"Think you there was, or might be, such a man?"
When I began this blog, I was inspired by two men.
Gerard Mulholland lived in a Paris suburb. For many years heart problems and, more recently diabetes, affected his capacity to work and travel. This didn't end his concern with the state of the world and with human beings. From his computer he engaged in political debate – on public message boards and through email correspondence with his friends. He was always concerned with questions of liberty and the related question of equality. In his discussions on public forums his unusual sense of democracy shone – he was as happy at a lively debate on the Sun message boards as in forums run by the BBC, the Guardian or Republic. His concern was dialogue and, while he would put his own view as forcefully as he could, he would listen to what other people said and question his own assumptions. Despite his occasional assertions of pessimism at the state of the world and human beings – he never stopped being shocked by the cruelty people could inflict on one another – he also wanted to do his best for the world and his fellow humans.
David Rose was a poet who worked in Colne in Lancashire. He had practical skills, an understanding of engineering and was also a successful barman. Only those who have never worked behind a bar think that's an easy job – the best bar staff care not only about the quality of beer they serve but also about their customers and colleagues. David cared about serving good beer but he cared for people even more. This brought him into all kinds of local projects, including work on the Millennium Green, an open space in Colne. Like Gerard, he saw people – including those who were disregarded - as equals and was good at finding the skills they could bring to share in local projects. I imagine that some of these qualities had been honed when he was involved in the free festivals movement. He was used to seeing past the damage that people had suffered to find their real value. His concerns for liberty and humanity led him to a critical analysis of the way in which the voluntary – or third – sector was being hijacked by the state. Most recently, his worries about state surveillance and intrusion led him to advance detailed arguments about the ways in which government policy was finding people guilty not just of thought-crime but of pre-crime – he noted the ways in which government agencies were asked to identify potential criminals at nurseries and earlier – even among babies before birth. While Gerard's contribution to Areopagitica was through the comments he made, David posted thoughtfully to the blog.
Both Gerard and David had rejected careers that would have aligned them with the establishment. Gerard turned down the offer of pupillage as a barrister in a well-known set of chambers to become a tour guide. In the 1970s this enabled him to take part in Liberal politics, always on the radical wing of the party. David, whose degree was in engineering, worked initially in big industrial companies - what today are called multi-nationals - but he left this career to live outside a system with which he felt little sympathy. Neither was rich – they lived with the everyday worries about family and bills that most people experience. Neither lived a perfect life – nor claimed to do so. Both acted at times in ways they later regretted, would be angry on occasion – and then would apologise. They were critical of themselves and their actions but offered sympathy and understanding to the mistakes and flaws of friends.
If Gerard and David were standing in the current general election, the media would probably spend a lot of time raking through their lives and assuring the electorate that they were too flawed to represent us in parliament. We're encouraged to support candidates with perfect pasts, photogenic family lives, who never lose their temper or question the received platitudes of political life (although these change from day to day). In the past thirty years, photogenic men and women with perfect pasts have dismantled a caring society, created and encouraged chasms of mistrust and intolerance between groups and individuals, built a surveillance state, permitted and encouraged torture, condoned illegality, led the country into wars and bombed cities into such pain and chaos that only hatred remains - but our clean-living, respectable leaders have wrapped up their actions in neat, media-friendly soundbites.
Gerard and David were prepared to ask difficult questions and reach uncomfortable conclusions. They cared that human beings had the opportunity to live free and fulfilling lives and take part in genuinely thoughtful political debates. I wish I had the chance to vote for them.
Gerard died in July last year. His health had been deteriorating for a long time but he seemed immortal. The last text message I received from him, which must have been sent about an hour before he died, rejoiced that the right had “done their duty” and voted against Marine Le Pen in the Pas de Calais mayoral election.
David died at the end of December. He was on his way back from a holiday on Skye with his wife and a friend. I've seen some of his photos from that holiday. Again, my last communications from him were text messages. Before his holiday he delighted in the unlikely sight of of seventeen mountain-biking santas arriving at the pub where he worked. On Skye he observed the sea frozen at the loch-heads.
I feel uneasy writing an obituary for Gerard and David even now. They are mourned by family and friends who knew them better than I did. Much of my friendship with them was maintained and developed through emails and telephone calls. It wasn't just a correspondence about politics. There were poems, music, ideas, history and lots of jokes. I miss them a lot.
I wondered for a long while if I could continue this blog without them – it was born out of debate and shouldn't be a monologue. I think I shall continue but Areopagitica is bound to change without their contribution.
When I consider how to vote in the general election - and I'm still thinking about it - I recall the discussions I had with Gerard and David. I think about the principles of freedom and equality – and how these need to be rooted in a care for all human beings. I'll try to blog more about this later.