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Tapestry – a review

Tapestry - Philip Terry

Tapestry - Philip Terry

There was a buzz in the atmosphere at the first Reality Street readings and music event at the Electric Palace on Wednesday 19th February 2014.  Local writer, Leigh Kennedy went along to listen and to ask Philip Terry about his novel, Tapestry, a mixture of the comic and tragic in post-1066 England.

Terry’s Reality Street novel, Tapestry was shortlisted for the Goldsmith’s literary prize this year. Meant to glorify William’s campaign to gain the kingdom of England, the Bayeaux Tapestry is being stitched by nuns under the supervision of William the Conqueror’s kinsman and deputy, Bishop Odo.  But the outwardly compliant nuns embed their own experiences in the margins of the Bayeaux Tapestry — burning houses with women and children running away, naked women, strange beasts – subtly playing out a fantastic tale of magical happenings, the cruelty of war, and loss of innocence.  Each nun tells the story of her knowledge of the war as they stitch and meanwhile, other events are unfolding in the convent.

The framing narrative is straightforward historical fiction concerning the tapestry project, which Terry intended to be hyper-realistic, told by one of the novices with a naive voice.  In her innocence, she misses things that might be obvious to the reader, so we follow with an ironic eye as things develop at the convent, in particular, the political atmosphere and the character of Bishop Odo.  The technical working of the tapestry is finely detailed. Terry said that he learned to embroider the traditional stitches to understand how the nuns would be handling their needle and thread. In a crisis when the wool runs out, we learn more about the dyeing and supply chains of wool in Norman times.

Every other chapter is a flight into magical realism as the nuns explain their individual extra contributions as they stitch. The nuns are a diverse group, most have had awful things happen, but they support each other and accept their lot in the refuge of the convent. Their political subversions are quiet and wide-eyed, for the nuns are gentle women.  For example, when the designer of the tapestry project questions a nun about adding burning houses in the margins, she sweetly explains she has shown that the army had to destroy houses obstructing their progress — but her own private story is that of seeing her older sons beheaded and of her own abuse by the Normans.

Not all the stories are of war horrors.  Terry read aloud one of the funniest about the escape of King Harold, who ends up in a troupe of travelling actors, dramatizing the Battle of Hastings, taking the possibilities to several levels.

One of the most remarkable aspects of the novel is the language. Terry, a poet as well as novelist, plays with the language, writing a combination of modern English, Anglo-Saxon, Old French, Middle English, even drawing from his childhood in Belfast where a nose could be called a ‘neb’.  It is a rich stew of words but comprehensible, using the roots of modern English.  He wrote the first draft some years ago but it wasn’t quite ready for publication and was shelved.  After a spell of writing more poetry than prose, he picked the novel up again and strengthened the unique language so now every page is delightfully playful. Some characters have their own peculiar speech, sometimes breaking and turning words inside out, sometimes doubling sounds. The first pages took a bit of concentration but I was soon immersed – the story swept me along.

Foot soldiers depicted on the Bayeux tapestry

The Bayeux tapestry - courtesy www.theguardian.com

Hearing Terry read aloud from Tapestry, I was surprised at how ordinary it sounded and realized that most of the unusual nature of the writing is colourful misspelling.  The first lines of the novel give a good flavour of what to expect:

‘Weeks and weeks of incessant dull regn, which falls off the sky lyk cow piss.  We haue nefer seen the lyks of it.  So heavy it es that the watter tracks boorst theyr banks spillyng ofer in the fields and mice run vertically up trunks of trees to take refuge in the branches, where hang in theyr hundreds, lyk strange unsaisonable fruit.’

Terry pointed out how ‘rain’ spelled so shades the word ‘reign’ as an example of meaningful interplay.

I wondered how he had come to write about the tapestry.  He had lived in Normandy for a period and when English visitors would come, he would either take them to the WWII battle sites or the Bayeaux Tapestry, which he saw so many times, he started noticing the small figures in the borders and wondered if the nuns who had embroidered it in England might be subverting the triumph that they were commissioned to work on.

Although Tapestry is set mainly in Hastings and Sussex, Terry is not of the town.  Born in Belfast, he now teaches literature and creative writing at the University of Essex.   For the evening event at the Electric Palace, he also read from his funny modern political and social retakes of Shakespeare and Dante.

The Reality Street publisher and editor Ken Edwards also read from his poetry (see Ken’s interview with SOS elsewhere in the HOT archive) with musical accompaniment by Elaine Edwards, who made the most dramatic use of accordion air I’ve ever heard.  Ken and Elaine are familiar to many in town as the bass guitar and flute/saxophone for The Moors.  This series will take place monthly and the next one is on the 19th of March at the Electric Palace.  More information about Philip Terry’s book, Tapestry, and the monthly events can be found at http://www.realitystreet.co.uk.

LK  March 2014

Posted 20:26 Sunday, Mar 16, 2014 In: Literature

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