Thursday, 29 April 2010

Going to the Stake

At Llwynburvach, April 2009

Because everyone seems to have decided it's a benchmark of quality in the contemporary middlebrow novel, I have been reading Hilary Mantel's Wolf Hall. No, wait, don't go! This isn't going to be a book review!

It's odd how this benchmarking happens. By an unspoken consensus among columnists, reviewers and commentators, some author or title will emerge periodically from the unstoppable tide of new publishing and briefly become a shorthand for some perennial concern or talking point. As Dan Brown becomes the new Jeffrey Archer, so Wolf Hall becomes the new White Teeth.

Now, apart from its rehabilitation of Thomas Cromwell (no, not Oliver, the Tudor one), Wolf Hall seems to me a good but unremarkable book. I imagine it's a fairly typical "historical novel" (this is not a genre I've explored much before), an act of ventriloquism using some rather familiar puppets -- oh, that Henry VIII! As so often, there is an element of hype at work here. But it has two features I found intriguing.

The first is its title. I love it when the title of a book strikes a note of mystery every time you pick the thing up: you ask yourself, so why on earth is this book called Wolf Hall? My background alertness is primed for possible clues and I find this has an effect on my reading, like keeping half an ear open for the doorbell to announce a visitor. Only about halfway through does the name get mentioned, restriking the title's note in an oblique, intriguing way. It creates a sense of absence, a sense of yearning that is very effective. I suppose the invocation of "Rosebud!" of Citizen Kane comes inevitably to mind.

The second is the way the book emphasises the cautious impatience of the practically-minded with the hypocritical domination of the religiously-inclined, but also the strength of the desire of influential parts of the populace to read the Bible and worship in English. Both feel right. I was brought up in a Baptist-cum-Cheerfully-Agnostic household, so my take on the Reformation may be a little skewed, but there's no doubting that this combustible mix of religion, commerce, and national interest fuelled the furnace that forged our subsequent national history and character.

But I suppose the really shocking thing is to be forcefully reminded that once there was a time when you could be ritually disembowelled or burned alive for your beliefs. And the slightly shaming thing is that this grisly fate was, at that time, simply insufficient to discourage dissent, or at least the dissent of people with an unshakable belief that there was but one correct route to salvation for their immortal soul.

I don't know about you, but I don't think there's anything -- no belief, no loyalty, no fear, no consequence -- that would lead me to endure death at the stake as a preferred option to betrayal. Luckily, I'm unlikely ever to find out.

Meanwhile, back in the 21st century...

Both ends of the Bike Shed


Martin H. said...

In the light of this post, you won't be surprised to hear that I, also, have 'Wolf Hall' on my bookshelf. I quite enjoyed it, but was left wondering if I'd been suckered into buying it because of...

Mike C. said...

It can be very difficult to resist the hype of the literary pages. It can also be very hard to find anything else in the bookshops (three cheers for Amazon!)

On the rare occasions that I cross the threshold of an unfamiliar house, there are two things I immediately notice. The main one, is when there are no books visible anywhere. That's an alarm bell. In that event, I make careful note of the available exits.

The other, more subtle thing, is if the books that are visible are exclusively made up of the familiar spines of "reading group" choices (Booker winners, last summer's "must read", etc.). In that case, I resign myself to endure the company of someone who dopesn't trust their own judgement, and is incapable of making their own choices... I think of it as "Captain Corelli Syndrome".


Kent Wiley said...

Mike, where's the tripod? Ooops! That's right, you'd probably rather go to the stake!

Mike C. said...

Hmm, no, on reflection I think if a law was passed mandating the use of a tripod (on penalty of being burned alive) I think I'd start using one pretty damned quick! I know I've got one somewhere...


Kent Wiley said...

I like man with convictions...

Mike C. said...

Back in the day, my anarchist friends used to talk of creating a society which had very few laws, but in which those few were enforceable by the death penalty...

The prospect of having your genitals removed and fried in front of your eyes before the serious business starts sort of gets your attention in a way fines just don't.


Kent Wiley said...

I'm sure irony was an unknown concept to them. This may be casting rather far afield from a photography blog, but I'm curious what offenses were deemed to be serious enough to warrant the death penalty.

