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The Trouble With Tom, Paul Collins, 1/2/06

From: Max Dunbar's Book Reviews
Category: Books
Date: 01 February 2006


Buy Thomas Paine A Drink

A new study of the great democrat takes us on an adventure with Thom Paine’s rotting skeleton. By Max Dunbar

You might remember Gordon Brown recently floated the idea of a ‘British Day’. Presumably this would be a date dedicated to the nation itself, invented for its own purpose rather prompted by long-ago tragedies or pointless milestones. This idea isn’t as silly or jingoistic as it seems. Forgetting for the moment that many people regard themselves English, Scottish or Welsh rather than British (and that’s not even talking about NI- I’m not touching that one) it would be good to have an event that wasn’t based on religion or monarchy. Americans have the 4th of July, the French have their Bastille Day: joyful celebrations of freedom from tyranny and the victory of reason over reaction. It would be nice to have something like that here. It would be the first step on the road to a British Republic.

The ‘British Day’ would have to be on January 29, the birthday of Thomas Paine. A revolutionary, writer and patriot, Paine had a role in the bloody birth of three Western democracies- although one gets the feeling that if he were around in America today, he’d be thrown in Gitmo faster than you can say ‘extraordinary rendition’. I’d love to see his statue in Trafalgar Square. But Paine never got a proper burial, never mind a statue.

Collins begins his story of Paine not with the great man’s birth but with his death. Paine, at the end of his days, is shown wandering, poor and raddled and looking for a place to sleep: after he goes, the story gets even more bizarre as the narrative follows the story of Thomas Paine’s bones, which were passed around his colleagues and admirers for reasons of tribute and expense, and were eventually found in a farmer’s field in 1976. There’s a kind of macabre hilarity involved in tracing the story of Paine’s nomadic skeleton (one of the man’s admirers used to exhibit the bones at dinner parties, until his guests complained that the sight was too offputting) but it serves the book’s central purpose; to explain how Thom Paine was connected to the other great fighters for truth and reason.

The story of Paine’s afterlife is interspersed with scenes from the contemporary world. Collins is too talented as a writer and historian to go for this hackneyed, Blue Peter style approach (‘This is the place where Oliver Cromwell used to go to compose his sermons. Now… it’s a Yates’s Wine Lodge’) but he can’t resist giving his readers the mind-blowing information that the geography of Britain has changed over the last two hundred years or so. As a comparison between the romantic and the prosiacal, this has been done to death. In contrasting Paine’s time with ours, Collins may have been better employed in speculating how much our society has really learnt from him. Although only seven per cent of people in Britain are regular churchgoers, our government is planning the introduction of faith schools and an extension of the blasphemy laws. Enough to make old Thom spin in his grave, if he had one.

Yet the narrative doesn’t quite slide into the pathetic fashion for dramatisation that is common to contemporary history books and TV programmes. Half colloquial, half learned, Collins carries you along the trail with wit and charm, and his obvious love for his subject is endearing. The historical story would be enough even as a straight exercise in academic scholarship: it is always fascinating to see the gradual spread of enlightenment and to meet the various outcasts and eccentrics fighting against what Collins calls the dead authority of the past. Paine sold thousands of pamphlets because, unlike many revolutionaries, he wrote in a style that was accessible to the common man without losing any of its impact. We tend to forget, crowded out by his life and achievements, how good a writer Paine was. Read The Age of Reason and you will understand how a book could cause riots- the words seem to speak straight into your heart without first being registered by the eyes. The action taken against him and his publishers by the ruling class ranges from the sinister to the ridiculous (in an early smear, Collins tells us, one Tory writer accuses him of raping a cat). If you want to know about the Peterloo Massacre or capital punishment or the beginnings of a sexual emancipation that long predated the 1960s, it’s all here.

In following Paine’s bones we meet Darwin, Byron, Walt Whitman, Ben Franklin and Mary Wollestonecraft: surface connections to Paine are sometimes intangible and coincidental, but the deeper bond is as real as bone- they believed in liberty, equality and fraternity, and were willing to fight for those things even if it meant imprisonment or death. The fight and the hope is not restricted to intellectuals and writers, but is a part of all of us. And this is a book of hope, because it illustrates that no matter how many laws or guns are on their side, the forces of oppression and superstition will lose, and lose utterly.

So, how about it? January 29 could be a day of secular celebration, a day for reflecting upon the life and work of a man who at least did exist, and didn’t have anyone killed. Finally, a Bank Holiday in the name of someone I can look up to! Let freedom ring.

The Trouble With Tom: The Strange Afterlife and Times of Thomas Paine, Paul Collins, Bloomsbury 2006. Join the Thomas Paine society at

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