For reasons too complicated to go into here, I found myself in Lewes this lunchtime with an hour to spare. Moved by the displays of Jubilee tat that seemed to occupy every shop window, I thought I’d spend a little while in search of Lewes’ most celebrated son – Thomas Paine, the intellectual moving spirit behind the American and French revolutions, and thus one of the most influential men in modern history.
Paine was not born in Lewes, but spent the years before he went to America here. It was in the radical clubs of Lewes that Paine, staymaker, tobacconist and (by all accounts notably unsuccesful) exciseman, formulated his revolutionary doctrines and expounded his ideas, railing against monarchy, against property, and calling for democracy - ideas that resound through Common Sense and Rights of Man, books that changed the world.
Finding Paine is not easy. His memorials are tucked away in quiet corners of the town; there is a Thomas Paine trail if you look hard enough but Lewes does not make a big thing out of him. Most obvious is Bull House in the High Street, where Paine lodged at the home of the tobacconist Samuel Ollive, whose daughter he eventually married (and whose business he so catastrophically mismanaged).
Further down the street is the crudely painted memorial at the Clock Tower – itself a Victorian replacement for the tower that Paine would have known. Incongruously enough, today Paine looked down on a cup-cake stall as part of Lewes’ friday morning market. It’s a poor painting – but the unchained crown at the bottom spoke volumes about an obsession which we have yet to grow out of.
Finally, to the statue unveiled by Tony Benn last year. Again, it’s tucked away – in front of the library (of which one imagines Paine would have approved) and behind the Quaker Meeting House (reminding us that Paine came from a family of Friends).
It’s a strange juxtaposition – a prosperous, often quite twee and very English market town, with views of the South Downs, and yet one where this great radical figure lurks, as it were, around quiet corners and twittens offering shade in the enervating heat.
Does Paine still matter today? Just across the road from the Clock Tower I found this:
I think the answer must be that we have never needed Paine so badly as we do now.