20 Aug 2007
In 1966, the Royal Mail (or was is still the GPO then?) issued a commemorative set of stamps showing the Bayeux Tapestry. It took pride of place in my stamp collection, not because of rarity or value — it had neither of those — but because I was entranced by the vividness of the story it told.
I longed to see the real thing, but knew it would never happen. The tapestry was held in a foreign country, far away.
Now I've lived in that country for several years, just a two-hour drive from Bayeux, yet somehow never got around to fulfilling that ambition. Until today.
We had the excuse of visiting friends, holidaying in Bayeux. So we bought the tickets and joined the August queues, steaming not from the heat but from the torrential rain that has been the signature of this miserable summer.
And then we entered the dim, cool, U-shaped room to be guided through the story by the recorded voice of a man who sounded like he worked for the BBC in the 1950s.
And, 41 years later, I was entranced again. The tapestry is cruder than I expected. My only prior experience of it had been in the concentrated form of postage stamps. It had none of the richness I associate with tapestry. But the story is driven by that blunt vivacity, that bawdy enthusiasm that so enlivened medieval life and art. There is no shying away from the ugly reality of combat: the tapestry is almost exultant in its depiction of mutilated bodies. Nor is there any pseudo-liberal conscience. It is, after all, the earliest depiction we have of refugees and what might arguably be called a war crime (civilian bystanders having their house torched).
As an historical record, it is unashamedly partial, a 70-metre propaganda piece. As entertainment — and its annual exhibition in medieval times must have served that purpose, at least in part — it is the best comic strip I've seen.