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“Four things Reenactment taught me about life”
My qualifications for writing a novel with a reenactor for a hero come largely from the fifteen years I’ve spent myself as a member of Regia Anglorum, which is, in my estimation, the best Saxon, Viking and Norman reenactment society in the UK.
I’d like to make it clear here that Martin’s homophobic group leader does not reflect any person, living or dead, from any real life society I’ve ever been a member of. A book’s got to have villains, so sometimes the author has to make one up.
At any rate, I have progressed from being a new squishy on the battlefield, clad in a tunic made from a dog blanket to being a thane of the society, dragging an authentic tent and pole lathing equipment in a trailer with me to big shows. I’ve attempted with no success to learn the Saxon hearpe, and I just generally know about the culture because I’ve been part of it for so long.
These days morris dancing has more or less taken over from reenactment as the thing I’m most likely to be spending every spare leisure moment on – but I managed to fit morris into the book too.
Anyway, I thought I was doing a four things post? Here we go, then.
We live in a very commodified sort of society. We expect to be able to go out and buy whatever we need. But sometimes it can be hard to lay your hand on a pair of authentic leather turn shoes, or a chain mail hauberk. Sometimes the price you might have to pay for a hand-woven, hand-sewn tunic is a great deal more than you can afford. The solution – make it yourself. Reenactment has taught me that there are few basic skills necessary for life which can’t be learned relatively easily. As a result I’m now confident that I can spin and weave cloth and sew it into clothes, I know how to make a pair of shoes, to joint an animal and start a fire, to make wooden bowls, cups and axe handles, to make a bow and use it.
As a result of which, I no longer feel quite so helplessly dependent on our society’s continual functioning. I’ve got a head start on the zombie apocalypse. It can be very comforting to know that even if we reverted to the stone age, you have the mental tools necessary to at least feed and clothe yourself. And it’s shaped my attitude to books. If I don’t see the kind of book I want to read available in the shop, I’m going to write it myself.
It sounds metaphorical, doesn’t it? I suppose it could be a metaphor, if you chose. But yes, when you’re getting up in the morning and the fire has been rained on and the ashes are cold, and you know you’re going to have to build the whole thing from scratch, using wet wood, that’s when you know it’s going to be at least four hours until breakfast.
To put it less obscurely. Fire is difficult to kindle. It’s far easier to keep it going – to keep feeding it with more wood, taking away the ash, keeping the new wood dry so it won’t put the blaze out before it catches. This is true of many other things, relationships, housework, a writing career, any other kind of career. It’s easier to put a constant small amount of effort into keeping it going than it is to let it go out and then have to start it up again.
I probably shouldn’t tell you this, but when the public aren’t looking reenactors do in fact re-join the 21st Century. It probably is coffee in those drinking horns. The first thing one does in the morning (well, after building up the fire and putting water on to boil) is to clear away the beer cans and crisp wrappers and nylon camping chairs of the evening before. Some things really are better in the modern world – chairs with lumbar support, coffee, chocolate. Baked potatoes! By the time a show opens to the public, the reenactors will have spent at least three hours tidying the place, putting anything modern out of sight, flinging furs over the top of their air-beds. We do wear modern supportive undergarments. It’s a performance, and like every other performance, it requires a great deal of effort and thought to go into making it look as if it happened naturally.
This is true of any kind of art, I feel. The things that support the performance don’t necessarily show in the final product, but without them it probably wouldn’t happen.
OK, this is more of an anecdote than a life lesson, but even fighting with blunt weapons can be dangerous. A while back my other half got hit in the head by the rim of his shield. His eyebrow split and he bled all over the place, making a pretty splatter pattern. We could hear the public around us knowingly telling each other ‘it isn’t real blood, you know.’ Actually it was. The ‘holly bark boiled in goat’s milk’ might actually be coffee, but the blood, sweat and tears involved in this hobby are amply real.
Billy Wright has a problem: he’s only visible when he’s wearing a mask. That’s fine when he’s performing at country fairs with the rest of his morris dancing troupe. But when he takes the paint off, his life is lonely and empty, and he struggles with crippling depression.
Martin Deng stands out from the crowd. After all, there aren’t that many black Vikings on the living history circuit. But as the founder of a fledgling historical re-enactment society, he’s lonely and harried. His boss doesn’t like his weekend activities, his warriors seem to expect him to run everything single-handedly, and it’s stressful enough being one minority without telling the hard men of his group he’s also gay.
When Billy’s and Martin’s societies are double-booked at a packed county show, they know at once they are kindred spirits, united by a deep feeling of connectedness to their history and culture. But they’re also both hiding in their different ways, and they need each other to be brave enough to take their masks off and still be seen.
About the Author
Alex Beecroft is an English author best known for historical fiction, notably Age of Sail, featuring gay characters and romantic storylines. Her novels and shorter works include paranormal, fantasy, and contemporary fiction.
Beecroft won Linden Bay Romance’s (now Samhain Publishing) Starlight Writing Competition in 2007 with her first novel,Captain’s Surrender, making it her first published book. On the subject of writing gay romance, Beecroft has appeared in theCharleston City Paper, LA Weekly, the New Haven Advocate, the Baltimore City Paper, and The Other Paper. She is a member of the Romantic Novelists’ Association of the UK and an occasional reviewer for the blog Speak Its Name, which highlights historical gay fiction.
Alex was born in Northern Ireland during the Troubles and grew up in the wild countryside of the English Peak District. She lives with her husband and two children in a little village near Cambridge and tries to avoid being mistaken for a tourist.
Alex is only intermittently present in the real world. She has led a Saxon shield wall into battle, toiled as a Georgian kitchen maid, and recently taken up an 800-year-old form of English folk dance, but she still hasn’t learned to operate a mobile phone.
She is represented by Louise Fury of the L. Perkins Literary Agency.
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