Wednesday, July 17, 2013

". . . are there not hangmen enough?"

I'm reading the second Hilary Mantel novel on Thomas Cromwell, Bring Up The Bodies.  Like the first one, Wolf Hall, it has won the Man Booker Prize. The prose sings, quietly.  Reading the sentences is pure pleasure.  So spare, just the essentials, as she paints the world of commoner Thomas Cromwell, the most powerful man in King Henry VIII's England.  The man of many languages and skills who makes things happen.

I've wanted to share something, but much of the book is the slow building up of background and foreground, that short excerpts don't make much sense out of the context of the whole book.

But I found this passage of Cromwell's failed attempt to get Parliament to pass laws that would hire the unemployed to build infrastructure for England,  It's a good example of Mantel's prose and it's also fitting for our present political and economic challenges.
In March, Parliament knocks back his new poor law.  It was too much for the Commons to digest, that rich men might have some duty to the poor;  that if you get fat, as gentlemen of England do, on the wool trade, you have some responsibility to the men turned off the land, the labourers without labour, the sowers without a field.  England needs roads, forts, harbours, bridges.  Men need work.  It's a shame to see them begging their bread, when honest labour could keep the realm secure.  Can we not put them together, the hands and the task?

But Parliament cannot seee how it is the state's job to create work.  Are not these matters in god's hands, and is not poverty and dereliction part of his eternal order?  To everything there is a season:  a time to starve and a time to thieve.  If rain falls for six months solid and rots the grain in the fields, there must be providence in it;  for God knows his trade.  It is an outrage to the rich and enterprising, to suggest that they should pay an income tax, only to put bread in the mouths of the workshy.  And if Secretary Cromwell argues that famine provokes criminality;  well, are there not hangmen enough?

Not everyone in our book group is enamored by this book.  For some it's slow.

What happens in this book would never show up on television news.  There's not a lot of action.  But there's lots of texture.  The real power is the slow putting into place all the pieces.  It's the bureaucratic minutia It's the tedious behind the scenes machinations that makes things happen.  This book focuses not so much on the visible, but rather reveals what's normally invisible.  And she writes so damn beautifully.

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