The Northumbrian King, Oswald (reigned 635-642AD), was a warrior, evangelist, hunter and scholar. Martyred by Mercian pagans at the Battle of Maserfield, Oswald was immediately canonised by the acclaim of the people, his cult rapidly developing to rival George’s claim to be patron saint of the English. Oswald’s Book of Hours is a series of elegies and eulogies for Oswald redivivus, written in the voices of an unlikely band of northern subversives, including NUM leader Arthur Scargill, hermit Richard Rolle, brigand John Nevison, Catholic rebel Robert Aske – and Oswald himself. Brutal, provocative and thrillingly original, Oswald’s Book of Hours is an ambitious attempt to rehabilitate an organic English identity via an exploration of radical, pre-industrial and pre-reformation traditions, and a handbook of devotions for the exiled and expropriate English settled north of the Humber.
Short-listed for the Forward First Collection Prize and the Ted Hughes Award.
i, robenhode, englisc of barnysdale, cattle thief, siccarius, brigand of the great north road, from the dungeons of the empyrean syng the travails of my people. swindled from blode, exiled on our own grene earth, severed the dreaming umbilicus. a muzzled bear-whelp with plier-pulled claws, giddy on the hotplate. stop dancing and feel the burn. when brother fights brother, fellowship fails. tautology of the weak. tostig’s cain-brand, the oathbreaker dead and lamech inherits our earth. gallows seventy times seven: the bastard’s lesson in blood. a few drew their daggers: hereward, eadric, wulfric; but the aetheling spirit bled out at senlac and stamford bridge. the ealdormen quit and learned french: for lords will have their manors. on the eve of christes mass 1167 joon cyning was whelped in the palace at oxford on seventeen silken mattresses, each one softer than the last. yet marie, jhesu’s modir, leide hym in a cratche in the shit of beestys. the spotless shall be praised and synne’s right is nout but work; adam and his wijf eue, delving and weaving, not less the cyng and his quene. a deo rex, a rege lex? ballocks! the law is from god, and the king is from the people. ic geseah on swefne a manne of our cynne, blynded of eie and lopped of foot, in beggary at my skel on watlygne street. and he cwaeth, against the vert and venison of the french king’s forest have i synned. and then came a pore mother, meatless ribs like a flamburgh coble, pot-bellied manne-whelp gnawing at the tit, saying, my lord hath brenneth me out by fire and starved us from the land; much cattyl is there, deer and gentil manors, but the englisc folc no moor. in my black cloak and black boots and black witchfinder’s hat, i stride through the mud of the dismantled priory to the ancient pilgrimmed road, where thirty thousand with pikes and rosaries marched under the flag of the five wounds of christ. at the whitewashed church of feastless laurence, bread is just bread and wine is wine indeed. candlemas monday, another working day. the priest would bless the plough and absolve us from our sinnes. the saints gave us solace and play. and what have we now? work and the word, the interminable pulpit. in the fiery yeards of myccelgeat, spinsters slave at flemish looms. cottars and ploughboys, manacled to the forge. chynes and pulleys. ginnes and whirring gears. masters hocked to caursines, bonds bleeding from ledgered counting houses. whorehouse schit-buckets, tipped-out on plague-pit streets. ratten-raw lodgings, brayed up in darkness by coppersmiths’ hammers. work and the grave, urbi et orbis. at stobbes he rose with the houndis at daybreak and them watterd in the wrang-broc, dogges shaking bowes in the morning sonne-light, wagtayles peeping and darting for mayflies from the boulders in the stream. whatsoever schall it profiteth a man that he gaineth the earth but loseth his own land? that his tongue become the mark of the beest, that no-one may trade or speek without it, but his words become the world’s? that hound is put to cur and terrier to alaunt so that dogges designed for purpose are but fit for pore utilitie? fyrd sceal ætsomne, tirfæstra getrum: the people in the land, knowing they are the people, knowing it is their land. forest for deer, covert for fox, plantation for pheasant and erasing the hovels of the poor. moor for grouse, river for grilse. village for the rich, farmhouse for the profit: barley, linseed, oilseed rape; polytunnels, fishing lakes, off-road muck-tracks, land-fill quarries and mines. hayfields for corncrakes, islands for the erne, fenland for spoonbill and crane. the people in their high estates look down: on the pinks of the belvoir, the national trust, the fleeces and gaiters of the rspb. KEEP OUT. i saw in a dream the fluoroxypyr wheatfield bridal with hawthorns, sown in the shite of winter fieldfares. men there: walking dogs, picking bluestalks, releasing pigs to pannage. ergot on rye, the dried-fumes of harvest mice. bread in burning vision. the field-stone foundations of barns and homesteads. horses in the hay-cut; sweet vernal, fescue, yorkshire fog: and in the smoking dawn, walking hares up to the slip, a line of figures from the luttrell psalter, treading the earth of the hundred acre wheatfield. an aungel of the lord came to me in sleep and cwaeth, rise noble robenhode and slay the frenchman’s shire reeve: john ball’s absolution awaits thee. john litel and scathelock slew him in saylis and stuffed his corps in a broc-hole at smeeton. the tithe of the lord was death and at sword-edge was servitude ended. and again he cwaeth, may the many-manored dukes and mansioned marquesses be abdicate and appropriated. and we dwelt on the land like the israelites in tents, bylding our covenant from the wild stones of the feeld, feeding our earth with much blood.
'Steve Ely takes the archaeologist’s spade to the idea of England – its myths,its heroes and villains, its forgotten corners, its persistence in the historical imagination. There’s a passion to the language, a radical fire reminiscent of Geoffrey Hill’s Mercian Hymns and Basil Bunting’s Briggflatts.'
‘In Steve Ely the North has found its voice in work that echoes Ted Hughes, Basil Bunting, Geoffrey Hill, the bloke in the corner shop, the Yorkshire breeze and autodidacts and pub philosophers across the region and beyond. This can become our creation myth, our encyclopaedia, our atlas, our sacred book.’
'a work of startling imagination and affirmation.'
'‘I found more power, energy, conviction and sheer verbal exuberance in this than in any other first collection I’ve read this year.'
'Ely is a craftsman of an unusual and possibly unique kind and it is his craft which coheres all the outrageousness and cold beauty of this book.'
'tough, brave and fantastically original,'
'a major talent'
'when a book is short listed for multiple prizes, I approach it more sceptically. I am glad to say that on this occasion the book in question is certainly as deserving - if not more so - of high praise as most other currently acclaimed volumes... a highly accomplished collection.'