Come with me into the graveyard, all human life is here

Category: Reformers, Radicals and Revolutionaries

Daniel Defoe

A year on from the first Covid lockdown I turned to Daniel Defoe’s Journal of the Plague Year to compare notes. His plague year was very much like ours: the first signs in Holland and  rumours  regarding the possible origins in Italy or the Levant, mirrored our own experiences watching Italy and Wuhan. The gradual spread from St. Giles and the West End  to Cripplegate, Clerkenwell, and the City reflected our monitoring of Covid hotspots. The flight of the court and the well-heeled to their second homes was  familiar; likewise, the first deaths and the sudden desolation in the streets with shops closed, Inns of Court shut up, theatres, alehouses, and diners all dark. Attempts to control wandering beggars resembled our own government’s sudden concern to house the homeless. The sick were either sequestered and died apart from their families or whole households were shut up in their homes, as happened in our hospitals and care homes. When Defoe bemoaned the lack of enough “pest houses” he might have been speaking of our own shortage of Covid wards leading to the construction of the Nightingale hospitals. Quack medicines appeared,  just as hydroxychloroquine and the possibility of injecting bleach into our veins to wash out our lungs found favour in certain quarters in the twenty first century. Defoe recorded people moving to live on boats in the Thames or to camp in Epping Forest, and similarly at the height of Covid caravans and camper vans occupied green sites, sometimes received sympathetically by locals, at other times not. During the plague year the government forbade movement to second homes once people were sick, but some went against the rules; no need to labour the parallels. Daily and weekly recording of illness and death rates confirmed that then as now, the poor, living in overcrowded conditions  with inadequate ventilation and unable to  avoid the breath of others, sickened more than the wealthy. It became apparent that asymptomatic people could carry the plague. There were disruptions to trade and the closure of ports. As the plague intensified people rushed to stockpile provisions and there were shortages; they soaked their money in vinegar there being no contactless cards to replace cash. The poorest in the community found themselves out of work, unable to purchase food or pay for their lodgings. Charity, like our foodbanks, stepped in to supplement the parish relief which like our universal credit proved inadequate. Servants were redeployed as nurses, sextons, gravediggers. In Defoe’s London burials took place before sunrise and after sunset and neighbours and friends could not attend church funerals; when people died in the streets  their bodies were removed in deadcarts to mass graves. Similarly in our own times government regulations limited numbers of mourners requiring them to be socially distanced, and as morgues and mortuaries became overwhelmed in 2020 contract workers wearing hazmat suits dug mass graves on Hart Island off the Bronx in New York. When, at last, the death rate began to decline JPs issued certificates of health to permit travel anticipating our own vaccine passports. Then as people became careless the rate rose again. Plus ça change…

There were differences, not least the greater presence of religion in Defoe’s Britain: sects, fortune tellers, and astrologers flourished; Solomon Eagle stalked the streets, naked with a pan of burning charcoal on his head, calling on the populace to repent; though some clergy fled, others kept their churches open; and when the plague ended Defoe gave credit for the recovery to god. Conversely there was less respect for the medical profession and far from clapping for carers Defoe wrote of nurses finishing their patients off and stealing their goods. And while, notwithstanding some fear of interspecies transmission, pet ownership increased during lockdown, Defoe’s London witnessed the wholesale killing of cats and dogs.

Defoe was only five years old in 1665 and the vivid “eyewitness account” which he recorded originated with his uncle Henry Foe, supplemented by Defoe’s own meticulous research. A man of many talents – merchant, spy, novelist, poet, political pamphleteer, and activist – Defoe’s life was a rollercoaster of excitement, achievements, and disasters. In 1685 he participated in the Monmouth rebellion against James II but escaped retribution in the Bloody Assizes, and when William III came to power became a secret agent in the pay of the latter. His poem The True Born Englishman defended William against racial prejudice, reminding xenophobic readers that they were all descended from immigrants. William’s death and the succession of Queen Anne led to the persecution of nonconformists and Defoe’s arrest in 1703 for pamphleteering, political activity and producing satires directed against high church Tories. Prior to his removal to Newgate, he was placed in the pillory for three days but his poem Hymn to the Pillory putatively resulted in the pillory being garlanded, flowers rather than rubbish thrown at him, and his poem sold in the streets. With the death of Queen Anne and the fall of the Tories he was able to resume work for the Whigs. Over five hundred works have been attributed to Defoe: away from the world of politics, these include Robinson Crusoe,  Moll Flanders,  A Tour through the Whole Island of Great Britain and of course A Journal of the Plague Year. No stranger to the debtor’s prison during his life he died, as he had often lived, in debt.

