Monday, April 27, 2015

Off, off, off with their heads!

{Photo by rocketlass.}

On the recommendation of the polymath Steve Donoghue, I recently read Jean Plaidy's novel of Mary, Queen of Scots, Royal Road to Fotheringay(1955), and its closing scene reminded me of two things:

1. That the execution of Mary, Queen of Scots was a bizarre event, featuring details no fiction writer would dare invent.

2. That execution by axe was a particularly troublesome and difficult method of administering capital punishment.

Here's how Plaidy tells the story of Mary's end, in the hall at Fotheringay at the end of years of imprisonment. By all accounts, Mary met her death with courage, and a dignity that the event itself could not come up to:
Bulle, the executioner, hesitated. This was his trade; his victim had forgiven him, knowing this; yet never before had he been called upon to wield the axe for one who affected him so deeply with her grace and dignity.

Every eye in the hall was upon him. He faltered. He dealt a blow. There was a gasp from the watchers, for the axe had slipped and though the blood of Mary Stuart gushed forth, she was merely wounded.

Trembling, Bulle again raised his axe; but his nerve was affected. Again he struck, and again he failed to complete his work.

It was with the third stroke that he severed the Queen's head from her body.

Then he grasped the beautiful chestnut hair, crying: "God save Queen Elizabeth! So perish all her enemies!"

But the head had rolled on to the bloodstained cloth which covered the scaffold, and it was a wig which the executioner held up before him.

There was silence in the hall as all eyes turned to the head with the cropped grey hair--the head of a woman grown old in captivity.
Though the history of executions is gruesome, it's hard to imagine much more ghastly than those botched attempts topped by the final indignity of the wig held aloft. Yet even that wasn't the strangest moment:
And as they watched, they saw a movement beneath the red velvet petticoat, and Mary's little Skye terrier, who unnoticed had followed his mistress into the hall, ran to the head and crouched beside it, whimpering.
It's one of those moments that both makes history come palpably alive and makes its figures seem fully human: Mary loved her dog, and her dog loved her, and death was necessarily a mystery to both.

While Mary's end is gruesome, others condemned to the axe over the centuries had it far worse. In Severed, Frances Larson runs through some horrible examples with chilling matter-of-factness:
Alcohol may have fortified the mind [of the executioner], but it certainly did not steady the hand, and no doubt it only added to the executioner's problems. One common excuse for failure was that the executioner had seen the condemned man's head double before him, and "therefore did not know which of the two was the real one." There are stories of swords slicing through jaws and axes hacking into shoulder blades and skulls, and of it taking two, three, five, even twenty attempts to dispatch the poor soul on the scaffold. It took three blows to sever the head of Mary, Queen of Scots in 1587, and many more in 1541 to kill Margaret Pole, Countess of Salisbury, who defied her fate by refusing to place her neck on the block.
Thinking of Margaret Pole's defiance beggars my imagination: even if I try to think myself into the frenzied state that surely would accompany the knowledge that I was about to (unjustly, I would assume) be killed, I can't imagine finding the courage to refuse the easier route at that moment, to force a more painful and gory death as a point of honor. It's astonishing. (Even Samuel Johnson wasn't quite able to feel confident about how he might approach the moment of execution, telling Boswell, "I know not whether I should wish to have a friend by me, or have it all between God and myself.")

