Episode 3 of The Quiet Revolutionary: the heroic role played in a Plot to Assassinate the King by someone you’ve all heard of, Series 4 of our ‘The Truth Lies in Bedtimes Stories from See Through News’ podcast
In Episode 3, Series 4 of our podcast The Truth Lies in Bedtime Stories, The Quiet Revolutionary – The Pint-Pot Paperweights, we eavesdrop on three bewigged plotters in a Shoreditch Tavern.
Written, Produced & Narrated by SternWriter
Audio Production by Samuel Wain
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If you enjoyed this series, please share it with others, and try our other stories.
- Series 1: The Story of Ganbaatar: the only deep sea navigator in Mongolia
- Series 2: Betrayed: a tale of Christmas spiritual pollution
- Series 3: Life on the Edge: Taiwan, China, America and the Moment I Realised Mrs. Wang Was Mostly Guessing What Her Husband Said
- Series 5: A Classical Chinese Dirty Joke, Told Thrice
- Series 6: Teetering – how a Hawaiian beach bum held my career in the balance
Episode 3: The Pint-Pot Paperweights
Physician James, Bookseller John and Chemist Shop-Man George, secreted in a corner nook of their regular Shoreditch tavern, keep their voices low.
Their wigged heads converge in whispers over a pile of news sheets, with pint pots of porter for paperweights.
The three mens’ greying locks poke out from beneath their wigs. It’s becoming harder to distinguish their hair from the horsehair.
Hair may be growing longer from their ears, but these three men still have plenty up top. These are no young firebrands, but sober men, in their prime.
We’ve brought a jug of porter to top up their paperweights. Let’s see if we can linger and ear-wig on their whispered conversation, unnoticed.
John and George, founders of the London Corresponding Society, are of similar age to James, yet they both appear to defer to the Physician.
Had we been one of the Attorney-General’s spies, we might have reported the arrival of the local physician as one of their first recruits. Noting that James seems to have swiftly won their trust might have earned us an extra penny.
Let’s cock an ear – maybe we can pick up what James is saying to his friends.
‘It’s been a year since France declared war on us’, whispers the Physician. ‘For the moment, the Revolutionaries seem to care more for cutting off their own heads than ours’.
‘But when they finish their own blood-letting,’ continues James, his voice now rising, ‘they’ll surely come for us. If our Government refuses our pleas for Reform, just as surely, Madame Guillotine will make her London debut’.
We’ve now found our own nook, behind a curtain. When we peek out, we can observe differences in the manner of James’s two partners. The Attorney-General pays extra for these kinds of details.
George Higgins the Chemist’s Shop-Man looks nervous. He spends more time looking over his shoulders than looking earnestly at his friends.
John Smith the Bookseller, by contrast, appears relaxed. John seems as amused at George’s alarm, as George is alarmed at the volume of James’s speaking voice as he ‘readily imparts information’.
The bookseller remarks laconically, ‘Higgins, if you persist in looking over each shoulder thrice a minute, your head will remove itself without the intervention of Madame Guillotine’.
‘Better keep your voice down, Parkinson’, continues the bookseller, affably ‘or you may find our friend in your waiting room tomorrow morning, with a twisted spine’.
George is not amused. ‘How can you be so reckless? Your loose tongue risks losing your neck and ours! How many of our friends must be arrested, imprisoned, and falsely charged with conspiracy, sedition and treason, before you learn caution!’.
The Bookseller smiles broadly, but now speaks more softly. Whether in pamphlets or in taverns, moderation of tone is no guarantee of protection from the Attorney-General’s paranoia.
Everyone knows the capital’s coffee shops and taverns are infested with John Scott’s undercover agents – no one knows who to trust.
After all, loitering in our nook behind our curtain, we could be one of them.
Their conversation resumes. Bookseller John has recently taken a huge risk. He agreed to sell the first political tract written by his new physician friend.
Persuading the printer to take the job took weeks. In the end, he’d only agreed to risk it if James agreed to publish under a pseudonym.
Such subterfuge offended James’s instinct for transparency, but he’d reluctantly agreed.
They picked a pen name – Old Hubert – and gave his pamphlet the title Pearls Cast Before Swine by Edmund Burke and Scraped Together By Old Hubert.
It contains passionate appeals for urgent Reform to avoid the blood being shed across The Channel.
Old Hubert immediately exasperated the publisher and cautious George Higgins – by using his real name in several advertisements for his pamphlet, published in The Times.
Now George seems to be hissing a warning to his friends not to play with fire.
Let’s sidle over to refresh their paperweights, maybe we can catch the Bookseller’s reaction.
‘Calm yourself, George’, says John. ‘We’ve been meeting here for months now, with no hint of a leak or whiff of betrayal. Proceed, good Physician, with your diagnosis – where will this all end?’.
Two sets of eyes and ears – three, including ours – now turn to the Physician.
‘Here’s what I’ve read’, says James – calm, considered, starting in a low tone.
‘Last January the Place de la Révolution was ringing with cheers, as – according to the more lurid reports – The Sun King’s head was separated from his spouting neck, before it toppled into the basket beneath the guillotine’.
The two listening wigged heads lean in. Let’s risk another step closer, to catch what James says next.
‘Now the secret Paris source of The Times of London informs us that a mere eighteen months later, the Place de la Révolution is a place of muted murmur, as their new Emperor, Robespierre, meets the same fate as the Sun King.’
George interjects – ‘Some say Robespierre faced Madame Guillotine face-up!’
‘Hush, George’, says John. ‘The London Corresponding Society deals in fact, not rumour. Let the Physician get to his prognosis’.
The physician continues.
‘Here’s what I have observed. For the past five years, regardless of their malady or their character, my patients have spoken of little other than Revolution. Some fear it, some welcome it’.
‘The Huguenot silk merchants and the poor weavers who work for them, hold different cards in their hands, and different views in their heads’.
A step back now, as the Physician’s voice rises.
‘That’s why we must convince our Government that their survival – our survival – the survival of our Society, our Empire, our Crown, the survival of everything that we value – hinges on abandoning their Fear of Reform as a Threat, and embracing Reform as our Saviour’.
‘If we can’t turn the heads of our Prime Minister and Attorney-General by means of Reason, I fear it won’t be long before they lose them to Madame Guillotine.’
George whispers, exasperated.
‘For God’s Sake, James, keep your voice down!’.
Three heads now turn to us, caught eavesdropping.
We retire, and hear no more of their whispered conversation.
In Episode 4, The View from Westminster, we get a very different side of the story.