Monday 12 September 2022

'Everybody has gone mad"

‘They crowned a king this day, and there has been great rejoicing and elaborate tomfoolery, and I am perplexed and saddened.’ That’s Jack London writing about the coronation of Edward VII in 1902 in The People of the Abyss, a book I quote from extensively in the final chapter of Good Morning, Mr Crusoe. ‘The Socialists, Democrats, and Republicans went off to the country for a breath of fresh air, quite unaffected by the fact that 40 millions of people were taking to themselves a crowned and anointed ruler. Six thousand five hundred prelates, priests, statesmen, princes, and warriors beheld the crowning and anointing … throughout the crowd were flung long lines of the Metropolitan Constabulary, while in the rear were the reserves – tall, well-fed men, with weapons to wield and muscles to wield them, in case of need.’

‘And now the Horse Guards, a glimpse of beautiful cream ponies, and a golden panoply, a hurricane of cheers, the crashing of hands – “The King! the King! God save the King!” Everybody has gone mad. The contagion is sweeping me off my feet. I, too, want to shout, “The King! God save the King!” Ragged men about me, tears in their eyes, are tossing up their hats and crying ecstatically, Bless ’em! Bless ’em!” See, there he is, in that wondrous golden coach, the great crown flashing on his head, and a woman in white beside him … And I check myself with a rush, striving to convince myself that it is all real and rational, and not some glimpse of fairyland. This I cannot succeed in doing …’

Jack London was living in the East End and writing as a journalist, with researched statistics: in this brief chapter on the 1902 coronation – an episode in the continuation of an institution that still, according to the marketing department, unites the nation – he notes that ‘five hundred hereditary peers own one-fifth of England’ and spend ‘32 per cent of the total wealth produced by all the toilers of the country’; and that in London, ‘one in four adults is destined to die on public charity, either in the workhouse, the infirmary, or the asylum’.

Read The People of the Abyss (preferably in the 2014 edition published by Tangerine Press, which reproduces the photographs included in the original 1903 edition). Of course I’d also like to sell copies of Good Morning, Mr Crusoe, which is about imperial mythology (racism and misogyny included in the package) and how historically much of Eng Lit has been co-opted by that. And, officially published this month, Caroline Clark’s Own Sweet Time and my own 99 Interruptions. And please be aware that the Season Ticket – available from the home page of the website: 12 books for £75 – is still going: started at the beginning of the first Covid lockdown in March 2020, so by now an institution, almost, less history than the monarchy but I hope more future. Actually, now would do.