This series of posts will chart Alan Calvert’s progress from humble provincial apprentice to revolutionary radical on a national stage. It’s quite a favourable account, showing how circumstances embittered an essentially decent man. His conversion was gradual, two steps forward and one step back. Predictably, Revolutionary France was a major influence.
So ended Calvert’s schooldays. By now a tall youth, though not yet showing any military bearing, his first taste of work came at sixteen, as an apothecary’s apprentice in York. Starting out friendless and poor, he hoped to make a success of it. The terms of his indentures came cheap – just ten pounds – and were paid by his father, who, out of grudging sense of duty, had settled upon him the slimmest of patrimonies. In return, he was to promise never again to darken his father’s door.
‘Never mind, my boy,’ said Mr Prothero, the master who was to teach him his trade. ‘I too started with nothing, and didn’t do at all badly. Work hard at your craft, and who knows what life might bring?’ Mr Prothero, a small man of fifty, very neat in his dress, looked at him proudly from across his counter beneath which Calvert slept at night, imbibing the smells of his trade. The apothecary was happy in his work, it was enough for him. Contentment shone in his grey eyes deeply set beneath an honest brow. He showed Calvert the first kindness he had known, and, though he didn’t realise it at the time, provided his first taste of happiness. He had his first friends too among York’s many apprentices. He felt safe in his small world, watched over by the timeless bulk of the great Minster.
If only Mr Prothero’s words had worked the way they were intended. When enjoined to know his limitations, master his craft and arrive at just a modest station in life and be thankful, he took the advice obliquely not at face value. It was as if, like one of his compounds, the advice had gone down the wrong way. For something else of greater import had taken seed in his impressionable young breast. He knew only too well that he lived in exciting times. He knew so from what he’d read in the newspapers and pamphlets, what he’d heard on the streets and in the taverns. There had been a revolution in France; things were changing fast in the land of the old enemy. It was going to be so different over there, men might become overnight what centuries had denied them. Already men of modest means, men who knew not their limitations, were being catapulted to the summit of power. No one, not even the wisest and cleverest philosophers knew where it would end. A restlessness was afoot in the world, and it was afoot in Calvert too. Surrounded as he was day and night by his stock-in-trade, the vials, gallipots and carboys, the ointments, pills and brightly-coloured liquids, he felt that he must leave it all behind or risk ossifying, becoming before his time a bag of bones fit for the crypt just a stone’s throw away.
So on a wet night in March, just six months into his time, he ran away. He hurried down the cobbled streets where the full moon dashed its blue milky light upon the stones. He had stolen from Mr Prothero some victuals, and enough money to reach Dover and take passage for France. The cross-channel trip was stormy, no place for the faint-hearted. It was his first spell at sea, and he didn’t think he’d live to see another. The tempest raged in sea and sky; waves as high as the masts washed across the deck. Below in his bunk, drenched by the stinking bilge-water, Calvert writhed in his own vomit, and that of his neighbour, a consumptive man with blood for spew.
But the boat survived, minus two mariners and most of its rigging while Calvert, the reluctant sailor, had made it weak-limbed and green-faced to foreign shores. Standing on the gull-ravaged quay at Calais, shivering in the breeze, he felt that his life had been spared, but only just. Allowing him to live had not been an easy decision. Whoever had made it, and he supposed it must be God, had been in two minds. From that day forth, every day he lived would be seen as borrowed time grudgingly lent. It was as if the powers that had spared him regretted it, and would never let him rest.
Penniless, he made his way south through the French countryside, working a little here, begging a little there. His slight knowledge of the language served him well on his journey. The tall young Englishman was a curiosity to the peasants he met on the road, and on the whole he was treated well. People were hungry for his opinion. What did he, and the English people think of their revolution now two years old? He would shrug; it was too early to say, we must wait and see. It was hard to maintain his enthusiasm for the great project; he had met nobody with good words to say for it. They complained only of shortages of this commodity or that, of interference with their religious practices, of higher taxes, of fears for the future. ‘What do these swinish Parisians think they are playing at?’ a wizen little man exclaimed outside an inn one day. ‘I spit on them and their revolution!’ and suiting gesture to word fouled the cobbles with tobacco-stained phlegm. There was much support for his outburst, plenty of opprobrium for the young government of National Assembly.
Calvert journeyed on, puzzled and disappointed. He rubbed shoulders mostly with poor men, whom the revolution was supposed to benefit. Why then did they scorn it? Could they not see it was all done in their name? He had never encountered such conservatism, such blind loyalty to timeless institutions of monarchy, church and nobility which had oppressed them time immemorial. They were as fixed in their ways as the land they toiled upon throughout their blighted lives. Already he knew that they would fight to preserve their way of life; that the changes rolling out of the capital would reach these proud provincials only over their dead bodies.
But once in Paris his optimism returned; he felt the pulse of change in the air, anything was possible there. The city was alive in a new way that spring of 1791. Excitement in the streets bore him along on a current of hope that was near tangible. Thousands of ordinary faces were charged with exhilaration, the sort only found in battle. Here indeed was that new dawn that made it bliss to be alive. Calvert joined in the heated discussions, sang the new patriotic songs, clasped strangers in the fraternal embrace and fell asleep exhausted on tavern floors. These people, many of whom had nothing, were what humanity was meant to be, they were brother-and-sister-joined.
And for more than a year he was one of them. He lived the same heady life and breathed the same heady air. He ate and drank in the fatter times, went hungry and thirsty in the lean, and there was more of the latter than the former, for shortages were a fact of life. But Citizen Calvert, their fraternal immigrant from across the Channel, the English sans-culotte who, like them, had given up wearing breeches, bore it more stoically than most. For it behoves a Frenchman, especially a Parisian, to complain – and complain they did, most of all about the new government, which had failed to implement change quickly or radically enough. They, the small shopkeepers, innkeepers, and tradesmen, the craftsmen and labourers, were growing impatient with their new representatives. Their standard of living was falling not rising; little was done to hunt out the enemies of the revolution – the non-juring clergy, the plotting nobility, most of all the traitorous monarchists. Soon, following the King’s aborted flight to Varennes, people were talking openly of a republic.
By June the following year that republic was about to dawn, and with it came Calvert’s disillusionment. It saddened him the way people turned on each other with such loathing: townsman hating peasant and vice versa, sans-culotte hating sans-culotte. A difference of degree here, of shade there was enough for accusations to fly, even for knives to flash. More often than not poor hated poor more than they did the rich, whether in the shape of the old nobility or the power-hungry middling orders, so many of whom were lawyers, icy men in black who only pretended to care, and only for as long as it suited them.
The great names of the day, and those whose day was yet to come – Calvert saw them all. It wasn’t difficult to see any of them, no matter how important. Revolutionary Paris was small, the government buildings, including the infamous Jacobin Club, all in close proximity. And those demagogues who were making history by the hour, and knew it, wanted to be seen and made sure they were, while Calvert, who hated their arrogance and pride, watched their faces and studied their eyes. He saw in them all the same unworthy traits: love of self, lust for power for its own sake. He hoped he was wrong, that they had in their hearts nobler ideals than high-sounding nothings debated ad nauseam.
If only the poor hadn’t been so divided, so murderously intolerant of one another. If only they had joined ranks and looked about them, they would have seen their true enemies: enemies old: the trimming nobility bent on survival; and new: the so-called spokesmen of the democratic order: the treacherously ambitious bourgeoisie. That the poor would not see what was staring them in the face, that the revolution would sour, move towards indiscriminate killing was clear by 1792. By then Calvert had outstayed his welcome and needed to be gone.
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