Still there will be books by Jan Needle

Being the world’s slowest reader, I finally got to grips with Wolf Hall because of the television version, and because having already read Beyond Black I knew the lady is a writer of genius. It’s a measure of how wonderful I find it that after only ten days I‘m on page 313, which is nearly half way through. I thought the TV version was fantastic, too. Almost every scene, up to and including the execution, was mind-blowing. (I didn’t bother with a spoiler alert there, because if anyone doesn’t know who got the chop it might make them read the book. Sorry. I’m being silly.)

Sitting in me lonely writer’s bed this morning, though – reluctant to give up and get up halfway through a chapter – I fell to wondering what was the motor for this exhaustive, off-centre, and truly rather frightening revivification of English history. Coupled with an interview or two I’d heard earlier (thank you, World Service), I realized it might be an investigation of what the West is going to ‘do’ about the ‘problem’ of Islam. Our government’s latest proposals had an awful echo of the way religion operated five hundred years ago. Who needs a prescription when you've got proscription.

The face of Western thought?
In Wolf Hall, the religion is not Islam, of course, but Christianity. But the problem, distilled down to the desire of one man to cast off his wife and have a (male) baby with a younger version, is broadly similar. Women have no power to control their sexuality (‘The ladies of Italy, seemingly carefree, wore constructions of iron beneath their silks. It took infinite patience, not just in negotiation, to get them out of their clothes’), and are perceived to be infinitely dangerous because of it. Therefore sex can never be about enjoyment (cf FGM) in case it interferes with marriage for social and hierarchical reasons. And while fornication is a sin, whores and catamites are part of the fabric of society, as is anything, apparently, that doesn’t rock the boat. God is good, marriage is perfection, human beings, designed to reproduce, can only reproduce in ways the Designer’s interpreters say he would approve of. Here’s a waterman talking to Thomas Cromwell about the Boleyn family (‘the fucking Bullens.’) Remember that Henry has already ‘had’ the mother and Anne’s sister Mary.

Henry goes to it with the mother, good luck to him. He goes to it with the sister, what’s a king for?...[Anne] goes to it with her brother; …and that’s how she trusts herself she don’t give in to Henry, because if she lets him do it and she gets a boy he’s now clear off, girl – so she’s oh, Your Highness, I never could allow – because she knows that every night her brother’s inside her… [Inside her without fear of conception, however, as the waterman reveals in detail. Sex is as inevitable as it is as appalling in the eyes of God’s interpreters – but He did give us variations.]

Although the ‘rules’ of ancient Islam seem to be in the ascendant nowadays (and I don’t blame the Taliban, or ISIS, so much as the West’s never-ending crusade and its most recent insane resurgence set on by Bush and Bushbaby), Mantel in Wolf Hall sets up the forces of change besetting ‘our’ religion. Tyndale, although in exile where I am in the book, is putting his head on the block to modernize, and Henry, of course, is prepared to go to almost any lengths to get into bed with the slippery Ms Bullen. Here’s Tyndale, according to our Tom:

Saints are not your friends and they will not protect you. They cannot help you to salvation. You cannot engage them to your service with prayers and candles, as you might hire a man for the harvest. Christ’s sacrifice was done on Calvary; it is not done in the Mass. Priests cannot help you to Heaven; you need no priest to stand between you and your God. No merits or yours can save you: only the merits of the living Christ.

And there is More, of course. Sir Thomas More, another ineffably holy man, another man convinced his views reflect God’s in entirety, another man prepared to maim and murder in the name of Divine Love. Still an’all, there are still books to succour us.

‘He cannot lock us all up.’

‘He has prisons enough.’

‘For bodies, yes. But what are bodies? He can takes our goods, but God will prosper us. He can close the booksellers, but still there will be books. They have their old bones, their glass saints in windows, their candles and shrines, but God has given us the printing press.’ Her cheeks glow.

I could go on all day, but I’ve got work to do. If I ever get to meet Ms Mantel (next time I’m drinking in Glossop, maybe?) perhaps I’ll ask her if any one religion was in her mind, or just the lot of them. Or maybe it’s the rise of modern politics, a new government that thinks people should be banned from promulgating ‘extremist views.’ Try telling that to Nigel, eh. And IDS…


Dennis Hamley said…
I've only just finished Wolf Hall - and we missed the TV, being in New Zealand. We forgot to set it to record and it was even too late for iPlayer when we got back. But you're right. WONDERFUL novel. The parallels with today are very troubling. Before I started Wolf Hall I'd read CJ Sansom's Lamentation, a Shardlake mystery about Catherine Parr, more traditional, far less powerful but horrifying enough, starting with the triple burning of three rather feeble and mild heretics. The religious are even more troubling, especially the egregious Fisher. Meanwhile, I'm told that Bring up the Bodies is even better, if that's the right word. It's easy to shudder at those times, but there's a terrible looking over the shoulder as we read about them.
JO said…
We lock up people of ideas at our peril ... people like that great rebel Nelson Mandela - what a dangerous man he was ...

