When a fictionalised Radical (Alan Calvert) meets a real one (Thomas Spence, 1750-1814). Calvert in this piece consolidates his hatred of lawyers, helping us to understand his loathing for John Eagle, attorney-at-law, when their paths cross a year or two later.
Calvert had seen the little man several times before he met him. He knew of his fame as a Radical, how he had come to London from Newcastle where he had lived precariously as a schoolmaster. His revolutionary theories on land nationalisation had developed up there as early as 1775, when he wrote his first tract on the subject. Calvert had also heard how, on coming to the capital, he had soon been arrested for selling The Rights of Man. Yet his acquittal, far from acting as a deterrent, had inspired him to take shops in Chancery Lane, Little Turnstile and Oxford Street, before finally selling his pamphlets in the street from a barrow. He produced handbills and broadsheets galore, as well as the periodical, Pig’s Meat, which he had edited tirelessly for three years. He mostly worked alone or as part of the small Spencean society, which saw him as its leader and inspiration.
An insignificant dwarf, a feeble old crank was how Calvert viewed him hitherto. He had seen him out with his barrow in all weathers, and at all times of day and night, a ragged scarecrow blowing in the wind, hardly worth a glance. But then suddenly, as when a girl long viewed as plain changes swiftly and imperceptibly into a figure of rare beauty, so Calvert viewed Spence in a different light. The transformation occurred one cold, clear night well after twelve when, walking home through Holborn, he spotted him with his barrow near Furnivals Inn. His slender frame was bathed in moonlight, awash with it from head to toe, his barrow, for all Calvert knew, the source of the frost sparkling so brightly on the cobbles.
And when, having been moved to approach him, what magical power he read in the old man’s eyes! His simplicity moved him near to tears. Here was a man who cared nothing for himself, nor what other men thought of him. He was merely a conduit for the truth and the plain light of reason. His presence bore no a trace of arrogance; he stood before all as an honest saint of generous soul.
He welcomed Calvert with a smile, held out his small, mottled hand for him to shake. ‘Alan Calvert,’ he said, in his reedy voice. ‘I’m happy and ready to make your acquaintance.’
‘You know me?’ asked Calvert, surprised.
‘Oh yes, I know you all right,’ replied the little man, affectionately. There was gladness in his tone, of prophesy fulfilled, of coming foretold, though if Spence were John the Baptist, Calvert was no Christ.
‘I suppose it’s a small world – ours, I mean,’ said Calvert, unable to meet the all-knowing stare.
Spence nodded ambiguously, then smiled. He had few teeth, and his lips were cracked from the bitter cold. ‘How do you stand it – out here on a night like this?’ Calvert asked, watching the wind rifle his thin coat.
‘I have warm thoughts to keep out the chills,’ said Spence, his pert little face glancing towards the church, St Andrew’s Holborn. Calvert followed his gaze, then turned away with a shudder: the church’s white façade, bone-like in the moonlight, repelled him.
The old Radical glanced sideways, where a group was approaching. ‘Yes, and I know them to be your beliefs too, Mr Calvert, though they bring you cold comfort I think.’
‘No doubt you are right,’ answered Calvert, as the group drew near. They were six in number, attorneys’ clerks coming home from their merrymaking. They had passed the bottle on briskly by the look of them, and were laughing and joking on their zig-zagging course. Calvert guessed the outcome, that Spence would waylay them with his ‘barrow of truth.’ The raillery began before he’d opened his mouth, and wasn’t the first baiting he’d endured at their hands. His familiar figure was easy prey, and their mood tonight was merciless, just such a mood for going too far. They accused him of pedalling shit, proving the point by scraping excrement from the gutter and tossing it into his barrow. The old man shook his head and began to remove the offensive cargo. Then one pushed him against the wall, and another pelted him with filth. Two were bent double with laughter, and soon two more had joined them, but not through mirth. Calvert, having dislodged a loose rail, had beaten them about the head and jabbed them in the guts. In a frenzy of hate on the aged Radical’s behalf he was threatening others with the same when Spence pleaded for calm. Brought back from the brink, possibly of murder, Calvert stared at him in amazement – how could he be so reasonable? – so forgiving? – so comforting to the injured?
Spence’s kindness wasn’t well received. ‘Take your hands off me!’ screamed the tallest, whose nose was broken by Calvert’s blow. Spence tried to comfort the other, who was badly winded and had spewed pure claret on the frosty ground. He too would have none of it, and staggered away towards the Inn. ‘I suggest the rest of you follow him,’ snarled Calvert, shepherding them on with his makeshift weapon. He’d enjoyed using it, relished the sound of breaking bones, the sight of spurting blood. He felt deprived, robbed of the chance to finish what he’d started.
‘I’ve a mind to send for a constable,’ said one, brushing past with a scowl.
‘Do that,’ Calvert said, glaring after him, ‘and I’ll break his head too!’
The others made threats from a safe distance, but were soon gone to their chambers.
‘It’s late,’ Calvert said to Spence. ‘You too ought to be away to your bed. There’s been enough drama this night.’
Spence, already pushing his barrow, glanced up critically. ‘You think I should thank you for what you did?’
‘Most men would,’ Calvert replied, as they edged towards Cheapside.
‘Then you do not know me,’ said Spence, bluntly. ‘I have an aversion to violence in all its forms. It is not the way forward for mankind. You behaved like a beast back there.’
‘I behaved as a beast?’ said Calvert in dismay. ‘And what were they doing? – those six young Mohawks?’
The barrow creaked its way down Holborn Hill, the kindly old Radical at its helm. ‘Yes, they behaved poorly, but they are young and ignorant – they know not what they do. I bear them no grudge, and shall try them again in a night or two.’
Calvert, averting his eyes from St Andrew’s, said in frustration, ‘Can’t you see that the likes of them aren’t interested? Young they may be, those boys were lawyers all the same. How many poor men’s advocates have you known in your time?’
‘Not many …none in fact,’ said Spence, as his barrow rumbled on. ‘No, I’ve been hasty, I was forgetting John Frost, the Jacobin attorney. Now he was a bonny lad when it came to the poor and oppressed …’
But Calvert was no longer listening; his mind had pulled up short. He was back in republican Paris, transported there by Spence’s Jacobin attorney. His attack on those youths, he now realised, had owed as much, if not more, to his hatred of lawyers as to urge to protect a defenceless old man. A lawyer could never be a true friend to the poor; France had proved that once and for all. Nor, by the same token, could any rich man professing Radical beliefs ever practise what he preached, for he had too much to lose. Radical sincerity, he told himself, was found only among the have-nots, never among the haves. Yet no sooner had he invented this political axiom than his mind became awash with contradictions and doubts. He cursed the vagueness of politics, its dogged unwillingness to answer his questions. Everything may, as Rousseau had said, be rooted in politics, but for Calvert that very truth was the main problem. The political web was so hopelessly tangled, so infuriatingly uncertain one may as well have nothing to do with it, and, when it came to judging other human beings, simply live and let live. Was this Spence’s view at bottom? Calvert wondered. He certainly lacked a hatred of rich that he – Calvert – so strongly, if inconsistently, harboured. Wait – he had said inconsistently. It was another glaring contradiction. This one was in himself, and though he’d felt its influence before, it was the first time he had openly acknowledged it. His desire to succeed in life, to be wealthy, was at variance with his professed Radicalism. He was just as much the hypocrite as Danton, Desmoulins, or any one of those nest-feathering men of the French professional classes, be they lawyers or otherwise.
Thomas Spence, catching Calvert’s eye, looked to have read his mind.
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