How Did He Die? Alas, He Died of Plot

Since I’ve been reading both Hilary Mantel and Heresy, the book given away with it, I’ve been thinking about historical fiction. Until Mantel came along this was not a genre I’d read much, not since going through a Georgette Heyer phase in my teens at least. But along came Wolf Hall and of course I had to read that, and then its sequels. I don’t think it’ll start me reading other historical fiction, though you never know; when I struck out into the unknown terrain of Rebus’s Edinburgh I had no idea that it would lead me to Peter May, Nicci French and Peter James. So we’ll see.

The thing about historical fiction is that unlike crime fiction (unless you choose to write about an actual crime) the plot is already there. History is already written and unless you play about on the borders of fantasy you can’t have Henry VIII sticking with Katharine of Aragon or Elizabeth I marrying Francis Bacon. Historical fiction sticks to the facts and plays around them; so with Thomas Cromwell Mantel takes the known facts and from them constructs a character utterly unknown to us until that point. The plot is there but the characters are all to play for.

Not so S J Parris. Yes, she takes a world where Protestantism is still struggling to establish itself, where Catholics are being weeded out and brutally murdered; and centres in this world the character of Giordano Bruno, himself a Catholic visiting Oxford to give a lecture on the Copernican view of the universe. Yet where Mantel entirely enters her world, lives in it, inhabits her characters and thus allows us to live there too for a span, Parris’s characters are little more than ciphers awaiting the dispensations of the plot. There is no reason why any of them should die, apart from reasons of plot. Why did so-and-so die? He died of plot. Two characters have already died of plot and I suspect there are many more to come. Basically this is Agatha Christie in Elizabethan Oxford, and the research is front and centre: whereas Mantel’s historical details are seamlessly woven into the narrative, Parris gives us great wodges of exposition until like a tormented Catholic we cry ‘enough! No more!’

There are difficulties at times with Mantel’s style – it can be a little convoluted but it is never, ever clunky. She knows the effect she wants to achieve and like an artist applies layer upon layer to build up a complex and subtle effect. Parris, on the other hand, tells without showing and her dialogue is lengthy and at times much too modern.

I’ve been perhaps a little hard on Heresy. After all, I’m still reading it, so it has passed at least the first test of any book. And why am I still reading it? Because I want to know what happens; in other words, because of Plot. (And it is only fair to point out that others have enjoyed the books – there’s a series, apparently – much more than I.)

Kirk out


Sometimes a word comes to me that doesn’t yet have a meaning and seems to ask me to find it one; and this morning’s word was Glitfic. In this post I shall try to explore what Glitfic might mean.

Well, let’s start with litfic. Litfic is literary fiction and I’ve been doing a fair bit of that recently. I’ve branched out with my reading over the weekend or perhaps looped back a little to last year (was it last year? Yes it was – here’s my first post about it) when I first came across Patrick Melrose. This is a series of five novels amounting to nearly 900 pages though not remotely as dense or difficult as either The Mirror and the Light or Ducks, Newburyport. I have to say I was disappointed in the latter as it didn’t seem to come to any definite conclusion, though the penultimate scene was exciting enough. But the method of narrative was quite unique and together with the Neapolitan Quartet makes probably the finest depiction of female consciousness since Sappho.

I’m hoping to be able to read Sappho in the original before too long. My Greek is progressing well and I’m now able to read more or less anything – though reading and understanding are of course not the same thing. Anyway, back to Patrick Melrose, Edward St Aubyn’s account of a boy with an abusive father who grows up to be a rich, highly dysfunctional addict and eventually achieves some sort of redemption. It was made into a series starring Benedict Cumberbatch (who else could play a mile-a-minute addict so brilliantly?) but alas, that doesn’t seem to be streaming anywhere at the moment – or at least not anywhere I can access. I had a terrific day yesterday just sitting in the garden reading the books and losing myself in the appalling world of the idle rich in which the character grows up.

So I guess either of these things – Greek literature or the glitzy world of Melrose – could be glitfic. I think something should be…

Kirk out

Cromwell Rides Again: a Review of ‘The Mirror and the Light’

Hilary Mantel is everywhere at the moment; there’s a documentary on the iplayer and Wolf Hall is back too, the series comprising the first two novels of the Cromwell trilogy. But it’s the third volume that I’m concerned with here. I’ve finally got my thoughts together to give you that long-promised review, so here it comes. Is it any good? Yes. Is it brilliant? Yes and double-yes. Does she deserve to get yet another Booker, making it a hat trick? Well, it’s a hard thing to pull off and it depends on the competition but I’d say she’s earned it, so yes again.

