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No.45 celebrates 'The 45'

No.45 celebrates 'The 45'

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Published by James Watson
James Watson's A WRITER'S NOTEBOOK, No. 45, celebrates the work of John Wilkes, one of Britain's great pioneers of free speech. Edition 45 of the periodical The North Briton is justly identified as a landmark of press freedom.
One could have little doubt that the fiery Wilkes would have campaigned against the British government's attempt to rein in current press freedom with a royal charter.
The difference seems to be that Wilkes had the passionate backing of the London public where today the public seems indifferent to the loss of liberties.
James Watson's A WRITER'S NOTEBOOK, No. 45, celebrates the work of John Wilkes, one of Britain's great pioneers of free speech. Edition 45 of the periodical The North Briton is justly identified as a landmark of press freedom.
One could have little doubt that the fiery Wilkes would have campaigned against the British government's attempt to rein in current press freedom with a royal charter.
The difference seems to be that Wilkes had the passionate backing of the London public where today the public seems indifferent to the loss of liberties.

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Published by: James Watson on Dec 19, 2013
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12/19/2013

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A Writer’s Notebook
 
No. 45, December 2013
 James Watson Friends and contributors
CONTENTS Notes in passing: The Birthright of the Briton Review:
 An Imitation of Life
Poems of place (21):
The rows of icon
Ned to Nurse Nightingale
THE BIRTHRIGHT OF THE BRITON
Number 45 on ‘The 45’
 
 A timely moment to praise a pioneer of press freedom
In Douglas Adams' radio and subsequent TV series
The Hitchhikers' Guide to the
 
Galaxy 
 the meaning of life turned out to be
 42. If we were to look for a similar answer to the question, when did freedom of speech truly make its mark on British shores, we might offer the answer
 45, and the date when John Wilkes (1727-97) brought out the first edition of his radical paper
The
 
North Briton
. In the first editorial Wilkes wrote, 'The liberty of the press is the birthright of the BRITON, and is justly esteemed the firmest bulwark of the liberties of this country'.
 John Wilkes. Picture source, Wikipedia
Issue No.45 attacked European peace terms then being discussed by the government of the day. Wilkes was an MP, but as editor of what the general warrant called 'a seditious and treasonable paper' he forfeited his right of parliamentary immunity, for this did not cover 'the publication of a libel, being a breach of the peace'. As was to happen so often in the next century, and the one after that, government acted as though surrounded by warriors intent on overthrowing them and the system they represented. Wilkes was arrested and sent to the Tower of London. What was interesting in Wilkes' case was the degree of popular support he had in his struggle for freedom of speech, not the least from the so-called
 
under-classes or, as the writer and parliamentarian Edmund Burke later termed them in his
Reflections on the
 
French Revolution
 (1792), 'the swinish multitude'. Wilkes' plea for liberty was for all, not just the privileged and the educated:
My lords, the liberty of all peers and gentlemen and, what touches me more sensibly, that of all the middling and inferior set of people, who stand in most need of protection, is in my case this day to be finally decided upon a question of such
 
importance as to determine at once whether English Liberty shall be a reality or a shadow.
At the first court hearing in Westminster Hall a huge audience composed of supporters from the City cheered Wilkes to the rafters when he announced that the liberty of an Englishman 'should not be sported away with impunity'. As he left the court, the air rang with the call, 'Liberty, Liberty, Wilkes for ever!'
A public burning
 The government shifted its ground. A proof copy of part of an
Essay on Women
 by Wilkes was obtained and judged by the House of Lords a 'most scandalous, obscene and impious libel'. Wilkes was in the dock now for two publications. Following a Commons vote of 273 to 111, No.45 was condemned to be publicly burnt by the official hangman at Royal Exchange. It was a bitter December day, just right for a bonfire of 'false, scandalous and seditious libel'. As the sheriffs arrived at Cornhill a vast crowd of the 'middling and inferior' blocked the way. The fire party turned on its heels and the crowd
 so the story goes
 rescued the
North Briton
 from destruction by urinating on the flames. Such were the attempts by government to destroy Wilkes that he went into exile. The Annual Register wrote of the 'ruin of that unfortunate man'; a little prematurely because Wilkes returned to London in 1768 and was hero of the capital. He was returned as MP for Middlesex.
Light you your windows
There followed two days of joyous celebration which included the chalking of 'No.45' on every door from Temple Bar to Hyde Park Corner and a demand for those who supported Wilkes and his cause to light up their windows at night in celebration. The Austrian ambassador was dragged from his coach and had 'No.45' chalked on the soles of his boots. Heady days! There was, of course, much smashing of windows. In terror at what was happening when a huge assembly waited to greet Wilkes in St. George's Fields, the government ordered the presence of troops. Several volleys were fired, leaving eleven dead. The story of Wilkes suggests a more complicated popular response than merely that of calling for Liberty. Wilkes himself was prone to journalistic exaggeration. 'English liberties' were as much in his head
 he was from a wealthy and privileged family
 as identifiable in the real world, and much of the tenor of his support was characterised by a harsh, chauvinist nationalism: after all, No.45 was attacking a peace initiative rather than urging peace not war.
One of the dragon’s teeth
 
