August 14th, 2015


Links I found interesting for 14-08-2015


Divorcing Jack, by Colin Bateman ("Bateman")

I picked this up at a Brussels literary event last year, at which Bateman himself spoke and autographed a couple of his works for me. I had previously read a couple of his thrillers set in Belfast, usually involving struggling journalists who get into political and criminal difficulties, though I don't think I had looked at any of them this century. Divorcing Jack is more political, but it is a slightly different politics to our time line, set in an alternate 1995 where the Alliance Party is about to win the elections and take power. (I read this bit with particular interest because in our timeline, the real Alliance Party's central Director of Elections in 1995 was, er, me; and we were struggling to hit the 6.5% we got in 1996, never mind win outright. A significant subplot revolves around the party's candidate for North Belfast, who in 1995-96, in our timeline, was, again, me; but Bateman's fictional McGarry had a much more successful political career than I did.)

As with the other Bateman novels I've read, the narrator is a journalist down on his luck. Here, his marriage is on the rocks, two other women appear on the scene, and he unleashes a criminal scandal which threatens to rock the political world to its foundations. Bateman's Northern Ireland is a small world. There is only one taxi driver in the whole of Belfast, apparently. The least credible element of this alternate Northern Ireland is that everyone at the top level of politics has known each other practically from childhood, and that the battles of young love are still being fought a decade or two later, along with all the other political battles. I do actually know of a couple of countries where this is a decent explanation of a lot of the political dynamics; but Northern Ireland, given its internal division and also relative permeability to outside influences, is not one of them.

But I'm far enough away in time and (usually) space to appreciate that not every detail of the fictional politics of Bateman's Northern Ireland needs to be convincing to make it an entertaining book; and it is an entertaining book - in particular, he catches the caustic Belfast wit very well, also showing how it can link to a cynical worldview where scepticism even of the apparently heroic is always justified. It's not a terribly attractive approach, but at least it means that, by assuming the worst in advance, you are more likely to get pleasant surprises than unpleasant surprises.

It's also striking, to a visitor from the 21st century, how much the plot of this book set in 1995 depends on old technology - the McGuffin is a cassette tape of which there is only one copy; when your spouse goes missing you have to call round all imaginable relatives and friends and ask if they know where your loved one is, because nobody has a mobile phone.

Anyway, it's of its time, but it brought me back to places which were very important to me once, and showed them to me from a different angle and in a different light. I don't know how well it would be received outside Northern Ireland - the humour is very local - and I'm not even sure how well it was received here - rather too close to the bone in some cases. But I liked it.

1606: William Shakespeare and the Year of Lear, by James Shapiro

The excellent Brussels English-language bookshop, Sterling Books (on Rue du Fosse aux Loups / Wolvengrachtstraat, behind the Munt/Monnaie) had the excellent notion the other day of offering ARCs to interested customers (thanks to Aoife for alerting me). I had previously very much enjoyed two of Shapiro's other Shakespeare books, 1599 and Contested Will (the latter provoking one of the more rancorous comment threads I have had here), so I eagerly grabbed 1606. It will be published in October, and I recommend it to fans of Shakespeare and of Jacobean history. The coming year is going to see a lot of Shakespeariana, with the 400th anniversary of his death next April, and this is a good place to start.

Shapiro looks in great detail at the state of London and England three years into the reign of the new Scottish king, and how this can be demonstrated to have affected Shakespeare's choice of material and approach to King Lear, Macbeth and Antony and Cleopatra. Chapters of historical scene-setting, on politics, religion, and the economics of the theatre, more or less alternate with chapters about Shakespeare.

Of the three plays, I know only Macbeth well, or thought I did. Of course, a play that starts and ends with the off-stage killings of two Scottish kings has to be seen as a reaction to the Gunpowder Plot the previous year; but Shapiro very impressively threads together Shakespeare's own Warwickwhire connections to the plotters. He also looks at the play's links to witchcraft, including King James' own writings on the subject, and its reflection of the moral panic around "equivocation", the 1606 equivalent of worrying about teenagers running away to join ISIS.

His strongest section, however, is the first chunk about King Lear as a reaction to James' plans to unify Scotland and England (which did not become formal for another century) and also as a reflection of Shakespeare's own economic independence and ability to pursue new dramatic paths, though rooted firmly in his own immediate artistic environment. The division of Britain (ie England and Scotland combined) is a fundamental error which King James is now, by implication, planning to overcome. King Lear is just one of many Shakespeare works to rip off an earlier work by someone else, but in this case he took much more liberty with the plot, in particular giving it a tragic ending. Shapiro convinced me to go and give King Lear another try.

I was less convinced that there is all that much that is interesting to say about Antony and Cleopatra. Shapiro makes a more than valiant effort, looking at the complex politics around marriage in the Jacobean court and also at how Shakespeare tended to write sequels almost immediately, rather than leave them several years as he did in this case (if you consider Antony and Cleopatra a sequel to Julius Cæsar). But basically, it's a less engaging play than the other two.

Shapiro's core case is that we neglect the reign of James VI and I unfairly, as a footnote between the Virgin Queen and the Civil War. There was a lot going on in England in the years after 1603, and that includes some of the greatest works of England's greatest writer. I'm convinced.