History All Around Us

July 2012 Canterbury Cathedral. It is my son’s graduation ceremony and in addition to the traditional hiccups on such days, painful new shoes and a quick shirt swap with a scruffy son, the bank has decided to experience one of its ‘computer melt down’ events and it seems that we will be paupers for the day.

Now safely ensconced in the cavernous interior these worries recede as my mind begins to wander. After all, to those of us who are historically minded none of this is really matters. It’s not my day after all and my son is about to receive his diploma at the very spot that King Henry II’s knights martyred Thomas Becket on the 29th of December 1170, only one hundred and four years after the conquest of William the Bastard. Bursting through the doors behind me they swept past the very spot in which I now sit. Thomas, a Londoner like myself, refused to flee and save his life and was hacked to the ground. As he fell to his hands and knees one of the knights lopped the top of his head clean off, just as you or I would to our breakfast egg. Scrambling Thomas’ brains with the point of his sword he scooped them out and spread them all over the floor just there. 

As Will steps forward he stands within the very space once occupied by the church of St Augustine. Sent by the Pope to introduce Christianity to the pagan English the building was consecrated soon after his arrival in 597 AD.

September 11th 2001. I am removing blocks of medieval daub from between the joists of my house for reuse. A mixture of clay, straw and 600 year old cow/horse dung they mush up nicely in the bucket with a small amount of added water. As I mix I reflect on the fact that the man who originally ‘knocked up’ this mixture was born not long after the first great onslaught of the Black Death claimed the lives of up to half the population of Europe. The daub had sat there, mute witness, as people celebrated the return of the king and his tiny army from their great victory at Agincourt. It would be almost two hundred years before another Will would immortalise the ‘happy few’ in his play, Henry V. Reformation, armada, civil war and empire would all come and go as they stared silently down. The phone rings, New York City is under attack. I worked in finance during the 1980’s and I undoubtedly know people still working in the towers. My brother-in-law still works in the money markets and I check that he is in London. All work stops for the day. It is a horrific event but my daub helps just a bit as I realize that it has seen out plagues, famine, war, gas chambers and killing fields from its nook. The Spanish influenza outbreak lasted from 1918 to 1920 and killed between three and five percent of the World’s population, 50 to 100 million people died. The China floods of 1931 killed an estimated 3 million people.

A family gathering in Benfleet, Essex. I look out across the estuary of the River Thames. Most people see an expanse of silt laden water, oil refineries across the river in Kent, the ‘World’s Longest Pier’ jutting out from gaudy Southend, but historically minded people see far more. We can see a fleet of Roman triremes clip the estuary on their journey up the coast to the River Blackwater, safely delivering the Emperor Claudius to the capital of his newly conquered province of Britannia.

Move on one thousand years and the year is 893 AD. Below us the fortified camp of the Danish viking Haesten is being stormed and taken by the men of London under the command of King Alfred the Great’s son, Edward, soon to become known to history as King Edward the Elder. The charred remains of ships were recovered from the old shoreline in the 19th Century during excavations for the train station there.

A century later and 1000 longships pass below the cliffs on their way to attack Danish controlled London.  It is the year 1014 and a combined English/Norwegian force led by Aethelred Unraed and Olaf Haraldsson, Saint Olaf to be, are about to destroy the bridge which connects the town of London to the burgh on the south bank at Southwark. The event is reputed to have been celebrated in song. You may have heard it sung one thousand years later. It is known worldwide as ‘London bridge is falling down’.

Now it is 1778 and as war rages in the American colonies a new 100 gun ship of the line is added to England’s ‘wooden walls’. His Majesty’s Ship Victory points her bowsprit out from the River Medway opposite and makes for the open sea. Warped into deeper water, the shrouds and ratlines come alive as we gaze across from our lofty perch. The topmen scurry up like so many ants and unfurl her, as yet, unstained and weathered sails for the first time. The leviathan takes her first breath, filling her lungs as the canvas billows in the following wind and shakes herself free of the land. She is making her maiden voyage out into the North Sea from her place of birth at Chatham and sailing away to earn her place in the nation’s history.

Time ticks on again. It is late in the afternoon of September 7th 1940 and the rhythmic thrum of thousands of aero engines draw our eyes skyward. Overhead hundreds of Heinkel and Dornier bombers are following the great river to London. It will be the capital’s heaviest raid during the Battle of Britain, the prelude to, in most people’s view, the invasion itself. High above them the sun glints on polished perspex as the escorting fighters wing over and plummet down on the handful of Spitfires and Hurricanes which are attempting to engage this latest armada to threaten their homeland. Half a century later I will meet one of those pilots at a book signing. He shares the surname of his better known ancestor, Drake. Francis went on to become a Knight of the the Realm and Member of Parliament for Plymouth. Billy moved to Spain after the war and opened a bar. My family live in the heart of the great city and they watch spellbound as our heavily outnumbered fighters dart into the mass of enemy aircraft above the nearby dome of St Paul’s Cathedral. The bombers return in force that night and for almost every night until the following May. It is the start of the London Blitz.

My grandfather drives the bus down the centre of the road, the buildings lining both sides are in flames but the buses still run. In Wapping a group of firemen are resting exhausted against a wall. Suddenly one of their number hauls himself to his feet and hails the bus, his smoke blackened face unrecognizable beneath his steel helmet. Grinning like a fool the fireman pulls himself up to the level of the cab and my grandfather realizes that the man is his brother. His engine has been sent down from East Ham to help the beleaguered firefighters at the London Docks, which are ablaze from end to end. Relieved that they have both survived the raid they shake hands and return to work.

Summer 1944. My grandmother drags a reluctant daughter to the shops to buy a loaf of bread. She is almost eight years old and argues that she is old enough to be left alone for a short while. My grandmother insists and they return later to find that Peabody Building’s are now one block less. A V1 flying bomb has scored a direct hit while they were out. Were it not for that loaf these words would never be written.

Many people say that history is dry and boring. Some ask why I find it so fascinating and I always make the same reply. ‘How can you not?’