on 31 July 2013
After really enjoying Nick Asbury's previous book, Exit Pursued By A Badger, detailing his experiences as a member of the RSC Histories company, I was intrigued by the premise of his follow up: ostensibly a road trip where Nick and some of his fellow Histories cast members would visit the sites and places featured in Shakespeare's cycle of plays. But the book itself surpassed all my expectations and then some...
Like a mash up of the very best of Bill Bryson, W.G. Sebald and David Starkey, White Hart Red Lion is an astonishing book. Heartfelt and passionate about his subject, Asbury takes us on a rich and detailed journey into history that will leave the reader unable ever to look at this country in the same way again. The tone veers from farce to elegy and everywhere in between and the swirl of Dukes and Earls, Kings and Queens leaves one dizzy. Asbury's extensive knowledge of his subject means he is able to convey in rich detail the internecine politics and chicanery of the Wars of the Roses as well as the bloody, brutal and visceral realities of battle. His evocation of the - now largely forgotten - Battle of Towton, where 28,000 men lost their lives, the single largest loss of life on English soil, is heartstopping and heartbreaking in equal measure.
The book also provides a fascinating insight into the world Shakespeare was writing for and the pragmatic and commercial decisions he made in `being creative with the truth' in his History cycle. It gives one even more reason to revere him and is one in the eye for the nonsense brigade who argue that a poor lad from Warwickshire couldn't possibly have written the greatest plays in the English language.
Underlying all of this is Nick himself. As with W.G. Sebald's The Rings Of Saturn, we are never quite sure if the `Nick Asbury' who undertakes this journey is the `real' Nick or a deftly fictionalised version. Certainly, if he is real, then I fear for his liver! The number of pubs he visits is staggering! But Asbury uses this version of himself to make some wonderfully moving and passionate points about the loss of our land and culture to the ravening forces of commerce and globalisation. This is not empty eulogising but a deeply felt desire for a simpler, more connected way of living and it infuses the book with another, wholly unexpected layer of emotion.
This is a quite wonderful book. Highly recommended for Shakespeare fans, history buffs and anyone who wants to know more about what happened in this country only a few hundred years ago that is now hidden beneath car parks and out of town shopping centres. I look forward to the next book with great interest. Nick Asbury - real or fictional - is a writer to watch.
The title comes from the fact that Richard II, an ineffectual soul for the most part, gave us many of our modern pub names - he made it law that inns should have a sign, and since they tended to be places where the adherents of this or that local lord, aka bandit, foregathered, they soon adopted those lords' badges.
Nick Asbury is an actor who spent years playing in the RSC Histories cycle (Richard II to Richard III). This book travels the territory of the History plays, ie that of the "cousin wars", and aims to show both how the plays derive from their landscape, and how they relate to events in Shakespeare's time and parallel events in ours.
Now I've always liked this approach; it makes sense. When a dramatist uses "history", he is nearly always trying to make some point about his own times, often one he dare not make directly. We know that Euripides used events in The Trojan Women to criticise obliquely the conduct of his Athenian townsmen, only a year earlier, in enslaving fellow-Greeks on Melos. We can easily see that Brenton's The Romans in Britain are the Britons in Ireland. But for some reason Shakespearean studies, at least in school, often ignore this aspect, as if he were Georgette Heyer dealing in archaic escapism. So we fail to notice that the grandchildren and great-grandchildren of his protagonists were still mighty in the land, indeed paying his salary, and that the seesawing fortunes of Catholicism and Protestantism in his day mirrored those of York and Lancaster in the plays, with those who wished to survive having to be quite flexible about which side they were on. Shakespeare's parents had been brought up Catholic (Henry VIII was essentially as Catholic as the Pope; he just thought he ought to be the Pope) and had lived through the ardently Protestant reign of Edward VII and the more literally ardent Catholic one of Mary, before discovering that they were Protestants again under the initially more tolerant rule of Elizabeth, much as the Stanleys, for example, very sensibly decided their allegiance to York or Lancaster on the basis of who was ahead at the time.
