On Wednesday Joel Segal Books hosted the launch of Richard Bradbury's new novel Riversmeet, a book which provides a fascinating focus of topics. Riversmeet is primarily a fictionalised account, told via correspondence, of the 1848 British tour by the black abolitionist Frederick Douglass.
A former slave, Douglass become one of the leading voices for abolitionism in the 19th century; in 1845, to pre-empt any suspicions of lack of bona fides, he published an autobiography of his early life (a risky act as revealing his identity opened him to re-enslaved: even in northern states that didn't practise slavery, he could be recaptured on grounds of theft - of himself). Richard Bradbury has also written a play about him, Become a Man. He later spoke up for women's rights too, and was a powefully radical voice, whose message on changing the status quo is as relevant now as it was in his time.
Those who profess to favor freedom and yet depreciate agitation, are people who want crops without ploughing the ground; they want rain without thunder and lightning; they want the ocean without the roar of its many waters. The struggle may be a moral one, or it may be a physical one, or it may be both. But it must be a struggle. Power concedes nothing without a demand; it never has and it never will.
At one level Riversmeet is an account of 19th century British culture, told through the standard vehicle of an outsider narrator, in a time of growing radicalism and social upheaval. The real-life Douglass knew the Irish nationalist Daniel O'Connell, and in the book Douglass' story is interwoven with that of another fugitive, Eamonn MacDonagh from Ireland, and touches on the Chartist movement, and the role of displaced Irish immigrants in events that eventually led to Irish independence (Douglass was in Britain at the time of the Irish Potato Blight, in the year of the Young Irelander Rebellion).
The book is published by The Muswell Press, an independent publisher set up by Ruth Boswell, the TV producer behind the classic Timeslip TV serial, initially to publish a collection of the art of her late husband, James Boswell. Riversmeet's subtext fits well with Boswell's work; as "unofficial war artist", he produced now highly acclaimed work (see the Tate and the James Boswell Home Page). His politics and anti-establishment stance, however, probably prevented him getting official status; he was in the Communist Party pre-WW2, and his work often has an anti-establishment flavour, such as his Fall of London prints depicting what appears to be a revolutionary war in a ruined London. His sketchbooks produced while serving in Iraq are hardly typical war art, taking the form of dark and surreal fantasies that sprang from rage-inducing boredom (see the Tate archive special, James Boswell).
Riversmeet, by the way, takes its title from the location and house of that name in Topsham, where the Clyst meets the Exe. The location features in the book, the meeting of rivers allegorical for the confluence of major social forces. The cover design is a photo of Riversmeet, one of a number by Annie Pomeroy.
Addendum, 3rd December 2007: Socialist Worker has just published an informative review, Frederick Douglass and Riversmeet: connecting 19th century struggles, that goes into more detail about the historical context.