After the battle of Brunanburh (AD937), when Æthelstan’s army defeated an invading alliance of Scots, Irish, Britons and Norse, the Viking mercenary Egil Skallagrimsson extemporised a panegyric for the English and their king. Englaland is a stunning re-imagining of Skallagrimsson’s song, an unapologetic and paradoxical affirmation of a bloody, bloody-minded and bloody brilliant people. Yorkshire miners, Danish huscarls, pit-village bird-nesters, aging prize-fighters, flying pickets, jihadi suicide-bombers and singing yellowhammers parade through the book in an incendiary combination, rising to the challenge of the skald’s affirmation: you are the people in the land; know you are the people; know it is your land.
Cover photograph: Russell F. Spencer
Æthelstan, war-wager waster of wapentakes humbler of hundreds corpser of kings. Albion passes to Ælfred’s wolf-whelp abaser of armies Lord of lives and lands. Even the paths of the Highland deer belong to Ælle’s golden-haired Ætheling. Egil Skallagrimson, Egil’s Saga I The yellowhammer’s song is the princeliest ditty of Deira’s summer buntings, far surpassing schoedinus’s reedy flat battery and the loose change rattle of the corn, proclaiming its paupered promise: a little bit of bread and no cheese. From the starveling clays of Lent to the Mass of St. Michael’s stubblefield plenty, the copsed and coverted arable hedge-lands resound with the scribbler’s wheezing demotic, sprig-summited from barebone quick, foaming may, shot-hard unripened haws. Geolu ammer, tongue of the pale-haired Frisian barbarians, Hengist and Horsa of the wyverned-skin, sons of Wictgils, son of Witta, son of Wecta, son of Wotan, sire of Thunor, hammer of Hrungnir, daughter of Earth. The Danelaw clays are streaked with beaten gold. Below the plough the citrine ingas blows. The byways are verged with travelling ragwort, sunakai, salno. Lion’s teeth blaze from the field’s rough fleece, seeded from the sun. The ceorls of Wessex are satisfied with their crust and honour not the ploughman. Humber’s plate is empty. Tees and Medway, discontent. A wind from the East, the blown dunes fray: cadent citronella from candled gorse. II The dragon-prowed fleet of Ivar the Boneless floats moored on Humber like a raft of garefowl. Squinted by blizzarding Baltic snow, flailed foam and strafing sand: the bleached eyes of Ælle, King of Northumbria, watching from the point. Ravenspurn’s wind-whipped strandline. Hood-stripped bare-tonsured becloaked as wandering Wotan, Wilgils gathers driftwood in the wintry broken rose: tumbling petals of schneeammer falling. The white-tailed eagle’s sunlit eye tracks Humber’s gullet, along Ouse, Don and Ea, to the slow blonde stones and saffron clays of Hampole. An orchard of yellow pears. Aureate moon, soft light of xanthic tallow. Worn and dislocate, kelts ground on gravels in the vale below the priory, shredding their rainbows. Suffocate gapes and gasping gills give out. Kite and corvid, horn-billed erne, sparring on the shoals. III Beck-walk from Hampole to Holywell Wood in a back-ripping tunnel of hawthorns. Unbelieved fish, fleeing upcurrent before us: pike and barbel, chub. And in a man-deep plunge-pool, Hung in a sunshaft column of light, a trout flicked its tail vanished. Whence the sturgeon? Its English redds lie occluded, occult. A seven-foot ‘vagrant’, forked bankside at Towton, armoured flanks packed with hard caviare. Others, exhaust kelts perhaps, found floating bankside at Barnby Dun and Bolham-on-Idle: stoned by frightened farmboys. Mercian Sabrina, Offa’s moated failsafe, Silts glutted with styria from Purton to Tewkesbury, to stone-bottomed Vrnwy and Tanat beyond. At Oswestry’s guffawing table the simultaneous interpretation of Cadwallon and Penda, stripping the plate, unbuckling the bones, cleaving the noble jowl. Æthelstan rests in Aldhelm’s Abbey jowled by cheek of the Naked Gardeners. Eden fallen to satyric Arcadia couched in celebrity We-Sex, E-Sex, the only way, South and Middle seaxe, vortexing to Wen. The Saxons knew no North. IV Thunor at forge, poaching gold in the bellowing furnace. Then the overhead malletings of Mjollnir the helm-splitter, shaping rings to deal in hall. The song from clashing metals shrills across the heath, auric fletchings from the anvil, fleeing to the gorse. Coney-cropped