The Life and Adventures of William Cobbett by Richard Ingrams

A great Englishman: bold, rebellious, egotistical

Cobbett was imprisoned for two years following a libel case, he wrote thousands of pamphlets, he founded the publication which became known as Hansard, and was constantly pilloried and satirised by the powers that be. He was a soldier, an innovative farmer, he spent time living in America, and he had a rich though turbulent family life. His publication Cobbett's Register was a highly successful weekly which was a cross between Private Eye and a very good blog. It was personal, brilliantly written and contained attacks on public figures, reflections on the countryside and was an inimitable mix of courageous, crusading journalism and practical inspiration for improving everyday life, and very widely read by the man on the street.

Ingrams is particularly keen on the ins and outs of Cobbett's various libel cases, as one would expect from a founder and former editor of Private Eye, which itself, with its mix of humour and criticism of pomposity and hypocrisy, is more than a little Cobbettesque. Like Private Eye, Cobbett loved nicknames and rich invective, but was generous enough to change his mind if new information was forthcoming.

During the earlier parts, though, I did long for a bit more of the author's own voice. Ingrams occasionally drops in a satirical aside or personal judgement, and this comes as a great relief amid the efficient but sometimes dry relating of events, with its stream of dates, names and, if I may say so, too many brackets. However, the book really gathers pace as it proceeds, and by the time we get to the chapter called "Rural Rider" it is steaming away at full speed, after its slow start. "Rural Rider" concentrates on the part of Cobbett's work which to me is the most relevant today: his humane concern for the way the Industrial Revolution had taken away self-sufficiency from the average English labourer. Although there is little on Cobbett's great self-sufficiency manual Cottage Economy, with its eccentric attack on tea-drinking, there is a terrific account of Cobbett's attack on the pious and hypocritical Hannah More, self-appointed keeper of the nation's morals. Cobbett called her "the old bishop in petticoats". Hannah More wrote appalling moralistic tracts for the common people, preaching slavish so-called virtues such as deference to one's boss and early rising, and Cobbett singled out for particular abuse a nasty little parable about the death of "the Evangelical mouse who though starving would not touch his master's cheese and bacon". I found myself absolutely glued to the book at this point, reading greedily but also trying to slow myself down because I didn't want it to end.

The book is a vivid picture of a more colourful age, full of life and incident, coming as it did just before the reign of Queen Victoria and the growth of ugliness and exploitation that has characterised Britain ever since. Ingrams emerges as a humane historian who does not believe the myth that things have been getting steadily better since the dawn of time and that the Enlightenment brought freedom from superstition and church rule and ushered in a new culture of rational thought. Quite the opposite: he has the view, shared by Ruskin, William Morris, G K Chesterton and many more that the Enlightenment, in actual fact, brought in a new era of commercial exploitation, wage slavery, the factory system and an all round loss of liberty for the average Brit. Ingrams does a brilliant job, for example, of resurrecting Cobbett's History of the Protestant Reformation (1824) which I for one had never even heard of, but will now rush out and read. This book, he says, sold 640,000 copies around the world. In it Cobbett attacked Henry VIII, Elizabeth I (who is described as a cold-blooded murderer), and the Quakers for their capitalistic cunning and their practice of lending money at interest, a practice long condemned by the Catholic Church.

So much of Cobbett is relevant today: his relentless attacks on humbug, corruption, privilege and patronising self-help books; his concern for the lot of the people and also his defence of the peasant's way of life as a viable alternative to the new wage slavery. It brings to mind the work of Francis Wheen, and yet another comparison might be made with Michael Moore. This is inspiring stuff and it asks us to take Cobbett seriously, and see him as much more than a lovable eccentric of a bygone age.