In this collection of linked short stories, Simon Young revisits the territory he occupied so beguilingly in A.D. 500, not only literally revisiting Britain during the Roman and post-Roman period but metaphorically with his mix of fact and fiction. Like his previous book, Farewell Britannia is a hybrid, a combination of lively fiction and popular history designed both to entertain and inform.
A young man attending his father’s funeral in 430 AD reflects on the history of his family, the Atrebates, a clan whose fate has been tied to that of Britain’s Roman rulers since Julius Caesar’s expedition in search of pearls and tin in 55 BC. Atrebates have been present over the years at all the great events from the revolt of Boudicca to the final withdrawal of the legions in 410 AD, and Young gives his readers vivid and plausible accounts of all these. More intriguing to me, however, are his ventures into lesser known territory. I particularly enjoyed his poignant account of an ambitious army wife struggling to prepare a feast for a visiting general in the wilds of Northumberland. Whether it be roast flamingo in Briga or balsamic vinegar in Islington, food, it seems, has always served a far more complex purpose than merely sustaining life. Another story tells of the persecution of Christians in 280 AD in language whose very spareness makes it all the more moving. And there are other curiosities, from headhunters in the Pennines to elephants in Essex.
Each story is followed by an extended note on the historical context, which makes the book as educational as it is readable. I have one minor quibble, which is the rather pedantic inclusion of the modern name of each location in brackets after its Roman appellation. This may have been the publisher’s decision, I suppose, but either way I found it unnecessary and distracting and would have preferred fact and fiction to remain separated. It would have been just as easy to include modern names in the historical notes.