You may remember we greatly enjoyed Christopher Wilson’s last book, The Zoo, which read like a distant twin of Armando Ianucci’s Death of Stalin (each very much have their strengths and a great many things to recommend them, but we suspect that Ianucci garnered more in the way of column inches, which is something of a shame as Wilson feels currently to us like a great under-rated talent). Wilson’s latest feels like a sort of nodding acquaintance of Nobber, in that each book is set in ye olde worlde England, the difference on this occasion being that – where Nobber beats like the blackest of cancerous hearts – Hurdy Gurdy is arch and wry and, on occasion, sweet in its well-intentioned naivety.
Brother Diggory is a sixteen year old novice friar in the Order of St Odo in the year of our Lord 1349 when we first meet him. He knows some things (Latin, alchemy, contemporary medicine a la Galen and the four humours) and is ignorant of others (particularly women, who dog his night time hours, according to one of the older monks, in the form of a succubus). Nominated to look after those blighted by Bubonic plague, it isn’t long before the entire Order of St Odo is struck down and Diggory, cast out into the world on an adventure of his own making, becomes our tour guide through a country beset by a terrible illness (at which point – cue: your ears picking up: is this a contemporary satire of what life is like currently for all of us in the midst of the coronavirus? In the words of Scatman Crothers as he extold the virtues of Penry at the beginning of Hong Kong Phooey: Could be!)
“And may Lucifer, with his infernal demons, make a feet-ball of my bonce, a wine-gourd of my bladder, a purse of my scrotum, then pluck my eye-balls for ink wells, stretch my guts for bow-strings, fry my liver for break-fast, and griddle my guts for all time, if a word of this sorry history turns out to be a lie.”
The first thing to know about Hurdy Gurdy is that it is funny. To quote from another cultural source, you can imagine Christopher Wilson sitting across from Joe Pesci in Goodfellas and having Joe Pesci say to him, “Hey, you’re a funny guy!” Wilson is a funny guy. He has a sinewy way with language that feels both lascivious and ticklish. You’ll enjoy coming back to this book. It’s pleasure in its rawest form. Diggory is Quixote-like, by which we mean to say you’ll like him and dislike him by the book’s close in equal measure (and Wilson is adept in manipulating us to the extent that when we hear Diggory say things that rile us, it hurts all the harder because there are times when we like him, when his cloth-eared ineptitude (dismissing the words of a wise woman, for instance, who almost instantly sees the cause of the plague despite spending her days walled up in a chamber) is endearing, just as, when he is quick to dismiss the plight of his wives you can’t help but realise, ah Diggory, but you’re a dick after all.
As you’d expert from a writer who wields his pen like a sword, there is eye-watering satire here (I particularly enjoyed the one-eyed man leading a conga-line of blilnd people, each of whom have removed their eyes at the one-eyed man’s suggestion all the better not to see the plague, which will therefore protect them from it – remind you of anyone? Crowds of people, perchance, given to complaining about the lockdown and the mythical hoax coronavirus?). “Stop, Stop,” the one-eyed man yells as Diggory makes good on his getaway, “I can save you… Give them up. Give me your eyes… Or they’ll be the death of you…” Wilson’s satire even reaches upwards towards what tends to happen in the wake of world-shattering events, particularly when you are led by crooked incompetents and corrupt clowns given to, I don’t know, spaffing £22bn up a wall in order to fashion a test and trace system that doesn’t work.
“Everywhere the pestilence has broken things apart, churning the whole into shattered shards, and strewing the wreckage in its wake.
The old order is lost. Custom is torn apart. So many are dead. Everyone’s lost someone close. We are all mourning now.”
“Authority is shamed. The King cannot command the plague. The clergy cannot explain it. The doctors cannot cure it. Arms cannot repel its attack.
The law is lost. Robbery is rife. Thieves and thugs go unpunished. Rogues rule the roads.”
Ah, ye olde world, eh? Thank goodness we’ve made a little progress since 1349 eh? Ahem.
Perhaps the best trick up Hurdy Gurdy‘s sleeve, however, is that it has made us sit up and pay attention. We liked The Zoo in an almost Ariane Grande sort of way (thank you / next). Now that we like Hurdy Gurdy, we are forced to re-evaluate. This Christopher Wilson is not just someone who can fashion a book that we like. He is someone who can fashion books that we like. Plural. We did something with Hurdy Gurdy that we did not do with The Zoo: we checked out the by the same author page: and lo, there are eight other books that have completely passed us by that we suspect we will like a great deal.
Any Cop?: Whatever else 2021 has in store for us, I at least plan to remedy the current shortfall in my Christopher Wilson knowledge. We’d recommend you do the same, starting with the magnificent Hurdy Gurdy.