Just the same, Wilkes deserves his place in the pantheon of those British writers (such as Thomas Paine, William Cobbett and Richard Carlile) who risked much to declare freedom of expression a human right. He was a worthy successor to the poet and pamphleteer John Milton (1606-74) who had penned the most famous
 
argument in English for the liberty of speech and publication. In his
 Areopagitica
 (1664), Milton wrote of books and their significance in words that have resonated down the centuries:
I know they are lively, and vigorously productive as those fabulous dragon's teeth; and being sown up and down, may chance to spring up armed men. And
 yet, on the other
hand, unless wariness be used, as good almost to kill a man as kill a good book: who kills a man kills a reasonable creature, God's image; but who destroys a good book, kills reason itself, kills the image of God, as it were, in the eye.
Wilkes and the generation of editors and writers who followed him took Milton's words as their creed. The issue which Milton raised, which Wilkes and others fought for, is of course as alive in the 21st century as it was then: censorship is in the air we breath. Governments are as scared of exposure as ever. After Leveson, we are witness to the freedom of the British press being placed under the interdict of a royal charter, a move not greeted by street protests but with public complacency, yet a blow to liberty of expression that would have had Wilkes roaring his protest, not sparing his tabloid vitriol, and railing at privilege, secrecy and a raft of censorial legislation; but not, readers, censorship by royal charter.
 An extract from
Media History: From Gutenberg to the Digital Age
,
to be  published as a Kindle Reader in 2014.
REVIEW:
 A DREAM OF MONSTERS
 Issues 42 and 43 carried extracts from Laura’s novel, reviewed
below.
Laura Solomon’s
Imitation of Life
 (Solidus, 2009)
 
is a very singular novel. Its central protagonist, Celia Doom, arrives in the world a grotesque. Delivered in a
banana box, she falls into the category of ‘unmentionable things’ with one black
eye and one white; her teeth are fangs and her craving is for insects, butterflies, spiders and moths, and for Fanta in gallons. At the age of three she is five feet
in height; at six she stands 6’3” and weights 150 kilos.
 For those around Celia, destruction and death are commonplace; even the locality of Provencia suffers devastation on her watch. Befriended by Jacob who wreaks havoc with his chemistry set, she learns the art of explosions. Molotov
cocktails become their plaything; what they blow up (including Celia’s adoptive parents, Lettie and Barry) they film on super 8. ‘This one’s for you, Celia,’ says
Jacob as he blows himself up. The event that puts Celia on a meaningful track is the gift of a camera from her Uncle Ed
 
 ‘the instrument I would cling to for the rest of my days’. Ed we
eventually discover is her real father; a conjurer of remarkable powers (of appearance and disappearance) and worrying proclivities. Celia proves herself a photographer of vision, focusing on the everyday, and a career develops until those that market her work exploit it, and her, to the point when they use a rival, a stripper, Lucinda Fortune, whose photos are so
uncannily reminiscent of Celia’s that both images and careers shape themselves
into double-focus; until, that is, Lucinda removes her dark glasses
 and reveals one black eye and one white. Welcome to C
elia’s Mum.
 
Celia confesses to have lived a ‘muddle old stew of a life’.
Her talents as a photographer
are duly exploited by relatives and ‘carers’. Arty pampers her with

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