England’s Wet Wildernesses

In Beowulf, the great Anglo-Saxon epic, the monster Grendel stalks Heorot, Hrothgar’s hall, from his lair in the fens. In the most characteristic tale of England’s past – though set in Denmark it is England’s story – the monster comes from the marsh. The poem itself was likely composed in the kingdom of East Anglia, whose greatest king, Rædwald, was probably interred in the ship mound of Sutton Hoo, and the East Angles knew well the dangers and glamours of marsh and sea.

Wicken Fen

Think on the map of Britain. There’s probably no outline better known to us today, but it’s a modern creation. Britain, and more specifically England, used to cut a very different profile. The distinction between land and water was not nearly so clear, with vast areas occupying a liminal position between the two, sometimes dry, sometimes wet, according to tide and flood. Great bites into England’s body were made twice a day by the tide, seeping in to the salt marshes and bogs that covered the Fens, pushing the River Thames to half a kilometre wide in the London area, running upstream through Romney Marsh to Bodiam Castle in East Sussex. Names bear witness to this past, with areas, often far inland, being called islands and only habitual use deadening us to the strangeness of the title: the Isle of Thanet at Kent’s south-eastern edge, the Isle of Axholme in Lincolnshire, the Isle of Ely in Cambridgeshire.

Wicken Fen

Perhaps nowhere is the strangeness of this historic landscape more marked than on the Isle of Thanet. Now firmly part of the mainland, the Wantsum Channel, a tidal watercourse fed by the River Stour, separated the isle from Kent. As the most easterly part of Kent, and with the security of the Wantsum Channel, the Isle of Thanet was the perfect stepping stone for invaders, and they employed it, again and again and again. First, the Romans – Julius Caesar used it as a base in his abortive invasions of 55 and 54 BC – then the Anglo-Saxons, with the legendary Hengist and Horsa being given the isle and liking it so much they decided they wanted the rest of the country too – and, finally, the Vikings: the Wantsum Channel provided safe harbour from fierce Channel storms, and the Northmen first experimented with overwintering in a secure base on the isle before using the tactic to conquer most of England. But the Wantsum Channel, once two miles wide, slowly silted up, although Thanet is still clearly shown as an island in maps into the 15th century. But the slow deposition of silt and the indefatigable drainage work of Augustinian monks sealed the island’s fate, and the last ferry sailed across the narrow strait in 1755. The Isle of Thanet was an island in name only and the Wantsum Channel a drainage ditch: an ignoble end for a piece of history.

The Isle of Thanet’s fate encapsulates much of the difficulties faced by England’s wetland wildernesses. They’re mainly on the east, and when boats were more reliable forms of transport than roads, they became highways for traders and raiders. New ideas and technologies spread easily from the Low Countries to the Low Counties, with Dutch engineers imported in the 17th and 18th centuries to lead the push to drain the flatlands. They were still too wild and too dangerous to be allowed to continue, wet worlds where Parliament’s writ held no sway.

Charles Kingsley saw their end:

A certain sadness is pardonable to one who watches the destruction of a grand natural phenomenon, even though its destruction bring blessings to the human race. Reason and conscience tell us, that it is right and good that the Great Fen should have become, instead of a waste and howling wilderness, a garden of the Lord, where

‘All the land in flowery squares,
Beneath a broad and equal-blowing wind,
Smells of the coming summer.’

And yet the fancy may linger, without blame, over the shining meres, the golden reed-beds, the countless water-fowl, the strange and gaudy insects, the wild nature, the mystery, the majesty–for mystery and majesty there were–which haunted the deep fens for many a hundred years.

Book review: The Sea Kingdoms by Alistair Moffat

The Sea Kingdoms

This is the third book by Alistair Moffat that I’ve read and, as you’d guess given the fact that I’ve kept reading him, I’ve enjoyed them all. The Sea Kingdoms is an attempt at a history of Celtic Britain and Ireland but, by the nature of the subject and the sources, it’s more a series of impressions and snapshots: places, events, people, all serving to illuminate some aspect of the other history of these islands, the history that has never been written but has been sung, recited, felt.

It’s as much a geography as a history, or a story of how the two interweave in the language and culture of a people acutely aware of the beauty and awe of their land. But, being united by the sea, the sea has also washed much away, leaving traces in the sand but only impressions where there was once much more. It’s unlikely that even the best efforts of archaeologists will retrieve too much else, and the history of the Celts, like the people, is bathed in the westering sun setting in the circle sea.

