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Luddite Spring: Episode 1

Today we begin the serialisation of a monumental novel by Ronnie Bray, a regular and popular columnist in Open Writing for many years.

Ronnie's story concerns the Luddite rebellion, one of the most important and historic events at the beginning of the Industrual Revolution.

The story is set in Ronnie's native Yorkshire, the county where these life-changing events occurred.

Introduction - Part One

Round about the imprisoning mill row on row on row of exceptionally unpretentious houses crowd together to hold off the dampness and cold of the fading winter night as another bitter dawn breaks in 1811. The old year trudges towards its close on a dismal December day. Shadows cast by weak dawn light sweep the narrow, mean streets before daylight is fully grown and grey light breaches the canopy of drab clouds.

Day’s inauspicious light brings little cheer to the jaded souls who, with scanty clothing wrapped around them to fend off winter’s biting chill, hope against hope that it neither snows nor rains nor freezes worse before they chance to scuttle back into their cheerless homes when their errands are done.

Nine out of ten beds in the town were abandoned hours before the errand runners when the night sky was still as black as Hell’s nightcap and their weary occupants rose to face the labours of the day, impelled by the truth that if they failed to go to work they would starve at a faster rate than they already did. Hastily throwing on their ragged garments, the fortunate ate a dry crust of bread, drank water or the turning dregs of yesterday’s milk, and then stepped into the darkness carrying the smallest of their sleepy children in their arms towards their places of work.

Older children plodded wearily behind them as if newly risen from the dead and not yet accustomed to walking. The eldest child was usually the lantern bearer. The lantern was a stub of tallow candle sat inside a glass jam or pickle jar, with a string turned into a carrying handle. Without the glimmer of flickering light playing around their feet that these primitive lamps supplied, finding their way in the dark would have been practically impossible.

Few of the bedraggled souls that trudge the mean streets towards their workplaces speak to their fellows because sleep-seized limbs and minds are not yet fully operational. They are doomed to repeat the dreary pantomime from Monday to Saturday, these poor, almost lifeless creatures whose prospects grow not fairer with the passing of time. Those that remain in their beds are not capable of labouring, either because they are babes in arms, broken in mind, broken in body, too elderly, too frail, or otherwise incapable of raising their limbs to meet and satisfy the demands of the machines that were the principle authors of their brokenness.

As we observe the actors whose lives we survey, it is anticipated that sympathy for them will not be lacking, especially when we closely observe and consider their condition, mark their cynical exploitation, note their beggarly rewards, recognise their crushed hopes, sense their despair, and grieve at their relentless failure to be blessed except by Death.

Each event described in this story has been lived at one time or another during the brief time window of the story. Many incidents have been the common experiences of incalculable souls. There is nothing in the sum and substance of their experiences that owes anything to misconstruction, contrivance, hyperbole, or naïveté, and it is told in exactly the same humour as that in which it was borne.

It is also expected that through our empathy with the men, women, and children whose lives we shadow, we will stand as guarantors that nothing like these goings-on ever happens again. But if they do arise, that we will not allow them to continue for one moment longer than it takes to move and cause their demise. Civilised, sentient beings can do nothing less.

Now, as we undertake to watch the people in the greyness of today’s pre-dawn scene, we note that they are moving in a single direction through the mean streets in trickles and streams, uniting at junctions to form broader rivulets, and eventually become significant tributaries that form one grand current as they approach their common destination – the mill gates. Through these iron barriers, swung aside to receive them, they crush to find their places and assume unnatural roles as machine minders in the textile mill. This is the condition of men, women, and children in the hard country of Yorkshire’s West Riding who, though their lives were moulded by the harsh landscape and the iron discipline imposed on them by their work, nevertheless harboured dreams as avenues of escape for themselves and their children.
Many of these held fast to their dreams of release from industrial captivity even in the face of the hostility under whose duress they were forced to play out their miserable lives. Now and then, some dared to give voice to dreams of better lives, even though experience had taught them that their hopes were vain and their psalms of optimism unheard.

Yet, as we listen perceptively to this unhappy mass of humanity, we hear a song rising, as if at some distance, muted and unintelligible, but in an evident minor key with a dolorous overtone. As we listen at length, being not to hurried to leave them to their sufferings, we hear another song, and then another until a multitude of refrains rise upwards bearing the plaints of the suffering poor until the discrete strains become one grand chorus rising to a crescendo that will not be ignored. These are the songs we tell, yet not without a certain caution.

We exercise caution in telling their songs, because Mister H G Wells warned that, “The forceps of our minds are clumsy forceps, and crush the truth a little in taking hold of it.” The learned gentleman may be right, because no one except Omniscience knows the full, correct, and proper register of events in human history in any given place at any given time. Therefore, we are constrained to speak as we find, and not as the dishonest speak. For the deceitful speak as they are predisposed to ensure that their opinions serve only their cynical ends.

Because it is necessary to sustain his reputation as an honest fellow, the author readily admits his bias in favour of the working poor that inhabited Yorkshire’s textile mills at the end of the eighteenth and the beginning of the nineteenth centuries. His reason for doing so is that during his early years it became evident that the voices of the poor were rarely heard, and even when they were, they went unheeded. As young as he was, he determined that such unfairness ought not to stand. Therefore, the story of England’s poor during this perilous period is told. to right a wrong and allow the voices of the suffering poor to be heard at long last.


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