Burgess gets his Kit off

 

© Vintage

 

I have to admit that when I first opened Anthony Burgess’s 1993 novel A Dead Man in Deptford, a fictionalised account of the life of Elizabethan playwright Christopher ‘Kit’ Marlowe, I knew next to nothing about its subject.

 

What did I know of Marlowe?  Well, I’d heard of his plays but never read them.  When I studied literature at university, I’d busied myself reading Shakespeare, and a little Ben Jonson, and even The Spanish Tragedy by Thomas Kyd, who plays a supporting role in Dead Man.  But I didn’t get around to reading any of Marlowe’s plays and my only experience of seeing one was Derek Jarman’s post-modern movie version of Edward II, with gratuitously added Annie Lennox, from 1991.

 

What else?  I knew he’d been killed in a pub brawl – stabbed in the eye – in Deptford in London in 1593.  I knew he was the topic of the only joke I can remember from 1998’s Shakespeare in Love, which comes when a Thames boatman remarks to Joseph Fiennes’ Shakespeare, “I had that Christopher Marlowe in my boat once.”  And I knew John Hurt played him as a 400-year-old vampire in Jim Jarmusch’s 2013 horror movie Only Lovers Left Alive.  Being an immortal bloodsucker evidently isn’t the glamorous, forever-youthful escapade it’s made out to be, because the real Marlowe was 29 when he died while in Only Lovers John Hurt looked all of his then 73 years.

 

© Recorded Picture Company / Pandora Film

 

No, the reason I started reading Dead Man wasn’t because of Marlowe, but because I wanted to see Anthony Burgess, an author famous for his rumbustious verbosity and love of language, tackle the minutiae of life in the Elizabethan era.  As you’d expect, Burgess doesn’t just dip a cautious literary toe into the 16th century milieu.  He strips off – gets his Kit off, so to speak – and dives into it headlong and takes to it like a duck to water.  Or to use a cruder simile, like a pig to shit.  Not that I’m comparing Burgess to a pig, of course, but there’s certainly plenty of shit present.

 

Yes, you can almost hear him smacking his lips with relish as his prose records the hurly-burly in all its glory and grottiness.   The bars, booze and burping (“Kit… drank deep and belched on the yeasty froth…”); the brothels (“…roars and screams and the rapture of dying…”); the food, both hearty (“…a baked pigeon with a forcemeat of saffron and dried rosemary…) and hideous (“Pickled herrings and mouldy bread…” and “…wormy cheese…”); the vagabonds (“…rufflers, abram-men, high-pads, buff-knappers, rattling mumpers, tat-mongers, wiping-drawers, kidlays and moon-cursers…”); the oaths (“By the six ballocks of the Trinity and the cheese of the milk of the Magdalen and the hundred prepuces of circumcised Jesus…”); the gore of the public executions (“…the prick and ballocks exposed then sliced away, the first blood healthily flowing, then the cross-cut along the belly so that the bowels gushed out…”); the gore of the stage (“…pig’s blood gushed from bladders hidden…”); the torture (“…a nail or two had been pincered out before the cracking of bone…”); the lack of dental hygiene (teeth that “showed their rotting waists…”); the fingernails (which “harboured the grease he scratched from his lousiness…”); the disease and plague (“…noxious urine spouting from mouth, nose and ears and all holes else…” and “…buboes… clear in his naked armpits…); the carcasses (“…a dead pied dog that lay with swollen belly ripe to burst…”); the snot (“…the hairs in his skewed nose had trapped scraps of dry mucus…”); the puke (“…in green and yellow coposity…”); the piss (“She sat in a pool of wet…”); and the general squalor (“…the dunghill that festered at the corner of Hog Lane…” and a nearby “…raintub on which flowers of filth were afloat…”).

 

In fact, Dead Man isn’t the first Anthony Burgess book I’ve read that’s set in Elizabethan times, for in 1964 he published a novel about Shakespeare called Nothing Like the Sun.  Will Shakespeare inevitably turns up in the later stages of Dead Man, though the Bard seems pragmatic and restrained compared to the incendiary and multi-layered Kit Marlowe (whose complexity is symbolised by the uncertainty and elasticity of his surname – he introduces himself as “Christopher,” but adds, “The other name is unsure.  Marlin, Merlin, Marley, Morley.  Marlowe will do.”)