Many of Asbury's historical parallels - eg that of the Talbot/Countess d'Auvergne episode in Henry VI with the detention of Mary Queen of Scots by that Talbot's direct descendant - are both useful and interesting. I'm less convinced when he talks about "magic" in landscape and history. He actually tries really hard not to romanticise events, and is often commendably hard-headed and humorous. But now and then the familiar dichotomy of "Catholic-cavalier-traditional-hedonism-magic" versus "Protestant-roundhead-iconoclast-sobersides-rationality" sneaks in. I'm never sure about interpretations that depend on Shakespeare being a closet Catholic, and to be fair, I don't think Asbury is either, because his last word on the subject suggests that Shakespeare's vision is "that the Cathedral of Nature didn't need to be Catholic or Protestant to show the hand of his God". But along the way there are a fair few suggestions of mainly Catholic sympathies, including the figure of Falstaff, who strikes me as more of a pagan icon than anything else - I find Asbury's identification of him with traditional Green Man figures way more convincing.
To illustrate what I mean: he discusses the scene in Henry VI where Joan of Arc's English captors refuse her plea for postponement of execution on grounds of pregnancy. He sees it in terms of virgin-vs-whore and links it to Elizabeth's fabled virginity. Well, maybe. Shaw, of course, saw it as vulgar xenophobic abuse and he could well be right too. But here's another possibility: that this time, Shakespeare is using a Catholic martyr to represent a Calvinist one. In 1656, in the reign of Mary, three Calvinist women were burned as heretics in Guernsey. One, Perotine Massey, gave birth at the stake; the baby was alive and an onlooker snatched it from the flames. But the Bailiff, supervising proceedings, ordered it flung back into the fire.
In 1653 John Foxe recorded this in his famous Booke of Martyrs. Foxe's Martyrs went through umpteen editions and Shakespeare must have known it. He may also have known the published objection of Fr Thomas Harding that the baby's death was Perotine's fault, because had she pleaded pregnancy the execution would have been postponed as law demanded. Given what actually happened, this is a crass assertion; it seems plain that nobody would much have cared. In Shakespeare's scene Joan's claim is probably false, a desperate attempt to postpone the fire. But the law is clear: any woman who made such a claim had a right to be examined by a panel of matrons and it didn't matter whether the child was legitimate or who its father might be. The English, when they declare "we'll have no bastards live", fly in the face of justice. I think it's at least possible that the whole scene, which has no historical basis, is a riposte to Harding: what would have happened if Perotine had pleaded pregnancy?
"Then, Joan, discover thine infirmity
That warranteth by law to be thy privilege."
"Strumpet, thy words condemn thy brat and thee."
I think this actually goes to support Asbury's final claim, that Shakespeare is able in his thinking to rise above sectarianism, and I agree with that claim; I'm just not sure how he arrives at it from the chain of reasoning in the book as a whole.
There are some fascinating actorly insights in this book: who'd have guessed that when Eleanor of Gloucester is shown performing "witchcraft" in Henry VI, folk in a 21st-century audience cross themselves? Or that whenever a company plays Richard III, they are inundated with mail from misguided folk who think drama is meant to be faithful to historical fact? Asbury is also excellent at bringing landscape alive, both the nightmare battlefield of Towton, which hasn't changed much, and those iconic places now buried under shopping centres and banks. Indeed this updating of landscape and awareness of its history allows him to make powerful links with our own day. He's also good at highlighting the kind of detail that brings people alive: the way Edward of Norwich (young Aumerle of Richard II) had, by the time of Agincourt, become not the hero Duke of York who dies splendidly in Henry V, but a grossly obese man who fell off his "no doubt relieved horse" with heart failure and was boiled down in a vat so that his bones, rather than a huge weight of flesh, could be taken back home.
I'd quibble with the statement that Richard III was "lurking about the Tower when Henry VI was killed" - he was lodged there, as was every other Yorkist of note on the night in question, including Edward IV. And there are some typographical errors an editor could correct if there's a second edition. There deserves to be, because this is one of those books from a small publisher that should entertain a wide audience.