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Literary Locations #47: Bertrand Russell House

John Baird
Fri 7 Feb, 2020

As it’s fifty years since the death of Bertrand Russell, our literary location of the week is Bertrand Russell House.

Bertrand Russell’s links with Nottingham span three centuries, a story with a cast that includes Viscount Amberley, Lady Ottoline Morrell, D. H. Lawrence, Ken Coates and Tony Simpson, with Ray Gosling and even Alan Sillitoe playing a part. It’s a link that’s spawned hundreds of political publications and seen Nottingham help to highlight and counter the causes of violence, and strive for peace, human rights and social justice.

Russell’s grandfather was a former British Prime Minister and it is with him that the story begins. Lord John Russell, later Earl Russell, was the principal architect of the Great Reform Act in 1832 when more men were given the right to vote, an act that included the redistribution of seats to the growing cities. A year earlier, after the House of Lords had rejected the Act, a crowd of Nottinghamians surged towards the Castle and - taking their anger out on its proprietor, the Duke of Newcastle, an opposer of the Act - they broke through the Gatehouse before setting the Castle ablaze.

In 1865, when more people were clamouring for the right to vote, Lord John Russell became Prime Minister for a second spell, having had the role between 1846 and 1852. In preparing a second Reform Bill John Russell became a leading instigator for voting reform. Charles Dickens dedicated ‘A Tale of Two Cities’ to him, writing, “In remembrance of many public services and private kindnesses." In a later speech, Dickens said of John Russell that “there is no man in England whom I respect more in his public capacity, whom I love more in his private capacity.”

By the end of John Russell’s premiership his son John, Viscount Amberley, had reluctantly entered politics and Nottingham was his destination. This was after the Nottingham Liberal committee had lobbied him to stand following the 1865 result being declared void, evidence of bribery and disruption forcing a by-election. Standing as their candidate, Amberley, together with his wife Katharine, arrived in Nottingham by train and stayed at the Flying Horse. As Kate recalls in her journal.

“We got into an open carriage with a postilion in blue and drove to our Inn ‘The Flying Horse’, the old liberal headquarters – an old fashioned rambling inn…”

Kate had been warned about Nottingham’s reputation for rebellion and rough politics, a concern shared by her father in law the Prime Minister who worried about the ‘mob of ruffians’ that backed the Conservatives. On their first night in Nottingham, Amberley and his wife were introduced to the 150 strong committee at the Flying Horse before going through the Market Square to the Exchange building. “As we went through the street, there were groans and hisses and cheers,” Kate wrote.

Later in the campaign, they had a run in with the mob:

“As we returned across the Market Place which was crowded, the mob rushed towards us and surrounded the carriage. When we got in I went to the window to show myself and had a stick thrown at me, also some dirt that hit me on the eye. There was a great mob in the street and they fisticuffed a good deal amongst one another and attacked one woman because she had yellow ribbons in her hair …”

A progressive Liberal, Amberley won his seat. Weeks later his father’s second reform bill was defeated leading to his resignation as PM. Amberley served as Nottingham’s MP for two years, becoming known for his unorthodox views on religion, as well as his advocacy of birth control and women's suffrage, subjects that his wife Kate also campaigned on. A vivacious suffragist, Lady Amberley may even have done more for these causes than her shy and serious husband.

In 1872 John and Kate Amberley’s youngest child Bertrand Russell was born in Wales. Before he was five, John and Kate had died, both in their early 30s. Russell was looked after by his paternal grandparents and he was home schooled by a series of tutors. After a difficult adolescence characterised by loneliness and depression, Russell won a scholarship to study Maths at Trinity College Cambridge where he distinguished himself as an outstanding mathematician, a reputation secured after the publication of his book with A. N. Whitehead ‘The Principles of Mathematics’. Russell would become equally well known as a philosopher and political activist but his passport would come to show his profession as ‘author’.

Russell, who wrote some seventy books and thousands of articles, received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1950. Until the age of twenty-one he would spend hours trying to find the shortest way of saying something without ambiguity, and to this aim, he wrote, “I was willing to sacrifice all attempts at aesthetic excellence.” Russell was able to express complex arguments and ideas in a direct, lucid style that benefited from his lack of a formal, classical education, and from his love of Percy B. Shelley’s poetry.

In 1926 Russell came to Nottingham, to promote his most ambitious work on modern society, ‘The Prospects of Industrial Civilization’, in which he argues that industrialism is a threat to human freedom. He was invited back in 1937 by the psychologist, and fellow Cambridge apostle, W. J. H Sprott. This time Russell would give a ‘Byron Lecture’ at University College on Shakespeare Street. He had developed an interest in establishing the connection between the legacy of Byronic romanticism and the most disturbing ideology of the time, linked to the rise of Fascism. Russell was keen on Byron as an exemplar aristocratic rebel but not so much as a poet.

In the lecture Russell referred to another of our writers, D. H. Lawrence, who had become something of an acquaintance. A one-time lover of Russell’s, Ottoline Morrell née Cavendish-Bentinck, had introduced him to Lawrence. Ottoline had her own links with Notts as she grew up at Welbeck Abbey and, after her mother died, she returned to the estate and is buried at nearby Holbeck. She had first met Lawrence and his wife Frieda in 1915 and, in that year, she took Russell to visited them in Suffolk. Like Ottoline, Russell had read Lawrence’s books. The first meeting between Russell and Lawrence “appeared a great success” to Ottoline as she wrote in her autobiography.

"He is infallible,” said the 43-year-old Russell of the 30-year-old Lawrence. “He is like Ezekial or some other Old Testament prophet, prophesying. Of course, the blood of his nonconformist preaching ancestors is strong in him, but he sees everything and is always right.”

