If you enjoy thinking about death as much as I do, you’ll like Hilary Mantel’s The Mirror and the Light, the final part in her much-acclaimed Cromwell trilogy.
I admit it confounded my expectations: I was expecting the tale of Thomas Cromwell’s downfall, but honestly the man rises for so long – even at page 780 he is getting a stonking promotion – that barely a tenth of the book describes his descent, which is very steep indeed. Instead, we follow our man from headache to headache, much as in previous books, witnessing him fighting fires and oh-so-gradually making the enemies who’ll forge his demise.
The same things that made Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies so excellent remain here – the world-building is extraordinary, with a frighteningly enormous cast of characters, all richly drawn and brought deliciously into conversation and confrontation. The eye for historical detail is as sharp as ever. And the witty, world-weary, intimate narration from within Cromwell’s mind excels again, with Mantel’s ingenious harmony of first and third persons utilised ever more innovatively.
Compared to other long novels I’ve tried, Mantel’s is startlingly readable throughout. I liked Anna Karenina, Bleak House and Tristram Shandy, but they all have sections that you feel could have been deleted. Looking at War and Peace, Ulysses, Moby Dick, Infinite Jest and more, it’s hard to think of a novel over 800 pages that isn’t known for having tedious passages. But The Mirror and the Light is almost never boring – it’s relentlessly readable, which is a feat in itself.
The ending is excellent – Cromwell’s long walk to his execution is poignantly drawn, and forces you to reflect on death; we see in our lead both calm resignation and terror. In fact, Mantel has brought us so deeply into Cromwell’s character – we are so comprehensively drawn inside him – that reading his execution is probably as close as you can get to experiencing death without actually stopping your heart. I felt quite emptied by the ending.
Around 2013, I started writing out favourite quotes from novels I read on my phone; Mantel was the author who first made the practice seem necessary. Looking back, they seem too good not to share, so I’ve pasted a handful from across the three books below.
Ultimately, I’m not certain Mantel’s finale reaches the giddy heights of its predecessors, Wolf Hall and Bring Up The Bodies, but that is to measure with a very big yardstick indeed. George RR Martin fans would probably just be grateful she managed to finish it. But if The Mirror and the Light doesn’t astound with quite the same brilliance, it is still a worthy companion to its extraordinary siblings.
‘Once when he was a boy he found a horseshoe. A horse in the river? It seemed to him a very lucky find. But his father said, if horseshoes were lucky, boy, I would be the King of Cockaigne.’ (Wolf Hall)
‘What is the nature of the border between truth and lies? It is permeable and blurred because it is planted thick with rumour, confabulation, misunderstandings and twisted tales. Truth can break the gates down, truth can howl in the streets; unless truth is pleasing, personable and easy to like, she is condemned to stay whimpering at the back door.’ (Bring Up The Bodies)
‘”Love conquers all? … With respect, my lord, love couldn’t conquer a gosling. It couldn’t knock a cripple down. It couldn’t beat an egg.”‘ (Lady Shelton in Mirror)
‘You can hear a sigh, a soufflation, as they disperse themselves.’ (Mirror)
‘It’s always the wrong bits of the past people want back.’ (Mirror)
‘You can be merry with the king, you can share a joke with him. But as Thomas More used to say, it’s like sporting with a tamed lion. You tousle its mane and pull its ears, but all the time you’re thinking, those claws, those claws, those claws.’ (Bodies)
If you enjoyed this post, you may also like On My New Forthcoming Nephew, though you may also find it frivolous and inconsequential. You are a serious person, I can tell that. And I respect that. Still. Give it a try.
Oh hi there, Christian pals! And also hi to any non-Christians who’ve popped over to see what the competition are up to – and maybe to try and work out who you should vote for if you want to vote like Jesus (and who doesn’t?).
This post is basically about trying to figure out who Jesus might vote for. To do this, I summarise Jesus’s core values as truth, justice and compassion, and I hope to make a clear case that on each of these, the Conservatives are a far worse choice for Christians to vote for than virtually any opposition party, standing diametrically opposed to many of his key teachings.
