Monthly Archives: February 2015

Lupus Cromwellius

The TV adaptation of Hilary Mantel’s Wolf Hall & Bring up the Bodies has just finished and what perfection it was – ‘event TV’ that deserves to win lots of gongs. Period drama is something the Beeb does better than anyone. It was so refreshing to watch a show that wasn’t dumbing down – the acting was sublimely subtle (Rylance’s Cromwell was a masterclass in nuance and understatement), the direction, the script (paring down Mantel’s immense, linguistically-pyrotechnical works), the costumes, the lighting, the music … This is Civilization – what we must fight the Barbarians to preserve. A ray of light in a darkened world. What can be achieved with creative freedom and sufficient funding. All from the mind of a supremely talented woman.

Here are my reviews of the first book….

Wolf Hall – a review

An unforgettable masterpiece, Wolf Hall is an instant literary classic that is riveting from beginning to end. Hilary Mantel is at the height of her powers here, creating a fully realised Tudor England that is dark, damp, deadly and deceitful. In Thomas Cromwell she has forged a true diamond in the dustheap, a flawed multi-faceted protagonist who we can feel compassion for while being in awe of his steely intellect, insatiable ambition, and ice-cold heart, doused in the brutality and tragedy of life. He raises the over-used adjective ‘Machiavellian’ to a whole new art form – as though The Prince was written for him. Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More, Henry VIII, Anne Boleyn – all are brought to life, vividly, memorably, in all their vainglorious failings. The broken structure and use of present tense is bold, giving it a contemporary edge (although many of the themes have a topical resonance also – especially the financial gerrymandering); and the highly polished prose is exquisitely poetic at times, while never failing to serve the narrative. Each sentence is tart with razor-sharp wit and a Scorpion-like sting. Each arresting metaphor metamorphoses into the next sentence – a linguistic conjurer’s trick that is never merely for show. Mantel makes the language work harder, but the prose never feels tortured – it flows like a fine vintage wine. This is a heady, dangerous pleasure that any connoisseur of narrative will delight in – leaving you ravenous for more.

Dark Sister – a review

Dark Sister coverThis is a contemporary fantasy set in Joyce’s native Leicestershire – an East Midlands he has mythologized without losing any of its prosaicness. And it is this context of down-to-earth realism which anchors the uncanny elements that threaten to overwhelm the lives of the family at its heart. One day, when their chimney is being swept (a folklorically-rich activity) an old diary is found in the chimney breast. This inciting incident turns the world of archaeologist Alex, his wife Maggie and their children Amy and Sam, upside down – for the diary is that of a witch called Bella, whose ‘herbal remedies’ piques the curiousity of Maggie. At first she uses them to heal minor ailments, but in her experimentation she pushes the borders of safety, freedom and sanity. As she gets sucked into the supernatural her marriage suffers catastrophically. Meanwhile Alex is engrossed in a dig which unearths evidence of a ritual burial – his wife’s burgeoning ‘sixth sense’ locates the find. The couple simultaneously dig down into the dark stuff – and the book is very much about acknowledging the Shadow. Demons within both of them are unlocked. This psychological aspect is made explicit by the need to consult a Dr De Sang, who first examines Sam (who acts out the dysfunctionality of the marriage) and then Maggie (who starts to show signs of personality disorder/possession). As with many of Joyce’s books, the uncanny is always given a psychological ‘reading’, so we, the reader, can decide which paradigm to opt for. This creates a tension lacking in many fantasy novels where the incredible is a ‘given’. Joyce’s characterisation and dialogue is utterly convincing – well-observed, nuanced, complex. He makes his protagonists feel real and so we care for them. These are not superhero cut-outs. There is a deep humanity in his work, one that is life-affirming and celebratory of the daily miracles of existence. It gives voice to the fragility of our lives – how easily they are disrupted, are destroyed. As the ‘dark sister’ of the title invades first Maggie’s mind and the hearth the family unit is caught in a hex of buried hurt, a centuries old grievance narrative left to fester beneath the city centre until brought to light* both in the discovered diary and the dig. Maggie’s frustrated career becomes emblematic of the stifled voices of generations of women – controlled or silenced by fearful men – and yet it is the women who, as in many of Joyce’s books, provide the powerhouse of the narrative: Maggie; Bella; Liz, an old wise woman; Amy the daughter; ‘A’, a shadowy other controlling Bella; even the anagramic Anita (mistress) and Tania (archaeology student/’babysitter’). The male characters (Alex, De Sang, Sam, and Ash) are, with the exception of Ash, the owner of an occult shop, less appealing, less sympathetic. Both Alex and De Sang stand in the ‘rationalist’, scientific camp – facing the mysterious, depthless realm of the feminine with their ineffectual tools. A renegotiation between the genders needs to occur, addressing ancient inequalities – like an intercenine conflict destroying a country, Alex and Maggie’s ‘civil war’ is destroying their home and family. The power of the female must be acknowledged, but also the power of the unknown, the other. Reality is not ruled by what is on the surface.

