On this day in 1812 Lord Byron made his maiden speech in the House of Lords, on the subject of Luddite attacks on industrialism in Nottinghamshire. He defended the Luddites and asked that there be more understanding of their plight and less condemnation.
We’re all used to the mad, bad and dangerous to know Byron, although to be fair that was a description bestowed upon him by a
woman (Lady Caroline Lamb) who most people saw as totally batshit mental, so only so much credence should be given to it. We definitely know him as a poet, an adventurer and a man who put it about quite a bit. But there was more still to Byron.
He could hardly be called a devoted member of the Lords, but from taking his place there in 1809, until he finally left England for good in 1816, he did sit there occasionally and his views were far more liberal than the majority of his peers. His speech in 1812 was in opposition to the Frame-Breaking Bill, which sought the death penalty for those involved in Luddite activities. Byron thought this was a little bit previous and explained that he had seen what had been going on in Nottinghamshire, that the men involved were distressed and in great want. In short, Byron, this man who we tend to imagine as a billowy romantic, giving no thought to anything but muff, cock and poetry, understood the plight of the working man, better than most political philosophers or economists were able to either at the time or for decades afterwards.
And what was their plight? Well, by and large we see Luddites as men who were opposed to change and smashed machinery (broke frames) in order to hold back industrialisation and prevent innovation. This isn’t quite what was going on. As the simply wonderful E. P. Thompson explained in his The Making of the British Working Class, it wasn’t change per se, it was real and justifiable worry about their future wages. Most factories were paying far less as the weaving economy became a free market. Those factories or workshops that were maintaining a living wage and set prices remained free from attack. History would prove their fears right; as industrialisation and the mechanisation of the manufacturing industry spread, skills disappeared and it was necessary to work longer hours in often dangerous conditions in order to maintain pre-industrial levels of income.
And speaking up for the workers, one of the few with influence to do so, was the tall, dark, and really rather handsome, Lord Byron. One should never forget his poetry, because some of it was stonkingly good, but beyond that, beyond the debt and the scandal, there was a man whose first speech, after three years in the House of Lords, was on a subject that was of no personal benefit to him, but was instead a plea for the common man. Unfortunately his opposition did not prevent the Bill from being enacted. There were executions and transportations and ultimately the organised resistance was broken. But for one brief moment, the most famous man in Britain tried to make his fame mean something. It is no wonder that when he left the country four years later he felt no need to return. Byron might well have had his end away with your boyfriend, girlfriend, husband or wife while your back was turned, but he had a morality that rose above mere lower-storey shenanigans.
Today is the birthday of violet-eyed lovely and oft married actress, Elizabeth Taylor. To be strictly accurate, she’s not such a beauty these days, but as she is a year off being 80 and pretty seriously under the weather, that’s hardly surprising.
Liz, as she is often known, first found fame as a child and adolescent, especially in the Lassie films, in which she often co-starred with Roddy McDowell, who later found fame as an ape. Unlike many a child star before her and since, she made the difficult transition to adult roles with relative ease. She also got into the marrying habit pretty young, first walking up the aisle with Conrad Hilton Jr when she was just 18. The marriage only lasted a year, mostly because he was an abusive drunk. If she had stayed married to him, she would today be the great-aunt of Paris Hilton, so all thing’s considered it’s a good job she binned Conrad Jr early on. She married seven more times, although two of those marriages were to the same man, Richard Burton. He was the great love of her life, but she was also deeply in love with her third husband, Mike Todd, but he was tragically killed in a plane crash just over a year into their married life. All her other marriages have ended in divorce and she has been single since 1996.
It’s easy to get caught up in Taylor’s predilection for marriage, her love of well flashy bling and her later battles with weight and to
forget all about her acting career, but she proved her acting chops in quite a few films throughout her career, not least when she was paired with Burton who seemed to bring out the best of her ability. She is most assuredly a diva, probably a bit of a nightmare to live with and could probably have drunk the whole of the British army under the table in her heyday, but she did an enormous amount of good in the fight against AIDS, setting up her own foundation and campaigning for the recognition and acceptance of the disease and the rights of sufferers. So, while it’s easy to see her as a caricature of Hollywood excess, she’s used her fame to do some pretty good stuff in this world. That said, she does believe in all that Kabbalah bullshit and she hung around with Michael Jackson more than was entirely necessary, but what can one say? Nobody’s perfect.
Liz is currently in hospital, suffering from congestive heart failure. We can but hope that the tough old Dame (hey, she’s a DBE, I’m giving her nuff respec’) is able to entertain guests, drink a glass or two of bubbly goodness and enjoy celebrating her 79th birthday. Happy birthday, Ms Taylor, they really do not make them like you any more!