Opening the mail

Nobody writes letters anymore, so we have to make do with the morning blink of the Inbox screen.
I still love opening mail. The post arrives early here, usually bringing a few boring bills and a reminder from my accountant that I still haven’t done my tax return.
But you never know when the letterbox might instead be jammed full of surprises.
Yesterday was the monthly thrill of the arrival of the BBC History magazine (second only to the arrival of the Literary Review, both that much more welcome because they’ve had to travel halfway around the world).
And a parcel.
I love parcels.
I’m a compulsive buyer of cheap books in online auctions, and it has been suggested by someone who knows me far too well that I only do it so I get lots of parcels.
Parcels are especially good if wrapped in brown paper (sadly, no longer tied up in string … These are a few of my favourite things). I can hardly get them open some days, mostly because of that infernally effective brown packing tape, but sometimes because it’s just too exciting.
Yesterday’s parcel was only a plastic Post Shop envelope, which are even harder to open, but inside was an omnibus edition of Rosemary Sutcliff’s later King Arthur stories, which I’ve never read because I was grown up by the time they came out in 1979. This is the first sentence:

In the dark years after Rome was gone from Britain, Vortigern of the narrow eyes and the thin red beard came down from the mountains of Wales, and by treachery slew Constantine of the old royal house and seized the High Kingship of Britain in his place.

I’ve read that line over and over. I just don’t know how she gets away with it. Sure, it’s not her best opening line, but it’s thrilling and sage-like and somehow plummets the reader through time, until you’re sitting in the Great Hall at the feet of a bard, with the head of your Irish Wolfhound resting sleepily on your knee.
It conveys an entire world and a years-long phase of bloody British history in one crystal clear sentence. It gives you a sense of character, time, place and action.
You know you’re in the Dark Ages, you know Vortigern’s a spineless creep, “slew” tells you that there’s going to be lots more swords and daggers and drama, and you know the stakes are high. You know you’re reading a story about history and interesting people all at the same time.
She’s not an easy read for young people. I notice that more now than I did when I was a young reader, perhaps because prose has been simplified in the last couple of decades (some would say it’s been dumbed-down). She often breaks the supposedly cardinal rule of telling, rather than showing. She does sometimes bang on a bit about the bright light of Christianity shining through the Dark Ages – although she’s not as missionary as Lewis.
And yet she’s a master story-teller, a master of the craft of history and myth, and a spell-binder.
All that, in a Post Shop envelope. And I haven’t even got past the first page.

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