The use of the diary is of particular interest – as Maggie reads it more is revealed, as though the act of reading is in itself a magical act. It is interwoven with the narrative. At first only obscure lists of herbs and coded inscriptions can be deciphered, but slowly a voice emerges. The past is translated. This embedded book of magic acts as an agent of change within the narrative – disruptive and disturbing, reminding us that words have power and consequences.

As with all of Joyce’s oeuvre, Dark Sister is effortlessly readable and utterly gripping. You know you are in the hands of a warlock of words, one who casts a spell which you do not want to break. The catharsis that comes with this walk on the wild side is powerful and lingering for both the protagonists and reader. Literary flying ointment, this novel is one visceral ride from start to finish.

Kevan Manwaring

20 February 2015

*It’s amazing what you can discover beneath a city centre. This feels like a timely book to read in the year of Richard the Third’s burial – the ‘king under the car-park’, another maligned, ‘shadow’ figure brought out into the light. 

Inklings of Spring

Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, Hawkwood College 31 Jan 2015

Inklings of Spring Bardic Showcase, Hawkwood College 31 Jan 2015

Last night I hosted another bardic gathering – this one at Hawkwood College in honour of Imbolc, the Celtic Festival of Spring. This always feels like a particularly poetic time for me because the festival is associated with the goddess Brighde (various spellings; Christianised as St Bridget) – goddess of poetry, smithcraft and healing. And words of healing brightness were certainly forged in the main hall of Hawkwood on Saturday night with a fine array of poets, storytellers and singers.

After I introduced the evening, my partner Chantelle sang a beautiful Manx Gaelic Invocation to St Bridget, sung traditionally on the threshold to welcome her into the hearth. There followed a splendid mix of bardic contributions from some of Stroud and Bath’s finest bards. Peter Adams got us to turn out the lights to do his owl poem, complete with sound FX; Fiona Eadie did a thrilling tale about the Cailleach and Brighid; Robin did a fine nature poem; Kirsten told us about her trip to a Native American reservation; Peter Please recited a scintillating vignette, and his superb ‘fly’ poem; and Marko finished off the first half with the Dick Gaughan classic ‘Both Sides o’ Tweed’.

After the break Jeff Cloves brought the evening back into the 21st Century with his tour-de-force about the bombing of a bookshop in Baghdad; next we had Kirsty Hartsiotis’ fine rendition of St Melangell and the hare; Tim Bannon followed with his mindful and affirming poem; Jehanne and Rob Mehta performed a lovely February song; Gabriel Bradford Millar shared her ‘absinthe-like’ poetry; and then we had some good contributions from the floor (including Katie’s lovely song praising an island off Mull); before finishing impressively with Anthony Nanson’s tales of St Bridget; and Marko’s stirring rendition of ‘The Bright Blue Rose’. All in all it was a beautifully gentle and heart-warming evening – one of a series of events leading up to the Bard of Hawkwood contest. We have a plethora of local talent in Stroud and the Five Valleys, and my hope is that many will step forward to either enter or support the Chair in some way. This is their platform. The Bardic Chair of Hawkwood belongs to its community; and in this day and age I think it is more important than ever to champion (creative and mindful) free speech.