It’s Saturday May 9th and I’m feeling confused about the anomalies surrounding this virtual world. The BACC meeting I was expecting to attend has been cancelled in the real world, and it’s not happening in the virtual world either. But in this virtual world we’re still able to go shopping, eat in restaurants, and explore the usual attractions. It’s almost like I’m making up the rules, here.
Anyway, this leaves us free to choose what we do today, so we decide to visit Newark. We weren’t very impressed when we first visited the town last August, but it seems only fair to give it another chance. We park, again, in the Riverside Car Park and head off on foot across the River Trent. Over the river rises the impressive outline of Newark Castle; but it’s all an illusion.
During the English Civil Wars, Newark was one of the most important centres of the Royalist cause. It was besieged by Parliamentary armies three times, and after it fell, Parliament commanded the Castle to be destroyed, leaving only the shell of its wall above the Trent, like a cheap film set.
Within the wall is a municipal garden, that’s often used as a photo opportunity after weddings that have taken place in the nearby Register Office. There’s a wedding party there as we walk through. The bride, beautiful in white; the paraplegic groom in a wheelchair. You know how you can’t stop yourself making up stories about the lives of people you don’t know and will never know anything about? We imagine this young man is a veteran of one of the Middle East wars, flown home with terrible life-changing injuries after his vehicle was blown up by an IED. Or maybe was paralysed after a quad-bike accident on someone’s stag weekend. His loving fiancée insisted that the wedding they planned must go ahead anyway; she’ll marry him for better, for worse, even though the worse has already happened. We’re amazed by such love and devotion. We pray that love will be enough to sustain them through the lifetime that lies ahead, and that they really will be happy and blessed and true to each other.
Last time we visited Newark on a Friday and had a longing for fish and chips. Sadly we chose the wrong place, which I won’t name. I’m now pretty sure that the right place for fish and chips in Newark is the Castlegate Fish Bar. This looks like the real thing, mushy peas and all.
After lunch, though, we didn’t find that much to do in Newark. The town has known great days: in 1377 it was one of the 25 largest towns in England, with a population of 1,178. Now it has a run-down feeling. The parish church of St Mary Magdalene is grand and imposing, clearly expressing the town’s earlier wealth and status. But I didn’t find that frisson of the numinous that I look for in the churches we visit.
Alison doesn’t share my interest in the English Civil War, so she wasn’t interested in paying a return visit to the National Civil War Centre with me. It won’t tell you whether the right side or the wrong side won. (My answers are a) Yes, and b) We might know, when it’s finally over.) But it does include what must surely win a prize as one of the most tasteless items you’ll ever find in a museum gift shop:
I decide I don’t need a political chopping block. (You’ll see why in a minute.) I meet up with Alison who’s had enough of the shops, such as they are. We walk back to the car and drive back to Charming Old Chapel where we relax with our books And maybe look forward to a glass or two of wine later?
I’ve brought Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light away with me, and I’m determined to finish it this weekend. It’s the concluding volume of a trilogy begun with Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, telling the story of Thomas Cromwell, chief minister of King Henry VIII from 1532 to 1540. Meticulously researched and brilliantly imagined, it’s a fascinating read. The final volume, published in March 2020, appeared two years later than its author planned, because, she says, it was ‘difficult’. But it was worth the wait. It’s very entertaining, and will keep you entertained for a long time – I think I read that it’s as long as both the previous volumes put together.
One of the things I love about it is the way that Thomas Cromwell comes across as such a hero, so human yet also admirably intelligent and gifted. I’ve reflected elsewhere about the way in which I somehow absorbed history, in my younger days, as if it were a tale in which there are ‘goodies’ and ‘baddies’. Is that just me? Is that the way history has always been taught? Is it that history as we were taught it at school – written as we know it is by the victors – is little more than a propaganda exercise in support of the status quo? The prime example of this is the way we were taught the English Civil War as if the Royalists were the Good Guys.
It may be through reading A Man For All Seasons at school, in which Sir Thomas More is obviously the hero, that I picked up the idea that Cromwell was the Bad Guy. Hilary Mantel’s trilogy turns that around. Here it is More who is the villainous reactionary, while Cromwell is the champion of true religion, a Gospel man whose great cause is to make the Bible available in English so that every man, woman and child can read it in their own language.
Henry VIII is also a more sympathetic character than I’ve tended to think. Clearly he is a sort of monster, but we also see that that is the very nature of kingship: the king is the nation, and his health, well-being, faith and fertility are all determinative of the nation’s well-being. With such a burden of responsibility, it’s no wonder he is a tortured soul; but he’s also intelligent, devout and very human.
If you’ve read it, let me know what you think. And the key thing is: Reader, I finished it.