Revival time by Ian Mayes
The readers' editor on a show of monumental support for Hazlitt
As a change from the miserable catalogue of complaint (I resist the temptation to say catalogue of miserable complaints) here is something positive. A couple of weeks ago the Saturday Review, the part of the Guardian in which this column appears, published as its front feature an article by the philosopher AC Grayling about William Hazlitt, described reasonably enough in a headline as "one of England's greatest writers and radicals". The aim of the piece was to draw attention to the fact that Hazlitt's grave in St Anne's churchyard in Soho, London, was too modest for someone of his stature, modest almost to the point of anonymity, and to suggest that something more suitable should be placed there.
The way in which readers of the paper have responded to this has been quite astonishing. Numbers are not necessarily an indication of the seriousness of a complaint, but when the paper does something fairly appalling 20 to 30 of you may register a protest.
But letters or calls in support or praise of something? In the two weeks since Grayling's article appeared more than 200 of you have written to say how much you enjoyed reading it, or how moved you were by it (to tears in at least one case) and to contribute, between you, at the time of writing, more than £4,000 towards the cost of the new monument - which may, in fact, be in the region of £20,000.
I declare an interest. Two or three months ago when I had just finished reading Grayling' s recent biography of Hazlitt, The Quarrel of the Age, the Life and Times of William Hazlitt (Weidenfeld and Nicolson) I went to St Anne's churchyard, off Wardour Street, very close to Leicester Square, to look for the grave. I failed to find it but discovered it on a second visit. It lies flat in the grass on the left hand side of the little park that the churchyard now forms.
I asked to be introduced to Grayling and suggested that we should try to restore to the grave a stone bearing the long inscription that was once there but which has totally disappeared. That anything at all there survived the bombing in the second world war is remarkable.
The committee which quickly accrued, and which is driven, I think we could say, by AC Grayling, now includes Michael Foot, Andrew Motion, Tom Paulin, Dun can Wu, Tim Miller of St Anne's, Annalena McAfee, the editor of the Guardian's Saturday Review, and me. The committee has commissioned Lida Kindersley of the Cardozo Kindersley Workshop in Cambridge to design and cut the stone. One reader commented: "I am absolutely delighted to learn that the Kindersley workshop is handling the commission. The result is bound to be as good as you can get." The committee has had a warmly encouraging letter of support from the Soho Society.
Everyone has been bowled over by the impetus given to the whole thing by readers of the Guardian. We hope to acknowledge individual contributions in the near future with a letter that Michael Foot will sign on our behalf.
Many of you sent contributions in memory of a parent or grandparent. I quote from one of your letters: "My father (a Lancashire cotton weaver) introduced me to Hazlitt's writings during the 1930s when I was about 12 years old. I found them difficult but persevered. My father had a 1910 copy of Lectures on the English Poets and Spirit of the Age and it's now in my possession. I dip into it regularly. What continues to amaze me is how a man, who left school at 12 in 1900, with virtually no education could have a penchant for Hazlitt. It proved to be my gain."
Several contributions came from places with Hazlitt connections: Maidstone, where he was born, and Hackney, where he attended New College, the dissenting academy. One reader in Maidstone wrote, "I became interested in his work on receiving a copy of his collected essays as a school prize way back in 1927. I still read them occasionally." Another came from a minister who preaches sometimes in the Unitarian chapel where Hazlitt's father preached.
One reader wrote: "I got out my book of Table Talk and started reading it again. I first read Table Talk when 19, aboard a merchant ship in the early 1950s. I loved the book and [it] made a great impression on me, especially On Living to One's Self."
We shall keep you informed about the progress of the project and certainly aim to let all subscribers know in advance about the unveiling ceremony, which now seems a little nearer. Meanwhile, thank you so much.
The Guardian, 5th May, 2001.