Troubled Times – Part 2
by Stu O’Connor
Excerpts from the Diaries of Samuel Pepys
7 February 1660 Diary entry. (The Rump Parliament 1648–53, 1659–60 was the one that supported trying Charles I for high treason. It was dissolved by Oliver Cromwell, then re-instated just before the restoration of Charles II.)
As they say, “Desperate times call for desperate measures.” When one’s world is falling apart, one’s survival may call for measures that are out of the ordinary. Times change. Politics and power centers change. In addition, people change during the swift currents of momentous times. Some folks hunker down to wait things out, some take strong actions in an attempt to influence events, and some . . . well, some observe and laugh.
In our current era of lockdowns, demonstrations and riots, a contentious upcoming election, and an economy walking a tightrope across the Grand Canyon without a net, Samuel Pepys (a Member of Parliament) would have felt right at home—and no doubt happy to contribute a wry observation or two. Pepys witnessed the Plague Year of 1665, the Great London Fire (one third of the city burned down), and the roiling political times of the Restoration. He witnessed not only the execution of Charles I, but attended the coronation of Charles II and the restoration of the Stuart monarchy in England. To get a clear idea of his style, think Matt Groening as a member of Congress with front-row access to the major events of his time or Andy Warhol making biting observations in his diary.
Saturday 13 October 1660: A Public Execution and Oysters (note: Pepys’s original spelling preserved)
To my Lord’s in the morning, where I met with Captain Cuttance, but my Lord not being up I went out to Charing Cross, to see Major-general Harrison hanged, drawn, and quartered; which was done there, he looking as cheerful as any man could do in that condition. He was presently cut down, and his head and heart shown to the people, at which there was great shouts of joy. It is said, that he said that he was sure to come shortly at the right hand of Christ to judge them that now had judged him; and that his wife do expect his coming again . . .
Thus it was my chance to see the King beheaded at White Hall, and to see the first blood shed in revenge for the blood of the King at Charing Cross. From thence to my Lord’s, and took Captain Cuttance and Mr. Sheply to the Sun Tavern, and did give them some oysters. After that I went by water home, where I was angry with my wife for her things lying about, and in my passion kicked the little fine basket, which I bought her in Holland, and broke it, which troubled me after I had done it . . . Within all the afternoon setting up shelves in my study. At night to bed
(Adapted from: https://www.pepysdiary.com/diary/1660/10/13/ ).
The contrast between the great import of this event—the changing of power centers in a world empire—and Pepys’s everyday observations can only amuse. To put it in more modern prose:
Yes, we went to the draw-and-quartering and execution of a leading rebel (which, come to think of it, reminds me of the beheading of Charles I) . . . and then went to the tavern for oysters. After I got home, I was pissed at my wife’s messiness and kicked a basket I bought for her and broke it . . .
A (funny) juxtaposition of the significant and the work-a-day, indeed!
Saturday 23 April 1661: Coronation of Charles II, or “Are we there, yet?”
. . . about 4 in the morning I rose. And got to the [Westminster] abby, where I fallowed Sir J. Denham the surveyour with some company that he was leading in. And with much ado, . . . did get up into a great scaffold across the north end of the abby—where with a great deal of patience I sat from past 4 till 11 before the King came in . . .
The King in his robes, bare headed, . . . was very fine . . . there was a sermon and the service. And then in the Quire at the high altar he passed all the ceremonies of the Coronacion—which, to my very great grief, I and most of the Abbey could not see. The crowne being put upon his head, a great shout begun . . . And a Generall pardon also was read by the Lord Chancellor; and meddalls flung up and down by my Lord Cornwallis—of silver; but I could not come by any.
But so great a noise, that I could make but little of the Musique; and endeed, it was lost to everybody. But I had so great a list to pisse, that I went out a little while before the King had done all his ceremonies and went round the abby to Westminster-hall, all the way within rayles, and 10000 people, with the ground coverd with blue cloth—and Scaffolds all the way. Into the hall I got—where it was very fine with hangings and scaffolds, one upon another, full of brave ladies. And my wife in one little one on the right hand
(Adapted from: http://www.pepys.info/coronation.html ).
Imagine the discomfort of sitting for six-and-a-half hours to see an event of such historical importance (think presidential inauguration). While Pepys’s eye for detail captures the grandeur of the moment, it is also humorous to see the very human side of an event like this—can’t see, can’t hear, didn’t get any of the swag being thrown about, and having to go out to relieve himself after an interminable amount of time sitting.
History reminds us that the human spirit can overcome nearly any obstacle with the right attitude. As we witness an “interesting” presidential cycle, it’s always a good idea to remember a few things: (1) keep your cards close to your vest, (2) remember that there is nothing new under the sun, (3) don’t take yourself so seriously, and (4) keep a diary. While you’re writing in that diary, remember to laugh—we are all pawns in history’s game!
Photo by Clay Banks (Charlotte NC) @claybanks
Stu O’Connor is an educator, musician, and poet who has spent his life dedicated to the power of the word, the necessity of precision in language, and the human need for story as a method of transmitting culture, ideas, and understanding. He has been published in The Mad Poets Review, New Voices in American Poetry, and the Poetry Ink 20 th Anniversary Anthology. He has an undergraduate degree from West Chester University, a Master’s degree from Gratz College, and teaches English in the West Chester Area School District. He has held an Advisory Board seat for West Chester University’s Writing Zones program and currently is an Advisory Board member for The Mad Poets Society, one of the Philadelphia Region’s largest poetry groups. He performs music on a regular basis with two bands and hosts a poetry series in West Chester called ”Living on Luck” for The Mad Poets Society.