WORDS: Gary Budden recounts his merry day out at a Battle of Hastings reenactment
It’s hard to ignore the fascination with death and bloody murder, the schoolkids and grown men alike fondling replica blades with a fetishist’s glee. For sale is a huscarl axe that was designed to cave in an ingengas skull, small leather-sheathed daggers for ‘females’, gleaming facsimiles of the Sutton Hoo helmet.
Modern life in southern England can be horribly dreary, I know that. What all these stalls, manned by friendly men and women in period garb, represent is some sort of other world that was, in our minds at least, infinitely more interesting. Nasty, brutish and short maybe, but something was happening.
I look at people my age sat round a smouldering fire in their mock-Saxon camp, in a damp field in Sussex on the site that may (or may not) be where the Battle of Hastings took place. I can kind of see the appeal. I like camping and festivals. I wonder what these people do out in that other world of coffee shops and retail parks. I don’t blame them for wanting to run away from it.
I used to wear an ogham rune round my neck (it meant ‘February’) until my girlfriend mocked me into letting it fall to the bottom of a drawer. Sites like Avebury, the white horse of Uffington, the Ridgeway and even the Norman castle at Dover do have an undeniable pull. I get it.
I try and put out of my mind the thought of some of these couples having sex in character, rutting on a boarskin rug. I feel a strange admiration for this determination to live in an idealised version of a past we don’t know the full details about.
Why am I here? This is a chance for me to get out of the city, spend some time with my father who loves all this stuff without any anxiety. It’s something happening, after all, something different to endless London weekends, drowning the stresses of the week in pubs I hate but can’t stop frequenting.
There’s a smattering of subcultures mixed into the crowd. A few couples with dreadlocks hanging down to their arse, a number of beer-bellied blokes with skull rings, long hair and Akercocke t-shirts. A few punkish types.
This is history as entertainment. The industry is in full swing, English Heritage charging thirteen quid entry, then enticing punters with fluffy toy dragons, kiddy’s crossbows, local chutneys. A man with a clipboard gives me the hard sell as to why I should become a member. I want to tell him I prefer to find my own history, don’t like people structuring how I interpret the past. But I keep quiet.
There are numerous independent stalls that fall into the new-age category, mock antiquities, books on leechcraft and dark age weaving. In the shadow of Battle Abbey hang plaster casts of the green man, mugs emblazoned with his leafy face, the obligatory jewellery that no one seems to be buying. Looking for food, I find Odin’s cookhouse selling Aberdeen angus burgers and bitter coffee. It should have been Woden’s, surely.
I listen to a talk in the literature tent, about the Anglo-Saxon resistance to the Normans in the years after 1066. Hope someone will mention Paul Kingsnorth’s The Wake and Brian Bates’ The Way of Wyrd but no luck. This is purely historical fiction, history once again as entertainment – on a long enough time line, massacres and invasion gain a strange appeal. It all unnerves me. In the tent, there are books on sale with covers that wouldn’t be out of place of the fantasy or sci-fi sections of a bookstore. The past is another planet.
Drizzle is intermittent during the day. I watch a falconry display and drink IPA from the bar. Finally the battle starts, banners flapping in the breeze and the snort of Norman horses. The saxons cheer and jeer. Arrows fly and men go down. The crowd begin a frenzy of photography and filming. But the game is rigged; every year it’s the same result.
Gary Budden is co-founder of independent publisher Influx Press and assistant fiction editor at Ambit magazine. He lives in London.