Firstly, truth. Jesus says “I am the truth”, so if we hope for a leader who will act in a Christian way, we have to put truth first and foremost. To imagine a brazen and wilful liar could lead Britain in a Christ-like way would be like imagining King Solomon could run a church away day on the theme of monogamy.
Some of the lies are more insidious. Recently, the Conservative Party rebranded its Twitter page as ‘FactCheckUK’, pretending to be an impartial fact-checking agency during Johnson’s debate with Corbyn. This effort, under Johnson’s command, to essentially rebrand itself as the Ministry of Facts, should be worrying to anyone who cares about democracy. Equally, Google’s decision to block eight different Conservative adverts as deceitful is troubling. Jeremy Corbyn and Jo Swinson may not be perfect, but I see no evidence that they lie as pathologically and indifferently as Mr Johnson, who is roughly as honest as Jacob. Do not give him your blessing.
Onwards to compassion. Jesus tells us to “do to
others what you would have them do to you, for this sums up the Law and the
Prophets” (Matthew 7:12). We must aim, then, to use our votes compassionately
too, in a way that will most benefit those around us.
The Conservatives have not run a compassionate government. They have cut benefits to the disabled and vulnerable. They have underfunded local authorities, who have in turn been unable to provide proper social care for the elderly, or children in care. Their manifesto promises new laws to “arrest and seize the property and vehicles” of Romany Gypsies and travellers (a policy straight out of 1930s Germany). They have taken in an embarrassingly small number of refugees. And homelessness has nearly trebled under the Conservative Party since 2010. Johnson is so indifferent to compassion, he makes Jehoram of Judah look like Jehoshaphat.
Opposition parties do not promise they can magically resolve all these issues. Labour pledges £20bn for local authorities to improve adult social care and tackle homelessness. The Lib Dems promise £6bn a year to reverse benefit cuts, and £7bn for the NHS and social care.
There are legitimate questions as to how this would be paid for, but tax is strongly endorsed by the Bible. John the Baptist effectively proposes a 50% rate of tax in Luke 3:11: “Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.” If we as Christians believe it is right for the rich to help pay for basic rights for the poor, we must also stand behind a government implementing this righteousness. And regardless, it is entirely possible to sustain benefits and social care on relatively low levels of taxation – the Conservatives simply make a political choice not to be compassionate in these areas – a bit like Zaccheus, or Donald Trump.
Finally, then, to justice. Jesus criticises the Pharisees: “you neglect justice and the love of God” (Luke 11:42), and the Bible is passionate about justice: “what does the Lord require of you? To act justly and to love mercy and to walk humbly with your God” (Micah 4:8).
On this matter, the Conservatives’ record is particularly disturbing. They have cut legal aid – money given to those who otherwise wouldn’t be able to afford to defend themselves in court – by over £1bn a year, or 40%. The number of benefits claimants who have been able to claim legal aid over disputes has dropped by 99%. Because of wilful, savage cuts, poor people are no longer able to look to our justice system to defend themselves.
This, of course, does not affect the vast majority of us,
who aren’t poor and oppressed and don’t need the courts to redress injustice. But
as Christians, we are called upon to stand up for others. We cannot in good
conscience vote for a government that intends to continue depriving the poor of
their access to justice.
Ultimately, the Bible does not mention Brexit. It is not a part of our duty as Christians to vote on the basis of whether we like the EU or not. The Bible also doesn’t mention strong and stable government, nor assert that as long as we have a good economy everything will be fine. But time and again, it talks about truth, compassion and justice. Any version of Christianity that does not foreground these things is a false Christianity. If Christians are going to vote Conservative, either I must be wrong, and Boris Johnson is in fact as truthful, compassionate and just as his rivals – or they have to admit that they have built a Christianity entirely in their own image, completely divorced from what Jesus Christ said and did. It is regrettable that Jesus is not on the ballot paper this year. But Christians must accept the challenge of thinking critically about who might be the next best bet.
If Boris Johnson is Prime Minister, then I, in my opinion, should be Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex. I will admit that I possess none of the qualities that would make me suitable to be Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex. Indeed, I possess several traits that would appear to entirely disqualify me to be Meghan Markle, such as a large nose and an inability to bear children effectively. And only a very small proportion of the population has in any way given their support or even consent for me to be Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex.
