Book review

Shelley at Oxford: Blasphemy, Book-Burning & Bedlam. Heathcote Williams. Huxley Scientific Press, pbk, 32pp, £6.
(Reviewed by Paul Freestone)

In the history of vegetarianism the presence of Percy Shelley (1792 – 1822) is huge. Despite the fact that he died at the age of only 29, he has achieved immortality in the public consciousness. Shelley is the quintessential rebel, a beautiful revolutionary, and a key member of a celebrated group of writers and poets which included his wife Mary Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. In fact, Shelley and associated figures (Alexander Pope, Thomas Tyron, and Joseph Ritson) promoted vegetarianism before the word had even been coined in 1847. These ‘Pythagoreans’ combined the ideals of compassion, non-violence, and respect for nature with the
fundamental idea that slaughtering animals for meat was disgusting and immoral.

Shelley at Oxford provides us with a new account and gives us “the real Shelley, the intellectual revolutionary free of the romantic stereotype”. In Heathcote Williams’s inimitable and distinctive style he presents a prose poem which tells the story of Shelley’s radicalism during his brief time at
University College. He was threatened with blasphemous libel, and expelled from the University. How ironic that Shelley is now one of University College’s most famous alumni. This status is highlighted by his memorial within the college, a white marble sculpture of a reclining nude and dead Shelley washed up on the shore at Viareggio in Italy after his drowning. Also, in 2005 the college (in association with the Bodleian Library) acquired some of Shelley’s letters to further enhance its connection with the poet.

What would Shelley make of all this, and the way that Oxford University operates now? It’s fair to say that he would be appalled at the University’s animal lab which demonstrates the most disturbing lack of enlightenment. Two hundred years after he was thrown out of Oxford, and in many ways so little has changed. The reviled establishment is still in control, and still making decisions which display a dearth of humanity or compassion. In another 200 years Shelley’s memorial will (almost certainly) still be there, but will anyone remember the despicable vivisectionists that are currently working
within the University? In his preface the author points out that Shelley was hugely influential for people like Karl Marx, Oscar Wilde, George Bernard Shaw, Mahatma Gandhi and Upton Sinclair. Shelley at Oxford is a timely reminder of why subversive writers and artists (like Shelley and Heathcote
Williams) are so important.

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