 

Indeed, the contrast between the playwrights reminded me slightly of Burgess and his great contemporary, the novelist Graham Greene.  Both hung out in south-eastern France towards the ends of their lives but had little to do with each other.  Apparently, the ebullient, publicity-loving and self-mythologizing Burgess grated on the aloof, reserved and ascetic Greene, who disapproved of Burgess appearing on TV to “talk about his books.”

 

Actually, I enjoyed Dead Man much more than Nothing Like the Sun which, with a lengthy opening section in Stratford-upon-Avon before the action finally moved to London, took its time getting going.  In comparison, Dead Man doesn’t hang around.  After a brief preamble in which we meet the book’s narrator – who identifies himself as “a small actor and smaller play-butcher who observed him (Kit) intermittently though indeed knew him in a very palpable sense”, and muses philosophically about the impossibility and absurdity of telling the story of a man’s life without being present during every moment of that life, and even alludes to Schrödinger’s cat (“There was a philosopher who spoke of the cat that mews to be let out and then mews to be let in again.  In the interim, does it exist?”) – Burgess cuts to the chase.  We glimpse Kit as a student at Corpus Christi, Cambridge, before he crosses paths with poet Thomas Watson, who invites him to London and introduces him to Queen Elizabeth I’s spymaster Sir Francis Walsingham.

 

Walsingham immediately signs Kit into Her Majesty’s secret service and despatches him to the English College at Rheims in France on the pretence that he’s disillusioned with Protestantism and wants to explore the possibility of joining the priesthood.  His real purpose, though, is to spy on a cabal of English Catholics there who may be plotting to replace Queen Elizabeth with her Catholic cousin, Mary Queen of Scots.  At the same time that he’s recruited by Sir Francis, he encounters Sir Francis’s young relative Thomas Walsingham and immediately becomes smitten with him.

 

From www.roseplayhouse.org.uk

 

The remainder of Dead Man’s 270 pages is a stew of spying and political intrigue – determined to make the most of Kit’s services, the older Walsingham sends him to the Low Countries and then to Scotland, where the skulduggery involves King James VI, regarded by just about everyone as “a drunkard, a sodomite and a coward” – and Elizabethan men, mostly Kit and Thomas Walsingham, indulging in ‘the love that dare not speak its name’.  Oh, and there’s a fair bit of playwriting and versifying too.

 

Adding further kinks to the plot is Sir Walter Raleigh, who draws Kit into his clique of aristocrats, thinkers and hangers-on.  Sir Walter and his gang are dangerous to know because their opinions and musings run the risk of being considered atheistic and heretical which, with Queen Elizabeth I the head of the English church, translates into treason.  The sneaky Raleigh reels Kit in by getting him addicted to tobacco – of which Raleigh, “the keeper of many keys”, is London’s main supplier.  Burgess cleverly attributes feminine qualities to the plant.  The otherwise completely male-orientated Kit describes it as a “delicious nymph” and his smoking habit as “daily ravishing of the nymph”.  His lover Thomas Walsingham later complains, “Your body does not smell as it did.  There is a rankness…” and adds, both jealously and ominously, “Yes, you are one of Raleigh’s tribe.”

 

With grim inevitability, the story leads towards the fatal events of 1593.  Kit, now in serious trouble with the authorities, heads for Deptford on the south bank of the Thames with the intention of boarding a ship and fleeing England.  First, however, he has a rendezvous in a local tavern with some shady associates of the now-dead Sir Francis Walsingham and the now-married Thomas Walsingham, who’s clearly begun to see his relationship with Kit as an embarrassment and encumbrance.

