Monday, 14 July 2008
The Plough and the Pamphlet
In our town there is a statue. It is of a man in a tam o'shanter with a coat, breeches and a tartan shawl over his shoulder. In his hand are a few pamphlets and behind him is a plough. There was, alas not enough money to add his plough horse, Callie. The man, so I'm told was a Scot called Alan Robinson and he was from Dundee. He came to our town when it was a village a long time ago.
It seems that Robinson bought a farm called Fairfields when he arrived and settled there with his horses and pigs. His wife Ellen kept eight hens and a rooster. They were proud of their Scots heritage and Robinson always wore the clan tartan when he came into the village. He was a hard-working man too, fair and just as his own father had brought him up to be. He loved Ellen, his farm and his horses in that order and his work kept him lean, firm and strong.
It is said that once when Jone's old cart collapsed and threatened to hurt the horse, Robinson set himself beneath the cart and pushed it up so that the horse could be freed from the shafts. He not only farmed but grew his own vegetables in the gardens of his house. He and Ellen were much loved in the village and after a while, Ellen had a daughter. The daughter was named Daisy for she was as pretty as a daisy. Her hair was auburn from her mother's side of the family, but she inherited a strong, sturdy, slim frame from her father. Her eyes were blue as cornflowers, her skin clear and pale as fresh cream and that hair was like burnished bronze. She was quiet and polite as a girl, eager to help the old folk, able at her needle as with the horses.
Now it happened that the government decided to raise the taxes on the poor folk the same as the rich. A kind of poll tax it was called or something. It's a long time ago and I forget, but it was widely considered unfair. In the pubs and taverns the arguments raged and the government sent out tax collectors to ensure the tax was enforced. In our village as it was then, the people gathered together in Alan Robinson's great barn and the overwhelming decision was to not pay the tax.
"It is unfair that the poor should pay the same as the rich when the rich can afford what the poor cannot," George Stagg argued.
The village overwhelmingly agreed and went home that night refusing to pay the tax. To the village a collector and his men were sent. The collector's name was William Ashby and to the surprise of the village he was a tall, elegant decent man. They had been expecting a thug. Still and all, Alan Robinson had been elected to speak on behalf of the village to the tax collector. He did so politely putting his case in reasonable terms. The village would pay a tax that was reasonable and fair, he said, but not one that was unfair to the poor.
"Come now, Mr Robinson," Ashby answered calmly, "You are not poor here in this village, what should it matter to you?"
"It matters when the will of the people is ignored by its elected government. It matters when the poor suffer while the rich are catered to. That I believe you understand only well enough Mr Ashby," Robinson answered him.
Ashby considered this and then replied that nonetheless, the law must be obeyed and the tax must be paid.
"We cannot simply obey the laws we like Mr Robinson, I am sure you see that," he said.
"You're right that we cannot. But when the law acts against the interests of a majority of the people in favour of a few then all must oppose it. Aye and disobey it if necessary. For those who obey an unjust law are unjust themselves," Robinson answered.
Ashby sighed. He agreed with Robinson, but he must perform his duties and said so. He would begin the following day. Robinson bowed his head and answered softly,
"As you wish sir."
Then he left and went around the village telling everyone what had been said. That night, he wrote a pamphlet and printed it out on his father's old press that he had brought from Scotland with him. The pamphlet accused the government of blatant injustice and encouraged everyone not to pay the tax. That night also, the small police force in the village resigned from their jobs and told their chief that they could not in conscience act against the will of the people.
Very early the next morning, Daisy Robinson got up and went for a walk. Her father had distributed the pamphlets with his family's help that night. But Daisy could not sleep and arose early in the morning to walk. She still looked as beautiful as she always did. Her green dress set off her auburn hair and her pale skin. Her face was as beautiful as a full moon on a dark night. She walked through the village towards the drapers, for she had thought to see what new fabrics were there. As she passed the hotel where Ashby was staying, the young tax collector sat by his window trying to work out what he could do. When he saw movement in the street, he glanced up and saw Daisy. Her beauty snared him unknowingly and he blushed, backing away from the window.
