Friday, 18 September 2009

Utopia on a train

Train to London, two hours, train back two hours. In the meeting for four hours. My fellow judges are all women - Karen Leeder, Edith Hall and Susan Bassnett, with the director Robina Pelham-Burn in the chair. We sit in a room in the Senate House of London University with a pile of sandwiches behind us and a couple of pots of coffee. On the way in I spot Vesna Goldsworthy who is here for a Rebecca West conference. Won't say anything about the deliberations or the winners of the competition etc but it's a relatively painless affair with some laughter and some furrowed brows. It turns out I am to MC the prize giving in November. Set upon by four women.

Afterwards I settle in for a beer at Carluccios and ring the American poet Alfred Corn who is heading home tomorrow. There was an idea we would try to meet, but the prize giving took two hours less than I feared it might so the arrangements are a little haywire. We fail to meet this time., but it's sunny and the beer tastes fine.

The trains home are packed and close-to-setting sun is taking one last blast through the windows and straight into my eyes. I am reading Thomas More's Utopia for the first time. This part is a discussion with a character More calls Raphael Hythloday, a great traveller and humane philosopher who criticises the laws and ideas of most societies, particularly England's. In this passage they are discussing the punishment due to thieves. The local rule is Hang 'em all! Here Hythloday is speaking:

One day, when I was dining with him [John Morton, Archbishop of Canterbury, More's own patron], there happened to be at table one of the English lawyers, who took occasion to run out in a high commendation of the severe execution of justice upon thieves, ‘who,’ as he said, ‘were then hanged so fast that there were sometimes twenty on one gibbet!’ and, upon that, he said, ‘he could not wonder enough how it came to pass that, since so few escaped, there were yet so many thieves left, who were still robbing in all places.’ Upon this, I (who took the boldness to speak freely before the Cardinal) said, ‘There was no reason to wonder at the matter, since this way of punishing thieves was neither just in itself nor good for the public; for, as the severity was too great, so the remedy was not effectual; simple theft not being so great a crime that it ought to cost a man his life; no punishment, how severe soever, being able to restrain those from robbing who can find out no other way of livelihood.

Basically, argues Hythloday, the thieves are the poor, and mostly the deserving poor who have been let down by the state and exploited by greedy landowners and landlords. They are really being hanged for their poverty by the very people who impoverished them,

There is a great number of noblemen among you that are themselves as idle as drones, that subsist on other men’s labour, on the labour of their tenants, whom, to raise their revenues, they pare to the quick. This, indeed, is the only instance of their frugality, for in all other things they are prodigal, even to the beggaring of themselves; but, besides this, they carry about with them a great number of idle fellows, who never learned any art by which they may gain their living; and these, as soon as either their lord dies, or they themselves fall sick, are turned out of doors; for your lords are readier to feed idle people than to take care of the sick; and often the heir is not able to keep together so great a family as his predecessor did.

And he eventually goes on to describe a much better state of affairs as I observed in my travels in Persia, among the Polylerits, who are a considerable and well-governed people:

Thus they have no wars among them; they live rather conveniently than with splendour, and may be rather called a happy nation than either eminent or famous; for I do not think that they are known, so much as by name, to any but their next neighbours. Those that are found guilty of theft among them are bound to make restitution to the owner, and not, as it is in other places, to the prince, for they reckon that the prince has no more right to the stolen goods than the thief; but if that which was stolen is no more in being, then the goods of the thieves are estimated, and restitution being made out of them, the remainder is given to their wives and children; and they themselves are condemned to serve in the public works, but are neither imprisoned nor chained, unless there happens to be some extraordinary circumstance in their crimes. They go about loose and free, working for the public: if they are idle or backward to work they are whipped, but if they work hard they are well used and treated without any mark of reproach; only the lists of them are called always at night, and then they are shut up. They suffer no other uneasiness but this of constant labour; for, as they work for the public, so they are well entertained out of the public stock, which is done differently in different places: in some places whatever is bestowed on them is raised by a charitable contribution; and, though this way may seem uncertain, yet so merciful are the inclinations of that people, that they are plentifully supplied by it; but in other places public revenues are set aside for them, or there is a constant tax or poll-money raised for their maintenance. In some places they are set to no public work, but every private man that has occasion to hire workmen goes to the market-places and hires them of the public, a little lower than he would do a freeman. If they go lazily about their task he may quicken them with the whip. By this means there is always some piece of work or other to be done by them; and, besides their livelihood, they earn somewhat still to the public. They all wear a peculiar habit, of one certain colour, and their hair is cropped a little above their ears, and a piece of one of their ears is cut off. Their friends are allowed to give them either meat, drink, or clothes, so they are of their proper colour; but it is death, both to the giver and taker, if they give them money; nor is it less penal for any freeman to take money from them upon any account whatsoever: and it is also death for any of these slaves (so they are called) to handle arms. Those of every division of the country are distinguished by a peculiar mark, which it is capital for them to lay aside, to go out of their bounds, or to talk with a slave of another jurisdiction, and the very attempt of an escape is no less penal than an escape itself. It is death for any other slave to be accessory to it; and if a freeman engages in it he is condemned to slavery. Those that discover it are rewarded—if freemen, in money; and if slaves, with liberty, together with a pardon for being accessory to it; that so they might find their account rather in repenting of their engaging in such a design than in persisting in it.

There I am reading it thinking what a liberal fellow, almost a proto-Socialist this More / Hythloday is when I see that, almost incidentally, the thieves have a piece of one ear cut off, carry some peculiar mark (a tattoo presumably) and are on pain of death for a variety of things principally for the handling of money (and those who exchange money with them are, like them, to be put to death.) Death doesn't just go away. It is given other related work to do.

Some five or six calls from various charities in the last week all desperate at once for regular subscriptions. We give to two currently which is all we can afford for now, so it's a series of noes. No dealing in money on pain of death.

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