The Field of the Cloth of Gold by Magnus Mills

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Reviewed by Annabel

Mills is one of my favourite authors; a new novel from him is a must-read for me. He has found a unique furrow in the world of literature, and continues to plough it with characteristic dead-pan humour in each of his books, although the settings are quite varied.

Men and their work is his great theme – which applies to everything he writes, really. From the fence-builders of his debut, The Restraint of Beasts (1998) through odd-jobbing, van and bus driving to the Arctic in Explorers of the New Century (2005). The Peter Principle in action, in which “managers rise to their level of incompetence”, underpinned his Ruritanian fantasy A Cruel Bird Came to the Nest and Looked In in 2011. Allied to this, you’ll nearly always find a sense of entrapment, which sometimes comes over as a lack of ambition – sometimes something more sinister as in All Quiet on the Orient Express (my favourite), amongst the workers of his novels. Carrots may be dangled promising freedom, but they are not always taken up. The work is more often than not, by its nature, repetitive, and not a lot happens. In this situation, the smallest incident can assume the greatest significance, and never more so than in his latest novel.

The title refers to a meeting 1520 between Henry VIII and Francis I of France. The aim was to increase the bond of friendship between the two kings, and ultimately didn’t amount to much in political stakes between the two countries, who were soon fighting again afterwards. They met near Calais (then an English territory on the border with France) with their retinues, and each king tried to outdo each other in spectacle and feasting – there was so much gold fabric on display, the field was named after it. A plaque on the D321 road near Balinghem marks the site today.

The Field of the Cloth of Gold, oil painting of circa 1545 in the Royal Collection

Mills’ novel begins with the unnamed narrator, who is possibly the second person to arrive in the field, telling us about some later arrivals:

We’d watched them cross the river from the south, bring with them all manner of equipment, supplies and baggage. Teams of porters travelled back and forth in synchronized relays; accordingly there were no wasted journeys or misplaced items. … We marvelled at the way they deployed their tents in a perfect grid formation. … The camp had come into existence during the course of a single day, the process overseen by a surveyor, a quartermaster and an inspector of works. Their logistical proficiency was astonishing to behold, yet despite all this they’d managed to produce a surplus of milk pudding.

The field’s other inhabitants are invited to partake of the surplus pudding – and this seemingly altruistic yet practical offer is met with complete distrust by some. The narrator, who likes an easy life, tucks in.

We then return to the beginning when the narrator arrived in ‘The Great Field’, which was then only occupied by Hen in the west.

Situated within the bend of the river, it was effectively separated from all the adjacent fields. The wilderness in the north acted as an additional boundary, and together these factors created a distinct sense of seclusion. It was as if our field had been deliberately set aside in order to fulfil some exalted purpose. No wonder we thought of it as somewhere special: the place where momentous events would unfold and come to fruition.

Each new arrival is subjected to much scrutiny by the others, including: the secretive Thomas in flowing white robes who pitches his gleaming white tent in the middle; Isabella of the crimson tent and cushions, who bathes naked in the river each day; and the practical Hartopp and his sons who arrive under sail. Each stake their claim to an area, picking the terrain that they prefer – the land in the top half of the field is less lush than the bottom, but won’t go boggy when it rains.

They all sort of rub along with each other, well mostly, until the large contingent arrives. The cooks who made too much milk pudding are assigned to dig a trench as punishment – whether it’s for drainage or fortification, no-one is sure but the narrator is experienced in these things and volunteers to guide the others in their task.

Life meanders on like the river. Everyone is waiting for something to happen. Will it?

As usual in a Mills novel, there is just the lone woman character – Isabella – who is, like the Lolita-esque schoolgirl temptress of All Quiet, not to be touched – all the men are scared of her! The men, however, can be viewed as all the different personality types you’d find in any workplace – and The Great Field is a workplace. There are all the petty rivalries you’d expect due to office politics; there is a shaky hierarchy which is threatened by each new arrival – just as a new employee will often create waves in an established order.

I particularly liked Aldebaran, the commander of the large encampment, who is always politely correcting the narrator:

‘By the way,’ he said, ‘it’s not punishment: it’s discipline.’
‘Oh, sorry,’ I said. ‘I didn’t realize.’
‘No need to apologize,’ he remarked. ‘Just setting you straight, that’s all. We’re very particular about these details.’

This short novel can be read in one sitting at just over 200 pages in a good-sized font. It was very cleverly plotted indeed and very funny. With Mills’ dead-pan style, subtext is simultaneously everything yet nothing at all. Mills fans will relish it as I did; others may be a little too bewildered to appreciate its subtleties fully at first, but I hope they come to love this author too.

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Annabel is one of the editors of Shiny New Books and doesn’t do camping.

Magnus Mills, The Field of the Cloth of Gold (Bloomsbury: London, 2015)  978-1408860021, 224pp., hardback.

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