On the evidence, you might say, “Joe, it sounds like you’d be such an awful Duchess of Sussex; the only people who’d back you for the role would be a tiny faction of bonkers brain-dead geriatrics with a total contempt for the very notion of human decency.” But this is just one of the many ways in which my aptness for the role matches Mr Johnson’s. Indeed, the only way I could be more suited to the role would be if I’d previously been offered a slightly more junior post than Meghan Markle, Duchess of Sussex – for example, Princess Michael of Kent – and had clumsily endangered the life of a British citizen while doing so, while also insulting the Burmese people.
Look, let me be honest here: I despise Boris Johnson. It is not just his hair: I think he is selfish, egotistical and a liar. This is before we get to his fondness for Brexit and the fact he thinks the most pressing thing Britain needs right now is a tax cut for those earning above £50,000.
Since Taking Back Control of his career prospects, Johnson’s main idea seems to be “optimism”, which is an unbelievably brazen headline policy. If you really believe the country can be miraculously restored solely through “optimism”, you really must be very… optimistic. In which case, why hasn’t the country already been miraculously restored? Checkmate, Boris fans.
This will be a problem for the Opposition during an election as they will risk confusing the public by mentioning too many gaffes. No-one will be able to take them all in. I thus propose Labour should choose three specific gaffes to focus in on. Ideally these would be chosen by a ten-part series on BBC One called Gaffes Got Talent, in which BoJo’s gaffes are whittled down week by week in public votes until only one remains (it wins £100,000 and a recording contract, with Alan Sugar). In the absence of such a show (thanks to the BIASED RIGHT-WING BBC) I have proposed my own top three:
When he called black people in commonwealth countries “flag-waving piccaninnies” with “watermelon smiles” (in case you’re wondering – yes, those are both racist slurs).
His first name is Boris. It is never not worth reminding voters of this ridiculous, obscene fact. He was actually christened Alexander, meaning he chose this name. HE CHOSE IT.
As an honourable mention, for comic value, we should also consider throwing in the time earlier this year when he claimed he’d been out and nobly cast his vote in the local elections. The twist was: there were no local elections in London this year. This raises thrilling questions. Did he go to his local primary school and just put a cross on the first thing he saw? Did he print out his own ballot paper and try to post it through the returning officer’s letterbox – or perhaps just into a Muslim woman wearing a niqab? We may never know. (Disclaimer: we do know – Johnson is a liar and made this lie with characteristic carelessness.)
There is no denying that some of these gaffes are extremely funny – but they’re a lot less funny when the person who made them is now running the country. I find Bodger and Badger funny, but I would not let them perform open-heart surgery on me.
Johnson’s Nazanin Zaghari-Ratcliffe gaffe endangered the life of a British woman, a mother whose husband and daughter – real people – are still waiting to get her home. This is perhaps the one regard in which his awfulness outdoes Donald Trump (assuming the hair issue is a draw). Trump is generally stupid but does little damage, beyond what generic Republican policies do. Boris is extraordinarily cack-handed and reckless.
And this is where things get beyond a joke. The Conservative Party claims to love Britain. If this is true, they should have provided it with a Prime Minister who was competent and responsible. That they chose Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson, ahead of 300 other MPs, shows how little they care about our country. They want Johnson because they think he talks well and will win them an election. They don’t care what damage he inflicts in the meantime.
This should make any decent person think twice about ever voting Conservative again. Their lust for power has made them install a total liability. A Gaffosaurus.
We now have a man in Number 10 with a track record of using nasty, abusive language – he called gay people “bumboys”, Muslim women “letterboxes” and “bank robbers”, and famously said “fuck business!”
A 55-year-old man who has divorced two wives and is now dating a 31-year-old, who cannot honestly tell the public how many children he has (it seems to be either five or six but nobody is sure).
A man who has lied repeatedly, from deceitfully claiming we give the EU “£350 million a week”, to claiming this week that an EU law meant kippers had to be transported with special kipper ice pillows (there is no such EU law… obviously.) Samuel Johnson gave us the dictionary. Boris Johnson seems determined to mangle every word for his own deceitful purposes.
