The Kiso Road (for William Scott Wilson)

I
Kiso: clear as a bell among the mountains.
Write me, the river says,
Witness the road beside me.

II
The clouds are still tonight.
The sky is smoke-blackened
But the fires here are cold.
The children grow and leave
And do not come back
Time claims the haiku
The rain on the water

The temple floor is charmed though:
Each step across it
Stirs another nightingale to song

At dawn, an old dog fox breaks
The hermetic line of the field
Holding in his mouth
A stone of nothingness
To lay at the shrine

He sniffs the violet air
As if to confirm a thought.
Go and come back, the fox says,
Watching where you slide the day open.

III.
Write me, the forest says,
Cypress, pine and cedar,
As if the road were blocks of ink
The mist a white brush wet with the river
And the air were paper
Partitioning you from the dead

The road asks for nothing
Remembering the curve of your life
As trees remember the shape of the rocks and stones.
The fields are damp with story.
Metaphor drips from autumn’s leaves.

Go and come back, the poets say.
Bridges burn by torchlight;
The barriers are where we meet
Shuffled together on our different travels
Lives and languages weaving together
Like the long dry grass of a sparrow’s nest
Or a ball of cedar hanging in the street at night

IV
Rest your feet, traveller,
Watch the swallow’s flight through the mountains

Go and come back, your book says:
What was first a gateway has become
A meeting place among us.

 

Note: I don’t usually post my poems here, but given this one’s provenance, I thought it more fitting than most.

One of the best things about being a writer is how generous and supportive other writers can be – both those you come to know personally and those who you have never met.

Just before Christmas, the author and translator William Scott Wilson got in touch with me on social media with some very kind words of praise for my book, Impossible Journeys. He also sent me, by way of a thank you, his own recent book, Walking the Kiso Road, an account of his travels on the ancient Japanese thoroughfare.

Walking the Kiso Road – and William’s generosity – was the inspiration for this poem. I recommend the book highly. It’s a beautiful, subtle, meditative journey through Japanese landscape, culture, history and myth and William makes the best of literary companions: erudite, passionate, self-effacing and insightful. I was going to review it, but this wanted to be written instead.

Books are many things, but they are also where many of us meet to share a little of ourselves, sometimes unexpectedly. They surprise things from us, including friendship.

Between fact and fiction

This article first appeared in the January 2016 issue of History Today.

What does it mean to write history today? What claims can historians make about their work? These are just two of the questions that sprang to mind after listening to Niall Ferguson tussle with the Pulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley on Radio 4’s Start the Week in October.

Ferguson was attempting to clarify the distinction between historians and writers of historical fiction. ‘What happened and how it felt are not separate things’, he said:

Historians are as much concerned with how it felt – the difference is, we are actually basing it on research rather than our imaginations. People who write historical fiction are telling you what it must have felt like. But that’s not what it felt like, because essentially they’re projecting back, in [Jane’s] case early 21st century ideas. 

Ferguson, Harvard’s Laurence A. Tisch professor of history, has long been a proponent of the counterfactual, which – whatever its virtues and vices – is at heart an imaginative project. Indeed, Ferguson edited one of the leading books on the subject, Virtual History: Alternatives and Counterfactuals (1997).

Yet how do historians justify what they do? Certainly they can no longer pretend to Olympian distance and uninterested authority. We are all a product of the times we live in, fed by the oxygen of our experiences, and it is disingenuous to claim otherwise. We live in a multi-channel, multi-vocal era, which is sceptical of singularity and authority, but paradoxically attracted to narrow certainties and averse to self-doubt. How should historians adapt their practice to reflect these competing tensions? Doubt is central to intellectual enquiry, but by the time a work arrives in print, doubts have usually been effaced. The goal of historical research is to work our way out of doubt towards authority; perhaps work that articulates explicitly that process would better represent to the wider public what historians actually do.

Likewise, do historians challenge themselves enough to find an appropriate form for their ideas? They strive for originality of research and analysis, but how often do they strive for originality or inventiveness of form? The book or long-form essay may still be the best format historians have for sustained and rigorous argument. But do they default to it out of admiration, laziness, or cultural deference? After all, today’s cultural and technological fragmentation and diversity offers enormous opportunities for generically – and therefore intellectually – satisfying creativity to those with the requisite talent, ambition and desire.

