Tom Hodgkinson on revolution, the Romantics and reclining in shady groves
“When Coleridge was quite young, in the late 1790s, he lived for two years in a tiny cottage in the Somerset village of Nether Stowey. He was married to Sarah, and the couple had a baby boy, Hartley. Young Sam would dry Hartley’s nappies on his knee in front of the cottage fire, and, when Hartley couldn’t sleep, he would take him outside to look at the moon.
This was the time when Coleridge met William and Dorothy Wordsworth, and invented Romantic poetry. In 1798 they published Lyrical Ballads, the book which encouraged an urbanising population to go back into the wild places, both out there and within.
The back of Coleridge’s small garden led to the larger garden of his friend Thomas Poole, and it was this secluded spot which became the meeting place of Coleridge and the political radical John Thelwall, as well as Robert Southey, later to become poet laureate. The men discussed revolution and sedition, called each other “citizen”, and attracted the attention of a government spy, who called them a “gang of disaffected democrats”. The French Revolution had taken place nine years previously, and the English government was terrified that Jacobin fervour would spread to Blighty.
Looking round him in the lovely garden one day, during a political discussion, Coleridge said:
“Citizen John, is this not a fine place to talk of treason?”
“Nay Citizen Sam,” replied Thelwall. “It is rather a place to make a man forget that there is any necessity for treason!”
This is how I feel when I visit Fenton House, location of this year’s Idler Festival. We’ll spend a weekend talking about radical ideas and planning revolution but we’ll also be reclining on the lawn of a very beautiful house and garden, the kind of place that makes you think, “there are some very good things about old London town and this country of ours.”
In fact I think the National Trust, which owns and runs the house, is to be commended on its work. It was founded in 1895 by Octavia Hill and others, and was deliberately created to give people access to nature and to beauty. I think its founders were influenced by that other great romantic, William Morris, who founded the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings in 1877, which is still in existence today.
The Romantics created an important movement which reacted against the utilitarianism of the 19th century, that rather arid idea that everything can be reduced to numbers, and which completely ignores matters of the spirit.
Today, the cult of numbers is in the ascendant again. We’re encouraged to quantify our own worth as humans by the numbers of followers and likes we get on those vast advertising sales businesses which call themselves social media.
What about the quality of our idling? If, as Socrates said, “leisure is the best of possessions”, then we should think of the idle life as a successful one.