Why is it so good? Well, first of all there’s the character of Cromwell. Mantel has set herself a huge challenge here, to make us love the ostensibly unlovable Thomas Cromwell, Henry’s fixer who at first sight seems to have the morals of an East End gangster. Son of a thoroughly abusive blacksmith, Cromwell is taken under the wing of Cardinal Wolsey, whom he serves till the Cardinal’s downfall. Then, through a mixture of guile, bluntness and sheer hard work, he becomes Henry’s fixer, engineering his marriage to Anne Boleyn and then to his two successive wives.

The novel opens with Anne Boleyn on the scaffold, kneeling in prayer as she awaits the axe; and it continues in the same vein. It is strewn with brutal state-sanctioned murders of which beheadings are the most benign, followed by hangings, then hangings-drawings-and-quarterings and finally burnings at the stake, which can be better or worse depending on the type of wood used and how dry it is. Cromwell witnesses his first burning as a child and it marks him for life.

So how does Mantel get us to love this singularly unlovable character? She does so by making him a democrat; an egalitarian. Cromwell has risen from lowly surroundings and although in serving the King he serves his own ambition, he is generous to his social inferiors, promoting those with ability, treating women as his equals and allowing his daughters to marry whom they wish. Tragically both wife and daughters die early on from a fever, another reminder of the omnipresence of death in Tudor society. Cromwell’s democratic instincts also lead him to passionately promote Tyndale’s New Testament, a dangerous undertaking which challenges the authority of the priests. Cromwell may be modern but he is not modernised: he believes strongly in God and wants people to be able to read His word in their own language.

We know the main thrust of the story of course: divorced-beheaded-died-divorced-beheaded-survived is imprinted on our childhood memories. But it’s the details we don’t know: the small beer drunk for breakfast, the prayers said at noon and at dusk, the Lenten fast, the stinking rivers, the rushes on the floor thrown out and renewed daily; the smell of the privy and the stench of Henry’s infected leg. But one of the most fascinating details for me was the HA-HAs: not the sunken hedges so popular in the 18th century but decorations with Henry and Anne’s initials intertwined. These had been put up in all the King’s houses like Christmas tinsel and of course they all had to be removed on her death, down to the very last one. Henry cannot be reminded of his murdered wife, now that he hopes to court another.

The first part of the novel deals with the machinations needed to bring Jane Seymour to court and Cromwell’s attempts to reconcile the King to his daughter Mary. He is successful in both these endeavours and as we know the King marries Jane Seymour. But the marriage only lasts a few years as she too dies, so off Cromwell goes once more to seek another suitable bride. What is clear from these machinations is not only the religious contortions necessary to reconcile Henry’s actions with church doctrine (these would not be out of place under Stalin) but also the way women are traded and moved about like pieces on a chess board purely for the purposes of breeding. It’s a genteel world on the outside but brutal on the inside. Speaking of Stalin there’s a moment reminiscent of The Death of Stalin where Henry collapses and appears to have died and Norfolk unwisely goes about shouting and proclaiming himself as heir. ‘Me! Me!’ It’s a farcical, almost comic moment – and by the way, if you haven’t seen The Death of Stalin I urge you to rectify that omission immediately. I think it’s still on Netflix.

After a great deal of to-ing and fro-ing involving painting of portraits by Holbein so each could see what the other looked like (no Tinder in those days) the King is induced to select Anne of Cleves as his next wife. Unfortunately illness spoils her looks and careful contriving is necessary to present her properly to the King. But Henry ruins all by his impetuosity; he rides out to meet her on the way and bursts in to surprise her. The meeting is not a success, and neither is the marriage. Soon another divorce is in the offing.

But does Henry blame himself for being so precipitate? Of course not, he blames Cromwell; and from the moment of that unhappy meeting Cromwell’s days are numbered. He is taken to the Tower and questioned to prove some sort of heresy as a pretext for his murder; questioning to which he submits calmly, only asking as to the manner of his death. Thankfully it is beheading, the most merciful of all the options – but even so he remarks as he ascends the scaffold that the executioner appears drunk. Not a good sign.

And so ends Cromwell and the trilogy.

And this review. Go read the book; available at all good outlets. Just don’t give Amazon any more money because I think they have enough.

