Lord Byron had died, or “passed into spirit”, as they say, on 19 April 1824, and anniversaries of this date are what would normally be celebrated. But he was having none of it: the restaurants in hell – his bit of the spirit world – were overpriced, the parties tedious, motorists invariably rude and inconsiderate, servants surly and uncooperative, and it was just too damned hot. He could see nothing to like about the place: this notion that it was where the girls and the wild parties were was particularly fallacious – especially as there was no nookie. And Satan? What a disappointment! How could he possibly take the Lord of Evil seriously when he turns out to be a fan of Justin Bieber? Early on, therefore, Byron insisted that if anyone was to have an annual celebration for him, it had to be on 22 January – his earthly birthday. At least he had been somebody when he had been on the material plane (his title did not help him much in the disgustingly-egalitarian afterlife).
Not everyone respected his wish – hell being, after all, a place of eternal torment, and not until Shelley organised a celebration on 22 January 2012 did he feel that the message had finally got through. The venue was to be a ski resort in purgatory. Shelley had even included a purgatory day pass with the invitation – no small thing as infernal bureaucracy was, well, infernal, and getting a pass by himself would have made his getting papers to travel around the Mediterranean in 1809 look like a picnic.
The truth of it was that Byron had been in hell a long time, and most had given up on him. Not Shelley, though – and it was important that his concern took the right form. His estranged wife Annabella’s sending of a procession of increasingly-senior clerics for him to “confess his sins” had only provoked the most stubborn resistance – Byron had amused himself by inventing increasingly-heinous transgressions, swearing the father confessor to secrecy, but knowing full well that it would get back to his increasingly-agitated ex. Shelley’s patient, non-judgemental concern, though, was on an altogether different plane, and he was happy to co-operate.
The event, in a huge room, comprised of a dinner followed by poetry. The guest list was truly impressive: a veritable Who’s Who of romantic literature. He was bemused that it included many, such as the “lakers”, who had no particular reason to wish him well.
“Southey, old chum – didn’t know you were still scribbling! In heaven now, eh? What’s that about? Your king is still doing time in purgatory. Have you no respect?”
Yet this jibe about Southey’s sycophancy to George III was treated with unexpected good humour, and hearing a generous tribute by Shelley he was almost feeling good about himself for the first time in nearly 200 years. Almost. One thing that persistently annoyed him was the putrid glow of those, like Shelley, or Southey or even Hobhouse or Augusta for that matter, who had attained the higher spheres, and he did not relish the prospect of having to sit through their tedious verse, with all its annoying praise of goodness, beauty and other such rot. Yet he managed it, with even a smile on his face, and when Shelley got up at the end, he was feeling positively indulgent. Shelley’s tribute, in heroic couplets, though effusive, contained the right amount of good-natured mockery, and the smile stayed on Byron’s face until the final couplet.
The most acclaimed of wordsmiths is the wight,
Who nearly pass’d to heav’n eternal light!
“Shelley, what’s this ‘nearly’? What are you talking about?”
“The hell/heaven parole board. 2003. Remember? You nearly got upgraded to heaven.”
They say that memory blots out pain. Here was a painful memory, but one he thought he had blotted out. He had been up for parole, and St. Peter was ready to sign the papers when Satan had started reciting some Oxford Byron Society verse. He had lost his rag, and as a result was condemned to hell for another thousand years. A thousand years of being overcharged by supermarkets and restaurants; of being cut up by snarling yahoos on overly-narrow motorways. He forced himself to laugh.
“Oh that!” he said airily. “Can’t say I have any regrets. What could be more boring than playing harps in nighties and pushing clouds around all day. Hell is so much more fun!”
All were staring at him. Hell was definitely not more fun.
“I wouldn’t worry,” said Shelley finally. “The Oxford Byron Society is now pretty much dead. This meeting they are having on 14 April at the Trinity Alumni Dinner at the Yale Club in New York is the first in eight and a half years.”
“They’re having another meeting?” screamed the outraged peer, years of pent-up frustration exploding at that moment. “Have they no respect?”
“George, it’s nothing – it’s not even their dinner: it’s just a college alumni dinner – you know: one of those embarrassing events where the college gets on its hands and knees and literally grovels for money. I doubt that many of them will even be writing poetry.”
“Oh – so some of them will be writing poetry, then!” said His Lordship, as though he had caught Shelley out. His visage was all triumphant disdain admixed with noble suffering.
“Relax. Only the hard core poetasters. You know – Henrey, Hoey, Oakley, Paretzky. The others probably won’t write a line.”
“Shelley – you are no longer my friend!” said the nobleman, theatrically averting his face, and stomping out. Wordsworth, at the other end of the room, stood up.
“George may be overdoing it a bit,” he volunteered, “but the Oxford Byron Society aren’t exactly respectable!”
Chris “Childe Harold” Oakley