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Wednesday, April 28, 2010

WOLF HALL by Hilary Mantel

I’m suffering terribly at the moment, trying to come up with a title for my new novel.

This is something which dogs me, as I always start out with a working title I’m very excited about - and then write a completely different book, so the original one doesn’t work any more. Then there is much tearing of hair until the right thing pops into my head.

Today I was – semi-seriously - wondering if I could call it Untitled 6, in conceptual artist stylee. That won’t be allowed, of course, so I wish I could get Hilary Mantel to help me think of one, as Wolf Hall has to be one of the great titles of all time. As soon as I heard it I wanted to read it, even before it won the Booker Prize and all that hoo ha.

But I wonder if it actually was Ms Mantel who came up with it – or a very clever publisher? Because it has nothing to do with the book.

I haven’t felt so ripped off by a book title since Brick Lane. I rushed out to buy that on hearing the name, imagining a multi-layered portrait of the street I have loved since I lived in the East End in the 1980s.

I was eagerly anticipating Bangra, balti, bagels and bohemians in a delicious multi-cultural modern London mix, written with an insider’s insight. Instead it is the rather lowering tale of an isolated young Bangladeshi wife in an anorak.

I couldn’t finish it and felt vindicated when I read somewhere that the original title for the book had been Across Seven Rivers. That is not something I would have been attracted to and much more fitting to the content.

So I’d love to know what Hilary Mantel’s original title was. The Other Cromwell Boy, perhaps? Because it’s the not about the fabulously-named Wolf Hall – which was the country seat of Jane Seymour’s family – but Thomas Cromwell, great uncle of the more famous Oliver. A key historic figure I’m ashamed to say I’d never even heard of.

He’s an amazing character. A blacksmith’s son, who rose up through his own wits – and fists – to become first Cardinal Wolsey and then Henry VIII’s right-hand man.

An autoditact polymath polyglot supergenius with street smarts, an iron grip - but a tender and fair heart - and a gift for one liners that wouldn’t be out of place on The Sopranos, he has to be one of the most attractive dudes in fiction.

Indeed there were times – particularly when he seemed about to invent the internet in 1535 – when I wondered if he wasn’t almost as idealised as the male leads you find in, well, books like mine, really.

Ms Mantel seems at pains to stress that he was not a handsome man, but when he is so astonishingly brilliant in every other way, it really doesn’t matter. You get a bit of a crush on him anyway. Well, I did.

So despite my rather outraged surprise that the books is not set in an amazing old Tudor house called Wolf Hall – which is only referred to a few times in the book – I did really enjoy getting to know this fascinating man.

I also now have a real feeling for Cardinal Wolsey and the vile Thomas More, and some of the key historical details of this era. I confess – not on the rack, which More so enjoyed using, I’m happy to say – that I had never quite understood what people were being tortured and burned at the stake for during Henry VIII’s reign and now I fully do.

This insight into 16th century religious politics was really a bonus, as it seemed at first that the book was dwelling way too long on the Ann Boleyn story, which anyone who has supped deep at the cup of Philippa Gregory (as I have) is already more than well versed in.

In fact reckon I could go on Mastermind with the sex lives of the Boleyn sisters as my special subject, so I’m done with that Tudor Paris Hilton - and her party pooper Spanish love rival, for that matter.

But once we got into the really meaty bit about why Henry VIII broke away from the Vatican, gave the Pope the finger, founded the Church of England and cashed in the monasteries, I was gripped.

Especially as I was reading it while the husband one of my best friends – Geoffrey Robertson, married to Kathy Lette – is drafting serious legal proceedings to sue the current Pope when he visits Great Britain later this year.

So the row that was pushed to its limit five hundred years ago by Ann Boleyn practising The Rules (Google it...) on Henry VIII (unlike her younger sister, she wouldn’t put out until he married her), is still burning hot today. Yee haw.

What I hadn’t grasped until I read this book, though, was that the Roman Catholic church in the 16th century, as espoused by creepy hair-shirted More, wouldn’t allow the people to read the bible in English. I’d never understood that before. What an outrage!

Prior to Henry’s split from Rome, people could be burned at the stake simply for possessing the bible in a language they could read it in. This was the church’s way of keeping the people in their power – because only the educated elite knew what the bible really said.

Superfly guy Thomas Cromwell was secretly a supporter of a sect who wanted the bible to be available to all – so that they would be able to see for themselves what is in it.

Nothing about purgatory, nothing about cash for forgiveness ‘indulgences’, and no rules dictating that you have to go to church every week and give money to a lot of old men in Rome.

I was so moved by finding this out, I have resolved to go out and buy a bible in English. I probably won’t look at it but - like a vote – a privilege people sacrificed so much to win for us all, must be used and appreciated.

At 650 pages, this book is a serious reading commitment, but one that is worth taking on. Just choose your moment, as it requires long sustained reads, not five minutes at bed time.

And don’t be put off by the fascinating facts element. Living in the story, as you will for quite a while, you absorb the history lessons while reading what Thomas Cromwell had for dinner (quite a lot of capons) and who he fancies (Jane Seymour! Hold the front page of Tudor Grazia...).

It’s absolutely gripping stuff, conveyed at a cracking pace, with wonderfully vivid characterisation and settings. A description of a visit to Thomas More’s creepy home set up, particularly sticks in my mind.

So do read Wolf Hall. I just don’t want you to be as disappointed by the title as I was.

