What is time? How do we order the past, the present, and the future. Why are artists interested in time? How is art a machine, vehicle, or device for exploring time? How is art a means by which time ‘travels’, and how does art permit us to travel in time?
This is the way in to MK Gallery‘s latest show, How to construct a time machine, from the press release of which that opening quote is taken. You enter under Ruth Ewan‘s We could have been anything that we wanted to be (2011). Yup, only ten hours. It harks back (nostalgically?) to the revolutionary Republican calendar of 1793 in France. The exhibition is a fruitful and entertaining way to spend some time, and we will return to it later in this post. Meanwhile, let us consider the book as a time machine – two books, actually – and visit a period when England was actively trying to decide what it wanted to be more than usual.
Lamentation (Mantle, 2014) is the sixth in C.J.Sansom‘s distinguished sequence of weighty historical crime novels featuring the hunchback lawyer Matthew Shardlake, set in the reign of Henry VIII. Innocent traitor (2006) was popular historian Alison Weir‘s first novel after nearly two decade’s worth of non-fiction mostly touching on the same era. The lead protagonists of both novels witness the burning at the stake of the heretic Anne Askew at Smithfield in 1546; Henry’s 6th wife – Katherine Parr – features strongly in each book as a good woman; and his prolonged miserable death is a very big deal in both – well it would be, you’d suppose.
That I read them one after another was pure coincidence; I’ve followed Sheldrake’s fortunes from the start in 2003’s Dissolution, while Innocent traitor was the latest Book Group book. Add the spellbinding adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall on the telly and a surfeit of Tudors could threaten, were the latter not so beautifully done; Thomas Cromwell – not one of Shardlake’s favourite people when alive – is long gone by the time the novels begin. And what a time: when failure to believe in transubstantiation – that the bread and wine taken at Catholic Mass actually become the blood and body of Christ – could be fatal; when even sacramentarianism, the sop of metaphor, just wasn’t good enough.
While its narrative is driven by events at – and it spends a fair amount of time in – royal residences and the corridors of power, Lamentation also shows us Tudor London in its vivid entirety. Along with the sights, sounds and smells of its mean streets and the river you get to see an interesting selection of London’s other ranks. The drama of Innocent traitor, on the other hand, is almost exclusively played out in the opulent royal courts and in the mansions of the high and mighty. Similarly, while the issue in Innocent traitor is seen simply as being between Catholic and Protestant, in Lamentation we get to meet some real radicals, those handy folk devils – socialist Levellers precursors no less – the Anabaptists.
Lamentation is an astute, gripping, sometimes violent, layers-of-the-onion conspiracy thriller, an examination of the nitty-gritty of realpolitik at close quarters, delivered with a beating heart and a finely tuned moral core. A sub-plot involves a hopeless legal case Sheldrake has been engaged in, which functions as both light relief and to underscore what is going on in the wider world. There is an easy continuity of Shardlake’s likeable social circle with previous volumes; you care about him and his friends. He gets involved again against his better judgment, basically because he fancies the Queen; not that anything’s ever gonna happen but, you know, she’s got a nice smile. What I found particularly interesting this time around is his growing disillusion with it all, his radicalisation. Here’s the evidence. Postmodernist intrusion? – maybe, but not beyond the realms after what he’s seen:
- I no longer had sympathies with either side in the religious quarrel, and sometimes doubted God’s very existence … (p6)
- Nicholas shook his head firmly. “Now the war is over, prosperity will surely return. And the security of everyone depends on people staying within the ranks to which they were born. Otherwise we should have the anarchy of the Anabaptists.”
That bogey again. I said, “I confess the more I see of mankind, the more I think we are all of one common clay.” (p160)
- “I thought the proceeds from the monasteries would be used to bring justice to the poor; that the King, as Head of the Church, would have a regard to what the old church did not. Yet all that money went on extending Whitehall and other palaces, or was thrown away on the war. No wonder some folks have gone down more radical paths.” (p225)
- I looked over all these rich men and women and thought of Timothy, somewhere alone out on the streets. The notion came to me that perhaps the Anabaptists had something after all: a world where the gulf between the few rich and the many poor did not exist, a world where preening peacocks like Thomas Seymour and Serjeant Blower wore wadmol and cheap leather might not be so bad a place after all. (p561)
Right on, brother Shardlake! Who it is almost time to leave, save to ponder what it can mean as the hunchback lawyer says, when mightily surprised, “I sat bolt upright” – a miracle? – and wonder how he’s going to fare in the months and years to come after Henry’s death, which is the crisis at the heart of Alison Weir‘s book. Something to look forward to. I note that Sansom has already cleverly set his man up with a young mate who is to achieve a prominent position when Elisabeth is on the throne, but there’s a lot of muddy water to wade through before that happens.
The innocent traitor of Innocent traitor is Lady Jane Grey: at age 16, the 9-day queen, holder of the record for the shortest reign of any English monarch. The girl was cruelly used as a pawn by her parents and various others at court in order both to secure a Protestant succession to the throne and as a blatant exercise in self-aggrandisement. She ended up – spoiler alert – quite unjustly, because of the specific utter stupidity of her very own father, losing her head, as happened quite often in those times. I knew nothing of her story before reading this, but I do now, and for this sympathetic retelling I am grateful.