No politician is perfect. I get that. We are all choosing the least bad option. But for Boris Johnson to be the least bad option, we would surely have to imagine a Labour headed by Godzilla, the Lib Dems helmed by Frankenstein and the Greens fronted by Hans from Frozen. Even then it is quite close-run. At least Frankenstein was a scientist.*
So please: don’t vote for Boris Johnson. And if, like me, you are not very much enjoying your new life with Boris Johnson – do something. He is determined to call an election this autumn. Join Labour, or the Lib Dems if you must. Sign petitions. Go to rallies. Talk to your friends and family. If you’re really sad and lonely, write a blog.
There is no vision worse than Boris Johnson marching into Number 10 following a resounding election victory, using words like “tergiversate” and “fustilarian”. And probably “piccaninnies”. He will only be stopped if ordinary people here put in the effort, in a way ordinary Americans didn’t for Trump in 2016. But the Gaffosaurus can be conquered. Let us be… optimistic. Also, please sign my petition to be made Duchess of Sussex.🕇
*This joke doesn’t work at all. I’ve relied on you reading “Frankenstein” as “Frankenstein’s Monster” in the first instance, then in the second suggested I actually meant the scientist, completely undermining the sense of the original reference. What a mess. I should definitely not be Prime Minister. Hey, you know who else shouldn’t be Prime Minister?
Applying for university is an arduous and laborious task, which some people might think is a good reason not to do it on the evening of the deadline. But not me! I sat down at 5pm on the Sunday when applications were due, and knuckled down to the job at hand.
It was all going to be fine. I had a personal statement already written, from five years ago when I applied for Oxford and didn’t get in. That statement was golden.
So all I had to do was fill in the fiddly bits about my name (easy – already had one), date of birth (easy – it’s the same as my birthday) and whether I want to receive marketing materials from UCAS’s third party partners (easy – if you click no, they reduce all your GCSEs by one grade. That’s probably why I didn’t get into Oxford, not that I care because I absolutely don’t, in fact I hardly ever even think about it.)
Things were going splendidly. I’d copied and pasted in my old personal statement, awash with very topical references to the London Olympics and Nick Clegg, and absolutely blitzed the next-of-kin challenge. And then I hit a blip. References.
It’ll be fine, right? UCAS probably still has my old references from 2013 on file?
Spoiler: UCAS did not have my old references on file. In all honesty, I’m not sure UCAS remembered who I am, which hurts a little bit. Some days I wonder if they remember me at Oxford. Maybe they do – maybe it was just some processing error, that they accidentally confused me and a different boy and sent him to Oxford in my place. Maybe any day they’ll just send me a letter and apologise for the whole thing – We made a terrible, terrible mistake – and invite me back. Not that I’d go though, since I don’t really care and don’t mind that I didn’t get in anyway.
Sorry, where was I? So the UCAS website was asking for an “academic reference”. This was tricky because I had not been going to school lately. Not because I was naughty – no sirree! – but because I was twenty-three years old. It would have been a bit weird, to be honest.
In a series of excellent flashes of genius, I emailed my old A-Level English teacher to see if he was at work on Sunday afternoon and might be able to email me my old reference, which was probably on file. He wasn’t. I then emailed a friend I knew who was a teacher to ask if he could produce me a reference, since he knows what a top lad I am. Apparently that is not how it works.
Readers, I was in a pickle. UCAS wouldn’t let me send the application without a reference, and yet I quite definitively didn’t have a reference.
It was at this point that I wondered: what do you actually have to do to write a UCAS reference?
A very brief rummage revealed the answer: you have to sign up to UCAS’s “Teacher’s Site”. You just put in your name and what educational establishment you work for, and you can write somebody a reference.
Reader, I did a wicked thing.
I created an account on UCAS under the name of Voseph Jenables. I said I worked for the Voseph Jenables Academy, which is in the city of Voseph, in Jenableshire.
The UCAS system, which strikes me as extremely robust, accepted all of this.