Kirk out

The Deed is Done

Aaaand – I did it! I took my vorpal sword in hand and did the deed: I stripped down to underclothes and went out in the garden with a bin bag covering my shoulders and upper body and I Did the Deed. The result is somewhat startling but amazingly liberating; instead of an unruly mop with a fringe encroaching over the eyes I have a scalp almost entirely free of hair, covered with just enough to keep my thoughts from prying eyes, and a little bit of fringe because it’s a bit bare without. This will not only keep me cool but means I can do without the hairdresser for as long as it takes. Here’s what it looks like (warning: it’s not glamorous).

Nope. My phone is not talking to my computer so you are spared that image for now. So: onwards and upwards, and what else is happening? I’m progressing with ancient Greek; I now know all the letters both upper and lower case and can read a few actual words. In English I’ve nearly finished Ducks, Newburyport and I still owe you that review of the Hilary Mantel which is gently simmering away on the back burner of my brain (in the ventricles of my heart, in the wardrobe of my soul…) whatever happened to the Bonzo Dog Doo Dah band?

Speaking of vorpal swords, it led me to start compiling what is possibly a very short list: how many items are there in modern Shakespeare productions which have to be contrived in order to fit in with the original words? For example, in the Leonardo di Caprio version of Romeo and Juliet, for the line ‘put up thy sword’ they have to show a close-up of a large handgun with the brand name ‘SWORD’ written along the barrel. And in Ian McKellen’s Richard III where the battle is being fought with tanks and guns they have to have his tank sink repeatedly into the mud before he can plausibly yell out: a horse, a horse! My kingdom for a horse! It’s a valiant attempt but it seems very contrived. I can’t think of any more at the moment but I’m sure there are some.

So influential was Shakespeare’s Richard III that for the next four hundred years people regarded him as fundamentally evil. But of course Shakespeare was just sucking up to the Queen by dissing her rivals and his account was not at all historical, as the recent exhumation and reburial has shown. I don’t know where I’m going with this really; I’m just riffing while I try to think of what else to talk about, but really, cutting my hair off is the most exciting thing that’s happened in a long time. Oh, except that yesterday OH went shopping. Having refused my offer of a lift, off he trundled with a large rucksack and several stout carrier bags. An hour later he returned staggering under the load. Then inexplicably he opened the shed and took out the wheelbarrow. ‘Where are you going with that?’ I said. It transpired that half our shopping was waiting two hundred yards away outside the United Reformed Church. ‘Why don’t you take the shopping trolley?’ I suggested. But no, shopping trolleys were spurned and the wheelbarrow trundled down the road to fetch the rest of the shopping.

Why didn’t you call me?’ I said.

‘Because I’d have had to come home.’

‘From your mobile?’

‘I didn’t take my mobile.’

‘Why not?’

‘Because I’d have had to sterilise it afterwards.’

‘But you left our shopping in the street! Anyone could have taken it!’

‘But I left it outside the church. I thought that’d be a deterrent.’

As if life wasn’t complicated enough. But we are fortunate in being able to get pretty much everything we need, and in (so far) staying healthy.

Hope the same goes for you.

Kirk out

Women and Power

Browsing in Waterstone’s lately (yes I know they’ve dropped the apostrophe but on this blog standards will never slip) I came across a book by Mary Beard. I was actually looking for something political but they don’t have a politics section as such (hm) so I was directed to hover between history and philosophy. I also wanted to know when the new Hilary Mantel would be out (March) and how much it would be (£20-something, not bad for a 900-page hardback but I’m not sure I can afford it) and I ran into Mary Beard’s thoughts on Women and Power.

Like many such books it addresses the problem in all its aspects but neglects to ask why. Why do some men just want to shut women up? Why are they triggered by a woman expressing opinions in public? Why do some men get in a froth about putting Jane Austen on a bank note? Why, after you’ve expressed a complex and well thought-out view, do some men still act as if you haven’t spoken? And why does this sort of thing still happen?
originally from Punch magazine; image removed on request

Mary Beard’s thesis is that throughout recorded history patriarchy has silenced women in the public sphere. There are exceptions to this: she may speak in order to defend her family or tribe or to speak for the interests of other women, but she may not voice opinions on any topic as though she were a man. To do so is to invite ridicule, censure or even death.

