Malcolm wasn’t doing very well with this week’s Culture supplement of the Sunday Times. For our foreign readers: it’s the TV guide, all tarted up with any piss-elegant revoos for piss-elegant people (© a sage of Bartley Dunne’s, early ’60s).
Anyway, as the late and unlamented Reichsmarschall Hermann Wilhelm Göring didn’t say: When I hear the word “culture”, I reach for my Browning. That would be neat, ironic, and appropriate for the only flicker of intellect and — yes — “culture” in the Nazi hierarchy, except Hanns Johst got it out first.
So back to the Sunday Times:
- Malcolm remains totally unconvinced that those industrial sheds at Margate, with its Polish skleps and unemployed itinerant residents, can introduce a higher consciousness into that bit of Kent. You name an art gallery after a painter of whose work you have a single, unremarkable example … mind-boggling time.
- Does one need yet another self-puffing of the hit-and-miss Terry Gilliam and his send-up of Berlioz?
- How many variations on the Fall of the Soviet Empire can the Murdoch counter-empire … err … cultivate? So, no: Владимир Ипполитович Ветров wasn’t the onlie true begetter.
So, by the time Malcolm reached Christopher Hart’s more-than-slightly sour review of Betty Blue Eyes (which almost every other opinion has as very tasty indeed), Malcolm was distinctly jaundiced. Anyway: yes, Mr Hart (of whom more in a mo’) — you can’t do your Murdochian/Ayr Randian thing with:
In the wider world of the Attlee-Cripps regime, as Evelyn Waugh called it, there’e the birth of the welfare state, increasing intrusion into people’s private lives, and other rotten ideas.
and get away with it.
If Hart doesn’t get it (and Alan Bennett most definitively did), after war-time and post-war rationing, there were many Brits who yearned for comfortable shoes, a slice of thick fatty bacon, a chiropodist, and survived on BBC-unapproved lavatorial humour. Well, Hart, you won’t get away with as long as Malcolm’s generation persists to point you the error of your ways.
After all, the whole point of a musical is to make:
a big song and dance about it, with brassy show-stopping numbers … , much energetic leaping and twirling, and even some pink feather boas.
On with the motley …
Once among the books (page 40), things picked up.
Slightly smug, Malcolm noted he had knocked off two of the Top Ten fiction best-sellers last week:
Hint: go for Leon every time — nobody else manages the embroidery of a ‘teccy with so much social observation and social relevance. The Mankell looks very much like a Reichenbachfall moment: may we expect Inspector Wallender’s past career to be revived when sales figures, and TV tie-ins, demand?
Thus encouraged, Malcolm pressed on; and he soon found that Christopher Hart had redeemed himself with a review of David Cordingly’s Spanish Gold. The review is well worth ripping from behind the pay-wall:
Until 1973, the Bahamas had as its motto the splendidly blunt Expulsis piratis, restituta commercia (Pirates expelled, commerce restored), which sounds like a British Army telegram. Today the country’s motto is the rather wet “Forward, Upward, Onward Together”, which sounds like something by Nick Clegg — on a good day.
The man behind the Bahamas’s old anti-piratical boast is the subject of David Cordingly’s rousing and colourful book about the cut-throats and buccaneers who infested the Spanish Main during the 18th century. Captain Woodes Rogers was a classic example of poacher turned gamekeeper: a “privateer” himself before the British authorities realised that it was a man of just such experience who could be turned against the pirates, and appointed him governor of the Bahamas.
Around Rogers’s two governorships, running from 1718 to his death in 1732, Cordingly spins many a vivid and hair-raising tale. Before Rogers took control of the Bahamas, the Caribbean was a truly lawless and violent place — although as Cordingly usefully reminds us, so was Finchley. In October 1717, the Irish mailcoach was held up on Finchley Common by five masked highwayman, and one poor lady within was stripped not only of her gold watch and rings, but her “clothes, smock and all”, so that the coachman was obliged to lend her his greatcoat to protect her modesty. Four of the five highwaymen were later caught and hanged.
