of over a million and the second of over three million were both rejected by parliament.  Its worth remembering that the population of Britain at the time was around fiveteen million so that gives you a sense of the strength of feeling.  Of course a million people died in the Irish famine during the same period, all to serve an ideology that found its modern manifestation in Thatcher and Reagan.

This is a period of savagery and protest.   The leaders of the Newport Riot (as it was called) were sentenced to be hung, drawn and quartered eventually commuted to deportation to Tasmania by Queen Victoria.  This was not an act of mercy by the way, simply a shocked attempt to placate more violent protest.   Later several hundred chartists suffered the same fate.  My own family history includes the legend that two of my ancestors died in Tasmania in that second wave.   I have no idea if its true or not, there are records of Great Grand Uncles being hung for sheep steeling in my family as well so it may have been a cover up for more common criminality.  But it has a sense of truth in the way it has been past down and I went on the pilgrimage to the burial island in Port Arthur when I first visited Tasmania.

The art exhibition (which I imagine is coming to an end) demonstrated the history of protest in greeting cards and that is worth a visit in its own right.   Newport is a town with a harsh industrial history, but a proud history of protest that needs to be remembered in this current generation.  Its all to easy to allow basic freedom's to erode.   As you enter the museum you see a Doctor's surgery with a note of how the vast majority of the population, even if they could afford to see a Doctor could not afford the medicine.  Freedom is not just about the right to organise, its also about the basic provision of health and education which are fundamental to any society claiming to be civilised.  And, for the record, Britain is currently going backwards in that respect at an increasing rate.

Within my living history sections of the British population did not have the vote so its not just a past phenomena.  De facto slavery was a key component of British economic success during the 19th Century, and I am talking about the mines, mills and steelworks of Wales and the North here.  Victorian values were hypocritical to an extreme and the thing which really, really infuriates me about writers like Dickens is that they vindicate such injustice through charity.  The sickly pious sentimentality is not a protest, its a be good and some nice kind man will come and rescue you mentality.   Society will be good if only people with wealth  volunteer their help to those inferior to them.

The exhibition clearly shows the importance of charity for survival in those times, something that is mirrored in current American culture and increasingly in British.  In fact the similarity of American politics to Victorian England is marked, in particular the need to be very very rich to have any chance of being elected.  Charity creates dependency and obligation of the powerless on the powerful, its not a matter of rights but of subservience and conscience salving.  It polarizes, it does not unite hence by deep hostility to Dickens for whom charity, but not charitas, is the salvation of the deserving poor.  To my mind, and from my upbringing, their nobility should be enshrined in protest not Dikensian dependency.

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