The men continued to correspond. “I have had a long long letter from Lawrence – saying it is no good to do anything till we get Socialism – and thinking (as the young do) that because he sees the desirability of Socialism it can be got by a few years’ strenuous work. I feel his optimism difficult to cope with – I can’t share it and don’t want to discourage it. He is extraordinarily young.”

Russell had been stimulated by Lawrence’s ideas but when he showed him a manuscript, Lawrence denounced it and urged Russell to destroy it. Their friendship lasted a year. “Pacifism had produced in me a mood of bitter rebellion and I found Lawrence equally full of rebellion,” Russell later wrote in ‘Portraits from Memory’. “This made us think, at first, that there was a considerable measure of agreement between us, and it was only gradually that we discovered that we differed from each other more than either differed from the Kaiser…I felt him to be a man of a certain imaginative genius and, at first, when I felt inclined to disagree with him, I thought that perhaps his insight into human nature was deeper than mine. It was only gradually that I came to feel him a positive force for evil and that he came to have the same feeling about me.” Russell’s rebellion was rational and reasoned, Lawrence’s wild and prophesising.

Russell’s next connection with Nottingham takes us to the 1960s. He had established the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation in 1963 in London, after the Cuban Missile Crisis. Later, he sold his library and extensive archive of papers to fund the continuing work of The Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation, which he had formed to further the cause of peace and to assist in the pursuit of freedom and justice. In 1968, The Foundation opened an office and print shop (which became The Russell Press) in Nottingham. This happened because, in 1965, Russell had invited Ken Coates to join The foundation. Coates had recently been expelled from the Labour Party after criticising the Wilson government's support of US policy in Vietnam and his opposition to an incomes policy. Ken Coates had a history of campaigning for left-wing causes. As a student he had been active in the National Association of Labour Student Organisations and became its national secretary. He’d also been president of Nottingham Labour Party before his expulsion. Coates was now living in Greenfield Street, Dunkirk. Vietnam was the big issue of the day and The Foundation received support from Alan Sillitoe who contributed the proceedings from the London stage premiere of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning “in support of the people of Vietnam”.

Coates was a prolific Nottingham writer whose books, pamphlets and articles carried a strong voice for the left. The former pit worker he had gone on to win a state scholarship to Nottingham University where he gained a first-class degree in sociology before working as a teacher. His focus on poverty, industrial relations and working-class history influenced the outlook of many of his students.

Ken Coates worked with Russell in the final years of his life (Russell died in 1970, aged 97). By this time the printing arm of The Foundation, Russell Press, had been established in Nottingham. Originally the Partisan Press it shared premises with The Foundation on Goldsmith Street, in the Arboretum area near the General Cemetery. Soon, they moved into an old mill on Gamble Street just behind Alfreton Road. That building, now student accommodation, still retains the name ‘Bertrand Russell House’ and boasts some of the original features from its days as a textile mill and, later, a printing factory. Opposite Bertrand Russell House on Gamble Street was Woolston Book Co. the book suppliers to libraries, later known as Woolston and Blunt then John Menzies Library Services.

In addition to printing for The Foundation’s campaigns, Russell Press acted as printer for a raft of voluntary organisations and private clients. Russell Press and The Foundation moved to Bulwell Lane in Old Basford in the late nineties, and are now in Colwick near the Country Park. Some of Russell’s materials can be found in the current office. Most of them had been collected and donated by his American wife Edith, a historian.

Ken Coates continued as the director of the Bertrand Russell Peace Foundation and was behind an extensive publishing programme under The Foundation’s Spokesman Books Imprint and in support of the Campaign for European Nuclear Disarmament (END). Of his many books, the classic ‘Poverty: The Forgotten Englishmen’ (Penguin, 1970), stands out. Written with Richard Silburn, the book examines (modern) poverty and how the poor live, in work focusing on a detailed survey of St Ann's, a then slum area undergoing clearance. Coates knew the writer and activist Ray Gosling who had fought for his community of St Ann’s against city planners. In Gosling’s second memoir ‘Personal Copy’ (1980), he recounts the efforts to improve St Ann’s, describing a changing Nottingham and writing about Coates.

In the ‘80s Ken Coates was elected MEP for Nottingham and he continued to argue for a close alignment with Europe until his death in 2010. His many campaigns include opposing the abolition of the Labour Party’s Clause IV - his book ‘Clause IV: Common Ownership and the Labour Party’- making a powerful argument in favour public ownership – as well as campaigning against military intervention in Afghanistan and Iraq as he continued to uphold his and Bertrand Russell’s ideals. He also edited The Spokesman journal.

Since 1970, The Spokesman, The Foundation’s journal, has been published in Nottingham. It still exists, featuring independent journalism on peace and nuclear disarmament, human rights and civil liberties, as well as contemporary politics. Contributors have included Robert Fisk, Noam Chomsky, Naomi Klein, John Le Carré, Trevor Griffiths and Kurt Vonnegut.

Forty years ago, Coates invited Tony Simpson to work at The Foundation as the European Nuclear Disarmament (END) campaign was burgeoning. Simpson has worked for The Foundation ever since and has edited The Spokesman for the past ten years, producing three journals a year with articles on peace and nuclear disarmament, human rights and civil liberties. His work continues to promote the writing and ideals of the Bertrand Russell worldwide, and helps to retain his many connections to Nottingham UNESCO City of Literature. In 1957 Russell won the UNESCO Kalinga Prize for his writing on science and society.

Our history of standing up for social justice is alive and well, and Nottingham’s writers continue to play their part in it.

“The best life is the one in which the creative impulses play the largest part and the possessive impulses the smallest. ”

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