Last week, there were two major cultural anniversaries. Two hundred and fifty years ago, on April 7, 1770, William Wordsworth was born.
Fifty years ago, on April 10, 1970, The Beatles split up. Does anything link these two anniversaries? They seem to belong to different worlds and, in many ways, they do.
Yet bizarre though it is, just three handshakes link William Wordsworth to Paul McCartney. By the autumn of 1966, Paul McCartney was one of the most famous people on the planet.
Wisely, he took full advantage of his position, realising that it gave him the opportu nity to meet virtually whoever took his fancy. One day, he telephoned the eminent philosopher Bertrand Russell, who was then aged 94, and living in Chelsea.
Sir Paul McCartney “Hey Grandude!” book signing at Waterstones Piccadilly in 2019
‘Somehow, I got his number and called him up. I figured him as a good speaker, I’d seen him on television, I’d read various bits and pieces and was very impressed by his dignity and the clarity of his thinking,’ Paul recalled.
‘So when I got a chance I went down and met him.’ The elderly philosopher and the 24 -year -old pop star spoke about the iniquities of the Vietnam war. It was, Paul remembered, ‘a great little talk.
Nothing earth shattering. He just clued me in to the fact that Vietnam was a very bad war, it was an imperialist war and American vested interests were really all it was all about. It was a bad war and we should be against it.’
Five years earlier, Russell had been arrested on a peace march for sitting down in the street with fellow protesters. Asked by the magistrate if he promised to be of good behaviour, he had replied, ‘No, I do not’, and was sentenced to seven days in Brixton prison.
Seventy-seven years before his meeting with Paul McCartney, the teenage Bertrand Russell was living with his grandmother when William Gladstone, between stints as prime minister, came calling. Russell was to remember it as ‘far the worst experience of my life’.
Those who had never met Gladstone, he said, could never know the fear induced by what he called ‘the Gladstone eye — a terrifying glance he used to give people, and you wanted to sink through the earth’.
Alone with the quivering young Russell after the ladies had left the dinner table, Gladstone made just one remark. ‘This is a very good port they have given me’, he said, ‘but why have they given it me in a claret glass?’
Russell was lost for words. ‘I did not know the answer, and wished the earth would swallow me up. Since then I have never again felt the full agony of terror.’ So Paul McCartney shook the hand that shook the hand of William Gladstone.
But this remarkable conga-line does not end there. In 1836, when Gladstone himself was a young man, he had a series of meetings with the famous poet William Wordsworth, who was then aged 66.
Judging by Gladstone’s diary entries, they chatted about everything under the sun.’ Mr Wordsworth… to break fast’, Gladstone writes in his diary of May 16th. ‘Sat till 12 3/4.
Conver sation on Shelley, Trench, Tenny son; travelling, copyright, etc.’ A month later, the up-and-coming young MP read Wordsworth’s poems in the afternoon, then rose to speak in the House of Commons for 45 minutes.
How many of today’s MPs would spend their time reading poetry before delivering a long speech? The young politician and the elderly poet struck up quite a friend ship. Wordsworth joined in Gladstone’s prayers; Gladstone listened as Wordsworth read verse.
‘Glory is gathering round his later years on earth, and his later works especially indicate the spiritual ripening of his noble soul,’ reflected Gladstone. But Wordsworth was not all sweetness and light.
Like most poets, before and since, he could be waspish when discussing his upstart rivals. ‘Wordsworth is vehement against Byron’, Glad stone noted.
‘He saw in Shelley the lowest form of irreligion.’ Last week, on Petroc Trelawny’s Radio 3 breakfast show — the perfect antidote to these stressful times — Ralph Fiennes celebrated Wordsworth’s 250th anniversary by reading his most famous poem, Daffodils.
So we leapfrog from Daffodils to Blackbird in just three meetings — and time vanishes.