Kevin Kiernan has been rummaging around the Museum of London archives during lockdown and has found a Saxon script depicting events exactly 1600 years ago.
420 AD. It was a freezing cold Wodensday. Typical Yuletide weather. Alaric, the Saxon chief, was standing on Hygghgate Mound, looking down on Londinium. The last vestiges of Roman occupation were quickly disappearing, soon the Saxons would descend down Hollow’s Way and enter the city as the new rulers. Free from the yoke of Rome, no more straight bananas and no more straight roads for that matter (although the disadvantages of the latter were far from obvious). Actually, with the Romans gone, there would be no bananas at all; difficult to trade other than punches with the old enemy. However turnips, with a bit of honey, were just as good as bananas, apparently.
Alaric suddenly had a vision, whether as a result of a demi-john of Old Goth-Thumper the night before or something more divinely inspired, he knew not. He could see a maze of narrow winding roads on the true Saxon pattern. ‘Roads should find their own way just like a river does’. These were the wise words of his Grandfather, just before he died at the venerable age of 29. Alaric knew that the old pre-Roman road (now disused) from London to Romford was a winding 256 miles long with little in the way of Service Stations other than the one at Cambridge Mimms. They say that all roads lead to Rome, not the Romford one, it barely led to Romford.
Alaric secretly admitted to himself he would miss the Italian restaurants, particularly the fashionable ‘I came, I saw, I cannellonied’ in Chepeside, although the fashion for ‘small plates’ went down very badly with the Saxon Construction workers. Of course, now they could go back to proper Saxon Fodder – the all day Brake Furst. The heroes’ meal which guaranteed an escape from the ills of old age by the simple fact that, on that diet, one would never reach it. ‘Feeling Rash, have a rasher!’ Who could forget that advert from their Danish Jute allies?
A sudden whiff of the fragrance, Oxcart No 6, was explained by the appearance of his scout. Urk, was camouflaged in clothes that would make him difficult to spot in a rubbish dump. He had come back with his initial appraisal of their proposed triumphal entry into Londinium.
‘It may not be so easy, my Lord. The Northern route into the city….. there is the Barbican. An odd complex with straight paths so typically Roman, but with dead ends. There is a through route starting at Cowecrosse Street leading to Beych St Cavern. More of a tunnel really, the problem is cattle going through it, or indeed our Saxon warriors sewn into their winter clothes, may exceed the emissions criteria (even our extremely lax Saxon ones). Indeed the cattle hearing the cries of their bovine brethren, meeting their fate at Smythfield, will make the emissions more potent.’
‘Drat and double drat, Rome and their emissions criteria’, declared Alaric. Although he reflected on the time when he was a cowherd tending the kine in their winter barn in Bile-ericay– yes it was a fragrance difficult to forget. Alaric was proud that there was no Saxon word for ‘regulation’. Of course, with a 200 word working vocabulary there were lots of gaps. Gaps could be useful though, there was no Saxon word for soap! Or soap, itself for that matter.
He knew the Barbican well, Urk was right, it is a very mares’ nest, full of misleading passages and non sequiturs. He remembered attending a conference of the Saxons and Angles tribe under the title ‘Better together?’ (That was the one when the delegates should have been the political leaders rather than the warriors.) The Centre was full of strange symbols – the Cull Chur Myle. It frightened the horses, if not the men.
Ah we should be soon be rid of this – let us return to the old Saxon ways – for culture, cover yourself in blue, then sing hearty songs and tell legends around the camp fire – job done. Of course, not everyone would be happy. There would always be the Romoaners, wanting to retain Roman heritage – baths! central heating! and town planning! Although Alaric did enjoy the Games at the Circus Imaximus. Hippo vs Crocodile – classic! And the Panto, Lion in Boots, with real lions. For Alaric, British heritage was Stonehenge, pure and simple – job done, even if he had no idea what it was. Positioning stones that were dependent on the sun’s rays to make any sense was always going to be a loser in a cloudy country. Would the Druids listen? Not until they took off those thick hoods.
Alaric was determined that Saxons would make their mark. However their budget for change was low. GDP was still a mystery to Alaric. He had only just realised that ‘Gross’ meant something other than ‘unpleasant’. Who could blame him? Much of the Saxon’s Domestic Product was unpleasant. Particularly the output from the Tripe Sheds. He needed something quick and cheap.
He would get rid of the Roman’s decimalisation! That would be low cost. The metre what was the point of that? Instead they would start with the length of a step. Let’s call it a foot, what could be clearer. Then divide it into….
‘Tenths’ suggested Urk
‘Twelths’ corrected Alaric. We shall call them inches for no reason, The next unit, above the foot, we shall call a Yard for no reason. The Yard will consist of….
‘3. It’s an average or the two-footed and four-footed beings. As for the next unit, how long is that pitch where we throw spears at each other?’
‘22 yards, call it a chain for…’
‘And 10 of those,’ said Alaric generously. ‘will be a furlong’.
‘And 8 furlongs (we haven’t used 8 yet) should make a mile. Let’s stop at a mile as that’s as far as a Saxon gets from his village. Particularly when faced with those new winding roads!’
‘What numbers haven’t we used?’
‘Well? 14 and 16 are in the queue.’
Those inch-long pebbles we use as catapult ammunition it weighs about an inch – call it an ounce -. well obviously 16 ounces make a pound. We shall make the unit of currency a pound just to confuse everyone for the next 2000 years. Anyway 14 pounds make a stone, and but what should make a hundredweight? ‘
‘100 pounds’ said Urk?’
‘No, 112 of course.’
Urk sighed and excused himself he sai,d he wanted to paint his face with blue dye and find a mirror to watch it dry.
Of course drinking quantities were another matter, Alaric mused. Now that the Romans and their goblets were gone, they could go back to drinking out of hollowed cow horns and they varied in size, of course, depending on the original cow. The horns were difficult to clean. That was another thing – the Romans were obsessed with cleaning. The baths would provide excellent storage facilities for coal. The Roman goblets had the big advantage of being able to stand on their own, but the horns, when not in use, could be attached to our helmets – scary and practical – Saxon ingenuity.
Talking of drinking they could get back to a pure Yuletide Pagan festival. No more smells and bells of Christianity – just the Pagan smells without the bells. Yes, a pure Pagan Yuletide. And not the extended festival – Christmas preparations has been getting earlier and earlier. They had even invented Advent a month before Christmas, just to sell the calendars. He envisaged a short but intense celebration plenty of Old Goth-Thumper There was an olde Saxon prediction myth that Northern Europe got so drunk, after the Romans left, that they didn’t wake up for 350 years – the Dark Ages. What nonsense – pass the Goth-Thumper, Urk. Not the Demi-John this time, the full John! Merry Yuletide everyone.