Defoe was buried in the Non-Conformist Cemetery at Bunhill but the original stone which marked his grave was struck by lightning and the headstone broken in 1857. James Clarke, the editor of Christian World,  a children’s newspaper, encouraged his readers to donate 6d. each for a new memorial, setting up two rival subscription lists, one for girls and one for boys. An obelisk, raised in 1870 bore the inscription:

THIS MONUMENT IS THE RESULT OF AN APPEAL

IN THE CHRISTIAN WORLD NEWSPAPER

TO THE BOYS AND GIRLS OF ENGLAND FOR FUNDS

 TO PLACE A SUITABLE MEMORIAL UPON THE GRAVE

OF

DANIEL DE-FOE

IT REPRESENTS THE UNITED CONTRIBUTIONS

OF SEVENTEEN HUNDRED PERSONS.

Defoe’s obelisk at Bunhill Fields
Inscription on Defoe’s obelisk

Samuel Horner, a stonemason from Bournemouth, erected the obelisk and took the original stone home with him, selling it as part of a general load from his yard. It became  part of the paving of the kitchen floor at Bishopstoke Manor Farm until the farm manager, Frederick Stiles King, moving to a new house at 56 Portswood Road in 1883, took the stone with him, where it remained in his front garden for over 60 years. Charles Davey acquired it in 1945 and thirteen years later gave it to Stoke Newington library. There it lived in a glass case in the entrance lobby, an appropriate final resting place as Defoe had lived in Stoke Newington from the age of fourteen while he attended the Dissenting Academy  under Charles Morton at Newington Green. But when I arrived at the library in search of the stone there was no sign of it. Happily, the librarian knew of its whereabouts: having been vandalised several times it had been moved to more secure premises in the delightful local history museum  in Hackney where, beside a bust of Defoe and backed by a wall display of the famous pillory, it keeps company with other Hackney  radicals, revolutionaries, and immigrants, not to mention a Saxon longboat  and a complete reconstruction of a pie and mash shop.

Defoe’s original gravestone in Hackney museum

Ivan Franko and The Stonebreakers

For over six weeks Ukrainians, led by the brave and seemingly tireless Zelenskiy, have been fighting to protect their homeland from an evil and brutal invasion. And even as they have fought in defence of their country, they have negotiated too, working and hoping for a political compromise which allows them autonomy and freedom to choose their own way of life.

There are no words for the horror, ugliness, and violence of war. Every night we have watched the news on television, every morning read the newspapers. War is death, injury and mutilation, homelessness, hunger and degradation, fear of an ever-present threat. Part of a privileged generation in a privileged country who have not known war in our lifetimes I cannot claim to empathise, to know anything of the feelings of those who have fled or the fears of those who remain. I can feel only shame for our own government’s failure to welcome refugees.

In happier times I travelled around Ukraine on the Ukrainian railways. Then the distinctive blue trains with their yellow stripe provided a comfortable intercity sleeper service for tourists like me,  and the carriage guards greeted us with tea in the mornings. In recent weeks, those trains have been involved in a massive evacuation programme,  carrying as many as 200,000 people a day, two million in the first two weeks of the war alone, to the west of the country, returning packed with humanitarian aid.