Mike C. said...

Well, I'm no expert, but to get the full-on "hanged, drawn, and quartered" treatment, you had to be a heretic or a traitor, I think.

Aristos who had merely annoyed the monarch could expect a spell in the tower, but anything more serious might warrant execution by beheading.

Commoners, of course, were hanged for pretty much anything, though branding and ear-nailing were used for lesser offences (farting in public, speaking directly to an aristo, and the like).

I quote from Wikipedia:

[start quote]
Sir Samuel Romilly, speaking to the House of Commons on capital punishment in 1810, declared that "(there is) no country on the face of the earth in which there [have] been so many different offences according to law to be punished with death as in England." Known as the "Bloody Code", at its height the criminal law included some 220 crimes punishable by death, including "being in the company of Gypsies for one month", "strong evidence of malice in a child aged 7–14 years of age" and "blacking the face or using a disguise whilst committing a crime". Many of these offences had been introduced to protect the property of the wealthy classes that emerged during the first half of the 18th century, a notable example being the Black Act of 1723, which created 50 capital offences for various acts of theft and poaching.
[end quote]

I like that "strong evidence of malice" one -- it could come in handy when dealing with bullying and other wickedness in school.


Kent Wiley said...

Sorry to be imprecise w/ my question. I meant in regards to your anarchist "friends," what did they consider to be a capital offense?

Mike C. said...

Ah, right, misunderstood...

I don't think anyone ever got down to the specifics of that -- the novelty and simplicity of the idea was the main thing, I suspect. A bit like "Don't vote -- it only encourages them", or "If voting changed anything they'd make it illegal" (funny how relevant those two now seem to the election we're about to have here).


Strua said...

The Black acts were aimed at landowners trying to reinforce residual medieval forest laws. There is always a twig connection somewhere....

There's a dodgy crew in Essex who claim they were the ones to uphold commoners' rights, but everyone knows the protest was really centred on Waltham Chase.

Worth thinking about in an age of wingeing entitlements: a lifetime of hard labour in Tasmania for stealing a loaf of bread is somehow more protest-worthy than, say, a lack of internet access for the homeless.

I like the pictures. You obviously have an affinity for temporary builders' infrastructure, especially their fences. In Spain and Italy they seem to have taken to painting their heavy construction equipment in pastel shades of eau-de-nil and lavender, instead of manly Caterpillar yellow. It makes for a more nuanced building site.

Mike C. said...

Strua (?!),

Yes, as the descendant of various strands of Baldricks, I've never understood the proposition that "progress is an illusion". If so, then a pretty good one, I'd say on the whole, and one I'm happy not to disrupt.

I'm going to Northern Spain this summer, and I will be seeking out these building sites that challenge the hegemonic masculinism of JCB.


Gavin McL said...

Guilty - well guilty of having both titles discussed on my shelves. Thought I better 'fess up.
But In Mitigation both bought after reading previous works - Being Black by Ms Mantel and de Bernières South American Trilogy.
Of the pictures I prefer "At Llwynburvach" The confusion between the light and the curtains is wonderful.
I look forward to your Spanish construction sites - Most holiday makers try to avoid them?
You'll enjoy Northern Spain I've been there a couple of times, the mists and rain are wonderful

Mike C. said...


Don't get me wrong -- I may amuse myself by pretending to be a literary snob, but that's very far from the case. In fact, Louis de B. is sort of a family friend -- he and my partner studied together many years ago. My only problem is with people who are incapable of forming their own opinions /tastes.

Yes, I'm looking forward to N. Spain -- we used to go there a lot "after Franco and Before Kids"...


Gavin McL said...


The comment was made in the spirit of your post.

My Grandmother met Mr de Bernières once (She worked in publishing in Edinburgh) she said he was charming (though not her type) and had several of the girls quite a flutter.

I must admit I didn't enjoy the mandolin as much as the South American books - I got the feeling he was trying too hard. As for Wolf Hall I'm struggling it feels like several short, very vivid films and I struggle to tie them together - maybe I've been reading too many crime novels.
I had cause to be near Tyburn recently and reading the dedication to the Catholic Martyrs on the wall of the Convent the day after reading the description of the burning in WH was quite moving.