So I wrote myself a reference. It went like this.
Joseph Venable is an unfortunate student who failed to foresee the significant period of time that finding and attaining a reference for his university application would take, and has consequently been reduced to writing his own reference. This may either be viewed as a cop-out, or as a dazzling Brechtian device highlighting the absurdity of the referee/student relationship.
Joseph would emphasise his strong grades and angelic face as evidence that his lack of forethought in this matter is not symptomatic of broader moral deficiency, degeneracy or oafishness.
Indeed, Joseph might modestly suggest that the creativity and lateral thinking exhibited within this non-reference is in fact conceivably more valuable than a reference itself. He earnestly implores you to consider inviting him for an interview so that he can expand on this improbable theory in person.
Around three minutes before the deadline, I pressed send on this beauty.
Astoundingly, a few weeks later I got offered an interview at Cambridge University. I resolved to prepare rigorously, remembering how badly I’d failed my interview at Oxford some years ago (sorry – I don’t think I said: I actually applied to Oxford five years ago. I probably forgot to mention it because it really doesn’t matter to me at all.) I re-watched my favourite Shakespeare plays, researched varieties of port, and even tried reading some poetry (which was horrible – I definitely won’t be doing that again. I hate poetry!). I also found a couple of books I knew I could speak on in depth, with confidence, and read some essays by respected literary critics.
Of course, they just wanted to talk about the reference. I ended up sitting opposite Dr Drew Milne, who I later found out is quite a major poet and critic, and several other esteemed scholars, who stared at my reference, then at me, then back at my reference. Then back at me.
“Why have you done this?” asked Dr Drew Milne.
“I didn’t have a reference,” I said, as though that explained everything.
“But,” said Dr Drew Milne, “you could have just written, ‘I don’t have a reference – sorry.'”
“That,” I said, “would have been a much simpler thing to do.”
“Hrmm,” said Dr Drew Milne. “Well look, we’re almost out of time. Before we finish, can I just check that you do really like poetry?”
“Oh yes!” I said. “I love poetry!”
“Great,” said Dr Drew Milne, “and can I also double-check that you’ve never at any point in your life attempted to apply for Oxford University?”
“Well, would you look at the time!” I exclaimed, jumping to my feet. “I’d better be off. Thanks so much for having me.”
Epilogue: Reader, I married him. Or, to be more precise, I was offered a place at his University by him and I accepted it. Then I married my wife, which made a lot more sense for all three of us. Actually, to be still more precise, he technically rejected me from his college but “pooled” me and I got offered a place at a different college, but at the same university. We can read this as either an endorsement of putting something outlandish on your UCAS application, or as a clear failure after which I got lucky. Or as evidence that Cambridge will let in anyone who asks, as long as they’re straight, white and male. Either way – I did not get rejected by Cambridge! Not that I would have cared.
Disclaimer: This story is actually true, and that reference is verbatim (with the exception of the words “angelic face” which I used to replace something tedious about my work ethic). The interview is pretty accurate until the last four lines. If you’re thinking of going to Cambridge but worried you aren’t good enough, please be reassured; you cannot be a worse applicant than me.Also: do you need a reference? Because I have a UCAS Teacher account and need money.Call me.
In late December last year, when the trees were full of Christmas lights and Brexit was going swimmingly (NB: must remember to check this), I was overhearing a most unusual conversation. There was nothing malicious in my overhearing; I was sitting in the dining room of my parents’ house, and the discussion was occurring in the adjacent sitting room. In the conversation, my older brother Zak was handing my Mother a pregnancy test.
Why was he doing that, Joe?
A very good question, Strange Bold Voice that I sometimes use to spice up my usually bland prose style. As we listened, it became clear that Zak was using a very experimental, avant-garde means of telling my parents that he was expecting a baby.
Ugh! That is disgusting! You mean he gave her an actual stick covered in genuine wee? Yeuch!
I think what you meant to say is “Congratulations! How delightful!”
That is the most revolting thing I’ve ever heard.
Yikes. Wait till I teach you how they made the baby.
Okay, okay. Look, why are Zak and Liz having another baby? Weren’t they only just pregnant, like, the other day?