Lucky Seven book excerpt

Matthew Harffy tagged me last Monday to do this book challenge called Lucky Seven. Here’s his Lucky Seven post from last week.

The rules are simple enough.

Go to page 7 or 77 in your current manuscript
Go to line 7
Post on your blog the next 7 lines or sentences – as they are!!
Tag 7 other people to do the same

I’ve not had the chance to tag seven other people, and I don’t think I actually know seven other writers, so I’ll let the challenge come to a discreet stop here.

In Search of Alfred the Great
In Search of Alfred the Great

My latest book is In Search of Alfred the Great: the King, the Grave, the Legend, with Dr Katie Tucker; a non-fiction biography of our greatest king. Here’s the seven lines:

Of all the battles Alfred fought, we have the most information about the Battle of Ashdown, which suggests that it loomed large in the king’s own memories. Alfred was still young, in his early twenties, and Ashdown was remarkable in a number of ways: for its victory (and Anglo-Saxon victories were rare indeed at this time), for it being the first time where Alfred clearly takes command and plays a crucial role in the battle, and for the toll it took on the high command of the Great Heathen Army.

Book review: Under Another Sky by Charlotte Higgins

A lovely, but slightly strange book. Higgins writes of her journies around Britain, in a rather asthmatic VW camper van, in search of the traces of Roman Britain. She writes of the places she visits with a journalist’s gift for telling detail and a botanist’s delight in plants, and sprinkles the text with fascinating anecdotes about the antiquaries of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries who first went looking for Roman remains in Britain, as well as the archaeologists who followed them in the 20th century. But, at the end of the book, Higgins remains as elusive as, well, Roman Britain itself. I’ve got very little idea about her, of what she’s like – this may be intentional of course – and the four centuries of Roman rule also seem to dissolve away under close inspection. They’re obviously not so inaccessible as the centuries that precede or follow them, but where the rest of Empire is illuminated by contemporary writings, Britain seems oddly silent, as if still existing in the mists of Oceanus. The letters discovered at Vindolanda go some way to rectifying that, but they are fragments, frustrating; imagine trying to recreate 21st-century society from a random collection of tweets for a flavour. A fine book, nevertheless, that suggests its subject as well as exploring it.

Book review: The Blood of Gods by Conn Iggulden

The Blood of Gods
The Blood of Gods

Hugely enjoyable fictional recreation of the turbulent, traumatic period after Julius Caesar’s assassination. Iggulden is particularly good at showing how all the main protagonists believed, honestly, that they were acting honourably and for the good of Rome. A peculiarity of my reading is the extraordinarily long memory shadow cast by watching I, Claudius on TV in the seventies – it’s all but impossible for me to read about Augustus (Octavian in his youth) without seeing Brian Blessed.

In the excellent short story included at the end of the book, with Augustus at the end of his life fretting over who should rule the Empire after him, Livia was, inevitably, Sian Philips and Tiberius was George Baker. Still, they are fine shadows to have cast over a story!

Our Lady of Mercé

First written for Time Out Barcelona Guide.

Our Lady of Mercé
Our Lady of Mercé

You’d have thought that being mother to God would take up all of your time, but you’d be wrong. In fact, as with her Son, not even death has been able to put a stop to the activities of the young woman from Nazareth, and on 1 August 1218 Mary appeared in a vision to a young Catalan named Peter Nolasco, instructing him on how to continue his work of redeeming captives. During the seven-and-a-half centuries of conflict between Christian and Muslim Spain a common feature was the taking of captives for ransom. Now this was all very well if you were a member of the nobility and had someone to pay for your release, but many Christians from poor families were also captured in the general trawling for profit and plunder that took place during a gaza (a religiously sanctioned raid into the dar ul harb or house of war, that part of the world that had not accepted Islam). To be captured during a gaza was by definition to become a slave, a state which could be escaped only by conversion to Islam (which many prisoners did) or redemption. It was this work of buying out of slavery the ‘poor of Christ’ that Peter Nolasco embarked upon, helped by his background as a merchant. In fact, Nolasco switched from buying goods to buying people, but all his efforts seemed only to swell the number of captives held in Muslim hands.

