Posts Tagged ‘Hilary Mantel’

Bring up the bodies

Fortunately, apart from C.J.Sansom’s splendid Shardlake sequence of novels, I haven’t spent much time with the Tudors over the years, so although I’ve got a vague idea what’s going to happen to Thomas Cromwell in the last instalment in what is now to be Hilary Mantel‘s compelling trilogy – although I know it doesn’t end well – I’m still on tenterhooks.  Because if Wolf Hall (2010) was a tour de force, then Bring up the bodies (Fourth Estate, 2012) is even better.  You are in there with this extraordinary man – the “blacksmith’s boy” (as the Duke of Norfolk sneeringly calls him) who ran away,  who has been around, European mercenary, merchant, machiavel – the second most powerful man in the land, and one of the richest, the dark presence in Sansom’s books, here portrayed as the first modern Englishman; and you are rooting for him, doubting with him, taking a breather with him, regretting with him all the way, this long distance juggler of moralities and loyalties and memory for king, country, church, family and self.  No abstract principles, but as good a man as he can afford to be, and, balancing all these labours, he certainly tries.  Nor does it get any easier with the death of Henry VIII’s first wife and the trial and execution of Anne Boleyn and her chums; here we may see him at his worst, but you can understand it.

Hilary Mantel is an extraordinary writer.  Where context is all – the court, the king’s domestic cares and woes, European empires and politics, cut through with scenes, moments of clarity, from Cromwell’s adventurous life and friendships – you still get sudden dazzling  shafts resonating with contemporary (here, now) Britain.  And her pacing is immaculate.  You are drawn in, engaged with the action, his pleasures, the shifting emotional scenery, the tasks, the tensions, the comforts forsaken.  You are in his head, you feel the history, see a society growing, where you come from.

Apart from the obvious dramatic events, these were particular highlights for me:

  • Cromwell’s relaxing at Christmas with friends and family at his Stepney residence, coming home to the smell of apples after the stench and intrigue of the court and Katherine’s death-bed, though some of the entertainments are put to terrible use later;
  • the questioning of court musician Mark Smeaton and the getting of his confession to be chief witness for the prosecution in the matter of Anne Boleyn’s alleged treasonous adultery (which is where the Christmas props come in)
  • a reverie of bitter-sweet reminiscence of a discussion with a drunken Portuguese knight in Venice and the day after’s stroll taking in some exceptional works of art, only to be interrupted by Rafe coming in with the news that the king was dead (he wasn’t and TC is the first to realise it)
  • the matter of poor Harry Percy’s second interview, too complicated to explain briefly here, but a delicious embarrassment calling for some real front to brazen it out

Something to give the flavour, and some lovely touches.  Early on, TC’s work load:

His inner voice mocks him now: you thought you were going to get a holiday at Wolf Hall. You thought there would be nothing to do here except the usual business, war and peace, famine, traitorous connivances, a failing harvest, a stubborn populace; plague ravaging London, and the king losing his shirt at cards.

There’s the good old days to consider, a purer jousting:

… [Brandon] can slap the king on the back and call him Harry; he can chuckle with him over ancient jests and tilt-yard escapades. But chivalry’s day is over. One day soon moss will grow in the tilt-yard. The days of the moneylender have arrived, and the days of the swaggering privateer; banker sits down with banker, and kings are their waiting boys.

And how’s this for joined up thinking?

In March, Parliament knocks back his new poor law. It was too much for the Commons to digest, that rich men might have some duty to the poor; that if you get fat, as gentlemen of England do, on the wool trade, you have some responsibility to the men turned off the land, the labourers without labour, the sowers without a field. England needs road, forts, harbours, bridges. Men need work. It’s a shame to see them begging their bread, when honest labour could keep the realm secure. Can we not put them together, the hands and the task?

