28 January 2006

Dear Gerrard Winstanley (2)

I'm not done with you yet.

As happens every so often, yesterday I tried to align myself with one of our political parties. First I went to www.politicalcompass.org, as a crude measure of whether my views have changed in the year or so since I was last there. I find I've got a bit further to the left, leaving very little room to go travel any further, and ever so slightly less liberal, though there's very little in it. This is a little alarming given I tried to err on the side of moderation.

The only British political party even in the same quartile as me seems to be the Greens. I suppose the Socialist Workers or some similar bunch might be, although my instinct is to assume they're socially much less liberal. Maybe this is unfair. It seems likely that in actual fact I'm put off by either their extremism, their gang mentality, or (most likely) their spelling. Bizarre really that extremism should be a problem given that economically I'm slightly to the left of Stalin. But there's something tremendously unattractive about the rabble-rousing qualities of extreme left or right. Why can't "extreme" positions be couched in rational language. As far as I'm concerned my position is a perfectly rational one. I don't feel the need to rant or thump tubs.

So I'm instinctively more attracted to the Greens, who are both economically left wing, socially liberal and ecologically responsible. They are right to say that the saving of our planet is probably the most pressing challenge the next couple of generations will face. But again, I find their rhetoric unattractive. Their statement of core beliefs opens them right up to the hoary old charges of tree-hugging and they can do better than that. Instead of getting at why environmental issues are so pressing for everyone, they disappear into hippy mode using the environment as a metaphor for every issue. It's tub-thumping by other means. To be taken seriously they need to diversify, otherwise they'll be seen as an interest group as narrow as UKIP.

Essentially I'm in agreement with them on almost all issues except Europe. They also have an over-optimistic view of local government, aiming to create more without any ideas about how to dynamise it. Maybe they think giving more power to local authorities will improve the quality of those represented there, but the best people are still going to want to go to Westminster where more gets done. Maybe promising young things should be forced to do a stint in local government before being allowed up the greasy pole.

The argument runs that only by joining the party can you effect change within it. So I still consider signing up with the Greens. But transforming them into a party where environmental issues are only the most important plank in a broad policy ship rather than its whole hull seems an remote contingency given their name and origins.

So frustrated with all of this (and the fact that West Leeds seems to have no Green Party despite the fact that I voted for them in the General Election), I speculatively entered into google "find me something to believe in". This was probably rash as by far the most likely result was a Christian website. Instead I got a blogging site called 43things, where correspondents list the 43 things they want to achieve and blog about their success. Several people have "blog more regularly" without any posts on the subject, an attitude I sympathise with. But a few had "find something to believe in." Those who had done so successfully recommended the quest, which is heartening, although I couldn't quite work out what it was they had found. God, presumably. One girl had instead put "define my philosophical beliefs", which is nearer to what I ought to have googled except that I know what I believe. What I'm looking for is someone who shares my beliefs, in order to vote for them.

Why am I telling you all of this, Gerrard? Because you got off your arse and acted on what you believed in. You didn't need a party. You just got on with it. I admire that. Sadly, as an academic and theatre practitioner, forming a political party in the modern world is outside my skill set. So I suppose I ought to join the Greens.

27 January 2006

Dear Gerrard Winstanley

As you'll have noticed from the intermission since my letter to your contemporary, Samuel Pepys, I haven't got any more industrious in the matter of posting regularly. The later months of last year I continued to spend watching the West Wing and playing scrabble. I'm onto series seven on download and the presidential race is getting exciting even though we all know the Democrat Santos will win. But thankfully for my productivity's sake, I can't get scrabble on this new computer.

Some bloggers write every day regardless of whether they have anything to say. Others (fewer in number) write only when they have something important to get off their chests. Me, I"m in neither camp. I write only when I'm feeling guilty about having spent the day or week not doing more important things.

But since it's you, there's something I'd like to share. I've put you in a play once and I didn't pull it off, and now I'm having another go. After seven drafts the fire play was nowhere close to being done, although my wife was kind enough to say there were some beautiful things in there. Just because we're married? She's never yet admitted to liking a whole piece and after I finished my radio play her comment was: "wow. A whole play", which isn't even praise enough to be damned by it. So she's pretty honest, and also the only reason I continue writing. But I don't think you'd have liked it.

The new one is set at the point of your greatest fame, on St George's Hill. The idea is to show you at your best, not past your best. I still can't see it being a hopeful play - your experiment failed - but the process of disillusion might be more interesting than the result. You must have been a fairly inspiring figure - your idea was a crazy one - and entirely by accident I've written a young character with whom you have a bond rather than a rift. Whether that will survive, we'll have to see. Maybe at the end of the play your relationship with this young guy will be the same as your relationship with the disillusioned disciple Billy in the fire play. It depends whether your ideals survive. I do hope so.

I keep being drawn to you. You were on the lunatic fringe of seventeenth century politics, essentially a luddite and by no means a modern man, with your dreams of re-establishing some sort of agrarian communitarianism long past even then. Yet something in you was forward-looking. The idea that every man should have the vote (and every woman? Perhaps even you didn't go that far) was crazy at a time when moral worth was measured by the acre. And your proposition that ownership of the land was an intolerable imposition on individual liberty was barely proposed seriously for another two hundred years, certainly never in prose as good as yours. You've been described as a Communist before Marx, but this doesn't quite fit it. You were communitarian, sure, and you wanted to do away with the money economy in good time. But you had no ideas about the proletariat the bourgeouisie. These groups were only coming into being, not to speak of the terminology. Industrial society was a long way off; what you proposed was more like a universal kibbutz. You were both two hundred years behind the times and two hundred years ahead of it. On average, you were the most radically modern man of your time, irresistible extremism that could only have been produced and sustained by a civil war.

But you weren't sustained, not for long enough. Cromwell's thugs beat your followers, killed them like as not, and ground your experiment out of possibility. It's not really clear why. We have to assume he, or his subordinates, felt threatened by your fervour and sense of righteousness. And if it had worked, he'd have been out of a job. Whether or not Cromwell himself cared or even knew about what you were up to, he's going to make it into the play, I feel pretty sure, about two thirds of the way through the first half and possibly again towards the end. And he won't be entirely unsympathetic.

That was your moment. You had a little slice of utopia and you wanted it to grow and be shared. It might have worked, at least for a time, perhaps a longish time. Population growth and technologisation make it entirely impossible now.

I feel wistful about this, as I write to you on my .mac listening to guitar music on my stereo waiting for my friend Alan to call about a card game. Life may or may not have been simpler, but it seems that way at least. I'm sure I'm pretty happy as I am - things are going well right now - but in moments of excessive hurry I think of two things. One is Carl Honore's In Praise of Slow, a eulogy to the savouring of pleasures. The other is you, and what might have been.