Charlie is our darling

But what’s he pointing at? Stood at the juncture of the Kettering and Wellingborough Roads more than a century, you never catch him blinking, writes Alan Moore. Overlooking Abington Square, staring out the sunset, clearly still adjusting to his new tan since they took the white veneer off, he’s Charles Bradlaugh. He’s one of Northampton’s fiery beasts.

In 1833 he came out fighting, hatched in Hoxton, the grey cyclops giants of a nascent industrial era rising to their feet around him: locomotives, steam-ships crossing the Atlantic, Faraday poised on the crackling brink of electricity, Charles Babbage warming up his Difference Engine, and angelhead William Blake already napping in his unmarked Bunhill Fields bed just a short way up the road, brown bread for some six years by then. The son of a solicitor’s clerk, Bradlaugh quit school at eleven, working menial jobs, avoiding Hoxton’s violent, wealthy and entitled proto-Boris Johnson ‘High Rips’ and becoming the world’s worst Sunday School teacher in the process, rapidly suspended from his calling amidst accusations of a glaringly apparent atheism. Rather taking this to heart, Bradlaugh had published his A Few Words on the Christian Creed – a kind of uncorrected proof edition of The God Delusion – by the time that he was seventeen. Atheism with attitude, evidently.

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After a disastrous what-was-he-thinking period of three years enlisted with the Seventh Dragoon Guards in Dublin, Bradlaugh bought his discharge with a legacy left by a great-aunt and returned to London, a convinced freethinker and a sadder, wiser man of twenty, during 1853. Good-looking in the early photographs; a teen Houdini, interrogatory eyebrows, wings of hair tucked back behind his ears. It was around this period that Bradlaugh started hanging with a bad crowd of reformers, radicals and secularists, cranking up his godless pamphleteering under the concealing nom de guerre of ‘The Iconoclast’, and gradually ascending to the forefront of contemporary London indie politics. In 1854, Bradlaugh was married to the daughter of a Mr. Hooper who’d enjoyed his future son-in-law’s oration at a Freethinkers and Chartists meeting held in Bonner Fields. The union produced a daughter, named Hypatia after the beautiful Ancient Greek philosopher, astronomer and mathematician who was skinned alive with clam-shells by a Christian mob, but Bradlaugh’s marriage receives little mention in the few surviving biographical accounts, and it may be that it was over relatively quickly. By the age of twenty-five in 1858, the year in which his daughter was born, he was president of London’s Secular Society and two years later became editor of secularist newspaper The National Reformer. An emerging 19th century underground celebrity, Bradlaugh rubbed stony shoulders with freethinking luminaries such as the notoriously keen-on-the-cane poetic decadent Algernon Swinburne (who my late mate Steve Moore memorably described once as a “ginger flagellant midget toff”), and at the age of thirty-three was the co-founder of the National Secular Society. It was in this capacity that he encountered and commenced a long and passionate relationship – maybe his marriage was over by this point or maybe not – with the extraordinary Annie Besant.

Annie Besant, Bradlaugh’s junior by some fourteen years but every bit his equal, was a distillation of Victorian counter culture into an exotic brandy of a woman, heady and inflammable. Later, she’d go on to organise the glowing and phosphorous-disfigured Bryant & May match-girls into their historical industrial action, do the same for London’s dockers, address the unemployed in Trafalgar Square at 1887’s viciously-quashed ‘Bloody Sunday’ protests, campaign for the rights of women and, after becoming a devotee of the charismatic shaman/charlatan Madam Blavatsky’s  Theosophy movement, would announce bemused teenage messiah Krishnamurti to the world and pretty much singlehandedly midwife the birth of abstract art in her 1901 book Thought Forms, its ideas assiduously lapped up by such fashionable Theosophists as Kandinsky and Mondrian. But back in 1866 this hadn’t happened yet, and Besant was commencing her incendiary career in partnership with the most famous atheist-insurrectionist and troublemaker of his day, Charles Bradlaugh. A bohemian Bonny and Clyde, Besant stood beside her secularist sweetheart when the British government, in 1868, made an attempt to prosecute The National Reformer on grounds of blasphemy and sedition, charges of which Bradlaugh would eventually be acquitted. Then, a decade later, the pair were in court together faced with fines and six months jail-time for the publishing and distribution of obscene material, this being a reprinted pamphlet of advice on birth control entitled The Fruits of Philosophy, or the Private Companion of Young Married People. One Charles Darwin, asked to speak in their defence, pleaded ill-health but privately confessed that he was personally opposed to contraception, a variety of natural selection which he did not feel he could endorse. Both of them were sentenced to do bird, but got off on a technicality. Their sex life was most probably fantastic.

Bradlaugh was elected MP for
Northampton during 1880,
the point… where everything
gets out of hand

Two years later Bradlaugh was elected M.P. for Northampton during 1880, the point in his narrative where everything gets out of hand. Politically, he was an independent liberal teetotaller supporting women’s suffrage, the trade union movement, Irish home rule, republicanism and the rights of Queen Victoria’s subjects on an Indian subcontinent then labouring beneath the yoke of empire, while being opposed to socialism. All of the above were, at the time, broadly acceptable positions that could at least be discussed in public without heralding the imminent collapse of orderly civilisation. Not so with the atheism, though. On May 3rd, Bradlaugh turned up at the House of Commons so that he might claim the seat to which he’d been elected, perhaps with a sick note from his mum asking he be excused from taking the religious Oath of Allegiance and be allowed instead to simply make secular affirmation of his loyalty. Studies suggest that the professed morality of the religiously inclined is largely based on the belief that they and their most private thoughts are under round-the-clock surveillance by some form of spectral and omniscient GCHQ who’ll see them flambéed for eternity if they transgress. Yeah, it’s not really ethics if it’s something you’ve been forced to do at gunpoint, is it? And conversely, since such people perceive atheists as being in some way unsupervised by this invisible imaginary cop, their seemingly unshakeable assumption is that godless individuals must constantly be getting up to murder, rape, armed robbery and arson  behind  everybody’s backs because, essentially, why wouldn’t they? With this in mind, you can imagine how Bradlaugh’s request to duck out on the Oath went down.