It does seem to many of us to have been extremely recently that Zak popped out his first baby, a male child now named Elijah. But with babies, like with chocolate fingers, Chelsea buns and condoms, one is never enough.
Okay, so you found out Zak’s pregnant again. Did you rush in there to congratulate him?
Ohoho! No indeed. I realised that I had a unique piece of insider knowledge – that I knew about Zak’s baby before almost anyone else in the world: certainly before any of my brothers knew, and quite possibly before even his wife Liz knew. Best of all, they didn’t know that I knew. I made plans for how I might weaponise this knowledge. The best plan involved me filming an elaborate video in which all my Cambridge friends sent their warm congratulations on his baby, which I then sent to him the day before he was planning to tell me about it.
So? Did you do it?
No. He told me about it before I could. Also, I have no friends.
Ach. You must be gutted.
I was for a bit. But then I realised – hang on a second! Being the first person in the world to know about Zak’s secret baby actually gave me a wealth of privileges, enshrined in ancient law – from naming rights and spiritual direction to an option on taking ownership at age seven. I have already decided that the baby will be a Muslim boy, and that I will have him on alternate weekends from age nine.
Wow! Nice one, man. And have you decided on a name yet?
Why yes I have! I thought about calling him something really ornate and grandiloquent like Nebuchadnezzar or Lay-All-Your-Love-On-Me, but then I decided to go the other way: I’m going to call him π.
I’m sorry, did you just say π? Like, the circle thing we learnt about in GCSE Maths?
Why, yes. I am hoping that the diameter of his love will always be in perfect proportion to the radius of his generosity.
What if he just eats a lot of pies?
Then I hope the radius of his belly is always in proportion to the amount of happiness he gets from the pies.
You’re going to be a great uncle.
I’ve actually decided to be his great-aunt. But thankyou.
When’s the baby due?
It is due exactly five months after Britain’s exit from the European Union.
A couple of days ago in Cambridge, I was having a conversation with a fellow student and my “supervisor”, a strange entity conceived by Cambridge, presumably to make sure I do not damage any of the toys of other children during playtime. The supervisor had recently watched smash-hit musical sensation Hamilton and I asked how it was, hoping for a jolly conversation full of superlatives and merry ejaculations.
Instead – disaster! The fellow student had also watched smash-hit musical wonder Hamilton – but had not enjoyed it! She found the lyrics “totally banal”, a word I have checked in the dictionary but has no second meaning along the lines of “genius”, “visionary” or “I wept, I wept so long and so hard my very heart could have burst”.
The supervisor affected a constructive ambiguity, perhaps sensing I was on the verge of crying/ hurling all my toys at my fellow student. Nonetheless, to be silent in the face of criticism of smash-hit musical extravaganza Hamilton is in a sense to be complicit, and I shall certainly be writing her a stiff letter.
In the face of this onslaught against smash-hit musical marvel Hamilton, I found myself struggling to respond. I felt a little as though my religion had been attacked – although actually much, much worse. My religion is Anglican Christianity, a church so broad it stretches from mad right-wing fundamentalism on one side to mad liberal quasi-agnosticism on the other, meaning when anyone attacks my religion I am utterly smug in the certainty that my religion must be right, in at least one of its iterations (unless, of course, the Jews are right – as I for one increasingly fear).
Conversely, even though I know Hamilton to be the finest work of art since Gilbert and Sullivan’s HMS Pinafore, I was unable to articulate my smugness and certainty, instead gaping a bit like a fish before yelling “WELL, YOU SMELL” at my fellow student, a debating technique which I still feel may have lost me the gig when I applied for Oxford back in 2013.
When I returned home and had a little time to cool off, I found myself remembering all the wonderful little moments in smash-hit musical bonanza Hamilton that I could have used to slap down the insolent Hamilton-haters/ Hamilton-hater-enablers in the supervision, without telling anyone that anyone smells. Unable to discharge my pent-up esprit d’escalier elsewhere, I proffer here a blog’s worth of those lovely, precious moments you might have missed from the soundtrack of smash-hit musical orgastathon Hamilton.