From the statistics quoted by Cordingly, it appears that a Caribbean pirate in those days also had a strong chance (at least 50%) of ending his life on the gallows. Rogers certainly achieved a higher clear-up rate than one of his predecessors, Colonel Cadwalader Jones, who took up the governorship in 1690, and was officially described as “whimsical”. Really not the kind of man to tackle pirates such as Edward Teach — better known as Blackbeard. His regular toast was “Damnation to King George!”, he had at least 14 wives, and wore lighted matches stuck under his hat during battle.
Another notorious figure was Bartholomew Roberts, said to have coined the phrase “a merry life and a short one”. Not so merry for Roberts’s victims. Some Dutch seamen who resisted an onslaught from Roberts’s crew for four hours were later almost whipped to death, had their ears cut off or were “fixed to the yardarms and fired at as a mark”. Roberts was killed in 1722 in an encounter with the Royal Navy, hit in the throat by grapeshot. He died festooned in buccaneer bling, wearing a crimson damask waistcoat, a red feather in his hat, and a diamond cross hanging from a gold chain around his neck. You can always count on a murderer for a fancy dress style.
There were even women among the privateers, “pirates in petticoats”, though by no means the first of their kind. As Cordingly points out, the earliest known example is one Alwilda, “the daughter of a Scandinavian king who had taken command of a company of pirates and roamed the Baltic in the 5th century AD”. She eventually became Queen of Denmark, and Vivaldi even wrote an opera about her.
Her most notorious counterparts in the 18th century were Anne Bonny and Mary Read. A contemporary illustration depicts them with long flowing locks, bare breasts alluringly peeking out from unbuttoned blouses, for all the world like Georgian page 3 girls. After brief but bloodthirsty careers, Bonny and Read were caught and sentenced to be hanged, but pleaded, truthfully, that they were both “quick with child”. The sentence was suspended, though Mary died of prison fever. But there is some evidence that Bonny later moved to Charleston, South Carolina, married and had eight children, and lived to the ripe old age of 84. You can’t help wondering what tales she told her grandchildren. “My granny was a pirate!”
Cordingly is particularly good on the causes and economics of piracy. For decades the British government had tacitly encouraged the privateers to attack their French and Spanish enemies, much like the West arming the mujaheddin. Then came the Treaty of Utrecht in 1713, which brought to an end the war of the Spanish succession, and put thousands of sailors and marines out of work. Joining the privateers — now redesignated “pirates” — was an obvious career choice for the wilder among them. And as with drug smuggling today, the profits could be mind-boggling. A single Spanish treasure fleet in 1715, for instance, carried gold and silver coins, gold bars, gold dust, pearls, emeralds, silks, spices and Chinese porcelain, amounting in today’s terms to a colossal £135m. Almost enough to pay a single day’s interest on our national debt.
Spanish Gold is a fine mix of such hard-headed history and a richly evoked atmosphere, with its murderous characters, exotic locations and fabulous cargoes of treasure. There is even a walk-on part for the real-life Robinson Crusoe, Alexander Selkirk. It’s entertaining to learn that, having been stranded in peaceful solitude for four years on the Juan Fernandez islands off Chile, dining on crayfish and roast goat, watercress and parsley, he was in notably better health than his ship-bound saviours, and at first showed a marked reluctance to be rescued at all, and “would rather have chosen to remain in his solitude, than come away”.
This will — yes, will — be a fair addition to Malcolm’s reading, and subsequently his shelves. Cordingley has a useful career as a historian of the maritime chaos that was the period from the late 17th through the 18th century, until first the United States and then the Europeans cracked down on the doings of the sea-robbers and the people-traffickers (that latter item took the Americans a wee bit longer). His biography of Cochrane (Malcolm has the US edition) is no bad effort.
In the meantime, Malcolm has 1,500 pages of Neal Stephenson to relish.
The even tenor of Malcolm’s way was severely disturbed by turning up a paperback of Quicksilver. How had something so sumptuous passed him by? He is now well into The Confusion (any novel that starts at the siege of Drogheda has a fair chance of being taken to the conclusion). And there’s still The System of the World sitting on the bed-side table.
That’s all part of the delight surviving as a superannuated pensioner. As Aldous Huxley rendered it:
Like every other good thing in this world, leisure and culture have to be paid for. Fortunately, however, it is not the leisured and the cultured who have to pay.
Malcolm should feel guilty. Alas: he can’t.