22 April 2015

Review: The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills

The Field of the Cloth of Gold
Magnus Mills
Bloomsbury, 2015
HB 207pp

I bought my copy of this book.

The real Field of the Cloth of Gold was where, in 1520 the kings of England France (Henry VIII and Francis I) met to negotiate peace in Europe. It was a lavish affair, with a desire by both monarchs to impress.

Despite the name of the book, this isn't a historical epic about the 16th century - Magnus Mills isn't, I think, after a slice of Hilary Mantel's readership.  Rather this is another of his books which have very little concrete connection with any real place or time - just as his last, A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In, was set in a kingdom vaguely located, this focussed exclusively on the Great Field itself.  We learn nothing of the surrounding landscape or where or when the story takes place. The field is, simply an area, indeed rather a mundane place (though several times different characters tell us that the field is somewhere special, "the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition" (one character had envisaged "a vast sea ofd tents billowing in the breeze,with flags flying and pennants fluttering aloft").

The field does, perhaps, resemble its historical model in one respect - it hosts, clashes of will between self-aggrandising potentates, if on a local rather than international scale, as to the field come a number of characters - the (never named) narrator, Hen, the man of the West, Brigant, Isabella, Thomas and more - to pitch their tents.  They claim their places, and they wait. (For what?).  They watch each other (a great part of the book is observations, first hand or reported, of what the other characters were up to). They bicker over which part of the field is superior (one declared scornfully that the northern part is best and that those living in the southern part are "soft").  Priority is contested (who really arrived first?)  Here is that vagueness again - though the book only spans a few weeks (I think) the characters forget the earlier parts and reshape their memories to suit current politics in the field, a [process that reaches its climax on the very last page.

Not all of the settlers in the field are solitary. The pecking order is disturbed early on by the arrival of a small advance party, followed by a larger contingent, a militarized group with "marvellous organizational skills, iron discipline; proper plans and surveys; spacious thoroughfares; sophisticated drainage systems; monumental earthworks; communal kitchens; bathhouses with hot water freely available..."  However, after building a ditch and embankment across the field, this group departs in haste: in their place come less sophisticated boat borne settlers...

It's fairly clear, I think, that events are loosely modelled on British history - the arrival of the original inhabitants, followed by later settlers and then that disciplined military force, the Romans who don't, though, stay and are in turn replaced by waves of Saxons and Vikings. But it's all scaled down to the one field, all - apparently - dialled down from bloodthirsty combat to irritated bickering and sulks: as though a group of children were playing at "history of Britain" in the summer holidays.  That impression is heightened by some of the detail - there is precious little mention of food, for example, apart from milk pudding and biscuits - all very nursery.

I don't think, though, that this book is meant as an allegory.  While some of the correspondences are very close, you would be hard pressed to make exact correspondences throughout between book and history (perhaps Mills is playing a game of his own here, challenging us to interpret the copper bath, the missing spades, the coming and going of Isabella and so on as historical when these details may be there for quite different reasons, or none).

Whatever, it's a fascinating book - and beneath the apparent whimsy and those distracting details there is a steely core to the plot that only slowly becomes visible.  In the end, it seems, momentous events may indeed be unfolding and coming to fruition - but not necessarily pleasant or glorious ones.

It's a great read, very different to anything else you're likely to come across - and I'd strongly recommend it.

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