Sadly, this attitude is still prevalent. I am frequently interrupted by men in meetings where men have been heard in silence, and it spills over into the arena of mansplaining where some men become like one-way radios set to transmit but not receive. In Waterstone’s the man who served me, though perfectly helpful and informative, was deaf to my replies that I had ‘already read’ the Guardian article about Hilary Mantel or that I ‘already knew’ about Mary Beard’s work. He could hear my questions but not my speech.

Along with many women in the public sphere, Mary Beard has had a bellyful of this. Female politicians frequently get death threats and Diane Abbott, being black as well as female, gets a double dose and has to send death threats in weekly batches to the police. This is not funny, yet she does her job week in and week out and will not be silenced. Why should she?

Many men have of course taken on board the demands of feminism, and thankfully in my experience the badly-behaved misogynist is in a small minority. But why do they do this in the first place?

i have a theory – it’s no more than a theory at present – that in the minds of these men is a binary system in which people are given a value of either 1 or 0, with no space in between. Therefore, under this system, if you’re not number one you are nothing. I read once that slave owners in the Southern states feared giving up their slaves would result in their own enslavement. They feared becoming slaves! Why? It seemed a ridiculous fear – after all, if they gave up their slaves nothing would happen except that they’d be obliged to pay people to do their work. I was completely baffled by this until I saw it as a binary system. In the minds of the slave owners there were only two positions, slave or master; and if you ceased to be one you would become the other. And so I think it is with misogynists: they fear their own subordination. They fear becoming nothing instead of something because in their binary system there is no such thing as equality. It does not compute.

As for what we do about this – well, I guess we just keep talking and refuse to shut up and go away.

That’s all. Now shut up and go away.

Just kidding. Happy Thursday.

Kirk out

The Show Has Gone On

I’ve been looking forward to the BBC adaptation of ‘Wolf Hall’ for a long time.  Having read the books soon after they came out and reviewed them on this blog:

I was keen to see what the Beeb would make of them.  And I am not disappointed: as far as I can see the adaptation is faithful to the spirit of the book as well as the letter.  The attractiveness of Cromwell is that, though wily and sly, he is no snake: though we may find it hard, he genuinely loves Wolsey and isn’t afraid to show it even after Wolsey’s fall from grace.  At heart he’s an egalitarian who speaks as he finds, educates his daughters, listens to his wife and consults his servants – and when he finally meets Henry he treats him with respect but without servility.  He is a fascinating character and many things are held in balance here in this series, as they are in the book.  I like Damien Lewis as Henry: the young king is shown as having an apparently artless openness with a veiled menace lurking somewhere in the throat.  It must be hard to play Henry VIII without a certain Brian-Blessed-style heartiness* or without harking back to Keith Michell.  Incidentally, they’re repeating the Keith Michell series as well.  My Mum was glued to that one when it was on.  I also like the way Anne Boleyn pronounces Cromwell’s name as ‘Cremuel’, although she doesn’t sustain the French accent in the rest of her speech.  So far, it’s a pretty good adaptation, I think.  I wonder what Hilary Mantel thinks?

Kirk out

*mind you, Brian Blessed has practically been canonised now, since his recent collapse on stage playing King Lear and his subsequent determination to carry on.  ‘Carry On Raving’, perhaps?

She’s in the Cellar, I’m Standing in the Bath

Is honesty always the best policy?  Some people say it is, no matter what the circumstances: most people would say yes, in general, but it should be tempered with discretion.  I doubt whether most of us would inform a gang of Nazis looking for Jewish sympathisers, that their sister was hiding in the attic: yet this is exactly what Corrie Ten Boom’s sister did when they came calling at their house in Amsterdam. (  However, the spirit of Irony was out in force that day and the Nazis assumed she was lying.  Was she right to tell the truth?  It turned out well – but she could have been effectively signing her sister’s death warrant.  She believed, though, that it was her duty to tell the truth at all times and that things would turn out for the best if she did.  I can’t help feeling she was right – and yet so, so wrong at the same time.

Most people would think it was reasonable to tell a white lie to avoid hurting someone’s feelings.  Once I had a phone call from a boy who just wasn’t getting the message: I asked my mother to say I was out.  ‘But you’re not out!’ she said.

‘No, but can’t you just say I am?’ I pleaded.

‘No!  That would be a lie!’ she said, looking shocked.

‘Oh – well…’ I cast desperately around for a way out – ‘can’t you say I’m in the bath then?’  (In those days the phone was irretrievably attached to its socket so if you were in the bath you were incommunicado.)  She thought for a moment.