To take two examples in different media: Ruth Scurr’s My Own Life (2015) might best be described as an autobiographical biography of John Aubrey, piecing the great antiquarian’s life together out of the voluminous chaos of his published and unpublished writings. Elsewhere, and largely unmarked in the press, BBC television’s Footballers United, an innovative historical drama, recently won a Prix Italia for Best Digital Storytelling. It used its medium to create a touching and thoughtful narrative illuminated by archive materials actually embedded in it. Rather than a drama-documentary, it was a new thing: a documented drama.

To write history is to fill our glass with water from the Thames and claim we have captured the river. This is as true of Jane Smiley as it is of Niall Ferguson, but the author of fiction makes no claim to objective truth or authority and so may be more true to our times.

Certainly, the boundary between fiction and non-fiction is more porous than we like to think. Perhaps an approach to non-fiction historical writing that was more comfortable in acknowledging its subjectivity, its contingency and its intellectual frailties would challenge readers to think more deeply about the nature of history and its place in our culture.

Review: Shakespeare in London by Hannah Crawforth, Sarah Dustagheer and Jennifer Young

Shakespeare in LondonThis review first appeared in the August 2015 issue of History Today.

The world might be forgiven for rolling its eyes at the prospect of another book on Shakespeare. Does Shakespeare in London, the latest addition to the Bloomsbury Arden list,  have anything new to say? The answer is a confident yes.

Shakespeare in London is a short book with big ambitions. It weaves together various narratives – Shakespeare’s London career, a physical journey west to east across early-modern London – with vivid readings of eight plays, each of which is used to explore aspects of London life around the turn of the 17th century. So, for example, the book opens with an account of Titus Andronicus, relating it to the culture of punishment, bloodshed and retribution embodied in the site of Tyburn.

The process is not without its difficulties. Where the Merchant of Venice, say, can be mapped closely onto an examination of the law, or King Lear onto early modern ideas of medicine and madness, the approach taken to Romeo & Juliet – marrying it to the domestic wealth and power evident in the great riverside mansions on the Strand – is more subtle, perhaps even metaphorical.

But on balance the flexibility of that approach is one of the book’s greatest strengths. The fact that the book is a wholly collective effort and each chapter is co-authored by all three authors seems commendably appropriate to the collaborative working practices of the theatre they describe.

Shakespeare is one of the least literal of the early modern playwrights. Whereas the work of Jonson, say, or Middleton gains strength and purpose from its precise and detailed evocation of contemporary London, Shakespeare is characteristically more elusive – evasive, even.

The authors both capture and, in some ways, mirror that trait: reflecting on Shakespeare’s writing at the Globe they self-consciously echo their own description of early-modern London as being always and never the same.

The society revealed here, whether focusing on religion or scientific experimentation or economics, is one undergoing a seismic collision of values. Innovation is competing with tradition; modernity with the memorially fixed. This is, of course, as true of the material city, in which the great monastic houses had been repurposed into mansions – as well as the odd theatre or two – if not torn down all together, as it is of the multitude of ideas the city contains.

The book is clearly aimed at a general audience and, as such, benefits greatly from the bold decision to dispense with the compulsive hat-tipping and knee-bending to the vast array of literary critics that so bedevils much contemporary academic writing. That is not to say that the text is unacademic – the ideas and insights of others are scrupulously noted where relevant and there is an excellent selection of further reading and works cited at the end. But the writers’ decision has freed them to create a more allusive, thought-provoking and approachable work that should be required reading for any undergraduate student of early-modern English literature.

Shakespeare in London offers useful insights into Shakespeare’s work and his working practices. But it is also a wonderful, wide-ranging introduction to the richness and complexity of late-Elizabethan and early-Jacobean society. It would be instructive reading for anyone, including young historians, although its play-by-play structure might sadly alienate those outside the silo of English studies who are less engaged by the literary culture.

 

Review: The Black Prince of Florence by Catherine Fletcher

the-black-prince-of-florenceThis review first appeared in the Financial Times on April 29, 2016

Alessandro de’ Medici reigned from 1532 to 1537 as the first duke of one of Italy’s greatest city-states. Yet just as he lived in obscurity until his teens in the late 1520s, he has largely been returned to that obscurity by historians ever since.

Why then, asks Catherine Fletcher, has her subject been so ill-served by posterity? He was by all accounts intelligent and charming, and a great patron of the arts; Vasari was a life-long friend. If he was also ruthless and decadent, those qualities hardly make him unique among Renaissance Italian princes. And while it is true that Alessandro was illegitimate, so was his patron, Guilio de’ Medici — who rose to become Pope Clement VII in 1523 — and his chief rival and cousin, Ippolito de’ Medici.

