The Republic of Heaven is a company town

The Blake Society was founded in 1985 on the instigation of Donald Reeves, the then rector of St James’s Piccadilly, to honour and celebrate William Blake, who was baptised at the font (attributed to Grinling Gibbons) still in use in the church today. (It was Reeves who counselled Jack Dee through his passing desire to be a vicar, before he made it in stand-up comedy.) Tonight the Society’s President, the literary superstar Philip Pullman, is giving its Annual Lecture, taking as his subject the craft of storytelling.

His enthralling lecture is spangled with quotations from, among others, Blake and Wordsworth. Pullman told Mother Jones, laughing, about teaching middle school students: “I didn’t care about them….My real purpose…was to practise telling stories. And I practised on the greatest model of storytelling we’ve got, which is The Iliad and The Odyssey…

every class of children seemed to have the same groups….Teachers often make the mistake of thinking they’re the boss of the class; they’re not. The boss of the class is sitting down there somewhere.”

Pullman speaks of how the imagination can be trained, and quotes Blake:

“When the sun rises, do you not see a round disc of fire somewhat like a guinea? O no, no, I see an innumerable company of the heavenly host crying Holy, Holy, Holy is the Lord God Almighty.”

In Pullman’s trilogy, “His Dark Materials”, he posits a Republic (not Kingdom) of Heaven, challenging a system where the authority came from above and was not to be questioned. Elsewhere, he has written: “Writing is despotism, but reading is democracy.” He points out: “It’s a good thing to speak up for our colleagues who are mistreated or unjustly imprisoned, or to take joint action against injustice or oppression of any sort, whether it’s political in origin, or religious, or commercial, as these days it might well be.”

My thoughts are wandering through time and space to that other celebrated Pullman, George Mortimer, designer of the Pullman sleeping car. In 1871, Pullman and Andrew Carnegie, with others, bailed out the financially troubled Union Pacific, and took positions on its Board of Directors. Andrew Carnegie penned in 1889 an article entitled “The Gospel of Wealth”, which called on the rich to use their wealth to improve society.

Pullman went on to build a company town adjacent to his factory, and ruled it like a feudal baron. The ultimate result was the Pullman Strike, in which thirty strikers lost their lives. The subsequent presidential commission report found Pullman’s paternalism partly to blame and described Pullman’s company town as “un-American”. It was in time annexed to Chicago.

Worker discontent was expressed in an often-quoted saying: “We are born in a Pullman house, fed from the Pullman shops, taught in the Pullman school, catechised in the Pullman Church, and when we die we shall go to the Pullman Hell.”

Another day, another dollar.

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