Tuesday, September 14, 2004

Nothing new

One more bit from the Oxford Book of Literary Anecdotes, and then we’re done.

I have recently been sent a government leaflet, telling me what to do in an emergency – such as, presumably, a terrorist attack. I have, of course, read, marked, learnt, and inwardly digested this leaflet, and so now I know exactly what I shall do when the siren sounds. I shall panic, like everybody else.

It is reassuring, however, to know that the current public alarm about atrocities of one sort and another is not new. A hundred years ago the dreaded word was ‘anarchist’. The anarchists were in the habit of throwing bombs about, for no better reason, it seems, than to create anarchy.

The public conception of the anarchist was of someone with a soft dark hat, a flowing cloak, and a spreading necktie. And one day Edmund Gosse happened to find himself on a crowded omnibus when he came across William Michael Rossetti, together with the latter’s daughter.

Rossetti was dressed very much in the manner which might arouse suspicion of violent intent, and so Gosse said to him, in a jocular manner, ‘I understand you are an anarchist.’

‘I must differentiate,’ said Rossetti, in an exceptionally loud voice. ‘I am an atheist: my daughter is an anarchist.’

At the next stop, the bus rapidly emptied.

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