John Dickie: Deeds not words still inspirational

As some may know, my father’s younger brother Geordie was a volunteer in the International Brigade in Spain.

By John Dickie
Thursday, 21st July 2022, 12:26 pm
Updated Thursday, 21st July 2022, 2:39 pm
From the film Peterloo about the killing of 15 people at a rally calling for parliamentary reform, which inspired Shelley's Mask of Anarchy
From the film Peterloo about the killing of 15 people at a rally calling for parliamentary reform, which inspired Shelley's Mask of Anarchy

He fought as part of the Canadian brigade and was badly wounded at the battle of Jarama when rescuing a wounded comrade.

For the rest of his life he was frequently bed-bound and always in great pain. He died in 1951.

We moved from Scotland into his flat in London.

It was above Chalk Farm tube station and as a wee curly haired village wean I was very impressed by the noise below us.

We moved inro a smaller flat and had to get rid of a lot of stuff. Much of the stuff were books.

Most of his last years, while organising families occupation of the deep unground station during the blitz, Georie was a prolific reader and had a huge circle of friends who swapped volumes that interested them.

Many of his friends lost cherished books that Geordie passed on to someone else.

On moving my folks had to give away most of the books.

Philosophy, novels, politics (did you know for instance there were over 30 volumes of Lenin’s collected works).

He was a self taught working class lad who liked nothing more an a fierce debate that often went on long into the night.

We kept some books, I stll have a bible given to him by a hospital chaplain who I understand also loved a good arguement.

I only kept that because as a child I liked the pictures, but perhaps the most significant book I still have was his volume of the poems of Shelley.

What provoked me to think again about Shelley was a brilliant piece by Kenan Malik in the Observer (10/07/22).

In today’s rush to publish sensational ‘exposes’ it is rare to find something thoughtful. In 1811 he published anonymously:“Shall rank corruption pass unheeded by,Shall flattery’s voice ascend the wearied sky:And shall no patriot tear the veil awayWhich hides these vices from the face of day?Is public virtue dead? Is courage gone?”

You don’t need me to interpret the relevance of these lines.

Doing my A-level English in the olden days we studied Keats, and Shelley, along with Byron were classified as Romantics. Well Shelley was but he was also a revolutionary.

Just to rehearse a few of his views he was an atheist, a republican, a campaigner for parliamentary reform, universal suffrage, equal rights, anti-slavery, a free press, Irish freedom and Catholic emancipation and of freedom of religion and from religion.

Hardly surprising my London Grammar School only focused on his romantic word.

Later in my political evolution, like every good little leftie I knew the lines from ‘Mask of Anarchy’, written in response to the Peterloo Massacre:“Rise like Lions after slumberIn unvanquishable number ...Ye are many-they are few.”

I understand why my Uncle Geordie and so many other working class autodidacts turned to Shelley for inspiration, whilst Shelley himself was a pacifist he understood the anger of working people who over the centuries understood instinctivlyhis line that ‘poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world’.

Last Christmas a friend in America sent us a small tapestry she made.

‘Deeds not words’, a notion that still inspire from the Chartists to the Suffragettes, from the men and women of the International Brigades to the young folk fighting aggression in the Ukraine.

I wonder when Sir Keir Starmer last read ‘Mask on Anarchy’?