Larson notes that these problems arise primarily because it is very hard to sever a human head with a single blow from a blade. But she also tells us that executioners received more than regret from their employment:
Despite the demands of the job, or perhaps because of them, when beheadings went well they could bring an executioner great distinction. From the mid-sixteenth century, wealthier European executioners hired assistants, who administered minor punishments, but the job of beheading people was always reserved for the master. Myths grew up around executioners and people told stories about their magical powers. It was said that they could recover lost children or stolen goods, that they could exorcise evil spirits and cure diseases with their touch, and that the swords in the executioner's house rattled whenever a person was condemned to death. There was the story of an executioner who had decapitated a standing man so fast that the only visible mark on the dead man's body was a thin stripe of blood around his neck.
That last reminds me of how Hilary Mantel in Bring Up the Bodies, without making Anne Boylen's death overly gruesome, nonetheless makes us feel the horror of it, and how powerfully Cromwell, who has reluctantly engineered the execution, feels it, too:
The queen is alone now, as alone as she has ever been in her life. . . . She raises one arm, again her fingers go to the coif, and he thinks, put your arm down, for God's sake put your arm down, and he could not will it more if--the executioner calls out sharply, "Get me the sword." The blinded head whips around. The man is behind Anne, she is misdirected, she does not sense him. There is a groan, one single sound, from the whole crowd. Then a silence, and into that silence, a sharp sigh or a sound like a whistle through a keyhole: the body exsanguinates, and its flat little presence becomes a puddle of gore.
The sound of the sword, the "flat little presence"--it's hard to read that passage and not shiver.

I wonder whether the condemned ever haunted the executioners? Larson's book offers no reports of ghosts, and I suppose that makes sense: surely from whatever realm a ghost might descend, she would have sufficient perspective to see, not the hand that wielded the blade, but the more blameful hand that signed the order, and thus had more fully earned a haunting.

I ask the question because when it's entirely possible that the very first thing I knew about English history when I was a kid was that Anne Boylen was said to haunt the Tower. The more I learn about her life and death and the manner of dying of the period, the more I understand. If I were her, I'd haunt Henry and his descendants down through eternity.

Wednesday, April 22, 2015

Block on . . .

Though I genuinely did enjoy nearly all the work that went into assembling, publishing, and promoting The Getaway Car (aside, perhaps from a few permissions wrangles), the aspect of the whole process that I'll always be happiest about is the sense that my work added some pleasure to the world. Let's be clear: nearly all the pleasure offered by The Getaway Car was the work of Donald Westlake. I wouldn't begin to argue otherwise. But I will gladly take credit for doing the work of turning his work--ephemeral and occasional as it was--into something that's easy to get, and that was easy to bring to the attention of his fans, many of whom had never known these many thousands of words of his writing existed. That will always make me happy.

Recently there's been another, wholly unexpected effect, one that I won't claim any actual credit for but am glad to have played a small part in generating: inspired, he says, by The Getaway Car, for which he wrote a foreword, Lawrence Block has just assembled and published a collection of his own nonfiction writing about his career and the work of other writers. Titled The Crime of Our Lives, it's just been published, and it's full of great stuff. Block has long been a garrulous commenter on his own books, supplying forewords and head notes and afterwords to collections and new editions, pieces that are always funny, but at the same time serious about the work of writing and the way that a moment in a writer's life and career becomes crystallized in a particular book or story. For this collection, however, we get, not so much Block the host, but Block the guest: it mostly consists of his introductions for and articles about his peers, mentors, friends, and colleagues in the writing world, from the expected (Chandler, Hammett, Spillane, and, of course, Westlake) to the more surprising (Poe, Joseph Conrad). Each one is pure Block: idiosyncratic, anecdotal, personal, and wholly engaged with the craft and job of writing.

If all goes well, I'll be interviewing Larry about the collection soon for the new crime site The Life Sentence, so I won't go into much more detail here, but I can't close without quoting a couple of the pieces. First, for their sheer goofy humor, here are the first lines of an introduction to a collection of Ed Gorman short stories:
Ed Gorman is a terrific writer, and you're going to have a wonderful time reading these stories.

Now what?

That's seventeen words. Pete Crowther, who asked me to write this introduction, has given me to understand that introductions to the volumes he publishes run in the neighborhood of a thousand words. That's not a bad neighborhood, you wouldn't be afraid to wander there after dark, but the seventeen words I've written leave me with nine hundred and eighty-seven words to write, and what am I going to write to take up the slack? I mean, I've already said everything I really have to say on the subject. Here are some stories. Read them, and leave me alone. What else is there to say?

Well, I'll think of something. I am, after all, a professional writer.
No surprise: he does.

