|63010. Fri Mar 31, 2006 7:51 am
How many courses should you expect at a Wilkites dinner?
Loosen your belt a notch: the answer is 45.
John Wilkes (1727-1797) was a radical MP, pamphleteer, troublemaker, hideous babe-magnet, and social reformer. He was one of the 18th century’s loudest and most legendary voices in favour of democracy and liberty.
His fame reached a peak with issue number 45 of his weekly paper, the North Briton, which argued for fundamental democratic reforms of parliament and became a sensational bestseller.
As a result, the number itself - 45 - became a global symbol of radical reform. The slogan “Wilkes and liberty and Number 45!” struck terror into the ruling classes everywhere. Wilkites would meet in groups of 45 and eat that number of dishes, dance that number of dances, and kiss each other that number of times.
Unable, on a technicality, to arrest him for editing issue 45, the authorities managed to jail him for his part in writing a pornographic poem. Upon his release from prison, the Club 45 in Charleston drank 45 toasts to him between 7.45pm and 12.45am. The people of Virginia and Maryland sent him 45 hogsheads of tobacco. In Newcastle, 45 diners sat down at 1.45 precisely, to enjoy forty-five gills of wine and forty-five new-laid eggs. At 2.45 they began the dinner proper: five courses, each of which had nine dishes. These included a 45lb sirloin of beef.
Wilkes was one of the most famous ugly people in history: he had a “sloping forehead, hanging jaw, bad teeth, bad breath” and a “severe squint.” He was advised never to risk showing his face to a pregnant woman. Despite this, he was a famously successful libertine, who reckoned it took him but twenty minutes of conversation with a woman to “talk away” his face - despite his extreme lisp - and talk her into bed. He was an enthusiastic participant in the orgies of Sir Francis Dashwood’s Hellfire Club. When once offered a pinch of snuff, he is supposed to have declined, remarking that “I never deal in little vices.”
Buttons, buckles, brooches, snuff-boxes and mugs emblazoned with the number 45 were on sale throughout Britain. Small busts of the ugly hero sat upon every fashionable and radical mantelpiece.
Wilkes was a far-seeing reformer: he introduced the first ever Bill proposing universal male suffrage, more than a century before that became law, and campaigned for toleration of Muslims, Jews and Catholics. He had a great influence on the American revolutionaries. Today, he is remembered more than for anything, for this supposed exchange with the Earl of Sandwich, a former friend, and subsequent enemy:
Sandwich: ‘Pon my soul, Wilkes, I don’t know whether you’ll die upon the gallows or of the pox.
Wilkes: That depends, my Lord, whether I first embrace your Lordship’s principles, or your Lordship's mistresses.
Dancing, Dishes, Dissent
A Billy Bragg record on 45rpm?
Sources: Review in Sunday Telegraph, 12 March 2006, of ‘John Wilkes, The Scandalous Father of Civil Liberty’ by Arthur H. Cash (Yale, 2006).