common flaming with furze from Hague Hall to Hargate. In the yellowhammer’s glebe Ebenezer in exile dreamed the People’s Anthem: ten English acres, neither thrones and crowns - nor masters’ drop-hammers slamming and sparking, exploding men like bombs. From Biggin Hill to Church Fenton the arable aches with song, ploughmen and pilots raising tankards in the taverns until dusk throbs crimson from the cities of the west. Broad-winged spitfires sputtering home, break the anxious reverie, screaming squadrons of June’s dark swifts. White cliffs lidded with wheat and whin, gull-wheeled and flakked with jackdaws. Demobbed from Burma to a prefab on the Vale and life on the Barnsley seam, Eck trudges sludge to Frickley pit in dawn’s drowsing serenade. The unknown familiar song. Those birds were never blue. The heavy horse of Wink House farm no more. The plovered pastures put to plough, now forested in rape. The gorsy commons scoured to muck and agrochemical brass. Feast and field-folk, banished. Golden lads and lasses, pissing petals in the wind. Lehman Brothers Kardashian sisters: the loue of money is the root of all euill. Whore is to body as slave is to labour and celebrity to soul. In each case, ker-ching. Three card mountebank conmen, conjuring profits and total loss. Breath of plug-in air-freshener, suffocate central heating. Tight shoes and top button. Door-car-door return. Podged, paralytic, stinking of lipids and anxious with cancer. Xmas, Valentine’s – many happy returns. We escape to nature like a drowning man surfacing, before going under again. The tumblestone cottage at Hampole Wood, bramble derelict, shooting blackthorn. Chop bones, horseshoes, residual brassicas. The woodcocked rides now clotted with pheasant. Keepers fishing for fur with nooses. Tractors trawling the oceaned arable with baleen of steel. Cut the vines from the hoary crabtree; plank the pens against the fox; birth milk and mutton in backyard barn and byre. To each man his allotment. With plough-turned fieldstone gentled hands will build once more, and lift the lintels of long tumbled halls. A fair field full of folk, the stooked crofts of Ringstone via Scawsby’s red pikes and daggered Mile End. The frosted fallows of Frickley’s Winter Palace, stormed with driven hares: blasted bloodless by yeoman grapeshot, the truncheons of Orgreave, St. Peter’s cutlassed field. Bismarck’s maxim following Clausewitz. Divisions make it so. Stalin shrank not from exemplary slaughter and made a New World: ditto Hitler, Truman, buck-toothed Saloth Sar. Too much blood, I can’t commit. Not Samuel, but Jeremy, cursed of God; a prophet. V Fafnir at Gnitaheath, smug in his cavern of gorse, curls his coils around Otter’s Ransom. At the place where water springs forth, Sigurd unsheaths flame-edged Gram. The incomprehensible screethings of yellowhammers relay across the moor. Sigurd hacked out the worm’s black heart with the anvil-cleaving blade. Fafnir’s dying benediction: ‘Gold will be your death’. Indeed, through greed all men are monstered, but in blood is lore and shriving. The dripping clot spitted, turning over fire. Dusk-camped under piebald birches, the inscrutable song of the yellowhammer throbs in the gloaming like a raw sore. Drawn by the cook fire’s golden glow, chattering nuthatches spiral down: Regin sleeping, Sigurd licking from fingers pink froth foamed from Fafnir’s broiling heart. The pricked ears of the man-wolf opened on Gnitaheath to language of birds, the spite of nuthatches, sharp-faces turned to earth and advantage, urging betrayal and accumulation – enrich yourself kill friendship and honour slay the one that trusts- like fishwives, or lawyers, disinheriting children, picking the pockets of corpses. In the King’s tent at Vin-Heath Egil hung up his harp. And the song of the yellowhammer sounded over the hazelled field like a skald in hall: you are the people in the land know you are the people know it is your land. Shield-wall bristling with halberds, tusked like the eofor.
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‘His is one of the richest languages at work in current UK poetry.’
‘Ted Hughes on the rampage.’
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The Big Issue
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Under the Radar
‘a berserker’s yawp of a long poem.’