 

With his arrogance, his predilection for boozing and brawling, and his spying activities that contribute to a number of people dying horrible deaths, Kit is no angel.  But Burgess imbues him too with qualities like loyalty, conscience and self-doubt that make him relatable and likeable.  Also, Burgess – who’d previously featured gay heroes in books like Earthly Powers (1980) and Honey for the Bears (1963) – treats Kit’s homosexuality with sympathy and avoids making it a source of shame or torment for him even though, by the beliefs of the time, it guarantees him eternal damnation.  Kit is unapologetic about it.  He sees his orientation as being nobler than the instinct-driven sexuality of men and women that causes reproduction: “Male and female are grossly conjoined following nature’s words that they breed.  There is an airier or more spiritual mode of conjunction.”  He also rejects heterosexuality on the grounds of his relationship with his sisters and mother: “To bed a woman, which I have never done, has a strong stench of incest.”

 

That said, some might find a lack of subtlety in how Burgess seemingly juxtaposes Kit’s sexuality with the phallic imagery of knives and daggers.  When Dead Man isn’t getting excited about gay love scenes, it’s getting excited about blades.  Taking on a villain called George Orwell (who, Burgess claims in his postscript, was a real-life hoodlum in 16th century London), Kit “slashed Orwell’s daggering wrist, making Orwell howl and seek to drink the blood to stem its flow.”  Tangling with another villain called Cutting Ball, “his sword whistled as it dove to nick Ball’s wrist.”  Elsewhere, “his sword point pierced a fat buttock,” while his friend Thomas Watson gets caught “most bitterly in the brow with dagger”, leaving “a wound like a mouth that spoke blood.”  This imagery reaches its finale in the Deptford tavern when poor Kit receives a lethal eyeful: “The dagger point was too close to his eye for his eye to see it.”  Just to drive the association home, Burgess describes Kit’s first meeting with Thomas Walsingham as being “like the sharp knife of a sort of truth in the disguise of danger.”

 

Any other reservations about the book?  Well, the plot gets somewhat confusing with the number of characters called ‘Thomas’.  In addition to Thomas Kyd, Thomas Watson and Thomas Walsingham, there’s the playwright, poet and pamphleteer Thomas Nasche and the astronomer and mathematician Thomas Harriot.  Though of course the existence of so many Thomases in Marlowe’s life isn’t Burgess’s fault and at one point he has his narrator exclaim, “…“all these Toms, a world of toms like a night roof top…”  And talking of narrators, it feels a bit of a cop-out when on the very last page Burgess abandons his fictional narrator and reveals himself as the true chronicler of events: “Your true author speaks now…  I put off the ill-made disguise and, four hundred years after that death at Deptford, mourn as it all happened yesterday.”

 

But those are only quibbles.  On the whole, I found A Dead Man in Deptford a splendid book, a pleasure to read while Burgess’s exuberant prose captured both the complexities of Christopher Marlowe and the rough and tumble of the world around him, without – as I’ve occasionally found elsewhere with Burgess – becoming hard to follow.  Given that the book was the last thing Burgess had published in his lifetime, before his death the following year at the age of 76, it’s retrospectively cheering to note that the book showed no sign of decline in the great man’s abilities.

 

To use the unavoidable pun – he remained at the peak of his earthly powers.

 

© The International Anthony Burgess Foundation

 

Watch out, we’re mad!

 

© Yahoo News

 

Watch Out, We’re Mad! was the title of a 1974 Italian-Spanish slapstick comedy movie starring Bud Spencer and Terence Hill, whose films during the 1970s were the sort of thing kids – kids in the UK, anyway – would graduate to when they grew too old to enjoy the slapstick comedy movies of Norman Wisdom.  Its plot had something to do with bearded, burly Bud and slim, handsome Terence having an escalating battle of wits, and fists, with some property-developing gangsters after the gangsters wrecked the duo’s beloved dune buggy.  No shit.  I saw it as a kid at my local cinema as part of a double bill with the re-released The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad (1958).  When you were ten years old, that was a double bill made in heaven.

 

However, Watch Out, We’re Mad! could also be the title given to the Daily Telegraph during the period leading up to and since Boris Johnson becoming British Prime Minister.  As soon as a Johnson premiership looked likely, the venerable newspaper decided to be that premiership’s number one cheerleader in the British media.  The November 6th edition of the Telegraph, for example, headed its front page with a quotation by Johnson saying of the opposition Labour Party and its leader Jeremy Corbyn: “…they point their fingers at individuals with a relish and a vindictiveness not seen since Stalin persecuted the kulaks.”

