Sunday, August 19, 2007

1066, Viking longships, treens, and all that....

The Danes reinvaded Ireland last week, which was all wonderfully topical for the novel I'm working on, which is involved in the run-up of the events that led to 1066 and the Battle of Hastings.

It's great how much material there is on the web now that can help with research: youtube is one place, and I saw another video this week, of treen-turning, which I thought deserved a mention.

It's interesting because in the 1930s, a young English war-veteran and journalist, HV Morton wrote a bestseller 'In Search of England' - and came across the last bowl turner in England: George William Lailey, who:

'turns bowls exactly as they did in the days of Alfred the Great... to say that eight hundred years seemed to have stopped at the door conveys nothing. The room was an Anglo-saxon workshop! The floor was deep in solft elm shavings, and across the hut was bent a young alder sapling connected to a primitive lathe by a leather thong.'

Morton was an unashamed romantic: but he happened to be right, that Lailey's hut was a Saxon construction.

After Lailey died, in 1958, his lathe was taken to the Museum of Rural Industries (see here) and his workshop was photographed and recorded before being demolished.

Michael Wood, in his 'In Search of England' describes how eight here was an inner and outer chamber, with eight rough-hewn oaken posts holding up the roof. Inside were two chambers, an inner and an outer chamber, and the inner chamber, where the workshop was, was sunk three feet below the ground, with its sides lined with elm boards nailed to staves. The hut conformed to a type of hut called a Grubenhauser, a sunken hut that are found in fifth-century England - which the Anglo-Saxon migrants brought with them from the continent.

The sunken part of Lailey's hut was so packed down with decomposting elm shavings, that the decomposition served to heat the place.

I suppose I'm putting this in, because it shows just how much there is on the internet to educate and inspire the writer. My novel is currently taken up with events in Sussex, in the South of England, an area I have only loose knowledge of: but through the Victorian County Histories online, and Google Earth, it allows me to follow journeys and see how the elevation changes, and find places.

The other reason I mention this is that in our computorised, globalised world, we're only 50 years from the death of a man who turned wood with a pole pathe, in an Anglo-Saxon hut. Until 1974, England was still organised by Shires, a system set up by Alfred the Great and his sucessors, and often based on existing geographical units. This is all relevant because our national identities are more important now than ever before.

As Britain fragments into it's constituent nations, Scots and the Welsh have had the English to define themselves against, and it's the English who seem to have lost themselves most within 'Britishness'. 'British' as an identity is anacronistic. As a Spanish friend observed, the only people who describe themselves as British are old people and Northern Irish protestants.

Englishness was already a concept when Bede was writing, in the 8th century and there are many answers for us in the past. As we move forward into the globalised world its time to celebrate and redefine Englishness, and what it means to us.

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