Magazine article The Spectator

Mad North-North-West

Magazine article The Spectator

Mad North-North-West

Article excerpt

LOSING NELSON

by Barry Unsworth

Hamish Hamilton, fl S.99, pp. 320

In fiction as in life, the insane can make tedious companions. Yet the story of a madman is on every ambitious writer's hit list, somewhere in the middle numbers, after the great love story and the man with demons. While the latter forms present infinite variation, there is usually something tired about the former. One can take only so many first-person accounts of lunacy. But Barry Unsworth has produced a version even the jaded will appreciate.

Charles Cleasby lives alone in a large London house, the contents of which he is only dimly familiar with - all save those of the basement which he maintains as a shrine to Admiral Nelson. There he painstakingly re-enacts his hero's victories in miniature on a blue-baize billiard table.

At some point in his past, Cleasby saved himself from a greater madness by the conceit of a lesser. He came to believe he was Nelson's shadow, his time-twin - angels, he fancies, needing their counterparts. He is one for whom another can be forgiven either everything or nothing, who is incapable of seeing another's qualities in any way but in aggregate. He sees Nelson's critics operating from the other side of that tilt to himself, conspiring to bring down a hero to the level of their own mediocrity.

The hinge is Nelson's nadir - his deliverance of the Neapolitan republicans to their executioners in 1799. Writing the hagiography he regards as definitive, Cleasby must clear his subject of the charges and rescue his own sanity in the process.

A man might think he is Napoleon yet scoff at ghosts or aliens - and be all the madder for his selective rationality. Unsworth's madman possesses the entertaining absurdity of a keen eye for madness in others, particularly in the worshippers of those who he deems lesser heroes. …

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