Here he is offering a take on a question that Westlake, too, pondered: Why did Dashiell Hammett burn out so quickly?
I wonder if an answer might not lurk in the one scene in The Maltese Falcon not to be found in the Huston screenplay. In it, Spade recounts at length the seemingly pointless story of a man named Flitcraft, who left his home and family and disappeared after nearly being killed by a beam falling from a construction site. By the time Spade succeeded in finding him, the man had re-created essentially the same middle-class life in another cit with another family. Spade explains:
But that's the part I always liked. he adjusted himself to beams falling, and then no more of them fell, and he adjusted himself to them not falling.
A beam fell and Dashiell Hammett taught himself to be a writer. Then no more beams fell, and he adjusted himself to that.
And, finally, here the opening of his obituary for his longtime friend Donald Westlake, written the day after Westlake's death, at the request of the Mystery Writers of America:
When the phone call came and brought the bad news, one of the first things that came to mind was John O'Hara's line: "George Gershwin died yesterday, but I don't have to believe that if I don't want to."
Go get the book. You'll enjoy it.

{As for The Life Sentence: it's well worth checking out. I'm one of many members of its advisory board, though I deserve credit thus far for nothing but encouragement, so the recommendation is genuine: this week kicked off with an interview of the always interesting Laura Lippmann by site founder Lisa Levy, and much, much more is promised in the coming weeks.}

Wednesday, April 15, 2015


If I get myself organized--an "if" that this spring seems cacklingly determined to foil--this will be but the seed of a proper post down the line, but for now,  here's a brief quote that represents a conjunction of interests. As my mile-long walk to the train shifts from winter drudgery to birdsong-charmed pleasure, it's the perfect time to read Matthew Beaumont's Night Walking: A Nocturnal History of London--and, specifically, his account of Dickens's legendary night roaming:
The nighttime journey on foot to Gad's Hill Place, driven by an acute sense of anguish and guilt, took Dickens little more than seven hours. He was a fast walker, who took pride in the fact that he could sustain a pace of at least four miles an hour across long distances. His friends, indeed, frequently complained of the speed and impatience with which he walked. "Sometimes his perspiring companions gave way to blisters and breathlessness," writes [Edgar Johnson,] one of his biographers. He himself was boastful of his feats as a pedestrian. "So much of my travelling is done on foot," he professed in 1860, "that if I cherished betting propensities, I should probably found be found registered in sporting newspapers under some such title as the Elastic Novice, challenging all eleven stone mankind to competition in walking."
Dickens was a night walker--"The streets of London, to be beheld in the very height of their glory, should be seen on a dark, dull, murky winter's night," he once wrote--but I am a morning walker. And 'tis the season for morning walking: the sun is now, finally, my companion once again, and it makes all the difference.

Tuesday, April 07, 2015

John Aubrey gets gross

With baseball beckoning, today I'll just share a couple of bits from Ruth Scurr's wonderful new John Aubrey biography-as-diary, John Aubrey: My Own Life. I wrote last week about Scurr's audacious approach; before I quote from the book I'll just remind you that what Scurr is presenting here in Aubrey's voice is mostly drawn from his own writings, with spellings modernized, but that she's likely patched together disparate sources and added some connective or clarifying tissue. If you care to trace her work, the book's notes are helpful (though not as granular as I'd like), and for what it's worth, thus far any time I've tried to find the source lines behind a particularly interesting observation or phrase, I've been able to do so. (Thanks, Google Book Search!)

These entries come from November of 1666, when Aubrey was forty. I'll share abridged versions of three entries that appear consecutively and deal with similar subjects. I'm abridging for maximal disgust!

First, an entry that follows a meeting of the Royal Society that included a report on visits made to the post-Great Fire ruins of St. Paul's to look at the miraculously preserved body of Bishop Braybrook. It had been dislodged from its resting place by the fire, and workmen clearing rubble were charging twopence for a look. "I will go myself," decides Aubrey:
I saw Bishop Braybrook's body. It was like a preserved fish: uncorrupted except for the ears and pudenda, or genitals .It was dry and stiff and would stand on end. It was never embalmed. His belly and stomach were untouched, except for a hole on one side made by the falling debris. I could put my hand in the hole and could see his dried lungs.
Of course, of course: you see a mummified body that's got a hole in it, you're gonna stick your finger in there. Right? (Ewwww.)

