This is the black dwarf - who gave his name to not one but two of the finest radical papers we've ever seen.
In the first incarnation, the Black Dwarf was the name of Thomas Wooler's satirical and political weekly which started publication in January 1817. I have recently chanced across - what a piece of good fortune! - a bound volume of the first year's issues.
Here's the frontispiece of that volume - complete with satyr, judge's wigs. scrolls which appear to be Acts of Parliament ... and a Phrygian cap, so closely associated with the French Revolution, apparently placed on top of a crown. We get the message!
The black dwarf was knocking around as a name at the time Wooler started his weekly. The serialisation of Walter Scott's novel The Black Dwarf began towards the close of 1816.
'Satire's my weapon', ran the epigram which headed each issue, a quote from the poet and essayist Alexander Pope.
Wooler's Black Dwarf mixed satire, rough humour and arguments for Reform - and it made quite an impact. Within months, Wooler was on trial for seditious libel. He was cleared after persuading the jury that while he had published the articles complained of he hadn't written them.
The Black Dwarf's circulation is said to have peaked at 12,000 - an astonishing number, which suggests a much larger readership. And the figure of the black dwarf became a well-known radical motif of the Regency period.
The main target of this mischievous print is the Prince Regent, shown as all head and trousers, with - of course - a glass in his hand. And there in the bottom right-hand corner is -
One of the regular features of the weekly was a scurrilous letter, an impish account of goings-on in court and politics addressed to the 'Yellow Bonze in Japan' - bonze meaning a Buddhist religious figure. This is a subversion of that old standard of papers and perioidicals, the letter from abroad.
The first of these letters appeared in an early issue of the weekly -
This cartoon by George Cruikshank in July 1819 features both the black dwarf and, on the wall, the yellow bonze - both the paper and the make-believe recipient of Wooler's scorching satire had clearly made their mark
Wooler closed the Black Dwarf in 1824 on a despondent note: 'In ceasing his political labours, the Black Dwarf has to regret one mistake, and that a serious one. He commenced writing under the idea that there was a PUBLIC in Britain, and that public devotedly attached to the cause of parliamentary reform. This, it is but candid to admit, was an error.'
Wooler was wrong. Within a decade the Great Reform Act was passed, ushering in a century of step-by-step political reform and widening of the franchise. And by the end of the 1830s, Chartism was in full flow, by far the most ambitious and well-supported movement for radical political and social change of the century.
In the spring of that tumultuous year 1968, the Black Dwarf sprang back into life. The literary agent Clive Goodwin was the main motive force in the creation of the paper - and Tariq Ali is the activist most closely associated with it.
In his memoir Street Fighting Years, Ali recounted how one of the founding group. the poet Christopher Logue, 'volunteered to go to the British Museum and search relentlessly until he had found a long-forgotten radical paper of the previous century whose name we could recover'.
Logue was perhaps guided by the admiring references to Wooler and the Black Dwarf in the work of another key New Left thinker and activist, E.P. Thompson, whose enormously influential The Making of the English Working Class was published in 1963.
Wooler's uncompromising style of political argument suited the new project. And rather wonderfully, the new Black Dwarf carried on from where the old one left off. The issue above - the most renowned of the front covers of the reborn Black Dwarf - declared: 'Est 1817. Vol 13 Number 1'. A nice touch!
All copies of the new Black Dwarf are available online here.
The prospectus of the new paper acknowledged very openly its debt to Tom Wooler's Black Dwarf, making a virtue of its radical antecedents
A number of New Left titles looked to old radical papers for their names - not surprising given the preponderance of historians in the British New Left.
John Saville borrowed from G.J. Holyoake's The Reasoner for the title of his CP dissident newsletter (a collaboration with E.P. Thompson) which sparked off the New Left. Raph Samuel and colleagues riffed on the very successful CP-linked Left Review of the 1930s when they established Universities and Left Review, itself a precursor of New Left Review.
Looking back to look forward!
It's amazing what you can find on eBay!
(Alternative opening line: 'Why would anyone pay good, hard-earned cash for this?')
Well, I did pay a few (though not very many) quid for this - I love political ephemera. This handbill dates from October 1968, just a few months after Tariq Ali and a few mates launched Black Dwarf with the most memorable front cover slogan of the Sixties:
Tariq Ali was prominent in street protests from the mid-1960s - this photo is from 1965 ...
.. and in 1968 he memorably strode alongside Vanessa Redgrave in one of the big anti-Vietnam War marches to the US Embassy in Grosvenor Square: this marvellous photograph by John Walmsley from March 1968 is in the National Portrait Gallery.
A while back, while going through newspapers in an archive, I came across this wonderful photo and short piece about Tariq Ali. I can't immediately find a note of which paper it was in - I suspect it dates from the first half of 1964, when Ali would have been in his first year at Oxford:
It's not a brilliant photo, so here's what the text says underneath the image:
'Tariq Ali Khan, 20-year-old Oxford student and grandson of the late Sir Sikandar Hyat Khan, a former Punjab Prime Minister, has been "gated" (confined to College) by the Proctors for participating in demonstrations against the South African Ambassador who visited Oxford last June. Tariq is taking his four-week sentence with good humour. Before he went into confinement, he threw a party that lasted till dawn, also advertised in Isis, the University newspaper, for sociable company (preferably female) to share his "gated" hours and play chess, draughts or snakes and ladders.'
That's the way to do it!
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