Who do they think they are?
Egopendium: can you contribute?
Photo: Jeffrey Archer, iraq-businessnews.com
Image: Sir John Harington, attributed to Hieronimo Custodis, NPG npg.org.uk
Photo: Archer punting, guardian.co.uk
Photo: Harington frontispiece, user.icx.net
1. We both started out as commoners and neither of us really earned our titles, did we?
I charged up an Irish hill on a fine piece of horseflesh flailing my personally purchased falchion while bog-hopping peasants with no more clothes than wits scattered before me. Bobby Devereux, Earl of Essex and Vice-regent of Ireland at the time, thought that worthy of a shoulder tapping. His Queen, Elizabeth, disagreed and would have stripped me of the knighthood if she hadn't been my Godmother. Jeffrey provided a lot of money to today's Conservative Party and, apparently, considerably less to some faraway Kurds. As he left the office of Prime Minister from which he had been comprehensively dumped, John Major thought a lordship for Jeffrey was a tiny but nice way of getting his own back on the country. A lot of Englishmen have been trying to undo that deed ever since. For reasons that are mystifying but don't include Godparenting, they haven't yet succeeded. OK, editor, small connection acknowledged there.
2. Connections are another connection, I suppose.
Our titles might not have proved our worth but they are evidence that we were both well connected. To do the man justice, his connectivity is a lot more remarkable than mine. I was from a branch of the Haringtons whose senior members had a royal bloodline to the Bolingbrokes via a bastard or two. I was married to a Rogers which meant that my wife and I were related to over half the nobility of England. On top of that, as I've mentioned, the Queen was my Godparent and I was her favourite Godson. I must have had one of the fattest address books in Tudor England.
Archer has a modern equivalent. It's nothing to do with genealogy though. All he had was a mother who fed him ambition and bravado for breakfast, lunch and dinner. By his twenties the man was on first name terms with the President of the United States. Which is the equivalent of me being able to drop in unannounced on Philip II of Spain, which I can assure you I wasn't. While noting that a good telephone manner can now get you as far as a carriage load of noble relations, I have to accept we are inconsequentially similar in knowing all the right people.
3. Of more consequence are our wives.
My Mall (Mary to my viperous mother-in-law) was one of the best known wives in England under the first Elizabeth. I wrote about her a great deal. Sometimes in poems but mainly in epigrams (think of them as an early type of Tweet). My words were very popular and passed from courtier all the way down to serving wench. They seemed to know her so well that not many people could understand why Mall put up with me. I imagine you've seen where this is flowing. Mary Harington. Mary Archer. How on earth did we stay married to our famous wives?
I opt for personal magnetism as my explanation and personal wealth as Jeffrey's. I know that's facile and arrogant. Magnetism didn't keep Mall under my influence. I stayed married to her partly because I stayed at home more than most other court rats, which cut down on the philandering opportunities. I didn't closet myself willingly, I just had a habit of getting myself banished from court. Since my wife regarded court as about as attractive a habitat as a malarial swamp, this upset her not a jot. Wealth came into it too, because I spent a lot of money on our manor in Kelston and on entertaining people there. Borrowed money, I painfully admit.
Lack of banishment doesn't explain why Archer is more of a philanderer than I even dreamed of being nor why his wife seems unaffected by it. If I'd wandered as blatantly as he has, I would soon have had no cods to put in my piece. In the same perplexing vein, Jeffrey throws a party as well as Leicester did in my day but Mary doesn't even seem to mind when she's not asked to them. There's no denying Jeffrey has kept Mary in the style which she believes her due by making not borrowing money. It must be lordly living that has made both women stand by their man. A more concise explanation for their unfathomable behaviour might be that they are women.
4. I accept that there's the prison parallel.
That should make me feel some affinity with the man. The Crown committed him to Belmarsh, Wayland, Lincoln and Hollesley Bay prisons which should at least equal the few weeks I spent in the Gatehouse. I won't overemphasise the difference between prison conditions under Elizabeths I and II but I will point out that bubonic plague was not a major risk factor wherever Archer was incarcerated. Moreover I was goaled for not being able to fulfil a debt of honour which is not the same as being an outright liar.
5. Now to the nub of the issue.
The editor is of the opinion that, in our respective times, we both stand for the same thing - shit in writing. It amuses him to think that I am best equipped to pass judgment on what is laughingly called Archer's oeuvre. I would like to examine why the editor feels able to put us in the same basket. Most famous writer in the late sixteenth century? Arguably me. Most famous writer in the late nineteenth century? Arguably Archer. That much, I acknowledge. You may never have heard of me and, as I said at the beginning, my reputation has dwindled compared with some of my contemporaries. Nevertheless, I only went out of print in 1967. Presses have been charged by my words for almost 400 years. I doubt that Jeffrey's books will have generations of followers. Do you, honestly?
Given how long my works were in print, what is behind the editor's jovially vicious assertion that we are both shit writers? Actually, he didn't use the word 'shit', he said 'crap'. I agree that I could be called a shit writer. But Archer's crap, no question. And there's a world of difference. No one ever called my efforts crap because my Tudor fellows didn't know the word. It's extremely painful to me that the word was invented - and the editor knows it. The world didn't need the word. Why would anyone want to go for a crap when they could have had a harry? I've lost you, I know. Thomas Crapper didn't invent the flush toilet, he only sold it. I invented the Harington water closet, the basic design Crapper used, three hundred years before he even had a tinkle. I also wrote a book about my sanitary breakthrough and it was the publishing sensation of 1596. It made far more noise than 'Not a penny more' or 'Kane and Abel' did centuries later. There the similarities end. Archer's books are a pile of crap. My 'Metamorphosis of Ajax' was full of shit but only because I was being metaphorical. I was criticising the state of Elizabethan society and suggesting that it needed cleansing. Not in so many words because that would have got me HDQed. I used words with several syllables in them, of which Archer is not capable, only to befog my meaning. The Queen and Burleigh would have stretched my neck if they'd really understood what I was on about. In consequence and in spite of my 'Orlando Furioso' and my many witty manuscripts, my reputation is garlanded only with ordure. Now you want me to compare myself with Lord Archer of Weston-super-mare?
Alright, then. He's not fit to wipe my bottom.
Sir John Harington’s opinion was interpreted by Will Coe, Feb 2011
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When the editor of Egopendium asked me to do a small piece on Jeffrey Archer, I resisted the impulse to show offence. No bones about it, offence was taken. 'Sir John Harington critiques Sir Salman Rushdie' would have been my preference. Banks, Barnes, Kureishi or McEwan would have been acceptably English and living authors too. However, if a dead man can be a realist, then I'm as three dimensional as they come. So, in my dusty heart I accepted that, of my contemporaries, Jonson, Sidney or Shagspere were more likely to have got those gigs, to use the modern idiom. My star has waned while theirs are ever more burnished. 'You need the publicity, old soul,' I told myself as I enquired about the perceived connection between myself and Archer. 'Crap' was the editor's succinct and hurtful reply. Quickly followed by, 'But make sure you explain who you are first'. Detumescing you call that in the penile profile stakes.
Right, a little bit of setting up then. Believe it or not, in my day my writings were more celebrated than Ben's or Will's. I knew everyone of importance intimately. And, yes, I wittingly associated myself with natural functions. Could any of the same be said of Archer, four centuries later? Even though blinded a little by my own ego (I am nothing if not self-aware these days), I can see parallels. Tendency to be blinded by ego being an obvious one. Let's walk around some of the others, leaving the writing parallel to last.