This is the same man, giving himself a few seconds of contemplation, referencing (one could almost say name-dropping) one of the great portrait painters of his or any other age:

It is already nine in the morning. The dews of May Day have burned from the grass. All over England, green boughs are carried in from the woods. He is hungry. He could eat a cut of mutton with samphire, if any has been sent up from Kent. He needs to sit down for his barber. He has nor perfected the art of dictating letters while being shaved. Perhaps I’ll grow my beard, he thinks. It would save time. Only then, Hans would insist on committing another portrait against me.

The attention to detail is beautiful in its execution.  Here news of Henry VIII’s infatuation with Jane Seymour has just got out:

‘There are rumours on the streets, and crowds who want to see her, and ballads made, deriding her.’
‘Ballads?’ Henry is shocked. ‘Find out the authors.’
[and later] ‘I have heard about these ballads,’ he says. ‘Cannot you suppress them?’
‘They’re nothing personal,’ he says. ‘Just warmed over libels from when Katherine was queen and Anne was the pretender.’

A quiet humour is never too far away.  ‘Cremuel’ (from the French speakers and piss-takers) and ‘Crumb’, he is addressed as at various stages, for starters.

So here’s the Duke of Norfolk, expecting to be fed. Dressed in his best, or at least what’s good enough for Lambeth Palace …

So recommended.


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Aint it just like the confusion to reign when you’re looking to get a Dylan quote in train?  “When you’re lost in the rain in Juarez*” …  “Aint it just like the night to play tricks** …?”  Just as well I checked, I suppose – unlike G.K.Chesterton publishing a book on William Blake getting all his quotes from memory, and getting some of them wrong –  but (wotthehell archy***) we’ll let it lie.  [Citations at the end of this post].

Aint it just like the British weather to kick in when you don’t need it.  And I’m not talking about the Jubilee, or at least not yet.  Flaming June!  So, a week ago, sweltering in an unforgiving sun, Saturday, the kick off of Stony Live!, the annual week of live music  over and above the usual, and it’s a grey, cold, miserable morning for the Old Mother Redcaps women’s Manx morris and the Stony Steppers (Lancashire clog) to strut their stuff in the High Street.  They stuck to it and at least it didn’t rain.

That came on Sunday, for the Classic Car Show in the Market Square, which started in penetrating drizzle in the morning and then it really rained.  Still plenty of people in attendance but understandably, this year, fewer cars.  This is a photo of the car I learned to drive in (or at least the one my mother took me practising in).  Not the actual car, you understand, but the model – a Morris Minor – crucially with the side direction indicator wings (that thing in the middle) that flicked out.  There was a Hillman Imp there too, the first car I ever owned (with the same caveat as above) in far better condition after all these years, I’m sure, than mine ever was, let alone when I bought it (it broke down on its first 50 mile journey).

Briefly, the Queen’s diamond jubilee.  I had to feel some compassion for those involved in the Thames Flotilla when it really started pissing down, even if the BBC’s hopeless sycophancy was causing me distress.  In our street we have a summer street party every year on a July Saturday, but it got shifted to the jubilee weekend this year (to say it was hijacked by the monarchists would be putting it a bit strong).  It was so cold the personal dilemma as to whether I would actually bring myself to bare my ‘Citizen not subject‘ t-shirt never came up, but there it remained under shirt, jumper, and finally, fleece.  The whole thing was put into a new perspective for me when Andrea, handed me a banknote for the purchase and consumption of fine Cornish ale at the lunchtime Hole in the Head Gang gig (Good Ol’ Rocky Top bluegrass).  Examining said banknote and realising, for the first time for both of us, she said, “One of these days it’ll be a picture of Charles printed here.”  And for the ritual purchase of Stony Live! raffle tickets, again that thought, as if for the first time.  Of course.  And postage stamps.  And coins.  Real money?  And so the whole absurd joke – nay, the horror – of the situation suddenly becomes clear.

