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The end

July 17, 2020

One of the things Mike and I did when we were in the UK in 1994 was take a day trip to Portsmouth, to, amongst other things, visit Nelson’s flagship HMS Victory.

Victory

There were tours of the ship available, led by jolly knowledgeable retired Royal Navy sailors. (They were both jolly and knowledgeable.) Before the tour began, we were gathered together on the main deck for a short overview of the ship’s history. When this talk was over our guide mentioned that there was a booklet available for £1 which we were under no obligation to buy. Mike, who liked that sort of thing, put his hand up. (I probably still have it somewhere.) As our guide took Mike’s money and handed over the booklet, he leaned forward, brought his hand to his mouth and whispered, “He dies in the end.” I burst out laughing and said, “Oh, now you’ve spoiled it for me.”

It was a fascinating tour.

Ten years ago, I began a three-volume, 1932-page journey with Hilary Mantel.

Having named the author, I’m sure you’ve guessed that journey was with Thomas Cromwell – from the mean streets of Stepney to Florence to service to Cardinal Wolsey to Henry VII’s right hand man. From his rise in Wolf Hall to his pre-eminence in Bring Up the Bodies to (read this past week) his fall from grace in The Mirror and the Light, I have loved, loved, loved every word Mantel has written about Cromwell. The first two books won the Booker and I wouldn’t be the least surprised if the third does, too.

Obviously, I didn’t need a tour guide to tell me he dies in the end. (Damn those history lessons.) So, it’s mad how desperately I wanted a different ending. I was even willing to bring it about. At one point I desperately wanted to climb into the pages of the book and stab Gardiner myself.

I turned the light off and went to sleep on Tuesday night after Cromwell’s arrest. I might have actually said “Oh, no!” out loud before I closed the book. On Wednesday night I sat up later than usual watching stupid things on the telly just to put off the inevitable.

But I couldn’t change history or the ending of the story.

Cromwell

So farewell, Thomas, and thank you, Hilary.

Speaking of history lessons, I learnt more about that period of English history in these three books than I did from any of the dry volumes I was forced to read at school. They should be required reading.

And, as a further aside: that portrait of Cromwell by Hans Holbein.

One of my favourite things to do in London, if I’m in town and have some spare time, is have a wander around the Tudor section of the National Portrait Gallery. I assumed, when I was looking on-line for this portrait, that I must have seen it there on many occasions. Au contraire. Turns out the portrait is part of the Frick collection in New York, which means I must have gazed at it when I visited the museum my first week in New York when I was all of 20 with no idea at that time (or during subsequent visits) how much I would come to know about – and love – this man thanks to Ms Mantel.

I do believe I am in mourning. If there is anything in the pile of books beside my bed that can console me for the loss of Thomas, it sure as hell isn’t this month’s Book Club book.

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