Book Review: The Hardy Tree, A Story About Gang Mentality – Iphgenia Baal


(Trolley Books) £14.99

Reviewed by Delisia Howard and Chris Price

We really like this book… It’s a wild and poetic history which, while hanging on by white knuckles to the facts, stirs up a dark potion rushing through the stygian channels of London – the ragamuffin gangs of ne’er-do-wells and resurrection men, Coney catchers and bawdy bastards. The book itself, beautifully produced, is stained by a ‘dish o’ tay’ thrown in the mists of time, seeping into the type like unconscious memory. There are also very nice pictures, well-spaced and by human hand.

Baal touches the dead hand of Hardy as a young man working for the railway as an engineer, moving the rotting dead cadavers from the St Pancras bone yard, with the help of Jerry Cruncher look-alikes and gin and porter soaked navigators, and the gilded dustman admires his seething heaps against the fire of a Mad Martin sunset. Magically their stones are girt around a huge tree like a ruff on a Danish Lutheran proclaiming the Day of Wrath.

Hardy’s dark world – the whispering Egdon Heath, the hanged children in Jude, his miskatonick Fates weaving their cold logic as it guides lost souls to destruction from Casterbridge to Christminster – this book explains it all.

When St Augustine preached from old St Pancras Church, the Angles had already been identified as angels in their chains, with golden hair and milk white skin… The pale kings and princes too stalk this marvelous place… All England stretched out on a once rural hillock…  Here lay Bristol’s Marvelous Boy, Chatterton, leaping out of a sarcophagus months before expiring in that lonely attic in Brooke’s Market, Holborn, a small blue vial and a fragment of forged Saxon verse falling from his 17 year old hand…   Here reigns, in his Portland stone telephone box, Sir John Soane, dreaming of a London in ruins, the ragged manacled gates of Newgate opened at last… Blake and Fuseli chatting to Augustine’s angels and Charles Dickens summoning up the marsh gas as it rises above the image of a man with a spade…

Iphgenia Baal has created a spectacular panorama, a thrilling breath of fresh air, crackling with life, as well crafted as a Flaxman bas-relief, even if it is about the lives of the dead…

Read Delisia Howard and Chris Price’s regular column in the print edition of Plectrum – The Cultural Pick.

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