When my train took me to Lviv I visited the Lychakivske cemetery  where I found Ivan Franko (1856-1916), nationalist poet, journalist, activist, and reformer, he was a co-founder of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party in 1889. On his grave a massive sculpture of a  stonecutter “crushing the granite wall” references his poem Kamenyari, The Stonebreakers, an allegory of the Ukrainian struggle for liberation from her oppressive past under the Polish, Russian and Austro-Hungarian Empires. For foreign oppression is not new to Ukraine. In the 1340s the Grand Duchy of Lithuania and The Kingdom of Poland split the country between them. As the power of Lithuania declined, Poland tightened her hold until a challenge by Russia in the seventeenth century subjugated Kyiv and Northern Ukraine, while  the Poles remained in the West. In the eighteenth century  the Austro-Hungarian and Russian Empires carved up Poland between them and the Austrian Hapsburgs  annexed Lviv and the West. Against this background of colonisation and foreign dominance, Ivan Franko took a leading part in the rise of Ukrainian nationalism in the nineteenth century. The collapse of the Austro-Hungarian Empire and the turmoil of the Russian Revolution allowed Ukraine a very brief period of independence after the First World War, but the Polish-Ukrainian war (1918-1919) effected a return to Polish ascendancy in the West, while the Polish- Soviet war (1918-1921) precipitated the incorporation  of most of Ukraine into the Soviet Union. Occupied at separate times in the Second World War by the Nazis and the Soviets, Ukraine emerged under Soviet domination. At last, with the dissolution of the Soviet Union, Ukraine obtained a fragile independence in 1991, until on 24 February this year a new Russian invasion brought war.

In the same cemetery as Franko  l discovered Maria Konopnika, (1842-1910), Polish poet, novelist, translator, advocate of women’s rights and Polish independence from Prussia and Russia, and the flowers were piled as high on her grave as they were on Franko’s. Even more surprisingly I stumbled upon the burial ground of the  Polish Eaglets, young Polish volunteers who “defended” Lviv in the Polish-Ukrainian War. Polish workers began the restoration of this cemetery within a cemetery, which had been used as a truck depot after World War Two, in the late eighties, and following Polish support for Ukraine’s Orange Revolution in 2004, it officially reopened in a joint Polish-Ukrainian ceremony in 2005. And today it is the old enemy, Poland, which has opened its borders and whose people have welcomed more than two million refugees.

In the last week, the war in Ukraine has taken on ever darker and more evil tones,  Russian forces sinking to new depths attacking civilian targets including schools and hospitals, and from Bucha  footage  has emerged of civilians who have been shot with their hands tied behind their backs. A Russian missile strike on a crowded railway station in Kramatorsk, where four thousand people were waiting to board the trains which would evacuate them  to safety, killed over fifty people  and injured more than a hundred. In the face of these war crimes  the possibility of any  reconciliation between Ukrainians and Russians seems a naïve and absurd hope. I know how easily in those circumstances I could soon burn with indiscriminate hatred for Russians, and who can fail to understand any Ukrainian who feels that way.

And yet many brave Russians although fully aware of the consequences for themselves have dared to oppose their government’s  war: Marina Ovsyannikova who held up signs during a state TV news broadcast reading “Don’t believe the propaganda,”  and “Russians Against the War”,  was arrested and detained by riot police . Others have had their homes vandalised and lost their jobs for signing petitions against the war. Anti-war protests have been criminalised, and even referring to the attack on Ukraine as war or invasion, carries the threat of fifteen years in prison. Protestors have responded by holding up blank sheets of paper, placards reading “two words” or bearing eloquent asterisks. Blue and yellow flowers materialize at war memorials  and anti-war graffiti appear. Tens of thousands, described by Putin as traitors and enemies of the state, have left Russia and now gather at protests around the world, and independent Russian journalists are working in Ukraine to break the Kremlin’s stranglehold on information; one of them, Oksana Baulina, was killed by a Russian missile in Kyiv while filming damage in the city from an earlier attack.

Franko’s poem spoke not just of smashing through rock with sledgehammers but also of building a strong dwelling and a new life. The determined courage of the Ukrainians, the generosity of the Poles, the bravery of Russians who stand up to their government, and the well-tended graves in the  Lychakivske Cemetery foster hope even in the darkest of times that there will come a day when the war is over and Ukraine is free again, and the blue trains with their yellow stripe  carry only carefree holiday makers,  when old hatreds while not forgotten are forged into new friendships, and a new memorial may find a place alongside Franko, Konopnika,  and the Polish Eaglets, remembering those Russians who stood with Ukraine.

Ivan Franko, co-founder of the Ruthenian-Ukrainian Radical Party
Maria Konopnika, Polish Nationalist
The Polish Eaglets

6.30am Lviv station in happier times

The blue and yellow train about to depart Lviv for Odessa
Morning tea on Ukrainian Railways

Slava Ukraini

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