What role, then, does the colour of his skin play in all this? Certainly, racist pseudoscience served to demean Alessandro in the Victorian era, with one 1875 study describing him as having “all the known features of the delinquent amoral constitutional type: proud, arrogant, selfish, sensual . . . a born criminal”.

The irony, as Fletcher shows in The Black Prince of Florence, is that these kind of pejorative racial distinctions are distinctly modern categories of thought. Alessandro’s father was Lorenzo de’ Medici, the duke of Urbino. His mother, Simunetta, was most likely a servant or slave of the Medici family with a partly African ancestry. Although after his death he was given the descriptive sobriquet Alessandro il Moro, no one seems to have thought the complexion of his skin worth disparaging while he was alive — and enemies were not in short supply, not least within his own family.

In fact, Alessandro’s illegitimacy seems to have been a far more potent issue for contemporaries — and for the duke himself. Alessandro would rule on an inheritance dispute that revolved around the birth of a nephew out of wedlock: “For all that he’s a bastard,” he asked the respondent, “is he not made of flesh, and born of a man and woman like you? . . . Does he not have soul and body like all those legitimately born?”

It is his illegitimacy that accounts for the obscurity of his upbringing, then, and familial necessity that accounts for his dazzlingly swift rise to power. Alessandro’s father died in 1519, which made Alessandro’s older cousin Ippolito the focus of the family’s political aspirations in Florence. But when Clement VII suffered a life-threatening illness in the late 1520s, he made Ippolito a cardinal to ensure the family retained its firm grip on the church. Ippolito never forgave him — or Alessandro, who was next in line.

Indeed, Ippolito never stopped scheming to seize Florence for himself, and his complicity in a plot against Alessandro led to his own assassination in 1535, almost certainly on Alessandro’s orders; Fletcher’s more-or-less verbatim account of the assassin’s interrogation and torture makes one of the more astonishing setpieces in the book.

Alessandro would ultimately be murdered by another cousin, Lorenzino, for reasons that remain unclear. It seems unlikely that Lorenzino, regarded by some contemporaries as little more than Alessandro’s pimp, acted on principle; nevertheless, the lurid allegations of despotism and tyranny used to justify the murder have tainted Alessandro’s name ever since.

Fletcher’s first book, The Divorce of Henry VIII (2012), was a study of Vatican intrigue that demonstrated her ability to use rarely accessed Italian archives to create a gripping and original account of a well-worn subject. Here she has used the same skills to even greater effect, creating a compelling portrait of a forgotten man — himself both brutal and brutalised — once at the very heart of the Renaissance world order. Her narrative follows the extraordinary arc of Alessandro’s life closely, but also uses it to illuminate the bloody opulence of Renaissance Italian politics in all its squalid, operatic glory.

If we think of the Renaissance courts constructed by the Medici as simply corrupt or venal, however, we are missing the point. They merely commoditised power — and sex and art and information and all things besides, but above all power — to an exquisite degree. The Medicis knew the price of everything, but they knew its value too, right down to the last drop of blood.

The What’s A Book Worth Campaign

As anyone who is following me on Twitter will likely know, I have just started a social media campaign called #WhatsABookWorth.

I had the idea at a forum called Did Anybody Ask The Author?, run by author and life-coach John-Paul Flintoff. The event was a day-long brainstorming session involving some thirty authors and publishers which explored ways to improve the business of publishing for authors.

I imagine we all went into it with particular bugbears. Mine is around the perceived value of books. Or rather, the gap between what we as readers know to be the immeasurable human value of books to us, and their “real” monetary value in the marketplace.

Part of this is the downward pressure on book prices from Amazon, a company which funds its low prices through tax avoidance, business practices that come close to extortion, and the willingness of Wall Street to allow it access to finance without the irksome necessity of delivering profits.

Plus, of course, as an aspiring publisher and the key driver of the e-book economy, Amazon has a vested interest in destroying the economic viability of the book trade.

Publishers have played their part too. In fact, the ongoing betrayal of the high-street retail book trade by the publishing industry is one of the more shocking and depressing parts of the affair.

But, more generally, publishing has proven itself unwilling or unable to say anything of any meaning with regard to the price and value of the things they produce.

The reality is that a book represents extraordinary value – and extraordinary value for money. You can buy a book for around the same as a couple of cups of Starbucks, or a couple of drinks, a couple of magazines, a couple of Big Mac meals, and so on, and so on.

For the cost of a disposable moment a book gives you something that will live with you forever.

In marketing parlance, books are the ultimate low-cost premium product. But who ever says that?