Okay, I’m not sure ‘Spoonerism Rhymes’ is an actual term, but then again I don’t know if I’d ever heard a Spoonerism rhyme before Hamilton. In Washington On Your Side, Jefferson notes:
I get no satisfaction, witnessing his fits of passion
The way he primps and preens and dresses like the pits of fashion.
Yeah sex is good, but have you tried sextuple rhymes? In The Room Where It Happens, Hamilton effortlessly makes twelve syllables collide in rhyme:
Jefferson approaches with the dinner and invite
And Madison responds with Virginian insight
Apologies if you weren’t ready to lose your sextuple-rhyme Virginian-ity to such a strapping rhyme. The only other sextuple rhyme I know of occurs in Wicked, where Glinda sings in Popular:
When I see depressing creatures
With unprepossessing features…
And that is also a pretty special moment.
The song ‘We Know’ is a largely forgettable number towards the end of Act Two, but it contains some of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s most exquisite wordplay. Hamilton, accused of corruption, tells his enemies:
As you can see I kept a record of every cheque in my chequered history
Check it again against your list and see consistency
I never spent a cent that wasn’t mine
You sent the dogs after my scent, that’s fine
The invention here is sensational: sandwiching a triple triple-rhyme on history / list and see / consistency between two triple homonyms in cheque, check, chequered and cent, sent, scent. If you sat down at your desk and said “Hey, I’m gonna write a verse around two sets of triple homonyms”, literally everyone you know would laugh at you, and your ultimate pathetic effort about “heading to the head master’s with your head on” (yeah I’ve tried it a few times) would be risible. Miranda is a genius.
4. Rhymes for words you didn’t know had rhymes
I am not aware there is any double-rhyme for “volume” in the English language – but an American accent allows Miranda to pull off a rhyme with “ballroom” in one of many sumptuous lyrical moments in Helpless. Since you ask, I propose “straw broom” as the next best option.
Later, in Satisfied, the word “fantasise” – which has only one triple-rhyme in the dictionary – sprouts three in “romanticise”, “Alexander’s eyes” and “if I hadn’t-a sized (him up)” – the kind of multi-syllabic rhyming I suspect we all fantasise about.
Joe Venable apologises that there is no time to talk about ‘anarchy’ and ‘panicky’ in My Shot.
Farmer Refuted may well be the most technically accomplished lyric in Hamilton, so it’s a shame it’s so readily forgotten. Miranda here takes a genuine pamphlet produced by anti-independence campaigners in 1770s America, which reads:
Heed not the rabble who scream “Revolution!” – they have not your interests at heart.
Hamilton interrupts the speaker on his second rendition thereof, telling the assembled crowd:
He’d have you all unravel at the sound of screams, but the Revolution is coming – the have-nots are gonna win this – it’s hard to listen to you…
The genius is in the intersection of the two – whereby “Heed” and “He’d” collide, along with “rabble” and “unravel”, “have not” and “have-nots”, and “heart” and “hard” – not to mention “scream”, “revolution” and a tasty assonance between “int’rests” and “win this”. Once again, this is simply not something a normal human can write.
6. The references
Hamilton nods deliciously to other musicals – Burr’s line that “You’ve got to be carefully taught” is direct from South Pacific, while I maintain the Socrates-mediocrities rhyme in Non-Stop is a nod to the song Wonderful in Wicked, though Miranda of course improves the rhyme by adding that he’s “hurling rocks at these mediocrities”, who aren’t arguing for “democracy”, turning what was impressive as a rhymed pair into a mesmerising quartet.
The finest borrowing of all is George Washington’s introduction of himself as:
The model of a modern major general
The venerated Virginian veteran whose men are all
Lining up to put me up on a pedestal…
The reference is to Gilbert and Sullivan’s Major General’s Song in The Pirates of Penzance, which cheekily rhymes ‘general’ with ‘mineral’. Miranda is effectively pointing out that those don’t quite rhyme and patching it up for them. It would be scandalous if it wasn’t so perfect. The fragmentation of mineral into men are all seems further to have a striving for individuality within it, the breaking up of a big lump of word into distinct, characterful parts – which is arguably a theme of the musical, where individuals (especially immigrants) refuse to be homogenised, flattened into complicity, or indeed robbed of their character and generalised, if you will. The play thus offers a microcosm of itself at the level of a single highly allusive three-syllable word – which can’t be said of, for example, High School Musical 2.