I wasn’t quite as annoyed by certain aspects of Innocent traitor as some in my Book Group. Because of time constraints (I was reading Lamentation) I skim-read a lot of it and so missed the others’ detailed objections to the prose, the unlikely adverbial and adjectival elaborations, that particularly got up people’s noses. The tale is told in first person mode by a number of participants including Jane herself, her Lady Macbeth of a mother (the book opens with her giving birth to Jane), her loyal loving serving woman Mrs Ellen, Queen Katherine Parr, Queen Mary to be, and a couple of others, with the final words coming from The Executioner (which was rather a nice touch, I thought). The trouble is, they all sound the same, with practically no variation in voice at all, even from Mrs Ellen, the closest to a pleb we get in these pages. As first person narratives they work better as third person voiceovers for a tv documentary. The one that really made us laugh in bemusement was Jane’s, “Today I am four year’s old,” followed by some elaborate scene-setting with no concessions to toddler talk, which might have been interesting. And her mum telling us, early on, “After two disastrous marriages, and a cataclysmic quarrel with the Pope, my uncle, King Henry VIII, at last has a son and heir” is no isolated example.
I was moved by Jane’s plight, I’ll admit, but I didn’t cry, so according to the quote on the cover of the paperback edition, I “must have a heart of stone“. “What young girl would not giver her all to be Queen of England?” Tom Seymour (for it is he) asks rhetorically. Alas, not poor bullied Jane, the kind of gal who scorns all the young nobles out a-hunting: “Their sport is but a shadow to the pleasure I find in Plato. Poor souls, it seems to me they do not know what pleasure means,” she tells her tutor. Maybe, but she didn’t have a chance to have much fun.
Back to the Time Machine …
There is much to engage with in How to construct a time machine – Mark Wallinger’s highly reflective aluminium TARDIS which “disappears into the space-time continuum by reflecting its own surroundings” and the butterflies ‘flying’ in the zoetrope, to mention but two – but the thing that really absorbed me, and I shall probably go back and watch it all the way through, just because, was Thomson & Craighead‘s The Time Machine in Alphabetical Order (2010), a re-editing of the classic 1960 film of the H.G.Wells novel featuring Rod Taylor as the time traveller; that’s right, only the one with the actual time machine prop the lads successfully bid for on eBay in an episode in the first series of The Big Bang Theory . Each word of dialogue, and the spaces in between after the last words of a sequence (I appreciated the rest), appear in alphabetical order. Never mind the artspeak justification, it works because you vaguely know the story, but it also works … beyond narrative. I guffawed loudly a number of times in the 15 minutes I was in there in two sessions (it runs for 1 hour, 36 minutes) and hung around for specific words: ‘love’, for one – just the once, as it happens. You probably have to experience it to understand why I’m so enthusiastic, but for the high frequency words like ‘time’, ‘machine’ or ‘future’ the rapid fire succession of speakers and backgrounds is a joy to behold. If I were to meet the perpetrators I would not be able not to ask whether they took at least some inspiration from the notorious Short f***ing version compilation of The Big Lebowski. (Go on: you probably want to).
Before I move on I’ll say something about the gallery experience. Another of the exhibits is a small (non-flat) television showing a performance of John Cage‘s 4’33 – you know, the one where the concert pianist sits at the piano and ‘plays’ silence (in three movements) for precisely 4 minutes and 33 seconds. The telly’s on the floor and on the wall above it there’s a facsimile of the original score sheets (oh, yes – full of rests). Now you can see the same bit of film right here on your computer or other digital device in much better picture (and sound) quality, but … context … it’s just different, worth being there.
Briefly, some other cultural adventures …
In chronological order:
What can I say? It was Scribal‘s fifth birthday and there was cake courtesy of Caz. The mighty Antipoet were mighty lots of things, among them being rhythm section to the wonderful Dodobones, who were surviving admirably after their self-imposed cover-a-day for a month stint on YouTube. Mitchell Taylor showed a sensitive side but still managed to shout/sing “Fascist scum” with some glee at another song’s end; shame because his The blood of St George stands well enough (nay, better) without it. New Bard Pat Nicholson continues to blossom in the role. Can’t remember much else about it.
Another grand night at York House for S.S.Shanty! 3, a benefit for the RNLI. (for non-MK readers the SS stands for Stony Stratford, as well as the traditional nautical nomenclature). An acapella evening of great variety with, naturally, a maritime theme one way or the other. We had the many-handed Sloop Groggy Dogg from the shores of Woburn Sands, barber shop from B-Flat, a round the world trip from Oxford’s Manchoir, and the stirring Trim & Doxy up from Liverpool (one of whom played accordion). The sheer power of The Five Men Not Called Matt (all 6 of ’em) gets me every time, with, this night, the occasional sweet bonus of aiding and abettment from Michèle Welbourn. All the beer was drunk. Unexpected were the low-level murmurings of demurral at the last mentioned (wait for it) when MC Ken kicked off the evening by addressing the assembled multitude, “Ladies, Gentlemen, and UKIP supporters.”
And then there was Matthew Bourne‘s splendid production of Edward Scissorhands at the theatre. Has to be one of the highlights of the year already. I’ll say it again: I don’t do ballet, but I do do Matthew Bourne. What’s to add? All the superlatives. Even though I’ve never actually seen the Tim Burton movie, I’ll presume you know the story. It had everything. Energy, humour, wit, rhythm, romance, compassion, satire, a touch of goth. Brilliant moves, exhilarating ensemble work, suitably corny stage business and a great set. Glorious shiny happy ’50s American suburban stereotypes paraded and parodied, and the fears lurking behind. Dominic North as Edward was magnificent. Was moved greatly by the dramatic, then poignant, ending. And we got snowed on. Biggest genuine standing ovation I’ve ever been a part of.