Clarity – of thought and simple execution – is one of the great qualities Darryl Cunningham brings to his Science tales scams: lies, hoaxes and scams (Myriad Editions, 2011), his collection of graphic novel-style essays on electro-convulsive therapy (an eye opener in that it does acknowledge there are benefits to be had), homeopathy, chiropractic and the MMR vaccine scandal (the scandal was of course the scaremongerering), and dismissals of the arguments of moon hoax believers, climate change deniers and anti-evolutionists, with a final round-up of the overall notion of Science denial.  The facts of each case are simply presented with strip cartoon narration, spare draughtsmanship, collage of borrowed and treated iconic photographs and illustrations, and diagrams.  There are a lot of ideas and facts covered here in a very short space of time, with series of images to linger over.  Simply presented yes, but never simplistic.  Beautifully done.

Finally, briefly, I’m well into Hilary Mantel‘s Bring up the bodies (Fourth Estate, 2012), her sequel to the awesome Wolf Hall.  Incredibly, this continuation of Thomas Cromwell’s life in the service of king, country and self at the court of Henry VIII is even better than Wolf Hall, but I’ll expand on that later, save to share the observation that when one of the specialist royalist historians was rabbiting on on the telly on Sunday afternoon about the importance of the almost sacred link between the monarchy and the Thames, citing the flotilla that marked ace philanderer Charles II’s return to England and his Restoration to the throne after the failure of the Republic in 1660  and went on to add to the list Henry VIII’s and Anne Boleyn’s wedding processional … and three years later – spoiler alert! – her journey back down the Thames to the Tower for trial and subsequent execution.  Bet that bit gets cut out of the edited highlights.

* Just like Tom thumb’s blues
** Visions of Johanna
***Don Marquis‘ exquisite Archy & Mehitabel poems (“expression is the need of my soul i was once a vers libre bard but i died and my soul went into the body of a cockroach it has given me a new outlook upon life“) – give yourself a treat

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Desperately poor start in the back garden for the RSPB Big Garden Birdwatch yesterday. Not a dicky bird; seemingly they’ve all flown, even the pigeons.  So I go and make a cup of tea and – lo and behold – in the front garden on the feeder we have 6 goldfinches (is that enough to constitute a ‘charm’ of goldfinches? – one of the great collective nouns) so I stick around in the kitchen.  The goldfinches come and go, but we also get 5 sparrows, 3 starlings, 2 chaffinches, 2 wagtails (on the drive so that still counts), 2 robins, a dunnock, a blue tit, just the one pigeon and a blackbird, which is pretty good; better than last year, though where have all the greenfinches gone?  Not in the RSPB hour, but lately, we’ve had regular sight of a blackbird with a white tail.

So … I like birds. Which just happens to be the title of an Eels song, one of the many from the splendid ‘Meet the Eels’ compilation CD that have charmed me this weekend.  I’ve always loved ‘Mr E’s beautiful blues‘ (“Goddamn right, it’s a beautiful day“) – definitely on the Desert Island Disc shortlist – but apart from the first single I didn’t know much else.  Mark Oliver Everett, who basically is Eels, is one of the originals, a man of great talent with songs pouring out of him, and great integrity (if you believe him … which I do) and strength and intelligence and wit; with the best he goes his own way at a tangent to the mainstream (and alternative mainstream, as he is at pains to point out) music industry.  A truly qualified survivor, to quote a phrase, whose life was saved by rock and roll (to quote another phrase) though more strictly that should just be, saved by music.

If you’re small and on a search
I’ve got a feeder for you to perch on

I love birds‘ is one of those songs where the singer starts whistling and you feel compelled to whistle along too.  I got hold of ‘Meet the Eels’ because I’ve just read Everett’s autobiography, ‘Things the grandchildren should know‘ (Little Brown, 2008), one of the books I took out from the threatened Stony Stratford Library to fill my ticket as part of the celebrated ‘Wot no books’ empty the shelves campaign.  In it he pleads guilty when others deride his career choices, and you can just hear the desperate pleas of his publishers to let them put the sticker saying ‘Rock music, Death, Crazy people, Love!’ which you would never guess from the tasteful grey cover, with its silhouetted tree with its pale green falling leaves.

