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Thursday, 2 February 2006

The extraction took an hour: from 5:00 p.m. to 6:00 p.m. yesterday. Peter — the dentist — used several tools looking rather like screwdrivers, except shorter, to lever the stubborn tooth out of its socket. Sometimes almost flustered as he raced to bring the operation to a close before the anaesthetic wore off, Peter pushed these instruments into the back of my mouth, making me wonder what would happen if he slipped and a shaft skewered my tonsils. I needn't have worried. Eventually emerging in four sections, the corrupted tooth has left a painful pit at the back of my mouth. Walking back from the shops in the heat today I felt weak and took it slowly.

Justin Pollard's Seven Ages of Britain (2003) is a brief encyclopedia of life in the British Isles from pre-history on, written in plain and clear English that occasionally shifts to a more demotic phrase. Like Simon Schama, Pollard likes passages that put a contemporary spin on the lesson, making it more memorable and relevant: what do we imagine when we read about "conspicuous consumption" and "arms dealers" in the context of a pre-literate society where the most potent weapon was a bronze sword? The narrative moves forward through the various periods of history but tends to avoid the big political events, and concentrates on those events that would have had the biggest impact on the average folk:

The rectangular shape of the settlement [in Wallingford, Berkshire], the even grid of roads, the neatly demarcated housing plots are all ghosts from the ninth and tenth centuries. The layout you look at is one devised by Alfred as part of his bold plan to protect Wessex from Viking attack. Instead of defending one central royal stronghold, which he knew the Vikings would eventually beseige and probably take, or building a string of forts that could be starved out one by one, Alfred built burghs, planned and defended civil settlements a day's march apart, which were self-supporting and distributed power across the country. Knock out one, and others filled the void — exactly the reasoning that lay behind the US military's development of the Internet.

He doesn't answer what is for me one of the central questions of English history: what happened to the island's inhabitants when the Saxons came? But he does attempt to get into the detail that responds to common questions held by average people today, such as the influence, linguistically, of the Normans on their new home:

It is a world of Norman haves and Anglo-Saxon have-nots, and it is no coincidence that modern words for animals, such as 'pig' and 'cow', are Anglo-Saxon while the names for the luxury foods they produce, 'pork' and 'beef', are Norman French. The villagers did the work, and the lords enjoyed the results.

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