Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

19 October 2018

An inscription at St Bride’s, Fleet Street, sets Malcolm Guite’s mind to questions of truth and freedom

I HAD slipped down into the crypt of St Bride’s, Fleet Street, for a few moments’ quiet before a service in which I was reading, when I noticed this inscription on a small piece of slate propped up on a stone shelf: “Scatter my ashes in Fleet Street, let the breeze carry my mortal remains to an unseen crevice, a forgotten ledge, where my spirit can hear again the laughing voices in the night.”

It reminded me of the wonderful accounts of those “laughing voices” that G. K. Chesterton gives in his Autobiography: “I belonged to the old Bohemian life of Fleet Street, which has since been destroyed, not by the idealism of detachment, but by the materialism of machinery.” But he goes on tell a few “tales about the taverns and ragged pressman and work and recreation coming at random at all hours of the night”.

As it happens, the inscription I had been reading was for a journalist well after Chesterton’s time. It commemorated Derek Jameson, the colourful and controversial tabloid editor and broadcaster, who had brought a combination of flamboyance and hard-nosed determination with him from the Borstal and the East End poverty that formed him — and, as his chosen inscription makes clear, kept something of that spirit right to the end.

But this plea to scatter a journalist’s ashes amid the taverns of Fleet Street had put me in mind of darker and more challenging stories from our own times. Jameson had certainly courted controversy in his lifetime, and had annoyed both the powerful on the one hand and the pious on the other, but there was never any question that he had the freedom to do so.

Not so now, I thought. For my mind was haunted by accounts of the rape and murder of Viktoria Marinova, a Bulgarian journalist who had been reporting on alleged corruption and the disappearance and possible murder of the Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi: just two victims in the alarming and rising number of journalists who have been killed in the course of pursuing truth. I knew that, in the church above me, the “cathedral” of our free press, prayers have so often been said and vigils kept for journalists who have disappeared, and I found myself adding to those prayers.

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I thought of Jameson’s phrases — “scatter my ashes . . . let the breeze carry my mortal remains” — and feared that, perhaps, for those other heroic journalists, it would be only scattered ashes that remained; and then I suddenly remembered Shelley’s prayer in “Ode to the West Wind”:
 

Drive my dead thoughts over the universe
Like wither’d leaves to quicken a new birth!
And, by the incantation of this verse, 

Scatter, as from an unextinguish’d hearth
Ashes and sparks, my words among mankind!
Be through my lips to unawaken’d earth 

The trumpet of a prophecy! O Wind,
If Winter comes, can Spring be far behind?
 

There are, and there always will be, sparks among the ashes. Truth and the freedom to speak it are such fiery things that they cannot for ever be extinguished, and will always, in spite of every oppression, kindle from one mind to another.

Of his own unexpected career as a journalist, Chesterton remarked: “How I ever managed to fall on my feet in Fleet Street is a mystery.” I feel the same way, but, as I left the crypt to take my part in the service, I was glad to be in the company of journalists, and, in their beautiful church, glad to add my own small efforts, and my prayers, to theirs.

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