There’s also a plethora of references to classic hip-hop, rap and R&B tunes, including apparently a nod to something called Beyonce, but I am not cool enough to appreciate any of these. Plus there’s an allusion to two guys called Macbeth and Banquo, whom I presume are rappers, but again – way over my head.
7. Relentless rhymes
My Shot is among the most memorable of Hamilton’s numbers, effectively featuring 13 triple-rhymes on the word ‘parentheses’. Equally impressive is the first verse which rhymes ‘college’, ‘knowledge’, ‘polish’ and ‘astonish’ with the ‘ollish’ sounds of ‘scholarship’ and ‘holler just (to be heard)’. Is that banal enough for you?
8. Racial Commentary
Plenty of the songs in Hamilton, as well as being a biography, can be read as allegorical of the experience of minority ethnic communities trying to be heard by the US’s political elites. If you listen again to The Room Where It Happens, Wait for It or Washington On Your Side you can see what Miranda is up to; you can also read my completely unnecessary 3,000-word essay Fatherhood, Sonship and Race in Hamiltonhere, which I know you’ll want to do immediately.
9. Insidious Rhymes
Something that is ‘insidious’ is ‘Full of wiles or plots… sly, underhand, artful, cunning, crafty’. In Satisfied, Lin-Manuel Miranda has Angelica sing:
So I’m the oldest, and the wittiest
And the gossip in New York City is
Contained within the word ‘insidious’ are the phonemes of ‘City is’, making the word ‘insidious’ insidious – outrageously crafty. Lin-Manuel Miranda really is the wittiest.
10. Thematic Unity
This is perhaps the most wonderful of Miranda’s talents – crafting a coherent whole out of intricately woven individual themes.
Take a word like ‘Enough’, for example – or its corollary ‘Satisfied’. Angelica knows Hamilton can never be ‘satisfied’; Jefferson gets ‘no satisfaction’ from Hamilton’s outbursts; his wife Eliza is desperate to be ‘enough’ for him but can’t be. In the second act, Burr realises ‘The World Was Wide Enough’ and Eliza muses on whether she’s “done enough” to guarantee her husband’s legacy. Given the musical is about the creation of America, and the rampant, insatiable consumerism it’s now a byword for, the theme of satisfaction – whether one can ever have enough – is wryly satirical.
‘Narrative’ and ‘history’ are another huge interlocking theme; Hamilton is looking ahead to ‘when our children tell our story’ from early on, the Schuyler sisters feel that ‘history is happening’ around them, Washington warns Hamilton ‘History has its eyes on you’.
‘Time’ also features prominently as a theme, Hamilton telling everyone ‘Just you wait’ and Burr having to ‘Wait For It’; King George insisting America will ‘be back / Time will tell’; Washington addressing the people ‘One Last Time’ -and of course Hamilton writes ‘like he’s running out of time’ (which he is).
And ‘life’ and ‘death’ are perhaps the most recurrent themes; Hamilton ‘imagines death so much it feels more like a memory’; his friends note they ‘may not live to see our glory’; the Schuyler sisters wonder at ‘how lucky we are to be alive right now’; Hamilton and Philip are both begged to ‘Stay Alive’; in Hurricane Hamilton notes he ‘couldn’t seem to die’.
These five themes – satisfaction, narrative, time, life and death seem reasonably disparate and may go unnoticed during the play. All the more wonder, then, that Miranda binds them all together in the final song, Eliza singing: ‘And when my time is up, have I done enough, will they tell your story?’ before the last line ‘Who lives, who dies, who tells your story?’ Amidst all of its winding lyrics and interpersonal plot-lines, Miranda produces a finale which implies a singular focus has been sustained throughout on a wonderfully worked set of themes – a vividly intentional, ingenious finale. Or should that be ‘banal-e’? Eh? EH? Well then you smell.