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William Cobbett: found in the swop box

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[THIS WEEK] James Pallister finds the Golden Age in a swap box at Warwick Parkway station

Visions of Arcadia come in unexpected places. The best I’d hoped for when peering into the plastic book swap box at Warwick Parkway station was something to pass 10 minutes; something racy from Jackie Collins or a thriller by Dick Francis. At first nothing took my fancy. But nestled toward the bottom was a battered, banded Penguin classic; blue for biography. The subject was William Cobbett, the naturalist, pamphleteer and political agitator of whom I’d heard sufficient to know he was interesting, though not enough to rule out pocketing a 110-page biography and glossing over the brief guilt of my one-sided ‘swap’. I would drop in a good one on my return.

Cobbett was a prolific journalist and publisher, an interesting breed of English progressive: stubbornly non-internationalist despite his time spent in America (after fleeing England, fearing arrest for what may have been deemed ‘seditious’ writing). He was a natural conservative who kicked against authorities, lobbied for parliamentary reform and frequently found himself up in court defending himself for the writings contained in his The Political Register. A keen gardener, smallholder and horticulturalist, he also wrote Rural Rides and The English Gardener.

William Baring Pemberton’s biography is an immensely entertaining read. His prose is economical, his delivery droll and he conveys an affectionate disposition toward the pugnacious and sometimes tiresome character of his subject. Cobbett lived through the beginnings of the first effects of the industrial revolution in England, yet the Golden Age to which he returned was of his youth, where the smallholder could live prosperously; where meat and beer were in plenty. This Golden Age he refers to is further explored in Adam Nicolson’s Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance England, which I’m about to get stuck into.


William Cobbett, William Baring Pemberton, (Penguin, 1949) and Arcadia: The Dream of Perfection in Renaissance, Adam Nicholson (Harper Perennial, 2009)

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