Shakespeare dictates his last will and testament in Christopher Rush’s 2007 “autobiography” of the Bard.
I would describe this undertaking in literature as, “the impossible job” as William Shakespeare stands as the undisputed colossus striding across not only English but possibly world literature. Certainly when it comes to defining the modern stage Stratford’s most famous son is the alpha and omega of theatre.
Nevertheless Rush can not be accused of lacking ambition as he attempts to chart Shakespeare’s life right from the get go, to his shuffling off this mortal coil aged 52 in 1616.
The obvious advantage Rush has is that there is virtually no record of the Bard’s private life, which offers great scope for the imagination. The plays Shakespeare wrote were wonderfully described by my English teacher as, “mucky” and Rush certainly extrapolates this aspect of the great man’s work by incorporating much salaciousness into the narrative. This is fine in itself but some of the passages should have featured in the “Bad Sex in Fiction” awards but Rachel Johnson took the accolade that year. I’m no prude but Rush does overdo this side of things in a very visceral way.
As a work “Will” is very patchy. Some of the descriptions of life in the 16th century are riveting and you are carried along by the sights, sounds and especially smells of the era. The speculative description of Christopher Marlowe as a man and as a writer is captivating but the book loses it’s way when Rush overdoes the flowery language and verbose style. This type of showing off is what always put me off Salman Rushdie. It’s as if he wants to humiliate the reader by telling us we aren’t clever enough to keep up. When Rush lets the story drive things it is a good read. Perhaps a stronger editor may have make a 500 page inconsistent work into a 300 page excellent book. Overall the first half is better than the latter stages when Shakespeare starts writing plays, as this aspect is more open to scrutiny.
Alan Johnson’s second book, “Please Mr. Postman” (2014) deals with the former Cabinet Minister’s time first of all working for the Royal Mail and then as the General Secretary of the Communications Workers Union. Despite his dreadful politics Johnson’s book is a window into an era of time of much more opportunity via cheap quality housing, decent work and access to free education and health. It’s a very well written and enjoyable read but as with his first tome, “This Boy” (2013) it is hard to fathom quite how a guy that had it so tough, but made his way in life largely due to the progressive reforms of the 45 and Wilson Labour Governments, is today such a basher of Unions and apologist for Austerity.
Nigel Cawthorne’s “Left Standing” supposedly a biography of Alan Johnson. I am extremely surprised that this book was ever published as the only praise you can give the “writer” is for having such a brazen brass neck. This is simply a precis of Johnson’s twin autobiographies (with a very pivotal event in Alan’s young adulthood missed out) fleshed out with narrative culled from newspaper clippings and the internet. It is a desperately poor effort and makes it all the more frustrating for those working so hard to produce well researched and in depth political analysis and failing to secure a publisher or proper publicity.