Reading satisfaction: 8
Un-put-downable-ness: 5
Recommend to best girlfriend: 7
Recommend to mother: 7
Recommend to niece: 7
Recommend to gay best friend: 7
Recommend to man pal: 7
Recommend to Helen Razer: 7
Read on public transport: 0 (too heavy)

Monday, April 12, 2010

The Story of Clothes and Costume. A Ladybird ‘Achievements’ Book.

One of the things I like about being an author is that people sometimes ask you to contribute to those ‘your-answer-here’ magazine columns. I love them and always fill them in mentally as I read other people’s What I Eat for Breakfast, Me and My Favourite Garden Implement etc.

I have been asked several times for my five all-time favourite books (impossible, so you just have to plunge in) and more interestingly, for the ones which have changed, or formed my life. In the latter, I had no hesitation in including this book.

Like most middle-class, middle-aged Brits, I have an almost unhealthy fetish for Ladybird books and have been collecting them for years from charity shops and car boot fairs. (Most of them are in my daughter’s room, but they’re really for me.)

The appeal lies in the glorious ideal-real illustrations and the sense of comforting wellbeing the books give off. You won’t find any unpleasantness in a Ladybird book.

But while I can enjoy casually flicking through The Ladybird Book of Pets and Out In The Sun (two titles randomly picked from my daughter’s shelf), in the same spirit with which I’ve embraced the recent advent of Ladybird merchandise, The Story of Clothes and Costume had a far deeper impact on me.

I must have been about eight when I got it and was instantly gripped by reading about the way in which clothes have changed over the centuries and poring over the satisfyingly clear and detailed illustrations.

Very quickly I was fully across the progression from mid-Victorian crinolines (‘The Early Days of the Railway’) to the late-Victorian bustle and over time I brought every picture in the book to life, by dressing up in my own versions of each outfit, which I think helped to imprint those details on my mind forever.

We had a big dressing up cupboard in the playroom on the top floor of the house and I amused myself there for hours, rigging up Regency bonnets (tie a chiffon scarf round an old straw hat…), Medieval wimples (a wire coat hanger and an old net curtain) and so on.

Beyond dressing up as glamorous ladies in long dresses – I particularly adored the family of Cavaliers (and loathed the ghastly Puritans on the next page) – I think what grabbed my young interest was the way that the text put the changes in clothes into a socio-historical context.

I had no that’s what it was, of course, but the idea that the precise times you live in entirely determine changes in what everyone wears made perfect sense to me.

And when – fifteen years later – I went to my first designer fashion show (Katharine Hamnett…) it seemed obvious to view those new clothes in exactly the same terms.

So without this book, I don’t think I ever would have written about fashion. Thank you, Ladybird.

Wednesday, April 7, 2010

Me Cheeta by James Lever

Apologies for the long radio silence. This was simply because I haven’t finished another book for ages, due to another bout of the previously discussed challenge of engineering a satisfying succession of reads.

Right after the rollercoaster of the Martin Amis (Martin Amis!), I felt I needed something much more measured and picked up a work by Elizabeth Taylor – not the American actress, the wonderful and insufficiently lauded British 20th century novelist.

Knowing that there are still ten Elizabeth Taylor novels left for me to read is one of the great comforts of my life. I’ve only read one so far – In A Summer Season - and loved it so much I am saving the rest up, just as I don’t wear Prada shoes for a year or so after I’ve bought them, because they’re simply too special to wear when new (plus I hate being too obviously ‘on season’).

Post-Martin felt like the perfect moment for the cool and restrained Ms Taylor, but after luxuriating in the first couple of chapters, I decided I wanted to save it a bit longer, for a moment all its own, rather than as a literary sorbet between heavier courses. A particularly exquisite form of torture, it teases me from my bedside.

So then I cast around for more of a throwaway read and settled on Me Cheeta, which I had read discussed on Twitter and heard discussed on Radio 4. It’s a very clever and amusing idea – the autobiography of the chimp who played Cheeta in the Tarzan movies. Note the prefix auto, there.

The world-weary actor memoir voice and hilariously bored namedropping are perfectly rendered, but a few chapters in the word ‘clever’ started to resound too often in my head as I read.

‘How clever!’ I kept thinking, until I realised that I was admiring the trick of the writing and the construct, rather as you would admire a trained chimp pouring a cup of tea and drinking it. How clever!

Finally, despite laudable early chapters which convey just how cruelly animals are trained to perform such ‘amusing’ tricks, with references to the very worthy, and Jane Goodall-endorsed, campaign No Reel Apes*, which is aiming for a total ban on using trained primates in films, I decided I couldn’t go on with the book.

The main reason? I just didn’t care about the narrator enough. Because I knew he wasn’t real. Well, of course he is real, he’s a real chimp, but the anthropomorphised version in the book isn’t real. And the last thing you want spoiling your enjoyment of fiction is notions of comparative reality.

Did I not enjoy E. Nesbitt because the psammead is not a real creature? Was Twilight less of a thrill because vampires aren’t ‘real’? No! Being totally caught up in stories of imagined creatures and situations is the whole point of fiction. To free us from the constraints of dreary reality, while shining light back upon it. Once the suspension of disbelief is slightly torn it’s all over.

So while I doff my hat to the brilliance of the concept of Me Cheetah, the cleverness of the voice - and it is very funny in parts - I decided, according to my rule of putting down books which don’t fully engage me in this year of active reading, to move on.

I might pick it up at a later date, for more of the Hollywood 'Golden Era' content which the reviews raved about, but just for the moment, I want to read a book I feel completely immersed in.

I have found one and I'm reading as fast as I can (clue: it's 600 plus pages long...)

* I wanted to put a link to the campaign on here, but I can’t find it online. If anyone else can, please let me know.