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Malcolm Guite: Poet’s Corner

05 August 2022

Norfolk’s robustly contrarian spirit has a long history, Malcolm Guite finds

THERE is an old dialect saying in these parts: “In Norfolk we do different.” This eventually became the motto of the University of East Anglia, modernised and shortened as simply: “Do Different.”

I have certainly noticed that my newly adopted county is imbued with a robustly contrarian spirit. Unsurprisingly, Norfolk has a long history of radicalism — and, occasionally, rebellion. One has only to think of how Julian of Norwich resisted the wrathful theologies of her day with a radical new theology of Love; to think of the reforming zeal of the Lollards; or of the Peasants’ Revolt, whose final battle was fought here in North Walsham; or, later still, of Kett’s Rebellion.

So it didn’t surprise me to discover that Tom Paine, that friend of the poor, thorn in the flesh of tyrants, and inspirer of American independence, was a Norfolk lad, born in Thetford.

I found this out when I went with Maggie to the Maids Head Hotel, a Norwich inn that goes back to the 13th century, to hear Rob Knee, a local historian, give an oration in the person of Paine himself, clad in 18th-century clothes, telling the story of his life and quoting from his works. It was a riveting tale: from his days as an apprentice staymaker in Norfolk, to his life as a customs and excise man in Lewes, to his sojourns in America and France, and then back to America, assisting in both revolutions and becoming friends with figures as diverse as William Blake and Thomas Jefferson.

But it was the readings from Paine’s pamphlets that really struck home; for so many of his ideas, radical and almost unthinkable at the time, are, to quote one of his own titles, Common Sense now: progressive taxation to provide welfare for the poorest; free and universal education; the power, invested in ordinary people, to change their government by democratic mandate.

Even among the radical circles in which he moved, some of his ideas were too much of a challenge. His early opposition to slavery, and call for the emancipation of slaves in America, lost him much of his support there; for his friends Jefferson and Washington were both slave-owners. Some of his ideas have yet to catch on, such as his plea for a universal basic income funded by taxes on inherited wealth; and some of his opinions, especially on religion, remain as controversial as ever. He began as a Quaker and was thus already a dissenter, but, under the influence of Voltaire and others, he passed on from those radically Christian roots into the philosophical deism which characterised, for him, in the title of another of his pamphlets, The Age of Reason.

And here, of course, I differ from him, and place my trust not in some supreme, and supremely detached, watchmaker, but in the living and loving God I meet in Christ: one who knows what it is to be crucified as well as to be raised in glory. But, doubtless, Paine, for all that he mocks my religion, would, as a good Norfolk man, applaud my choice to “do different” and to disagree with both his strictures and the aggressive secularism of my own age.

Certainly, the local historian who brought Paine so vividly to life that morning in Norwich also enjoyed his Norfolk freedom to “do different”; for there he was the next Sunday, worshipping Christ with me, in our parish church. Would Paine be turning in his grave or applauding from the rafters? Perhaps both.

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