Lion Heart: “a clumsy combination of genres”

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HAVE you read anything so bad, you just want to keep on reading until the end?

You are enjoying the time and consideration it took to make this novel so inherently awful, you just have to finish it.

Justin Cartwright’s Lion Heart is literature’s equivalent of Blackpool: it’s so bad, it’s good.

Perhaps Cartwright is feeling fatigued. This is his 15th novel, after all.

Richard Cathar, son of hippy historian Alaric (with a name like that, how could he not be?), has just finished a relationship with creative writing student, Emily, following an argument about Richard III.

As you do.

When you usually go on the rebound, it involves copious amounts of alcohol, tissues (for crying and fierce masturbation), and getting off with that girl called Stacey from Preston.

Richard is not a normal guy. Instead, he has a staring contest with a fox whilst cooking sausages and embarks on a journey to Jerusalem to find the True Cross.

Obviously.

Dan Brown is an influence. Whilst the Robert Langdon series hardly feature the most eloquent use of etymology, it is entertaining and thrilling.

E L James is a terrible writer. GCSE English examiners deal with bards, compared to her Twilight spin-off porn-fest. But it caters to sexually frustrated housewives.

And Game of Thrones does contain deviance ad nauseam, but it is cleverly crafted.

The problem with Lion Heart – well, one of the many problems – is that it has not quite decided what it wants to be yet.

At times, it is a romance novel. Richie is smitten with the jack-of-all-trades Noor. He goes into great detail about her breasts and buttocks.

I needed a cold shower after Chapter 5.

And then it turns into a spy thriller, with covert meetings with secret agents and aliases (a certain Mr. MacDonald).

Suddenly, we are immersed – or at least, attempted to be – in a historical thriller. We travel back in time to the Third Crusade where King Richard I is launching war on Saladin in the name of God.

Richard Cathar is obsessed with sex. He has awkward sex with his ex-girlfriend. He has a nervous breakdown and ends up having sex with his doctor. He meets a French widow, and guess what? They are duvet dancing before you can say, “I would have sold London if I could find a buyer”. If there is a film adaptation of this novel, I wonder if Lars Von Trier would be available.

And then he meets Noor.

A Canadian-Arab Christian journalist-cum-relief worker-cum-spy. After he has sex with her, involving dripping orange juice on her naked Canadian-Arab Christian journalist-cum-relief worker-cum-spy body, she gets kidnapped.

It’s terribly exciting.

Richard is so overcome with grief, he goes back to England and continues to look for the True Cross that tormented his medieval regal namesake. Whilst having sex with other women.

Thankfully, there are likeable characters along the way.

Noor’s guardian, her Auntie Haneen, feels like a Lancastrian Nan, inviting Richie in for a brew and a good old yarn. Yes, she is Palestinian, but it’s not hard to imagine she keeps the Gaza Strip’s version of a whippet in her backyard.

Although in today’s current state of affairs there probably wouldn’t be much of a whippet left…or a back yard.

There’s also the drunken, probably UKIP voting, yet still endearing Lord Huntingdon to whom Richie is employed as a speechwriter for a pointless but charming interlude. He serves absolutely no purpose to the story whatsoever; perhaps that’s why he is quite entertaining.

No matter how great the violinists were on the Titanic as it sank, you are always going to remember that’s there a bloomin’ big iceberg in the side of the ship. The double trills and excellent execution of pizzicato might distract you for a brief moment, but there is still no escaping the clumsy combination of genres and the obnoxiousness of the protagonists whom you are supposed to invest in.

 

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The Psychopath Test: “the right sort of madness”

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I spend fifteen hours a week sat idly on a bus. Having been on this commute since September, I really ought to strike a conversation with my fellow passengers with whom I spend 32 days of my year on public transport.

But, I fear, after four awkward months on this commute, it would seem bizarre engaging in small talk now – especially when the first leg of the bus journey takes place at 6.15am earl-aye in the morning. And I feel like I would be considerably disappointed meeting them in real life, as I have already created nicknames and back stories for my fellow travellers on the bus to purgatory:

There’s creepy old man who once spent his entire journey watching videos of Britney Spears on his phone; ‘paint me like one of the French girls, Jack’, a gentleman who spreads himself across two seats to avoid human contact; and that one girl who always sits directly in front of me, even if I change seats.

So, I’ve decided to be more proactive on #dansbusjourney, instead of bitching about it on social media. In the year of our Lord (Rassilon) 2016, I have set myself a challenge: read a new book every week and cast my critical eye upon it. I took to Facebook and Twitter to ask you, the handsome and beautiful reader, what works I should source from the literary well; and bless you, you responded.

Thankfully there were no suggestions for Mein Kampf, which has sold out upon being made available in Germany again post-WW2.

Last week it was the academically interesting yet problematic The History Manifesto. This week, it’s Jon Ronson’s The Psychopath Test.

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Admittedly, when this suggestion popped up on the Facebook survey from Nadia Fawcett, I was somewhat concerned. Did this person enjoy the book so much that they went out of their way to encourage others to participate in reading pleasure?

Or was this a subtle hint?

Indeed, halfway through reading The Psychopath Test, I did start to question whether I tick all the boxes on Bob Hare’s PCL-R Checklist. Thankfully as Martha Stout, author of The Sociopath Next Door, remarked to Ronson:

“If you’re beginning to feel worried that you may be a psychopath, if you recognise some of those traits in yourself, if you’re feeling a creeping anxiety about it, that means you are not one.”

Phew.

I have always enjoyed Gonzo journalism, where the journalist directly involves himself in the story. From the pioneer Hunter S Thompson to the recent Louis Theroux, Gonzo brings a more human – and I daresay less psychopathic – approach to reporting.