It was at this point that he received his vision of the Blessed Virgin, who advised him to form an order dedicated to the redemption of captives. The next day Nolasco sought an audience with the king, Jaume I, who received him well and agreed to help in the foundation of the Order of the Virgin Mary of Mercy of the Redemption of Captives (or Mercedarians as they are called). The order set up a redemption fund to buy back captives but, if all else failed, each member of the order took personal vows to hand himself over in place of a prisoner. The best estimate we have is that the order brought 11,615 slaves out of captivity between 1218 and 1301.

If that wasn’t enough, Our Lady of Mercy delivered the whole city of Barcelona from a plague of locusts in 1637. A grateful city adopted her as patron and celebrated her feast on 24 September, or at least it did until Franco clamped down on all things Catalan. But sometimes things suppressed simply wait for an opportunity to burst forth, and that’s precisely what happened with the Festes de la Mercé. What had been a simple religious feast turned into a week-long celebration of Catalan identity, all inextricably bound up with a long-dead Jewish girl. But then, what else would we expect of her?

Book review: Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England by Richard Abels

Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England
Lordship and Military Obligation in Anglo-Saxon England

A clear and thorough examination of, well, lordship and military obligation in Anglo-Saxon England. Abels is particularly good on the changes brought about by the rise of bookland, that is, land that was given by hereditary right, first to the Church and then to the king’s retainers, and way the kings of Mercia and then Wessex responded by redefining the three common burdens of service, fortifications, bridge maintenance and military service, into the Alfredian system of burhs with garrisons and a standing, mobile army.

An extra commendation for this book having the longest section of footnotes I’ve ever encountered; the text runs from page 1 to 187, the footnotes from 204 to 282! Add in the other appendices, bibliography and index, and there’s an additional 126 pages of text. That’s what I call a proper academic book! But Abels writes well too, so don’t be put off if you’re interested in this, rather specialised, subject.

Book review: Godric by Frederick Buechner

Godric by Frederick Buechner
Godric by Frederick Buechner

I very rarely give a book five stars; Godric deserves it. This short book contains some of the most intensely poetic language I’ve ever read in a novel, but it’s poetry used in service of the story, never in the flashy, look-at-me manner that disfigures self-consciously clever novels. Buechner evokes, mimics and recreates the language and rhythms of the medieval period without ever sacrificing readibility. The protatgonist, St Godric, tells his story from beginning to end, and end to beginning, each telling coming to a natural, beautifully wrought conclusion at the climax of the book. Godric is a saint, but no plaster statue; rather, he is a cantankerous, decrepit old man, alive with fire.

The novel succeeds in bringing to life a man and a spirituality that is almost completely out of step with modern sensibilities: Godric is intensely ascetic, practises mortifications of the flesh including walking barefoot for half a century, immersion in bone-cold water, physical chastisement – all the things we find most incomprehensible nowadays – and yet Buechner makes it all completely natural and matter of fact. Of course Godric would do this. He almost makes me want to do it too, to waken the tepid embers of my own faith. After all, his privations are such small things in comparison to what he sees. This is a world of miracles, but the miraculous is everyday and thus as precious and simple as a new-born’s cry or the first spring flush. In some ways it is impossible to enter into another era, but with Godric, Frederick Buechner has come as close as anyone I’ve read.

Since I’m writing about two earlier, more martial Anglo-Saxon saints, St Edwin (Edwin: High King of Britain is just out from Lion Hudson) and St Oswald (Oswald: Return of the King will be published next Easter), I’ve found Buechner’s approach particularly fascinating. Edwin and Oswald were warriors rather than monks, but the ascetic, miraculous, natural brand of Godric’s Christianity is much like their own.

Book review: Vikings by Neil Oliver

Vikings (and Neil Oliver's lustrous locks)
Vikings (and Neil Oliver’s lustrous locks)

I am naturally inclined to dismiss any book written by a TV presenter, particularly one with locks as lustrous and flowing as Oliver’s, so it pains me to admit: this is really good. Oliver – and I think it is him, not his editor – writes with a sureness of touch and an ability to find the telling detail that brings his subject as close to life as is possible for a people that raged against the dying of the historical light a thousand years ago. His description of the taste, smell and texture of eating preserved basking shark – like ‘a French kiss with the living dead’ – is a classic, and he makes good use of the opportunities offered a TV presenter to bring us closer to Viking life: meeting, at sea, a replica long ship sailing from Norway to Dublin and finding the crew soaked, exhausted, cold and morose, and all too willing to deal out some violence to interlopers, provides a better understanding of life on a drakkan than most academic texts.