Barry Unsworth returns to the terrain of his Booker Prize-winning novel Sacred Hunger, this time following Sullivan, the Irish fiddler, and Erasmus Kemp, son of a Liverpool slave ship owner who hanged himself. It is the spring of 1767, and to avenge his father's death, Erasmus Kemp has had the rebellious sailors of his father's ship, including Sullivan, brought back to London to stand trial on charges of mutiny and piracy. But as the novel opens, a blithe Sullivan has escaped and is making his way on foot to the north of England, stealing as he goes and sleeping where he can.
His destination is Thorpe in the East Durham coalfields, where his dead shipmate, Billy Blair, lived: he has pledged to tell the family how Billy met his end.
In this village, Billy's sister, Nan, and her miner husband, James Bordon, live with their three sons, all destined to follow their father down the pit. The youngest, only seven, is enjoying his last summer aboveground.
Meanwhile, in London, a passionate anti-slavery campaigner, Frederick Ashton, gets involved in a second case relating to the lost ship. Erasmus Kemp wants compensation for the cargo of sick slaves who were thrown overboard to drown, and Ashton is representing the insurers who dispute his claim. Despite their polarized views on slavery, Ashton's beautiful sister, Jane, encounters Erasmus Kemp and finds herself powerfully attracted to him.
Lord Spenton, who owns coal mines in East-Durham, has extravagant habits and is pressed for money. When he applies to the Kemp merchant bank for a loan, Erasmus sees a business opportunity of the kind he has long been hoping for, a way of gaining entry into Britain's rapidly developing and highly profitable coal and steel industries.
Thus he too makes his way north, to the very same village that Sullivan is heading for . . .
With historical sweep and deep pathos, Unsworth explores the struggles of the powerless and the captive against the rich and the powerful, and what weight mercy may throw on the scales of justice.
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January 10, 2012
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Excerpt from The Quality of Mercy by Barry Unsworth
On finding himself thus accidentally free, Sullivan's only thought was to get as far as he could from Newgate Prison while it was still dark. Fiddle and bow slung over his shoulder, he set off northward, keeping the river at his back. In Holborn he lost an hour, wandering in a maze of courts. Then an old washerwoman, waiting outside a door in the first light of day, set him right for Gray's Inn Lane and the northern outskirts of the city.
Once sure of his way, he felt his spirits rise and he stepped out eagerly enough. Not that he had much, on the face of things, to be blithe about. These last days of March were bitterly cold and he had no coat, only the thin shirt and sleeveless waistcoat and cotton trousers issued to him on the ship returning from Florida. His shoes had been made for a man with feet of a different caliber; on him they contrived to be too loose at the heel and too tight across the toes. The weeks of prison food had weakened him. He was a fugitive, he was penniless, he was assailed by periodic shudders in this rawness of the early morning.
All the same, Sullivan counted his blessings as he walked along. He had his health still; there was nothing amiss with him that a bite to eat wouldn't put right. He would find shelter in Durham if he could get there. And there was a grace on him, he had been singled out. It was not given to many just to stroll out of prison like that. Strolling through the gates . . . His teeth chattered. "Without so much as a kiss-my-arse," he said aloud. In Florida he had developed a habit of talking to himself, as had most of the people of the settlement. No, he thought, it was a stroke of luck beyond the mortal, the Blessed Virgin had opened the gates to him. A sixpenny candle if I get through this. Best tallow . . . He thought of the holy flame of it and tried in his mind to make the flame warm him.
He did not think of the future otherwise, except as a hope of survival. There was an element missing from his nature that all wise persons are agreed is essential for the successful self-governance of the individual within society, and that is the ability to make provision, to plan ahead. This, however, is the doctrine of the privileged. The destitute and dispossessed are lucky if they can turn their thoughts from a future unlikely to offer them benefit. Sullivan knew in some part of his mind that evading recapture would put him at risk of death in this weather, with no money and no refuge. But he was at large, he was on the move, the threat of the noose was not so close. It was enough.
An hour's walking brought him to the rural edges of London, among the market gardens and brick kilns north of Gray's Inn Fields. And it was now that he had his second great stroke of luck. As he was making his way through narrow lanes with occasional low shacks on either side where the smallholders and cow keepers slept during the summer months, at a sudden turning he came upon a man lying full length on his back across the road.
He stopped at some paces off. It was a blind bend, and an early cart could come round it at any moment. "This is not the place to stretch out," he said. "You will get your limbs destroyed." But he did not go nearer for the moment, because he had remembered a trick like that: you bend over in emulation of the Good Samaritan, and you get a crack on the head. "I am not worth robbin'," he said.
A half-choked breath was the only answer. The man's face had a purplish, mottled look; his mouth hung open and his eyes were closed. Across the space of freezing air between them an effluvium of rum punch came to Sullivan's nostrils. "I see well that you have been overtook by drink," he said. "The air is dancin' with the breath of it over your head. We will have to shift you off the road."
He took the man under the armpits and half lifted, half dragged him round so that he was lying along the bank side, out of the way of the wheel ruts. While this was taking place, the man grunted twice, uttered some sounds of startlement and made a deep snoring noise. His body was heavy and inert, quite helpless either to assist or obstruct the process of his realignment.
"Well, my friend," Sullivan said, "you have taken a good tubful, you have." The exertion had warmed him a little. He hesitated for a moment, then laid bow and fiddle against the bank side and sat down close to the recumbent man. From this vantage point he looked around him. A thin plume of smoke was rising from somewhere among the frosted fields beyond the shacks. There was no other sign of life anywhere, no human stirring. A faint sun swam among low clouds; there was no warmth in it, but the touch was enough to wake a bird to singing somewhere--he could hear it but not see it. "There is stories everywhere, but we often get only the middle parts," he said. The man was well dressed, in worsted trousers, stout leggings and boots and a square-cut, bottle-green coat with brass buttons. "Those are fine buttons," Sullivan said. "I wonder if you could make me iver a loan now? I am hard-pressed just at present, speakin' frankly, man to man."
The man made no answer to this, but when Sullivan began to go through his pockets, he sighed and choked a little and made a motion with his left arm as if warding off some incubus. His purse contained eighteen shillings and ninepence--Sullivan had to count the money twice before he could believe it. Eight weeks' pay aboard ship! He extracted coins to the value of nine shillings and returned the purse to its pocket. "I leave you the greater half," he said.
Again, at this intimacy of touch, the man stirred, and this time his eyes opened briefly. They were bloodshot and vague and sad. He had lost his hat in the fall; it lay on the road beyond him. His goat's-hair wig had slipped sideways; it glistened with wet, and the sparse, gingerish wisps of his own hair curled out damply below it.
"I have nothin' to write with an' neither have you," Sullivan said, "an' we have niver a scrap of paper between us, or I would leave you a note of hand for the money." He had never learned to write, but knew this for the proper form. "Or yet again," he said, "if you were in a more volatile state you could furnish me with your place of residence. As things are, we will just have to leave it unsatisfactory."
The man's face had returned to sleep. Sullivan nodded at it in valediction and set off again along the lane. He had not gone far, however, when it came to him that he had been the savior of this man and that nine shillings was hardly an adequate reward for such a service. To rate a man's life at only nine shillings was offensive and belittling to that man. Any human creature possessed of a minimum of self-respect would set a higher value on himself than that. Even he, Sullivan, who had no fixed abode and no coat to his back, would consider nine shillings too little. If this man's faculties were not so much ravaged and under the weather, he would be bound to agree that eighteen shillings met the case better.