Monday, 23 May 2016

Rise Up.

Now is the Time by Melvyn Bragg

Melvyn Bragg’s novel may ostensibly be about The Peasants’ Revolt (a dramatic six weeks in summer 1381), but it clearly has parallels to today’s socio-political situation where the rich tax the poor beyond reason and endurance.  

In the author’s note, Bragg writes that he studied history at university but that the Peasants’ Revolt – the greatest popular uprising in English history – was overlooked. He suggests that this may be because “it was too dangerous for establishment historians to dwell on, too radical, altogether un-English... Perhaps for some it was too disturbing. Perhaps it always will be.” He sets out to right this wrong with a work that took him 15 years to write.

The historical fiction focuses on the factual characters of preacher John Ball, activists Jack Straw and Walter (Wat) Tyler, his wife (Margaret), daughter (Joan), and follower and sometime-lover Johanna Ferres, the boy-king Richard II, his mother Joan, Princess of Wales and Maid of Kent, and his several advisers and councillors.

Money is the root of all this evil, particularly the unjust raising of taxes. Under the leadership of Wat Tyler, the people join forces and march on London to meet their King and to present their demands. These demands are not excessive, and the people who call themselves The True Commons, remain loyal to the King. Their issue is with his advisers and the wealthy merchants and priests who hoard their wealth to the detriment of the people. 

Inequality is rife as John Ball sees by the vast warehouses of the wool trade nestling beside great poverty, “like an illustration of the World As It Was and the World As It Could Be. Ball saw, yet again, here as all over England, the rich seeming to need to confine and cramp the poor. And the poor had agreed to endure it until now.”

Many use the anarchy on the streets to settle old scores; the prisons are opened and people ‘join’ for the mayhem, not the cause. “London feels as if a barrel of gunpowder has been thrown into the middle of it. Many people think they will never get out alive.” People adopt the cover of rebellion to settle old scores and redress grievances of envy, and there is soon indiscriminate bloodletting.

The novel begins with a quote from The Mirror of Man, a 1378 poem by John Gower in which he claims that there are three things capable of producing “merciless destruction when they get the upper hand”; water, fire, and “the common multitude”. The last words of the book, in the author’s note remind us that, “The poll tax was not imposed again for six hundred years. In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher reintroduced it. It provoked violent riots and was quickly withdrawn.” 

This is almost a polemic; a call to arms. It is certainly a stark warning about what can happen to a society that allows the rift between rich and poor to plumb to such astronomic depths. The clue is the title.