‘Please!’ I begged.

‘All right,’ she said.  ‘Go and stand in the bath and then I’ll tell him.’

Reader, I went and stood in the bath, since that was the best offer I was likely to get.

But what do you think?  Should I have just told him I didn’t want to see him any more?  Is honesty always best?

Last night I did some poems for International Women’s Day at a cold and damp Duffy’s Bar: it was a fundraiser for Amnesty and fairly well-attended.  There are some photos on Facebook though sadly (or perhaps happily) none of me:

Tale of Three Women

So, on International Women’s Day I shall finish with a tale of three women.  You might call them The Princess, the Storyteller and the Thief.  The first two have become embroiled in a mish-mash which is probably largely media-created; the third is now in prison due to her own desire for revenge on a cheating husband.  Hilary Mantel wrote some disparaging comments about Kate Middleton – or, more accurately, about the way she is packaged and presented – and according to Mantel, she finished up with a plea to the press to treat Kate with dignity and humanity and, above all, not to do to her what they did to Diana.  Asking the press to lay off a royal bride – especially a pregnant royal bride – is a bit like asking a lion not to eat a zebra it has caught: still I guess she thought it was worth a shot.  I don’t know if I would have done since it was bound to provoke a backlash… but what I don’t understand at all  is why there is so much interest in royal women.  I am on the whole a republican – though I have some reservations about how that might pan out – but a republican because I don’t believe any society has the right to demand that these people live so much in the public eye, without them having any choice in the matter.  Film stars, singers and other celebs have at least chosen to be where they are; the royals have no choice.

And as for marital coercion, that was never going to fly.  A divorced woman with her own career?  Nice try Vicky, but no doughnut.  And next time, remember: ‘live well is the best revenge’.

Kirk out

Year and Carols

Beer and Carols last night was a fun event – a packed Western hosted a brass band and keyboard with kazoos, garglers and impromptu descants.  Sadly we did not do my favourite carol which I reproduce below.  Still it was a fun evening and I saw some people I hadn’t seen for a while.  And so to bed…

But yesterday, since I’m not working this week, I did something different and seasonal.  Some wise person on Facebook said that instead of having ‘to do’ lists we should all make ‘I did it’ lists – lists of things we’ve actually achieved rather than focussing on what remains to be done.  I thought this was a brilliant idea and so I scanned this blog for things I’ve done so far this year.  I’ve only got as far as August but here are some highlights:

Did ‘Sing for Water’

Picked blackberries and made wine

Published a short story

Performed poetry in loads of places

Published a poetry pamphlet

Did poems at Calligraphy group and craft group

And read, read, read – loads of stuff including Kathy Reichs, Andy McNab, Ian Rankin, Stella Rimmington, Hilary Mantel, JK Rowling and many, many more.

It would be good to have a complete list of books I’ve read this year but I don’t think they’re all on this blog, and though I used to keep a notebook with lists and comments on books I’d read, I don’t any more.  Perhaps I should go back to that.  At the moment I’m reading The Life of Pi.

I think it’s good but, to be honest, not THAT good – in fact I’m struggling to see why it won the Booker Prize.  There is no comparison with, say, Hilary Mantel who is a genius and thoroughly deserves any prize she gets.

Pleb or not Pleb?

So, normally in these cases I have a reasonable idea of what to think.  If there’s a dispute between the police and, say, CND demonstrators, I believe the demonstrators – usually because I’m one of them.  If there’s a dispute between the police and football fans over what happened I’d be more inclined to believe the fans but I’d probably think there were faults on both sides.  But when a police officer on duty outside Downing St says that a cabinet minister called him a pleb, I believe him.  And now it turns out he might have made it all up.

I can’t stand this kind of thing.  The thought of having to believe a Conservative Chief Whip‘s account of things is just utterly abhorrent to me…

So that’s it.  I sold another 6 poetry pamphlets last night and have just a handful left.  If you want one you’ll have to be quick or else get the e-version:

And finally, here is my favourite Christmas carol:

Oh hum, all ye faithful

Oh, hum all ye faithful

Doubtful and neglectful

Oh hum ye

Oh hum  ye

the words ye do not know.

Hum and forget them

Christmas song and sentiments

And hum it very quietly

And hum it slightly louder

Now hum it out with gusto

The tune, the bit ye know.

Kirk out