 

In my youth, the British tabloids were as idiotic and mean-spirited as they are today.  On the other hand, there seemed to be some constancy and balance at the upmarket end of the nation’s press.  You had three newspapers that were commonly, and for the most part deservedly, referred to as the ‘qualities’: the Guardian, catering for those people whose political sympathies lay on the left; the Times, catering for those who were in the middle; and the Telegraph, catering for those who tended towards the right.

 

Unfortunately, these days, ‘quality’ is the last word you’d apply to the Telegraph.  It has untethered itself from reality and sanity.  It has transformed itself into a printed pantomime of pro-Johnson loopiness.  And since the announcement that Britain will have a general election on December 12th, that loopiness has increased by the power of ten.

 

Before I continue, I should explain that I don’t live in Britain at the moment and my only access to the Telegraph is via its website; and as its articles exist behind a paywall, and as I’m not going to shell out cash to an organ so dementedly devoted to Johnson, and to Brexit, and to all causes championed by right-wingers, I can only gawp at its headlines.  It’s often said that newspaper journalists and columnists aren’t responsible for the sensational headlines topping their work, which are the creations of sub-editors.  But as the names I’m about to mention seem very comfortably ensconced at the modern-day Telegraph, I doubt if the headlines over their articles disturb them greatly and I assume those headlines are fair summations of their opinions.

 

Firstly, there’s the Telegraph’s coverage of Johnson himself, which brown-noses the man with an intensity reminiscent of the state-controlled North Korean media reporting the mightiness and infallibility of Kim Jong Un.  On October 20th, columnist Tim Stanley likened him to a certain bulldog-spirited British wartime leader: “It’s time critics saw Boris for the Churchillian figure he is.”  Ex-Telegraph editor Charles Moore attributed miracles on August 25th:  “Boris has brought a miraculous change to the political weather, as the remainer world falls apart.”  Johnson’s speech to the Conservative Party conference in early October was widely derided for being brief and perfunctory, but the Telegraph’s American columnist Janet Daley heard qualities in it that nobody else did: “Good-humoured Boris just gave the best speech of his career.”  And while stories have circulated about Johnson getting over-familiar with ‘the ladies’, Telegraph hack Alison Pearson dismissed these on October 1st.  Apparently with a direct telepathic link to the minds of the entire British public, she declared: “Normal people don’t give a monkey’s about ‘Gropegate’ – they’re still backing Boris.”

 

To the Telegraph’s current editor Allister Heath, Johnson is practically an Arthurian warrior-king, taking arms against a sea of Corbynites, anyone who still likes Tony Blair, EU remainers and general evildoers: on November 6th, “Wake up, Middle England.  A Corbyn victory would be a genuine catastrophe… This election is a binary battle between Boris and a Labour Party bent on the destruction of our freedom”; on October 30th,  “Boris Johnson’s historic mission is to save Britain from Corbyn and the Blairites”; and on August 28th – insinuating Johnson is Maggie Thatcher with a sex change – “This is Boris Johnson’s Falklands War, and he will do everything to win it.”

 

Johnson and his Conservative Party are generally reckoned to have had a shit start to the election campaign.  Their Welsh Secretary Alun Cairns resigned ‘after being accused of lying over an aide’s sabotaging of a rape trial’.  Tory MP Ross Thomson, Johnson’s most vocal supporter in Scotland, announced he wasn’t running for re-election after allegations of him drunkenly groping people.  And the famously aristocratic, arch-Brexiter Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg was condemned for making crass, ignorant remarks about the victims of the Grenfell Fire disaster.  But the Telegraph – surprise! – disagrees.

 

Its parliamentary sketch-writer Michael Deacon insisted on November 7th that the fiasco was actually one big, brilliant Boris plan: “A bumpy start for the Tories?  Actually, it’s a PR masterclass.”  Deacon apparently believes that whatever happens during the campaign has been mapped out in advance and will end in a big win for Johnson, for on October 30th he wrote: “The election campaign hasn’t even begun – but the Tories’ cunning plan is already clear.”  Oh, and let’s not hear any bad words about Jacob Rees-Mogg either.  Back on July 27th, Charles Moore gushed: “Jacob Rees-Mogg makes a fine case for the revival of the archaic.”

