HE was described by George Orwell, in a barely coded attack, as a “fruit juice drinker, nudist, sandal wearer and sex maniac”.
And – those of a conservative disposition, look away now – a permanent piece of art marking this 19th century man’s life is set to be installed in Sheffield city centre if a newly-formed campaign group gets its way.
Because while Edward Carpenter was undoubtedly all the things Orwell said – and proud to be so too – he was also one of the greatest intellects, political philosophers and libertarians of his age.
Now, the group, the Friends Of Edward Carpenter, are hoping a memorial – perhaps a steel sandal, no less, in Tudor Square – can be commissioned to remember this most remarkable man.
“The thing with Carpenter,” says Rony Robinson, the Radio Sheffield presenter and playwright who is with the group, “is that people are constantly rediscovering him. His works continue to be relevant in so many ways, and we believe a memorial to him would be fitting for the city he loved and called home.”
It would become, the group say, a respectful place of pilgrimage and meditation which would attract socialists and admirers from around the world. If fund raising goes well and the council confirms its support, it could be fitted by 2013.
“It’s still early days,” says Rony. “But we feel there is definitely enough support there. We’re now starting fund raising so when we go to the council it will be with a detailed and costed plan. Essentially, we feel he should be recognised and shouldn’t be forgotten just because he didn’t always lead a mainstream lifestyle.”
Certainly mainstream was never something Carpenter – who was born in Brighton in 1844, went to university in Cambridge and moved to Sheffield in 1880 – could have been accused of.
A homosexual, teetotaller and vegetarian, he set up a commune in Millthorpe in the late 1880s which became a hub of anti-materialism, Hindu mysticism and naked swimming. There, he, his friends and followers – including his lover, former steel worker George Merrill – lived what would these days be termed the ‘simple life’, living off their own fruit and vegetables, making their own music, and wearing clothes, including sandals and woollen trunks, they made themselves.
But Carpenter was more than the sum of his living arrangements.
Recognised as an intellectual giant, he was a prominent advocate of equality, sexual freedom, humanitarianism, woman’s suffrage, pacifism and universal education – “many of the concepts which are considered 20th or 21st century ideals really,” says Sheila Rowbotham, whose 2008 biography A Life Of Liberty And Love, is considered the definitive book on him and who is supporting the campaign.
“In some of the things he was doing and campaigning for he was a full century ahead of his time.”
Indeed Carpenter, who wrote a prolific number of books and essays over 50 years, was also a founding member of the Independent Labour Party, was instrumental in the creation of the Fabian Society and was so respected that on his 80th birthday every member of the new Labour government signed a card.
This year, 2011, marks the centenary of one of his most influential treatises – Non-governmental Society – but, as Rony and Sheila both note, you could pick almost any year and it would be the anniversary of something special he had written.
He passed away on June 28, 1929.
“There is some thought a memorial could go in Townhead Street near where there was a speakers’ corner or Scotland Street where he lived for some time,” says Rony. “But the consensus seems to be at the moment Tudor Square would be more central and perhaps more appropriate for a piece of art. I’m sure it would be a great addition to the square.”
To support the friend’s campaign visit www.friendsofedwardcarpenter.co.uk