Ye olde filth

by Rick Bryant / 25 October, 2003
THE CLERKENWELL TALES, by Peter Ackroyd (Chatto and Windus, $59.95).

Peter Ackroyd's historical novel is a hard-nosed crime/espionage thriller with enough sex, violence, intrigue and suspense to translate to popular television - although I don't fancy our unstable American cousins would contemplate it, the potential for excess and grossness and, er, "reality" notwithstanding.

A conspiracy among England's power elite seeks to support an illegal power-grab (by Henry IV, in 1399) by staging a diversionary publicity stunt, comprising a series of church bombings. Things go wrong, as they do, and quite a few people are killed for reasons of urgent political expediency by a mysterious double agent/agent provocateur, an Augustinian friar named, emblematically you may well think, Exmewe. (Out of me - we?)

A "mad" nun, whose cryptic ravings are disturbingly popular among the rumour-dependent population of London, plays an obscure but important part. Threatened by some of her superiors with the judicial savagery that characterised the Christianity of that time (and parts of the US today), she is apparently protected by other arms of the system.

That's enough plot, which can be said to thicken in the usual way.

London itself is an important character. It is both primitive and already ancient, but it has a restaurant-going privileged class who can afford luxury and refinement, even if they are paradoxically brutish. It seethes with brawling lowlife, and is recklessly filthy and superstitious. A dangerous fundamentalist cult promotes lunatic violence. An enormously bloated religious class straddles society, attempting to throttle its own internal opposition, the Lollards. They have a social justice agenda, which naturally enrages the ruling class. In the wider world, adventurist entrepreneurs promote a speciously religious war against Islam. You may think that Ackroyd is making a point or two.

Many an English literature graduate can be seen to yawn when they hear the name Chaucer. And if those people should foolishly choose to ignore one of our brightest cultural treasures, we should not be surprised if the rest of the novel-reading public yawn with them. There's no way round it: if you want to enjoy Chaucer, you will have to do something akin to "work". And this novel is by someone who knows and loves their - our - Chaucer, and expects the same from those readers who want to get the most out of this stimulating read.

For years I used to read about four novels a week, but things change and the time came when I realised it was years since I had read one. So, when this turned up, it was rejuvenating to feel again the simple but intense pleasure to be got from plain good writing.

MostReadArticlesCollectionWidget - Most Read - Used in articles
AdvertModule - Advert - M-Rec / Halfpage

Latest

Trade Me bans sale of pugs, British and French bulldogs
86110 2018-01-20 10:49:32Z Business

Trade Me bans sale of pugs, British and French bul…

by Sally Blundell

As a result of growing concern over the welfare of pugs, British and French bulldogs, Trade Me has announced they're banning the sale of these breeds.

Read more
Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding shame
86056 2018-01-20 00:00:00Z Currently

Puppy farming: New Zealand's secret dog-breeding s…

by Sally Blundell

NZ has an unregulated puppy-breeding industry where unscrupulous operators can flourish, so why aren’t we following the lead of overseas governments?

Read more
The Crown has lost its way in season two
85715 2018-01-20 00:00:00Z Television

The Crown has lost its way in season two

by Greg Dixon

To read the gushing media reports, you’d have thought The Crown was a winning combination of the Second Coming, unicorns and sliced bread.

Read more
How your name influences who you become
85737 2018-01-20 00:00:00Z Psychology

How your name influences who you become

by Marc Wilson

Researchers say that 'Daisy' is more likely to dress and act in a feminine manner because the name has a stereotype of femininity.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and present lend their support
86105 2018-01-19 15:45:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern pregnant: Politicians past and pres…

by RNZ

Politicians from at home and abroad are reaching out to offer congratulations to the Prime Minister mum-to-be.

Read more
Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND a mum
86091 2018-01-19 12:36:44Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern is going to be a Prime Minister AND…

by Katie Parker

New Zealand’s newly minted PM and bizarrely cool and normal lady Jacinda Ardern has announced that she and partner Clarke Gayford are expecting a baby

Read more
Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy
86074 2018-01-19 11:11:36Z Politics

Jacinda Ardern announces pregnancy

by RNZ

Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern has announced that she is pregnant, with the baby due in June.

Read more
What the media silly season taught us
85933 2018-01-19 00:00:00Z Politics

What the media silly season taught us

by Graham Adams

To the eternal gratitude of media chiefs, each holiday period seems to throw up at least one minor scandal that runs in the absence of anything newsy.

Read more