Friday, 6 September 2013

Seeking Mr Hare

Seeking Mr Hare - Maurice Leitch

This is the third Leitch novel that I've reviewed on this blog and I aim to make it through his life's work, which currently stands at ten novels. I was very pleasantly surprised to find a review copy of this just released novel on the shelves of a charity shop in Dublin. The three I've read suggests that the novels add up to a portrait of Belfast and the surrounding countryside through different strata of time. The first one I read The Eggman's Apprentice is set pre-troubles and the second Silver's City is set at a time when the 'Troubles' were in full flow.

This digs down a few more years to the 1820's but already there are many pointers to the situation that pertained in more recent times, and still does.

Propaganda identifying the Irish as a sub-race was already there. Defining the enemy as different and in some way sub-human was of first importance. It still is. However, phrenology has had its day other than providing colour to mantelpieces. "What you see before you is a typical example of the Celtic sub-race. Ireland, indeed, has the largest head size of any equal land area in Europe, the cranial vault low and domed, nose long, large and high bridged, the lips thin to medium and  a little everted, skin colour pale white, sometimes ruddy, often freckled, hair dark brown, or medium brown, red, rarely black."

The Mr Hare of the title is one half of Burke and Hare, the infamous resurrectionists, who procured dead bodies for Edinburgh surgeons. Hare escaped the gallows and was freed as part of a deal with the prosecutors. His life after his release into anonymity is a blank slate, an invitation to a novelist. The story is mostly told from Hare's point of view and from that of Mr Percy Speed, a retired policeman who is acting for Lord Beckford, a gentleman with an interest in the criminal mind, and objects associated with crime and criminals.

From the off I felt there was something of a fable about this. The names Hare and Speed sound more fabulist than realist for starters and there is also a sense of fable in the spare, sinewy prose in which the story is told. There is sense that a big part of the reason this book was written lies outside the reconstruction of Hare's history and in the reconstruction of the world in which he lived. The story of the relationship between the peoples of Britain and Ireland, and the divisions social, political, religious and geographic goes through the book like the name of a seaside town in a stick of rock.

Here is a quote from earlier on in the book, as Hare flees people who have recognised him and goes south into England. "I made my way south towards England, having understood that country to be more prosperous than the one I'd left. But when I crossed over I was sorely disappointed, for everything appeared much the same, mile upon mile of desolate moorland, and any houses to be seen not so different from the one I'd been brought up in, sharing quarters with the cows and with a dung heap in the yard halfway to the thatch."  When he leaves England Hare looks back towards it, thinking it "was in our blood like an affliction still not cured."

Hare remembers his Fenian youth: "I joined the Whiteboys, so named on account of the bedsheets we put on, burning and destroying the landlord's property, as well as maiming their animals.." Was this a preparation for his later career? There is a sense that Hare is a reflection of the world he lives in, a world that is patently unfair and quite obsessed with horror and crime. His pursuer, Mr Speed comments on a member of the landlord class in such a way that it appears he too is well aware of the fact that they benefit from a very unfair system - "like all these landed folk, despite their Irish titles, he spends near half the year at a conspicuously grand address in Mayfair."

Lord Beckford, Percy Speed's employer, considers his fascination with criminals as an academic one. In a letter to Speed he tells us that this interest goes back to his college days: "while at Oxford University, Viscount Massareene and I in our own juvenile fashion experimented on some local felons made available to us, achieving some interesting results with, first, nitrous oxide, or laughing gas, as it's crudely known, and later, electrical shocks applied to those parts of the brain which  govern behaviour." You sense that the poor are little more than playthings to these men.

The job of identifying which side strangers are on is one familiar in the North to this day. Names and addresses often form part of a system of signs which most are practiced at reading: e.g. "by his name I could tell he was a 'left-footer', a term, so I'm given to understand, derived from a type of spade used in the digging of turf."

At one point Hare and a female companion come across a circus and it seems like an apparition, the circus folk speaking a language that they don't recognise. "The girl appeared near as surprised as myself, but with more of a childlike amazement, as though coming upon something dropped from the heavens as in a storybook, the strange voices making it even more of a wonder." The circus has elements of a freak show and shows something of the naiveté of the people of the time, being "a collection of human oddities, Polly O'Grady, the Fat Irish Child, John Chambers, the Armless Carpenter, Eliza Jenkins, the Human Skeleton, the Yorkshire Giant, Leonine, the Lion-Faced Lady, Hairy Mary from Borneo, who was really a monkey."

The circus is paralleled in the sermons and masses held by a preacher in Belfast who claims to be able to heal people. The Belfast pictured seems full of churches, and money. It is a prosperous city, at least for some. "I doubt if there is another part of this island kingdom of ours that can aspire to the progress made here since it first sprang from a mere cluster of huts at the mouth of what was little more than a muddy fording place. And the folk who have made their fortunes on the back of this transformation seem mighty pleased with their own elevation, proudly proclaiming their city to be a veritable Athens of the north, although I have not seen much sign of refinement in the arts, or pursuits of a similar nature.."

A supporting actor is Thomas De Quincey, author of On Murder Considered as one of the Fine Arts as well as well as the more celebrated Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. He brings a more cynical viewpoint to bear on events, including a humorous aside: "Once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing, and from robbing he comes to drinking to Sabbath breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination. Once begun upon this downward path, you never know where to stop. Many a man has dated his ruin from some murder or other that perhaps he thought little of at the time." All in all, this was a quick, easy, often humourous read which I enjoyed thoroughly. I look forward to reading more of Leitch's work.

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