Aubrey, who would talk with anyone, asked some questions of the laborers:
They tell me when they took up the leaden coffin of William Herbert, Earl of Pembroke, whose sumptuous monument was among those tumbled in to the church, the stink was so great that they took a week to scour themselves of it.
Believe it or not, things gets more disgusting from there. The next entry I'll give you in full:
A little before the Great Conflagration, somebody made a hole in the lead coffin of Dean Colet, which lay above the ground beneath his statue. I remember my friend Mr Wylde and Ralph Greatrex, the mathematical instrument maker, decided to probe the Dean's body through the hole with a piece of iron curtain rod that happened to be near by. They found the body lay in liquor, like boiled brawn. The liquor was clear and insipid: they both tasted it. Mr Wylde said it had something of the taste of iron, but that might have been on account of the iron rod. This was a strange and rare way of conserving a corpse. Perhaps it was a pickle, as for beef. There was no ill smell.
Glad he cleared up that last bit, after the men drank the strange coffin liquid! Good god.

Moments like these, along with accounts of the public display or dissection of hanged criminals, are a reminder of the odd transformation of our attitude toward bodies in the years since Aubrey was poking corpses. Even as--or perhaps because--religious belief has ebbed, our sense that a dead body in some sense retains, and should retain, some rights (of privacy, of inviolability) has grown immensely. I suppose it's largely a result of the combination of a growing awareness (if one that many, perhaps even most, of us kick against) that the physical and the spiritual aren't separate--that the body is not just a vessel, and this world, after all, is our home--combined with our own recent history's growing belief in individual self-determination. Still, even if I can come up with a thumbnail rationalization like that, nonetheless there are few things I've ever read that have made me feel more estranged from the past than these passages.

Wednesday, April 01, 2015

Ruth Scurr on John Aubrey

I'm 100 pages into Ruth Scurr's unusual new biography of John Aubrey (at this point available only from the UK), which has put Aubrey back front and center in my brain. He never strays too far from there, which I suspect is the case with anyone who falls under his spell: Aubrey's magpie eye for odd detail is catching; read a lot of Aubrey and it's hard not to see the world through his eyes, hear the stories of friends with his ear, walk past the remnants of the past on your city block with his antiquarian's interest directing your gaze.

Scurr wins us over with her introduction, which demonstrates that she gets Aubrey:
John Aubrey loved England. . . . From an early age, he saw his England slipping away and committed himself to preserving for posterity what remained of it--in stories, books, monuments and buildings. Aubrey was wonderfully imaginative. By posterity he meant us: people of the future, who would hear his voice through his writing and be grateful for the information he bequeathed. Throughout Aubrey's lifetime, the English were losing assuredness of their identity to a degree not to be repeated till the late twentieth century.
On its own, that could give a false impression of Aubrey as little more than a Colonel Blimp with an antiquarian bent. But such certainty and dismissal weren't in Aubrey's character:
Aubrey exemplifies an English sensibility to be proud of--charming, self-deprecating, moderate in all matters political and religious, learned but never ponderous.
As Anthony Powell--who wrote an underrated biography of Aubrey in an act of postwar throat-clearing before embarking on Dance--noted in his introduction to an edition of the Brief Lives, Aubrey displayed:
Intelligence, modesty, friendliness--and good sense where anyone but himself was concerned. His own writing is the best index to his character. . . . He is notably fair to political opponents, or to persons who had quarrelled with himself or his friends.
Scurr expands on that:
Agnostic and afraid of fanaticism, Aubrey tended always toward tolerance and open-mindedness in his religious and political views. He had both royalist and republican friends. He was close to Protestants, Presbyterians and Roman Catholics.
He was fundamentally, to risk wordplay, an interested and disinterested man: someone who listened and collected stories largely as if he personally had nothing at stake--a quality, by the way, that he shares with Powell's Nick Jenkins.