 

Boris Johnson might in the eyes of the Telegraph be heroic, noble, wise and infallible, but few adjectives are negative enough to describe his opponents, especially those who also oppose Brexit.  “Remainers have turned parliament into an anti-democratic monstrosity” (Heath on September 25th); “Euphoric Remainer snobbery has become a fanatical religion” (Sherelle Jacobs on October 18th); “Fatuous remain MPs have just become the useful idiots of the Leave cause” (Jacobs on October 24th).  And don’t even mention the unspeakable European Union itself.  “To survive the new global Dark Age, Britain must leave the tyrannical EU” (Jacobs yet again on August 8th); and “Our democracy is being overthrown by the EU’s Hideous Strength” (Daniel Hannan, Conservative MEP and Fox News’ go-to guy when they need a British commentator to assure right-wing Americans about the horribleness of the British National Health Service, on September 14th).

 

It says something about how utterly Loony Tunes the Telegraph has become that the editor of its Scottish version almost sounds reasonable in comparison.  This is Alan Cochrane, a man famous for his fulminations against supporters of Scottish independence.  Aware that in more left-leaning Scotland, any success the Scottish Tories have enjoyed in recent years has been due to them being perceived as ‘moderate’ – as epitomised by their former leader, the supposedly moderate Ruth Davison (who promptly resigned when Johnson became Prime Minister) – Cochrane has written pieces warning how badly the Boris Johnson Show plays north of the border.  These include “It’s not just what Boris Johnson says, it’s the way he says it that alienates Scotland” (October 4th) and “Crass Downing Street jibe at judges unites Scottish politicians” (September 12th).  You nearly feel sorry for Cochrane when you read the unhinged, xenophobic, Scotland-bashing comments his articles attract from English Telegraph readers in the threads below them.

 

Although Cochrane’s work appears regularly on the online Telegraph’s opinion page, he isn’t even mentioned on the page listing its columnists (alongside such veteran eye-swivellers as Julie Burchill and Nosferatu himself, Norman Tebbit).  Which shows how much importance the newspaper attaches to Cochrane, its Scottish edition and Scotland generally.

 

Of course, the Daily Telegraph is fixated with Boris Johnson largely because he’s been involved with the newspaper since the late 1980s – when it hired him as a journalist after he’d been sacked from the Times for fabricating a quote.  (Then-Telegraph editor Max Hastings has since said of Johnson that “he is unfit for national office, because it seems he cares for no interest save his own fame and gratification.”)  During the 1990s, as the Telegraph’s Brussels correspondent, Johnson made his name publishing widely exaggerated pieces on how the beastly EU was imposing spiteful and stupid regulations on plucky little Britain, helping fuel the Euro-scepticism that birthed the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and eventually won the 2016 referendum in favour of Brexit.  Johnson still writes for the Telegraph and its online opinion page gives pride of place to a set of articles with the oxymoronic title The Best of Boris.

 

Mindful of the dynamics between President Donald Trump and Fox News in the USA, the Telegraph clearly hopes to enjoy a similar relationship with Prime Minister Johnson – supporting him with a fervour unlike any other media outlet, whilst enjoying a symbiotic relationship where he uses his name to promote it and it has influence over him and his policies.

 

Yet all cannot be well in Telegraph-World because its owners, billionaire twins David and Frederick Barclay, have just decided to put the newspaper up for sale for 200 million pounds – less than a third of what they paid for it in 2004.  Officially, it’s said that the sale is due to the newspaper’s declining profits.  However, I’d like to think that the Barclay brothers are worried that their Boris-worshipping newspaper has turned into a Frankenstein’s monster and they want to get rid of it before their reputations are damaged by association.  That they’re no longer saying, “Watch out, we’re mad!”, but “Hold on, we’re not that mad.”

 

© Columbia Pictures