And I loved Wolf Hall, though missed the TV version as I was away. I agree with Dennis - Bring up the Bodies is even better.
Bill Kirton said…
I used to love embarking on doorstopper books, especially those treating historical subjects. The draw of a long, thorough immersion in the events, the suspension of disbelief that let me relive them, the feeling that I was learning more from the fiction than I ever did in History classes - they were intoxicating. I don't know if it's the advent of ebooks and their readers or the demands of so many other things on my time nowadays, but I tend to hesitate before committing to one. I've been doing that with Wolf Hall and Bring Up the Bodies but you've now swung things in their favour.
Nick Green said…
Jan, I agree with you on many, many points (not just here but in general). However you do make me wince at the bit about 'not blaming the Taliban and ISIS so much as the West'. It's statements like this that cast liberals in a barmy light and give ammunition to the hard right wing.

The West is not, and has not been for centuries, in a crusade against Islam. And for all the West's faults, and they are legion, I would take fifty years under Bush rather than two weeks under the Taliban, or two days under ISIS. As I suspect would any sensible person.

One can criticise one's own governments without reflexively going to the ridiculous extreme of preferring psychopathic misogynist lunatics. Surely.
Jan Needle said…
sure, timing is all. but i do have the horrible feeling that western physical supremacy has led to a mindset of utter moral supremacy. does anybody really accuse America of genocide over the native American? Does anybody remember the 'cleansing of - say - Tasmania? Does anybody associate the turmoil of the middle east with deliberate destabilisation for, let's say, oil? does everybody think mr putin doesn't really feel that the west, after 'winning' the cold war, is being provocative and dangerous to say the least? psychopathic misogynistic lunacy usually springs from somewhere, doesn't it? Or are vast numbers of arabs/muslims intrinisically madder than westerners? and if we're talking about savagery, what about the british in kenya or the americans in abu ghraib? have you forgotten shock and awe?
Nick Green said…
It's not about individuals, though, it's about systems and cultures and masses of humanity on a grand scale. Yes, genocide took place in the Americas, and modern day Americans are descended from those who committed it, and have benefited from it... but that is not the same as 'America committing genocide' because the society that is the present day US did not exist then. It would be like blaming modern day Germany for the Nazis... only far more extreme.

Yes, extremism has its causes, and it can happen anywhere. And the moral high ground is so much easier to take when you are well fed and personally safe. Constant physical jeopardy can drive anyone fighting mad. But that still doesn't justify the implication that ISIS etc are 'okay really, just misunderstood good guys'. It's not the individuals I blame, as such, but the insane system in which they are caught up. They are trapped in a culture that actively wants to bring about the end of the world, which is anti-life in all its forms. This isn't my claim, it's theirs. I feel desperately sorry for them. But ISIS, en masse, is a demon and needs to be fought.
Jan Needle said…
yes, sorry. my reply was rushed - i had to meet a train (which was inevitably forty five minutes late!). but the point i was trying to make, probably not well, was about history. the events in wolf hall, and the society of its day, were savage in the extreme. england and europe were a society as savage as ISIS and co today. my point possibly being that we are separated by 500 years from our savage forebears. it's the 500 years that has made the difference, not the 'quality of human being'. interestingly, the savagery of both eras is rooted in religion. ISIS may be 'a demon that has to be fought' but it's not trying to bring about the end of the world, it's trying to bring about the kingdom of God. i just wondered if that was the starting point for Ms Mantel's wonderful book. (also a little bit dubious about the idea that ISIS is far more extreme than the Nazis. 60 to 100 million dead? mm.)
Nick Green said…
I didn't say ISIS was more extreme than the Nazis. I said the act of accusing today's America of past genocide was more extreme than accusing today's Germany of the Nazi atrocities. Perhaps there is a legacy of culpability, but you can't visit the sins of the fathers on the sons ad infinitum, or else I am guilty of hunting the mammoth to extinction.
Jan Needle said…
you swine - you admit it, do you!

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