Daisy continued her walk oblivious to the lovestruck Ashby and bought only a few ribbons, some silk floss and a few new buttons for a dress she was working on. Then she went home. Once more, as she passed the hotel, Ashby was caught by the sight of her and could not help but ask the hotelier who she was.
"That would be Daisy Robinson," the hotelier answered with a smile, "Alan Robinson's daughter."
At that, Ashby went pale and returned to his room. He paced the floor of his room anxiously, trying desperately to think of a way to win her love. Somehow he knew that he could not and his love turned to ashes in his mouth. Bitterness overtook him and he determined to bring Alan Robinson to heel. A knock at his door brought worse news. The pamphlet had been found printed by 'Justice' and inciting a rebellion against the tax. Ashby was furious. He demanded that the printer of the pamphlet be arrested and forced to pay the tax first of all. Humiliating this inciter of lawbreaking would discredit him with the people and they would submit, he declared.
But nobody knew who the pamphleteer was. Robinson had told nobody but his own family for fear of putting others at risk. As nobody knew he was the man, nobody could give him up either. But after three days of searches, the tax collector's men discovered the printing press in Robinson's barn. It was still wet with the ink of the pamphlets that had recently been printed on it. Six lots of pamphlets had been printed and distributed under cover. A copy of each had been found and delivered to William Ashby and now Robinson was arrested and brought before him.
"You have broken the law sir," Ashby remarked sourly, "Incitement to break the law, incitement to rebellion against the lawful government, which is treason. You realise that you could be put to death for treason, do you not?"
"Your precious government brings in an unjust law and complains when the people disobey it. Then accuse the entire population of treason and put them all to death. Who will your so-called lawful government govern then, eh Mr Ashby?" he asked.
An idea struck William Ashby - an idea that should not have been touched and yet - he pulled it to him in his desperate bitterness.
"You are charged certainly with incitement to break the law. It might be treason as well but I will be lenient on one condition. Give up your daughter to me and the charge of treason will not be added," he told Robinson.
"By God sir! You are as much a scoundrel as your government!" Robinson exclaimed, his eyes flashing.
"Come sir what choice have you? Your wife and child will not be able to manage the farm on their own. Not if they are required to pay the tax as well," Ashby answered with a sinister smile.
"William Ashby you are a fool!" a voice declared.
Through the window of the courthouse Daisy Robinson's own eyes flashed fire.
"Had you played fair with my father, you would have won my love. As it is, I would sooner marry a carthorse than a scoundrel and a bully!" she told him.
Ashby scowled and demanded that Robinson be locked up until his tax be paid. He would be charged with incitement to break the law and treason. Robinson was taken to the gaol-house but it did Ashby no good. The printing press had been taken away by the villagers and hidden. When news came of Robinson's arrest and the charges pressed on him, pamphlets started to appear not only across the village but around the area. They spread from place to place until Alan Robinson's fight for justice and the craven behaviour of William Ashby was widely known. Ballads were sung about the pair. William Ashby was fired from his job and retired to London a broken man. He caught a terrible fever and was thought likely to die of it.
The poll tax was repealed, two months later and the government removed from office. The new government pardoned and released Alan Robinson who returned to his farm. Some months later a visitor was said to have come to Fairfields Farm and at the end of the year, Alan Robinson called another meeting in his barn. The villagers had returned to him his printing press and now they came to hear him. To their surprise, he invited them to forgive and forget and to come to his daughter's wedding.
For when William Ashby was removed from office and retired to London, he was followed by a young woman and nursed by her. She argued with him as he recovered and he explained. She took his apology and plea for forgiveness to her father and Daisy was married to William Ashby that winter. He never went into government service again, but remained in the village helping with the work on the farm and helping his father in law to print books that promoted justice for all.