It's good that Scurr earns our trust early, because what she's asking of us as readers is unusual: her book is not a traditional biography, but rather the diary she imagines Aubrey might have written--but a diary that is, crucially, built on Aubrey's own writings. She explains:
In constructing Aubrey's diary, I have used as many as possible of his own words. It is a diary based on the historical evidence; a diary that shows him living vividly, day by day, month by month, year by year, but with necessary gaps where nothing is known about where he was or what he was doing. I have not invented scenes or relationships for him as a novelist would, but neither have I followed the conventions of traditional biography. When he is silent, I do not speculate about where he was or what he was doing or thinking. When he speaks, I have modernised his words and spellings and indicated the original sources in endnotes. I have added words of my own to explain events or interactions that would otherwise be obscure and to frame or offset the charm of Aubrey's own turns of phrase.
In other words, this is a daring book. Biography, often a dreadfully conventional form, is also one that has long been open to experiment, as biographers from Plutarch to Strachey could attest. And if any author lends himself to this sort of patchwork approach, it's Aubrey: his writings were, as Powell notes in his biography, "tumultuarily" assembled, if assembled at all. He published but one book in his lifetime, leaving behind an absolute mare's nest of papers. These days, to be an Aubrey fan means having a nice edition of the Brief Lives on one's shelves alongside, at best, a few hideous print-on-demand editions of the Miscellanies and the Remains of Gentilism and Judaism. To have a biographer who is willing to jigsaw his scrap heap into a readable whole is an unexpected gift.

And yet . . . I find myself wanting to know just a bit more than Scurr's notes give me, thus far. Maybe it's my own odd relationship with quotation: I will admit that when I read these days in the back of my mind is always the question of whether a well-turned phrase would fit on Twitter.  I am, in a sense, always commonplace-booking. (FWIW, I don't think it's harming my reading, but I could be deluding myself.) And Aubrey is a writer I love quoting. So as I'm reading Scurr's book, I keep hitting phrases that stop me in my tracks--like this one, from September 1643, after Osney Abbey, pressed into service as a gunpowder factory during the Civil War, is blown up: "I was fearful the ruins would collapse from neglect, but war has helped them on their way." It reads like Aubrey, certainly--but is it him? There's no note for that paragraph, so I'm assuming (perhaps incorrectly) that the note to the preceding paragraph remains controlling. If so, the source is a volume of letters to Aubrey. So is that phrase his, or--impressively--Scurr's?

What I want would, I realize, be unmarketable: basically an Aubreyan version of a red-letter Bible, where every word that is Aubrey's is marked as such, all interpolations indicated. The result would be clear in its construction, but borderline unreadable. And is that even a reasonable way to read the book? I suspect not, honestly, that it's not fair to Scurr's intentions nor to the quality of the book itself. I suspect I should simply put my desire to quote in abeyance for a few days, and trust to what I see on the page: namely, that Scurr knows what she's doing, and that, whatever paste-up is going on behind the scenes, her work as presented is seamless, and convincing. For in those moments on the train today when the questioning part of my brain unexpectedly slipped into idle, I found myself wholly wrapped up: this feels like Aubrey's voice, and it's incredible. If it were fiction, and built in exactly the same way, I would be in awe. That Scurr is making an additional claim, while being honest about her methods, should add, rather than detract.

In that spirit, I'll close by sharing a passage that I think must come from Aubrey's writings on education, and which Scurr places right after the young Oxford student's rapturous statement, "All this time I am falling deeper and deeper in love with books":
In London, I get lost among the piles of books for sale in St Paul's churchyard; most of them are sold in sheets, but some are already bound. I pick up one after another without any idea where to begin: the books that are bound all look alike. How to tell which will be worth buying with my spare money? I come away empty-handed, overwhelmed, as though the books have become trees again and I am wandering blind in a forest. Back in Dr Bathurst's library, I can explore more calmly; I am starting to find my way.
As am I, I think, through this remarkable book.