For publishers, pretty much all marketing is trade marketing. Money is only directed at driving sales for a particular product – the new Harper Lee, for example – not to support the category itself.

Which wouldn’t matter if the ecosystem of the category wasn’t being eaten away from inside and out.

So, to return to where I began, I was talking about all of this with John-Paul and Dan Kieran of Unbound, who was also at the event. Dan was talking about how much his life had been changed by reading Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance, and we agreed we should all talk more about the capacity of a book to influence and change and inhabit our lives.

Hence this campaign. You can read about it here, and join in here on Facebook and here on Twitter.

I simply cannot imagine my life without books – fiction and non-fiction, poetry and prose. Characters, events, places, turns of phrase – real or imagined – people my own experience and imagination so thoroughly that to erase them would be to black out the sun.

The words of men and women I will never meet – long-dead and living – evoke and articulate my own joys and sorrows, losses and loves, with a sharpness that is so human and alive the recognition and sense of fellow-feeling that comes from acknowledging that fact is vivid to the point of pain.

A book is a conversation with the author, with the past, with the present, with oneself. We walk among the words and they walk among us, in us and between us.

A book is a magical thing. We fail to treasure and celebrate them at our peril.

If you’re reading this, you probably agree. Come and join us.

 

NB It is perfectly true that the same problems currently bedevil other kinds of art – most obviously music. If anyone wanted to start a #WhatsASongWorth campaign, say, they would have my blessing and support!

 

 

The LRB, Twitter and Craig Raine’s ‘Gatwick’

June 3rd was a strange day on Twitter. For most of it, a living poet was trending.

Unfortunately for Craig Raine, the poet in question, he was trending because a long poem of his entitled ‘Gatwick’ had appeared in the LRB and Twitter didn’t like it.

Most comments ranged from amused contempt to, well, just plain old contempt. But it wasn’t only angry feminists, as some suggested, who leapt into action. Indeed, I saw much more ridicule than anger. Many of us were merely enjoying mocking what is by no means a good poem.

Which is the point, really. Certainly there is no shortage of bad poetry in the world. I have written some of it myself. But most of it doesn’t end up in the LRB.

For those who haven’t read the poem, it falls into three sections. The first comprises just two lines, name-drops Tom Stoppard for no apparent reason, and rhymes “Gatwick” with “sick”. The second muses on an encounter at immigration control between Raine and a young woman with an MA in English poetry who Raine is delighted to find recognises him. The third involves Raine eyeing up a young Swedish woman on the bus. He notes her trainers, the size of her breasts – they are big and he likes them that way – the moles on her face, and the likelihood of her inheriting her mother’s hips.

The ‘old man looking longingly at a young woman’ genre is a well-established one but Raine adds little to it. Some of the writing has a distinct EJ Thribbish quality. One stanza in its entirety runs: “I want to say, hey / I like your moles.”

Some of it is worse.

“She glances, she frowns
she turns it upside down
so it can be read by a machine.
She stares at a screen.”

Raine made his reputation in the 1970s with poetry of acute observation and inventive, even outlandish metaphor. There is precious little of that energy here. He is nothing if not a cerebral writer, but artful banality is still banality. And sadly it is not just the writing that is banal, but also the thought. The point of the poem seems to be that Raine, as a poet and and old man to boot, can say things in writing that ordinary people would think inappropriate to say in real life.

But what does he actually have to say that is worth breaching that taboo? The things that might be interesting about these encounters – a poetry graduate working in border control, how it feels to be confronted with the beauty of youth in old age, how both propriety and time guard the borders between the young and the elderly – go unexplored.

Rather, he seems to be straying into the territory of the pensioner who feels their age entitles them to share their opinions of you and your children whether you wish to hear them or not.

But at least Raine has got people discussing poetry. If for nothing else, he is to be commended for that.

 

Please note that this piece first appeared in The Spectator online.

Country Life, Shakespeare and midsummer madness

Country-Life-May-20-2015-400px-300x387Like most people, I suspect, I was surprised by the news that someone had discovered a contemporary portrait of Shakespeare. And bemused, too, that they would chose to reveal the fact in Country Life.

My heart sank, though, when I saw that the case relied on ciphers. I am sure there are carefree souls for whom the word ‘cipher’ conjures up the happy image of Alan Turing/Benedict Cumberpatch at Bletchley Park. Well, happy-ish. For anyone with any knowledge of the Shakespeare authorship controversy, however, it brings back the chilly absurdities of Baconianism, which twisted language, logic and sense with ciphers in order to torture Bacon’s hand from the handiwork of Shakespeare.

