Life, Travel

A Night on the Town

In Downton Abbey, they always used to talk about going ‘up’ to London, even when they lived in Yorkshire. I have read somewhere, and it may even have been true, that this was to do with the start of the railway lines. Even though the first trainline built in the UK was between Liverpool and Manchester, the original ‘main’ lines emanated from London. The ‘up’ trains travelled to London, while the ‘down’ trains travelled away.

I pondered all this while we sat stock still on the M6, last Friday, waiting for an accident, a few miles down the road, to be cleared out of the way, thinking, a train ride would have been a better idea. I was also wondering if I was going to miss my birthday present.

Anne had given me just a card on my actual birthday, but written inside, in her loopy letters, was a description of what I’d be getting. A night in the West End, with tickets to see a play and hotel nearby so we didn’t have to navigate the tubes or buses back to her son’s in Mill Hill. Excited much? I’ll say.

As we watched the cars on the other side of the barrier flow freely by, I attempted to reconcile myself to the possibility of missing the play: we would still have the hotel; we could still go out for a meal; I can’t really miss what I haven’t seen. I had almost got to a point of zen when the traffic finally started shifting and we did, just, get to town in time.

The Gielgud Theatre is a beautiful baroque style building, on Shaftesbury Avenue in the West End, and just a walk away from our hotel in Holburn. As we don’t get out much, the crowds on the street were a little overwhelming. But many of the Christmas lights were on, or maybe it’s this sparkly all year round, so we started to feel the spirit of a Friday night in London.

Christmas is coming

The play we came to see was The Mirror And The Light, adapted from the Hilary Mantel book, the last part of the Wolf Hall trilogy about Thomas Cromwell. We had seats in the stalls with excellent views of an excellent cast, including Ben Miles as Cromwell and Nathaniel Parker as Henry VIII.

I haven’t watched many adapted books on the stage and I find it intriguing to see how it’s done. Obviously, great swathes of the book, which is the longest of the three, were removed completely. Many of the characters were also dispensed with, or given a token appearance, to move the plot, or highlight the underlying politics. They gave more prominence to Cromwell’s ghosts and making his father the axe man in order to allow him to say the star line was clever. Plus they began the play near the end of the book which worked very well, starting in medias res (in the midst of things), a term I’ve just learnt on my course so I can bandy it about proficiently.

Walking back, after 11pm, the multitudes were still milling. But, whether it was the interval wine, or the absorption in the play, we felt ourselves in concert with them, rippling out into the convivial night.

A side street, showing lots of people and red lanterns hung all the way down.
Party in the streets

It was a really wonderful evening, and definitely made me want to venture into the heart of the Big Smoke a little more than I have done. But maybe next time, we will take the train.

Books

The Mirror And The Light – Hilary Mantel

Book front cover of hardback.

Last night I finally finished the great tome that is The Mirror And The Light. It’s taken me ages. Not because it’s rubbish, far from it, but because of life getting in the way. But now, with relief and a little sadness, the trilogy is done.

Hilary Mantel herself says that ‘It was the hardest to write and it’s probably the most demanding for the reader’. That is definitely true. This last book has been more poetic and the viewpoint often leaves Cromwell’s head and swoops up to survey the wider geo-political landscape

It also dives back into his past more often, introspectively recollecting his earlier lives, in Putney, in Italy, in Antwerp, etc., drawing together a more solid shape of a man who previously seemed to have come out of nowhere. A blacksmith’s son from the backwaters of the Thames now the second most powerful man in the country.

The narrative commences where Bring Up The Bodies left off: the moment after Queen Anne’s execution, in the same way that one flowed from Wolf Hall. The books seem like nominal dividers at first, but all three end with an important beheading. Firstly Thomas More, then Anne Boleyn and finally in this one, the man himself.

That is not a spoiler, or maybe it is if you’re not up on your Tudor history? I’m a terrible one for looking up the main protagonists on t’internet, just to see how much their histories match up to the book. As with her previous two, Mantel makes sure the facts are all in the right places. They’re the skeleton around which she has built her hypotheses.

There is no record of the boy scholar Thomas More being harangued by the boy servant Thomas Cromwell, but it’s a sweet idea. And one that encapsulates the two men’s stark differences. Not only in their birth and paths through life, but it shows up More’s intransigence and Cromwell’s adaptiveness.

However, his remarkable abilities, to adapt and always to be one step ahead of his rivals, fail him in the end and he doesn’t foresee that his enemy’s enemies have become comrades for the purpose of his downfall.

He begins his incarceration in the Tower, initially in the same rooms as Anne Boleyn when she was about to be coronated and when she was about to be beheaded. It was Cromwell who, seven years before had had them rebuilt in time for Anne. It was Cromwell, who had had the eyes of the goddesses changed from brown to blue when Jane stayed here before her wedding to the King. A quote comes back to haunt us from the second book, where Anne warns Cromwell that ‘Those who are made can be unmade’.

The ghosts, that have occasionally accompanied him, have multiplied, especially when he is then moved to the Bell Tower, still a grand room, but more spartan, and used for high-ranking prisoners. George Boleyn, Cardinal Wolsey, Thomas More and others, all flit around for his last few days on Earth.

I’ve always been fascinated by history, much more so than current affairs, as for me, with history, the chaos has passed and can be explored less emotionally. But this trilogy has brought alive a period of time to such a degree where my emotions were engaged and I was rapt by the characters and the chaos and the machinations and the politics even though I knew how it would all play out.

The ending, though macabre, is poetry, and resurrects the words spoken by Walter, his father at the beginning of Wolf Hall. There is some evidence that Cromwell’s beheading was botched and took several blows, and Mantel uses this possibility to extend his voice for a few painful seconds more until he breathes his last and I closed the book for a final time.