Tuesday, 23 June 2015

Fludd - Hilary Mantel


I used to live in Budleigh Salterton which is where Hilary Mantel lives, and she was my neighbour. Budleigh, in case anyone is unaware, is the next town along the coast past Exmouth. Budleigh's such a small town and news travels faster than a sigh. Everybody there wants to know the next man's secret so every time we'd meet upon the street we had to keep it like sister and brother. We'd wave to each other as we didn't want all the world to know we were really lovers, so we'd talk about the weather until we were alone together.

It's a strange place, actually, Budleigh. As with every small town there's always gossip but that gossip never goes beyond its boundaries. It's where Lady Di used to go when she was seeing James Hewitt, presumably because they thought they wouldn't be bothered by anyone there. And they were right. Everyone who saw them walking along the beach knew who they were but they never caused a fuss or said anything.
When Hilary Mantel moved there, it was just after her winning the Man Booker Prize so anyone who knew anything about books knew exactly who she was but again, no-one caused a fuss. I certainly didn't, anyway.
What first caught my attention about her was when she said in an interview that she didn't have a bohemian bone in her body and I thought this quite interesting. Most people I knew who possessed a so-called 'awareness' were always steeped in so-called bohemian culture and there was never any surprise when I'd peruse their book shelves or rifle through their record collection. We all seemed to have read the same books and liked the same kind of music. It was all a bit boring, really. I mean, I don't want all people to be the same as me and to share my tastes. If that was what I wanted then I'd join the Jehovah Witnesses.

With her winning the Man Booker, Hilary's fame suddenly grew and then for some inexplicable reason she became a hate figure for the Daily Mail. Following a speech she gave regarding the royals and Kate Middleton, the Mail took a few lines from what was quite a long talk and twisted them out of context, in the process turning her words into a 'venomous attack'. The on-line bile then unleashed by readers of the Mail, the Telegraph and even the Independent was astonishing, ending up with even David Cameron and Ed Miliband joining in with the condemnation.
Bruised but unbowed, Hilary stood her ground and replied that she had nothing to apologise for. With the publication of her collection of short stories going under the title The Assassination Of Margaret Thatcher, she induced further near apoplexy in Tory MPs and the Daily Mail again who subsequently accused her of being warped, perverted, sick and deranged; with one old Tory gimp even suggesting she should be investigated by the police. Can you imagine? Investigated for imagining the assassination of somebody already dead? Only in the mind of a Tory fool could such an absurdity blossom.

The amusing thing about all of this is that Hilary Mantel is a really intelligent writer and to see her being criticised and attacked by those who also profess to write - as in the columnists and hacks at the Daily Mail - makes for high comedy. It's like charlatans in fear of the genuine article who make further fools of themselves by pulling down their pants and waving their rudimentary scribbles about, as though they had something to be proud of when in fact they have everything to be embarrassed about. They are lightweights under the impression that their views count for something when in fact they're simply relics of a past now fossilised and obsolete, who wither away on the vine of conservatism whilst those they are scared of (immigrants, single mothers, the unemployed, chavs, Hilary Mantel - the list is actually endless) move into the future.

As a writer, Hilary is probably perceived nowadays as a purveyor of weighty, historical tomes but this isn't the only string to her bow, her novel Fludd being a good example to highlight, it being a strange brew of comedy, magical realism, and Christian eccentricity.

First published in 1989, it centres around a make-believe village in the North of England in the 1950s where the Church and religion are still dominant forces in people's lives though where everyone has theological misgivings, grave concerns and doubts, not least of all the local vicar himself. Following an order from the bishop that various statues be removed from the church so as to focus the minds of parishioners upon God rather than saints, a stranger arrives who is taken to be an envoy of said bishop. He is, however, not all he would seem and though it's never made clear, he could well be an angel, a devil or possibly an alchemist.
Much fun and mischief is had in playing with the themes of religious ridiculousness and the thankless task of presiding over a diocese of what is termed 'simple people'. At times - for the first half of the book, in fact - it reads like an episode of Father Ted, which seeing as it's written by Hilary Mantel makes it all doubly amusing.
I don't think Hilary gets the balance quite right throughout the whole book and you do tend to wonder at times where she's going with her story but in the end it does all make sense. It also makes you think; particularly when profound thought is drawn from the most basic theological ponderings. There's a fair bit of symbolism going on and a constant swing between reality and unreality, ending up in a space somewhere between the two. For all that, it's still a very good book and another fine example of beautiful, intelligent writing.

In the good sense of it (if there can be any other?), Hilary Mantel is a classic, English eccentric who in her own quiet way is also rather brave. Whether that's by accident or design is beside the point. Anyone or anything that provokes the ire of the Daily Mail must be doing something right. A curious thing also: in Budleigh Salterton there's a lot of money. It's not only rich people there, of course, but in certain parts of it there's a lot of wealth on display and subsequently it leans heavily into Conservative politics. In such a setting - as to be expected - there's also a fair few Daily Mail and Telegraph readers and what all these people think of Hilary is anyone's guess? What they make of the Daily Mail and its editorial opinions in the context of it's attacks upon Hilary is also open to questioning, as is also Hilary's view of the Mail nowadays?
Next time we meet (like sister and brother) I'll have to ask her.
John Serpico

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