Would the much-trumpeted discovery of botanical historian Mark Griffiths be any different? The promise of identities encoded in flora was at least novel and refreshing. But what level of certainty could the argument possibly claim after 500-odd years?

I think you know where this is going.

The answer is: Not much.

Are there any actual facts in Griffiths’ piece associating Gerard with Shakespeare? No. What Griffiths presents are a range of speculations – typographical, literary, historical – which mutually reinforce each other without any reference to provable evidence.

The maker’s mark
The keystone of his argument is the mark beneath the portrait of “the fourth man”, having identified the first three portraits as Gerard himself; Rembert Dodoens, Gerard’s collaborator until the latter’s death a decade before; and Gerard’s patron of twenty years, William Cecil, Lord Burghley.

You will have to read Griffiths’ piece yourselves to see the heavy lifting he has to do to turn what has usually been regarded as a printer’s mark known as a sign of four into a cipher for Shakespeare’s name. It involves far more wishful thinking than any decent argument should, finding a bewildering range of nuances in character widths, Latin puns, and other factors besides. It requires the presumed owner of the book to identify Shakespeare by knowing the colour of Shakespeare’s coat of arms and relating what looks like an A in the mark to his maternal familial roots in the Forest of Arden. It also involves ignoring the very evident numeral 4 in the mark.

Mark Griffiths clearly regards his discovery as following iron laws of logic. The identification he puts forward is not a suggestion. It is incontrovertible fact. This is far from the case. Ockham’s razor is an imperfect tool but I fear Griffiths was rash to discard it.

He describes the title pages as being full of “encoded, typically Cecilian cleverness”; but the cleverness – an excess of it – is all his. The laboriousness of it; now that is authentically Cecilian.

It is through Burghley that Griffiths seeks to bring Shakespeare and Gerard together. But he fails to make the case that this ever, in fact, happened. His argument is based on the premiss that Cecil’s political reputation was so damaged by his handling of the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587 that three years later he needed to hire the then unknown William Shakespeare as a kind of Tudor Dan Draper to restore his fortunes.

The former is, to say the least, wildly over-stated; the latter without historical basis.

He also asserts that Shakespeare addressed Venus and Adonis to Southampton on behalf of Burghley, the latter’s guardian. Is there any evidence adduced for this? No. Yet the idea that Southampton himself might have been Shakespeare’s patron is brushed aside with reference to an 18th-century anecdote about Shakespeare being given £1,000, which is as convenient a straw-man argument as you will find.

Of course, none of this necessarily means that Shakespeare and Gerard weren’t familiar with each other’s work. Shakespeare’s writing is famously full of detailed observation of English flora; they both share a sense of the landscape and its infinite possibility, great riches in a little room. But the lack of corroborating evidence ought to at least to cause Griffiths – and his editor at Country Life – some concern.

Certainly, Griffiths pads his argument with a range of speculative readings of plays and entertainments. None of the latter have been attributed to Shakespeare before, although Griffiths clearly wishes to do so with regard to the 1591 Theobald’s Entertainment. A “new” Shakespeare play is promised next week; perhaps that is it. But the readings do little to enhance Griffiths’ case.

Griffiths begins his piece with the revelation that he made the discovery on Midsummer’s Night. He might have paused at some point to reflect that if Shakespearean comedy teaches us anything, it’s that midsummer night is when hobgoblins and sprites famously plant foolish conceits in human heads to make them seem ridiculous in the morning.

Ralegh and Gerard
One last thought, a little mischievous perhaps.

As regular readers will know, I have written a book about Walter Ralegh. It seems to me that if the figure in the engraving represents any contemporary figure – a tendentious claim, still – Ralegh is a more plausible candidate than Shakespeare. A low boast, I agree.

The mysterious fourth figure is holding an ear of maize, a clear reference to the Americas, with which Ralegh was publicly – even notoriously – associated. Moreover, Ralegh, a known patron of and enthusiast for scientific knowledge and progress, was the dedicatee of Gerard’s Catalogus Arborum, published the following year.

Griffiths notes that the two men were friends and comments that Gerard was an investor in Ralegh’s first Virginia colony – something Griffiths dates to 1589 rather than 1585 for some reason.

So: Ralegh was a friend of Gerard’s, one of his patrons in the late 1590s and was closely associated with one of the plants apparently linked with the mysterious fourth figure in the engraving.

Is this a strong case for Ralegh? Not particularly. But it is far stronger than anything Griffiths has to offer for Shakespeare, alas.