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.


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