BOOK REVIEW / Embroidering our history: 'Odo's Hanging' - Peter Benson: Hodder, 14.99 pounds

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The Independent Culture
AN 11th-century drama set around squabbles over the Bayeux tapestry might not at first sound like inviting or accessible terrain, but Peter Benson turns the trick partly by creating characters who so thoroughly delight and exasperate. Eponymous Odo, warrior Bishop of Bayeux and half- brother of William the Conqueror, is a man of many chins, short fuse and little tact, but who does have a famous love of the arts which he generously patronises. He employs Turold, a Norman artist of even shorter fuse and no tact, to travel from Bayeux to a nunnery at Winchester and there to design a vast hanging depicting the events leading to William's conquest.

Turold's beloved apprentice is pigeon-fancying Robert who, although he is mute and limited to nods and shrugs with the other characters, eloquently speaks his mind to us readers. This incapacity to form words is also thematically significant: Robert is indulged and trusted by all, at least in part because he is physically incapable of argument or betrayal.

The first of many contretemps between Odo and Turold is also about words. Odo wants a text to explain events in the Tapestry, and Turold considers this outrageously unnecessary. Why impose words when his art says it all? Why are both artist and bishop, men of brilliance and mettle, so reckless and foolish when they open their mouths?

The tapestry depicts battlefield and politics, and its very making is the occasion for political intrigue. King William is a frequent visitor to Turold's workshop, and the monarch requests that a scene of his own devising about Odo's past be sewn into the hanging. Queen Matilda - a tiny woman, but commanding - also adds a own controversial flourish of her own, which Odo dare not have removed. Of such tactical inclusions and omissions is history itself embroidered.

The nuns' needles whisper as the magnificent work takes on life, and, meanwhile, Robert pursues Martha the baker's daughter in flights of the most pellucid and beguiling prose (which, of course, she cannot hear). Robert is already a lovable character for his intense loyalty to Turold, for his winning ways with pigeons, nuns and royalty - but with Martha he is also ingenious. He keenly watches her bathe in the yard below his window and thinks, as she dresses, that the rough cloth of her shirt must surely feel very scratchy. At his next opportunity he slips into the nuns' linen store-room and purloins the softest oddment he can find for his purpose, so that while his master memorialises the Battle of Hastings, Robert thoughtfully invents the bra.