This is where Jon Ronson excels. His charming anxiety and scepticism are evident in his words, but he never lets them get in the way of his interesting interviewees. He allows these eccentric characters – psychopathic or otherwise – room to breathe and gives them a platform to tell their fascinating tales.

Whilst it may have been easy to mock some of the larger than life players (Scientologists, conspiracy theorists, et al), Ronson is non-judgmental in his role and lets the reader form their own opinions; although on occasion, with tongue firmly in cheek.

From the genocidal Toto Constant to the CEO who mercilessly destroyed the American company Sunbeam (and thereby an entire town), Ronson presents an intriguing array of characters.

Throughout, we follow the narrative of Tony, an inmate at Broadmoor, where we find that psychopaths are not a simple case of black and white; supposedly, psychopaths do dream in black and white.

Like Ronson, you get carried away when learning about the simplicity of the Bob Hare test and start to over-diagnose the disorder. In his case, A. A. Gill. In my case, a particularly frightening primary school teacher.

Hare is a frequent contributor throughout the book and although not psychopathic, his insights are invaluable. For a fee. He’s made a lot of money from psychopaths. You do question whether Hare is too unsympathetic, too prejudice against those who are diagnosed through his test: he appears to be more concerned with the identification rather than the cure (sadly, there does not seem to be one).

A chapter which struck a chord was ‘The Right Sort of Madness’: an analysis of how the media responds to mental health. It receives its name from Charlotte Scott, a former guest-booker at one of those daytime, Jeremy Kyle-esque programmes.

Ronson begins to wonder whether journalists have grasped that “sufferers of certain mental disorders make the most electrifying interviewees” and have devised our own Bob Hare test to identify them.

Charlotte confirms this. She recites her experience in developing her own Goldilocks Litmus test: not too mad, not too sane – just the right sort of madness.

As Ronson covers the potential psychopathy of Wall Street, it would have been interesting to see him explore whether it exists on Fleet Street – it feels like a missed opportunity.

The Psychopath Test is an entertaining and fascinating journey through madness, meeting eccentric characters with great tales to tell along the way. Ronson serves as an endearing curator of facts, anecdotes and wit.

He employs the right sort of madness and The Psychopath Test passes with flying colours.

The History Manifesto: “academically interesting yet problematic”

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“Historians of the world, unite! There is a world to win – before it’s too late!”

Somewhere in a dusty old library, an elderly gentleman has tutted at the unnecessary exclamatory sentence mood (A Level English there).

A Radio 4 listener has been rudely awoken by the sudden bastardisation of his beloved humanities.

A college tutor leaps with joy because someone has finally asked him: “So what do you really think about this?”

I don’t know about you but historians are usually the ones who report on the call to arms, not those who are commanding it. It was Pope Urban II who called for Christians to take the cross for the First Crusade, and ended up naked as they ran out of material to make the cruxes – so his garments was the second best thing. He was a central figure in Christendom, and the chroniclers were in the background snickering whilst they were scribbling down the events that occurred after the Council of Clermont.

When Anne Boleyn gave an impassioned speech to the crowd before her execution, a Tudor was trying to jot down the quote in the 16th Century version of shorthand.

Churchill’s infamous “We will fight them on the beaches” speech was by a politician, but broadcast by the modern day equivalent of a chronicler: a journalist.

Historians are the chroniclers, not the subject of the chronicles.

However, this is being tipped on its head by an Anglo-American collaboration, The History Manifesto. This new “special relationship” is a result of historians Jo Guldi and David Armitage. Together, they are calling historians to take on the mantel as economists, politicians, sociologists and journalists.

And therein lies the problem.

The arguments are eloquently constructed, their points are articulate and valid, and their expertise is undisputed. However, to politicise history is a slippery slope. History books, trusted accounts by trusted academics, can soon turn into propaganda; which is just another name for PR adopted by vested interests.

Armitage argues that by offering their expertise, historians can help resolve economic inequality and climate change issues. I, not for one moment, doubt his sincerity. Whilst ordinary folk see, historians observe. The selfless role of the observer is to present data and information for the reader to gather their own conclusions, not to make it for them already.

Armitage and Guldi are not radical in every hypothesis they present. They call for the return of “long-term narratives in historical scholarship” using the theory of longue durée – “going forward by looking back”, as they name their first chapter. They also use a quote from Winston Churchill: “The longer you can look back the further you can look forward”. They call him a mid-twentieth master of political power who was also a prolific historian. They fail to mention that Churchill was notorious for suppressing news publications during WW2, with some going out of print thanks to the Prime Minister’s efforts.

The History Manifesto laments on how society is haunted by “the spectre of the short term” – their unfortunate use of the noun conjures up the image of the villainous organisation from the James Bond films.

They are quite right, though.

They argue that the shortage in long-term thinking has resulted in disasters such as the 2008 Financial Crisis and Global Warming. Thought processes now operate in five-year cycles as a result of election cycles and five-year business plans. Gloomily, they add:

“No one, it seems, from bureaucrats to board members, or voters or recipients of international aid, can escape the ever-present threat of short-termism.”

Armitage and Guldi propose that historical narratives instead concentrate on decades and centuries rather than months and years to inform society on alternative futures.

For pub quiz and QI lovers, this is going to be a terrible shame. To adopt this macro-history approach, you will lose micro-history gems like the First King of Jersualem’s death was caused by falling from a balcony where a dwarf then attempted to him – both were killed.

Or during William the Conqueror’s funeral, his body had become so bloated in later life when they tried to close the lid on his coffin, the cadaver exploded.

The gist of The History Manifesto is that historians should take on a more responsible role in society. Armitage and Guldi provide an eloquent and informed argument, but historians need to carry as observers and not enactors. Their view on macro-history is respectable, but must be provided to the society to come up with their own conclusions.