Nobody, God presumably included, seemed to like the idea much. Select Committees were convened in May and June and, unsurprisingly, concluded that Bradlaugh was not allowed to take his seat without effectively renouncing atheism. Bradlaugh, just as unsurprisingly, was having none of it. “Respectfully refusing” to withdraw from Commons, he was hauled away by a Sergeant-at-Arms and relocated to a small cell in the clock-tower of Big Ben, directly underneath the deafening bell itself. While this, of course, was only temporary, it commenced a long war of attrition between Bradlaugh and the status quo which took almost a decade to resolve. On one side was the hell-bound Hoxton heavyweight along with his supporters like George Bernard Shaw and the frustrated voters of Northampton, while on the other side were the Conservative Party (worked up to an anti-Bradlaugh fever pitch by Winston’s dad Lord Randolph Churchill), the Catholic Church and the Archbishop of Canterbury. During this lengthy period, when Bradlaugh lost his seat four times for refusing to take the Oath and was four times voted back in by a determined and angry Northampton electorate, when there were furious pro-Bradlaugh protests in the 800 year-old Market Square that were only suppressed by armed riot police, we get a glimpse of the radical spirit in this town as it once was, not so long ago: a glorious, uncompromising thing which, once its teeth were into an idea, would lock its jaws and never let it go. Escorted from the House by the constabulary at least once, Bradlaugh’s response was to inaugurate Northampton’s first alternative or underground newspaper, The Radical, a kind of great-grandparent to this current publication. Like a fin du siècle Jeremy Corbyn, Bradlaugh was pressed into service as a bogey-man epitomising right-wing dread and loathing. This is nowhere made more evident than in a Punch cartoon from 1881 depicting our man as “The Cherub of Northampton”, a vampiric monster with Charles Bradlaugh’s plainly evil and demonic head, sporting a top hat made from pamphlets that seems to be infested by spiders and supported by enormous bat-wings (this was some sixteen years before Stoker published Dracula, remember), flapping mournfully above the huddled and benighted rooftops of Northampton, shown as filthy with a visible shoe-maker’s. The next time Punch deployed this kind of imagery would be in 1888, for Jack the Ripper.

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Then, miraculously in a cosmos without God, in 1886 Bradlaugh was finally permitted to assume his seat as an M.P. By 1888 he’d managed to successfully propose that Members be allowed to make an affirmation rather than to swear an Oath, and started his postponed career in Parliament by supporting Annie Besant’s then-ongoing Match Girl’s Strike. His championing of Britain’s Indian subjects earned him the contemptuous nickname “the Member for India” from Conservative M.P.s, and he ferociously campaigned for all of his enduring ethical preoccupations – women’s suffrage, the trade union movement, secularism – until death removed him from the field of play in 1891, aged fifty-seven. Yes, he died young by our standards, and no doubt if he’d had access to the wisdom of our current century he would have lived a great deal longer, and, almost as certainly, would have accomplished a lot less. For Bradlaugh’s funeral, his body would have been transported by underground coffin-train to the London Necropolis, apparently more recently renamed as Brookwood Cemetery, where the event attracted some three thousand mourners. Many of those come to pay their last respects were Indian, including 21year-old Charles Bradlaugh fan Mohandas Ghandi. The Abington Square statue, both insisted on and paid for by Northampton’s people rather than its less-than-keen civic authorities, was raised up soon thereafter, outside the old slipper factory that was there before the war memorial, currently fenced off to deter the homeless. Man, you should have seen the crowds for the unveiling, heads and hats and bonnets in their thousands, barely contained in the frame of the daguerreotype. Simply, they loved him. In 1898 his daughter, the peace activist, freethinker, atheist and author Hypatia Bradlaugh Bonner published a pamphlet to address the no doubt faith-based rumours that her father had accepted Christianity before he died, concluding that there was no indication of his atheistic principles having been altered in even the smallest detail; godless to the last.

As for posterity, well, that’s a matter of opinion. The statue’s still there, still pressing the button for an invisible elevator to Elysium that will never come, frozen between the Jaguar showrooms and the closed-down public toilets, although what vanishingly small percentage of the people passing under his admonishing gaze every day have any idea who he is or why he matters is impossible to judge. The rag-week students of the 1930s would dependably paint footprints leading from his plinth to the then-functional urinals just across the Wellingborough Road, and one Saturday night during the early 1970s I glimpsed a drunken and, it might be thought, extremely lonely individual attempting sodomy with the once-feared Northampton Cherub, who remained throughout stoic and focussed, sticking resolutely to the point. As for his other lasting claim to fame, it’s doubtful that the vehement teetotaller would be any more enthused to have a pub haphazardly named after him than Emily Pankhurst would be keen to lend her name to a lap-dance establishment.

But what’s he pointing at? St. James’s End? Wales? Warwickshire? The soaring, sexless übermenschen of the Francis Crick memorial down from the library? He indicates the western lands, the day’s end, and therefore the future, unencumbered by religious certainties or the oppression of minorities; a future safe for women, working people, match-girls and Mahatmas. Sometimes, in the last rush of low golden light up Abington Street late upon a winter’s afternoon, it’s almost possible to see, beyond the Holy Ghost Zone and the Jesus movie-house, the country that he’s gesturing towards.

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About Steve (114 Articles)
I'm the editor and owner of The NeneQuirer.

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