Member Musings – ‘Mad Hatters Bawl’

The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the author and may not reflect those of The Athenaeum.

Mad Hatter’s Bawl

By Phil Whitfield

Rarely do I bother with a dictionary. Yet turning the pages of The War of the Worlds for the umpteenth time I searched for the meaning of erethism, encountered in H.G Wells’ monumental novel.

(Don’t confuse erethism with erythrism: Prevalence of red feathers or animal hair pigmentation.)

Herbert George was describing his stroll on Horsell Common, near Woking in Surrey when the men from Mars landed. The immensity of the night and space and nature, my own feebleness and anguish… transformed by the arrival of an alien Martian… a big greyish rounded bulk, the size, perhaps of a bear, rising slowly and painfully out of the cylinder…Two large dark-coloured eyes were regarding me steadfastly…the whole creature heaved and pulsated convulsively.

This is Wells’ sentence on which we’d do well to dwell: The intense excitement of events had no doubt left my perceptive power in a state of erethism. Stumped? The dictionary describes it as: A state of mental excitement or irritation. The word comes from erethism mercurialis, Mad Hatter’s Disease that destroys the nervous system. In H.G.’s day hat makers used mercury to stiffen up brims, the noxious fumes bringing on delirium.

You know where I’m headed: Our seemingly safe 21st century planet is panicked into perplexed paranoia by an invisible enemy; then, just as swiftly, transforms overnight into a raucous conga winding through the streets of London egged on by a smidgen of a dose of vaccine said to reverse the behemoth in its tracks.

Boris Johnson’s glee resonates (Oh, he dearly wishes) with Churchill’s after Hitler took the bait in 1940 to switch the Wehrmach’s attack away from the RAF to bombing British cities. Percentagewise Liverpool bore the worst brunt. Scouse sacrifice wreaked its revenge, helping to turf Churchill out as soon as opportunity surfaced. Winnie’s cultivation and control of the media wilted; just as Boris’s coquetry on TV has; blown away as haphazardly as his coiffeur.

No wig can cover his bald-faced pandering to the likes of Andy Burnham. No makeup can disguise his blemishes. Thatcher-like he strides on, heedless of the marche funèbre drumbeating along the political Red Line.

Though we’d do well to be cautioned by George Elliot’s warning: The important work of moving the world forward does not wait to be done by perfect men. The government’s mismanagement of Covid-Brexit glaringly exposes cobblers who can’t cobble and fumblers who drop their tools even when they’re handed to them on a plate.

War of the Worlds’ Delphian prophesies and News At Ten sagacity are bedfellows: The Martian invaders exenterated by serum accidentally tossed into a bush; the Covid clobbering vaccine emerging from research aimed at stemming Altzheimer’s.

I’m tapping this into my iPhone by the grate in the quietude of the Athenaeum Newsroom, a cafetière à piston of Christine’s fresh coffee at hand reflecting on how Liverpool Athenaea have upheld the virtues of founder William Roscoe, the city’s preeminent abolitionist.

His Roscoe Circle could easily have waded into the hue and cry waged by the Mad Hatters of the day during an outrageously bribe-laden corrupt 1806 general election. Instead, he chose gradualism. His election speech linked the abolition of the slave trade with the need to expand trade generally and to break the East India Company’s monopoly.

Roscoe stressed Liverpool was by no means unanimous in defence of the slave trade and it was his intention to represent that great and respectable body which opposed it. He captured Wilberforce’s heart. The Slavery Abolition Act went ahead.

 I like to imagine William Roscoe in a comfy settee in a corner of the Athenaeum dreaming up phrases as vaporously fluid as his friend William Wordsworth, aimlessly wandering with his sister Dorothy around Glencoyne Bay, Ullswater among a few daffodils clinging to the water’s edge.

In Part One of Roscoe’s The Wrongs of Africa he surmises – with absolutely no first-hand experience – a white trader dangling baubles before these sable sons of innocence, tempting them until they are irrevocably corrupted. Innocents no longer, they commence to plunder their neighbours for human wealth.

Whilst he, the white deceiver, who had sown

The seeds of discord, saw with horrid joy

 The harvest ripen to his utmost wish;

And reap’d the spoils of treachery, guilt, and blood.

The poet warns that unless this wicked avarice of Europe is suppressed, divine retribution will surely follow.

Shades of Brexit bluster?

In Wrongs of Africa Part Two, Roscoe dramatizes the sorrows of the Middle Passage. Its hero is Cymbello, an African prince, whose royal father has provided him with a truly Platonic education, sending him out amongst the people to learn the responsibilities of kingship and the real meaning of freedom.

Grown to manhood and in love with a beauteous maid as chaste as the cool beams of evening, Cymbello seems likely to fulfil all that is expected of him. But one night, under a rapturous moon, he and his mistress are surprised by a group of black banditti. Seized in sacrilegious rape, he is taken to the coast where his freedom is exchanged for a few trinkets.

I’m not going to divulge the upshot, save confessing this battle-hardened veteran of half a dozen wars wept torrents of tears.

Rightly another Roscoe, Proprietor Dave Roscoe, unrelated to founder William, is earning huge plaudits for his initiative: The World of Work, a programme for special needs pupils at Sandfield Park School.

The Zoom talks to classes about Proprietors’ careers and work experiences have been received so rapturously that soundings are being made to consider if many more special needs schools in Liverpool could benefit from such a programme.

Note the Athenaeum’s laudable understated approach to impending doom: Proprietors exercising their influence without peacocking; determinedly focusing on identifying need and satisfying needs just as William Roscoe demonstrated in pithy prose:

Oh! for the pow’r to make these Tyrants bleed!

These, who in regions far remov’d from this,

Think, like ourselves, that liberty is bliss,

Yet in wing’d houses cross the dang’rous waves,

 Led by bale avarice to make others slaves:–

These, who extol the freedom they enjoy,

Yet would to others every good deny:–

These, who have torn us from our native shore

Which (dreadful thought!) we must behold no more.

I’m getting the hang of 21st century Scouse pride, as knee-high-to-a-grasshopper, a young William Roscoe wrote in the the 18th century: If I were now asked whom I consider to be the happiest of the human race, I should answer, those who cultivate the earth by their own hands. 

Philip Whitfield is engaged in writing a BBC drama Everyone Lies, characterising the evolution of political/cultural affiliations during the past decade.