A Fine Summer Knight

A Fine Summer Knight was a novel for middle-grade readers, published by Viking Kestrel in 1995 and in Puffin paperback the following year. This article was written for the Australian magazine, Rippa Reading.

When my brother was sixteen he built his own car. Since then he has gone on building and rebuilding vehicles. I don’t think he has ever bought a new car – that would take all the fun out of it. About fifteen years ago he branched out into historical vehicles and we became joint owners (he owned, I paid) of a 1947 Fordson Thames 7V 4-ton dropside coal lorry, a rusting wreck discovered in someone’s barn and ripe for renovation. The brother is a lorry driver by profession and Fate seems to direct him to deliver goods to places where historic vehicles go to die. The Fordson has since been joined by a sheep truck, a horse box, a potato riddler and a cattle-cake mill, the last two driven by a rare Armstrong-Whitworth stationary engine.

One thing led to another, he began attending steam rallies, exhibiting his machinery; he began organizing steam rallies … By this time the Fordson was almost restored to its original condition, lacking only replacement mudguards and skirts, curved panels, the shaping of which required a particular piece of equipment – a wheeling machine. Amazingly, he got hold of one, through an industrial-strength grapevine. This monster, two metres high and weighing in at at least a ton, sits in his garage surrounded by bits of things, mainly bits of metal things, and it was with the wheeling machine that the story started.

When I asked how it worked he gave me a demonstration and after we had diddled around with some scraps of sheet metal he remarked that it really served the same function as a panel beater. That set me thinking. A panel beater is in much the same line of business as a blacksmith, and a blacksmith is in much the same line of business as an armourer. Would it be possible to make armour on a wheeling machine?

At which point you may be wondering why, in this progressive age of intercontinental ballistic missiles and germ warfare, should anyone want to make a suit of armour. Believe me, people do – but not, as it turned out, on wheeling machines.

The armour was another story, one that had, like the Fordson, been hanging around for fifteen years, unwritten but not forgotten. When we lived in the country our village fete was enlivened one year by the appearance of the CIA, not the US intelligence outfit but the Companions in Arms, a group of people who dressed up as Dark Age warriors and beat hell out of each other with antique weapons, broadswords, maces and things that looked like Anglo-Saxon crowbars. When they were not bashing each other over the head they were extremely amiable and chatty. I thought then that there must be a novel waiting to be written about this peculiar pastime and mentally shelved the idea until I could find a way of using it – which is where the wheeling machine came in. What I ended up writing was a novel that involved both vehicle reconstruction and historical re-enactment.

Take any period of history and there is at least one society, possibly dozens of them, dedicated to staging ancient battles of that period. The most famous is the Sealed Knot which is concerned exclusively with the English Civil War (Cavaliers and Roundheads, not the Poll-tax riots of five years ago) but there are just as likely to be rival bands of Normans and Saxons refighting the battle of Hastings. I got wind of a bunch of Vikings in Norwich. I ran them to earth in a pub (taking my daughter with me because strong men fall to the ground moaning feebly when they see Isobel and why should Vikings be immune?) and the following evening, in another pub, they brought along their weapons and armour, in a cricket bag.

The pub was full but no one turned a hair when Bilbo and Vlad (re-enactors have unusual names) unzipped the bag and brought out their broadswords, perhaps because it was no big deal. Over the bar hangs a full suit of Roman armour. It is that kind of a pub.

Before we parted I was advised to get cold of a copy of Call to Arms, the re-enactors’ directory published by one Duke Henry Plantagenet. He told me some terrible puns including one about knightclubbing (read the book) and in his turn put me in touch with a man in Cambridgeshire who stages mediaeval tournaments, who was able to give me the number of a man in Yorkshire who breeds warhorses. I was beginning to feel as if the last five hundred years had never happened.

Out of all this I created A Fine Summer Knight, about two families; one involved in vehicle restoration who live in a house not unlike my brother’s, surrounded by derelict farm machinery and moribund trucks; the other leading the Company of the White Horse, a band of mediaeval mercenaries who, in 1994, are still managing to live in 1360, running a cattery during the week and slaughtering French peasants on Saturdays.

And by now you may be muttering that no wonder England is going down the tubes. Well, mutter no more. As I discovered from Call to Arms, there are re-enactment societies in Canada, Ireland, France, Germany, Poland, Switzerland, Ukraine, USA, New Zealand and, yes, Australia. Australia has its own Vikings, Dark-Agers, Crusaders, Pikemen and Musketeers. There may be mediaeval mercenaries in a street near you. There are Romans at large in New South Wales.

Not many people know that.