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Sunday 27 December 2009

2009: A Year of Anniversaries

LONDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 12:  Dean's Verger ...Image by Getty Images via Daylife

2009 marked the anniversary of several important historical events. The one that got the most attention was the 200th anniversary of the birth of pioneering English naturalist Charles Darwin, the date also coinciding with the 150th anniversary of his revolutionary book on the theory of evolution, “On the Origin of the Species”. This has seen several films and documentaries, plus some great programmes and lectures – Melvin Bragg’s four part edition of “In Our Time” being a stand out example - I have enjoyed commemorating the man’s life and work. My parents’ company also worked on the biopic “Creation” and, best of all, got a contract at the Old Vic Theatre to supply a trained monkey for the critically acclaimed stage play “Inherit the Wind” starring one of my favourite actors, Kevin Spacey. The run has been packed at every performance and one my regrets has been that I haven’t found the time to watch it. The play is a 1955 fictional piece that was inspired by on 1926 Scopes Trial that saw a Tennessee high school teacher tried and convicted for teaching evolution.

Darwin is quite rightly considered by many to be one of the greatest Britons that ever lived. However, other historical events also deserve some consideration. 1 September saw the 70th anniversary of the outbreak of World War II. September saw several programmes and books released used to commemorate the biggest crisis of the 20th century. It made me consider the generation still alive that lived through those terrible times. It feels especially poignant today as many of us know of soldiers who fight in far away lands and we are all too aware of the dangers of bigoted fanaticism. This has happened in the form of extremist fundamental religiosity that has haunted the 2000s and in the rise of far-right groups in the developed world. Most of the people I knew that lived through that era were circus people who had a hard enough time before the war. During the war some of them would fight – my great-uncle was a fighter pilot and my grandfather and great-grandfather were in the home guard – and others would struggle to keep their business running, entertaining those who lived in the shadow of the blitz and the fear of invasion.

My third anniversary is a far less commemorated one. The “BBC History Magazine” – a great publication and podcast by the way – was the only time I saw this anniversary covered in the mainstream. Mary Wolstonecraft was a brilliant British intellectual, born on 27 April 1759, who wrote on a wide range of subjects. She wrote a treatise, history, philosophy, a book on conduct and even a children’s book. Wolstonecraft was a revolutionary thinker remembered almost completely for her feminism. Her reputation was seriously damaged when her well-meaning, honest and loving husband the great philosopher, William Godwin, wrote his memoir on her life after she died. By revealing her illegitimate children and her suicide attempts he only helped fuel the fire of his wife’s anti-feminist critics. A century later and Wolstonecraft’s argument for female equality was being voiced by angry numbers. Wolstonecraft put forward the argument that women were every bit man’s intellectual equal and should be treated as such, the only thing holding them back was education. The Suffrage Movement may have started in France, but much of its inspiration clearly comes from this remarkable human being. A relative of mine on the circus side actually marched and was egged on a Suffrage march during the early part of 20th century. Traditional circus people tend to be more right leaning than left due to their association with tradition and the fact that they are very much products of free enterprise. However, as I have argued before, much of what they have done is as much a shining example of liberal or even socialist ideals as it is of Capitalism. Feminism can be seen through the way women were taking on roles associated with male courage, such as wild animal presenters, and my book “The Legend of Salt and Sauce” reveals Madame Clara Paulo becoming the head of a British circus family a year before women were granted the right to vote at the same age as men.

However, my interest in Mary Wolstonecraft did come through an interest in feminism. It came through the daughter, Mary Wolstonecraft Godwin Shelley, the author of one of favourite novels, “Frankenstein”. But that is a topic for another day.

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