In fact it reads like a novel, one of those American rite of passage novels out of  the Holden Caulfield stable four decades – and all that entails – on.  Shy messed up hip kid from a dysfunctional middle class family, orphaned early – father a misunderstood quantum physicist who never talked to his kids or most other people, laissez-faire childcare mum, much loved sister a train wreck, all sorts of traumas and deaths and he comes out – saved by music – positive, celebrating life, acknowledging bad times as a part of it, pretty confident that better must come; just like Mr Dylan said, “It’s all good”.  He keeps to a vernacular to the end, an integer of integrity, but there are passages where he flies, in particular the omega moment in a sold out Albert Hall, playing with the extra accompaniment of  a string quartet, when all the songs and the life they came out of are, to him, vindicated – this is where I belong.   Goddamn right.  I look forward to exploring more of the music.

Some sort of spurious link now follows:

He remembers one night in summer when the footballers had stood silent, looking up.  It was dusk.  The note from a single recorder wavered in the air, thin and piercing.  A blackbird picked up the note, and sang from a bush by the water gate.  A boatman whistled back from the river.

That’s from Hilary Mantel‘s ‘Wolf Hall‘ (Fourth Estate, 2009).  What a great book.  You are there, right there, where the man is.  The man is Thomas Cromwell, a sinister and powerful beast, mainly in the background in C.J.Sansom‘s outstanding sequence of Shardlake novels set in the England of Henry VIII, but in ‘Wolf Hall’ he’s an operator not averse to brinkmanship, a decent enough if sometimes ruthless man with a refined instinct for survival and self-advancement who, when he gets home to his children he’s a family man … you know the ‘Beggar’s banquet’ score.

It’s beautifully written; there are tremendous insights into the public and private man. The authorial voice and view is invariably Cromwell’s but he never actually addresses the reader directly (and so Mantel allows him to retain a certain privacy); so once I become adept at recognising which ‘he’ we were talking about sometimes in the action, I was hooked.  Cromwell, uniquely for the time, worked his way up into a position of great influence from wretched circumstances via mercenary soldiery and successful merchant activity abroad, coming home to the patronage of Cardinal Wolsey, who doubled as Lord Chancellor to the young Henry VIII.  We learn some of the specifics of his time away in passing.  His tutelage in the corridors of power under Wolsey is a fascinating mix of ‘The thick of it’ and ‘Blackadder’ among other things.

I could go on, but the book is just magnificent.  I look forward to the sequel immensely, something I never thought I’d be saying about Hilary Mantel, whose previous work, or at least that which I had read, left me uneasy.  This is a very fine piece of writing.  ‘Wolf Hall‘ scores on so many levels – the personal, the political (as in the art of the possible), the societal, the compassionate and the contemporary. There’s a vivid and numerous cast in attendance too.  It feels like Thomas Cromwell the first modern man; it is a book you feel, hear and breathe in the fragrances, the smell.  More birds:

There is a chill in the air; the summer birds have flown and black-winged lawyers are gathering for the new term in the fields of Lincoln’s Inn and Gray’s.

This is Cromwell worrying about delivering what Henry wants:

How can he explain to him? The world is not run from where he thinks.  Nor from his border fortresses, not even from Whitehall.  The world is run from Antwerp, from Florence, from places he has never imagined; from Lisbon, from where the ships with sails of silk drift west and are burned up in the sun.  Not from castle walls, but from counting houses, not by the call of the bugle but by the click of the abacus, not by the grate and click of the mechansim of the gun but by the scrape of the pen on the page of the promissory note that pays for the gun and the gunsmith and the powder and shot.

And lest you think we are slipping into marxist territory, later on:

The fate of peoples is made like this, two men in small rooms.  Forget the coronations, the conclaves of cardinals, the pomp and processions.  This is how the world changes: a counter pushed across a table, a pen stroke that alters the force of a phrase, a woman’s sigh as she passes and leaves on the air a trail of orange flower or rosewater; her hand pulling close the bed curtain, the discreet sigh of flesh against flesh.

This is a huge book.




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