Friday, 4 September 2015

No Bed for Bacon by Caryl Brahms and SJ Simon

Reviewer: Catriona Troth

What we thought: In 1941, at the height of the London Blitz, two immigrants – a Russian bridge player and a second-generation Turkish ballet critic – set out to write what would turn out to be one of the most quintessentially English comic novels ever written. The two were both fire wardens, and when they weren’t on duty together, they would leave each other cryptic notes in the watch’s log, to the puzzlement of their fellow wardens.

It may seem strange to review a book that was written almost three-quarters of a century ago. But this is a book I read and reread until the original Penguin paperback I found on my parents’ bookshelves fell apart in my hands, and only to start all over again when it was reprinted after the film, Shakespeare in Love, came out.

At its heart, No Bed for Bacon shares its story with Shakespeare in Love – a young noblewoman who falls in love with the theatre and disguises itself as a girl-boy-player. But while the film focuses on the love story between Shakespeare and Viola, Brahms and Simon give us the whole panoply of Elizabethan life. Like a Brueghel or a Where’s Wally picture, the story romps from one vignette to another. One moment, we’re in the thick of court intrigue, and the next we’re with the horse holders outside the theatre, or conspiring with rival theatre managers, or playing witness to the execution of Mary Queen of Scots.

Dipping in and out of original sources – from Philip Henslowe’s account book to first-hand descriptions of the burning of the Globe Theatre – the two authors play fast and loose with history, without ever quite departing from it. We are treated to a host of comic creations, from a vain Raleigh and a miserly Lord Burghley to a Francis Bacon who bears a suspicious resemblance to Malvolio. Along the way, the authors have a sly dig at those who theorise that Bacon was the real author of the plays.

My favourite passage is where the ageing Queen Elizabeth, surrounded by her old sea dogs on a royal barge that has run aground in the Thames, relives the defeat of the Armada. But there is so much to choose from. As the authors themselves say in their opening note, “This book is fundamentally unsound.” And all the better for it.

You'll enjoy this if you love: The Girl Who Saved the King of Sweden by Jonas Jonasson, The Eyre Affair by Jasper Fforde, Shakespeare in Love

Avoid if you dislike: Playing fast and loose with history, mocking Shakespeare

Perfect Accompaniment: A foaming mug of ale

Genre: Humour. Historical fiction, Historical absurdity

Available from Amazon

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