A slice of Robert Selby‘s newly published ‘The Kentish Rebellion’, and a few words on the collection from its author.
‘We interrupt this programme.’ A helmeted
reporter crouches behind a wall, finger to earpiece.
Tickertape: Flames in Kent. Many dead;
fierce house-to-house fighting; bodies in the street.
Brockman, Sir William—from the Downs’ southern lip
above Eurotunnel’s freight check-in, Kent’s
High Sheriff until, pelted with runnel-shit,
ridden through London’s streets to jail, now bent
on avenging himself and Dering (his brother-in-law)—
receives a dispatch at HQ in the High Street,
above the Carphone Warehouse, first floor:
Fairfax is at the corner of Knightrider Street,
rain-screened, but coming. Coming—and yet,
where’s the fool Norwich? The town will be forced
before that popinjay gets his stockings wet.
More reports: Fairfax has a thousand horse,
two thousand. Brockman descends, holstering this intel
close. Citizenry versus New Model Army?
He shouts—there in the torrent, the Southwark cell
of his three years’ disgrace sundering to masonry
round him, admitting rain to sting his eyes, soak his shirt—
‘For God, King Charles, and Kent!’ The rest join in,
fooling themselves how little this will hurt,
bringing up ordnance for the end to begin.
I wrote most of The Kentish Rebellion in 2015 and 2016, upon the completion of my PhD, which was focused on the poet Mick Imlah. Though he and his early poetry were synonymous with the London-Oxford literary nexus, Imlah’s final collection, The Lost Leader, published shortly before his death from Motor Neurone Disease in 2009, is a compendium of Scottish history and experience — real and imagined — that contributes to the assertion, and validity, of Scottish cultural difference within Britain.
Researching Imlah’s Scottish trajectory got me thinking about my own native part of Britain, Kent, and whether it was possible for somewhere considerably closer, geographically, to the seat of power — in fact, forming a large constituent part of the amalgam ‘London & the South East’ and all the associations with conformity and complacency that go with it — to possess its own, distinct cultural identity. Today, almost solely in the ersatz, money-spinning ways of course. But the history of these isles is littered with uprisings against the central authority that began in Kent, a ‘Corner Kingdom’ of its own until the eighth century, ‘Unconquered’ by the Normans so that its gavelkind system of partible inheritance — as opposed to primogeniture — survived to keep power in the county dizzyingly diffuse and its community more insular than its neighbours. Such insularity did not rub along well with innovation down from London in Wat Tyler’s time nor in Jack Cade’s, nor in Thomas Wyatt’s, and not during the English Civil War, when one outsider reported back to the two Houses: ‘That county of Kent have angry hearts’.
The spark for the Kentish Rebellion of 1648 is still notorious: the enforcement, in Canterbury at the end of 1647, of a Parliamentary edict proscribing Christmas festivities. But the wider causes of the uprising, and its suppression by an invading London force led by Thomas Fairfax at the Battle of Maidstone the following June, have passed out of national and local memory. The distinguished historian of provincial England, Alan Everitt, himself a Sevenoaks man, wrote that Parliament’s hard-won victory represented that of ‘the nation-state of England over the “county-state” of Kent’. I wanted to explore this idea of Kent as an autonomous community, culturally and administratively, and in so doing found myself imagining a collective temperamental continuum from the revolutionary days through to the devolutionary impulses of our own time.
The poem above is The Kentish Rebellion’s opening flash-forward to Maidstone, and Sir William Brockman’s doomed defence from Gabriel’s Hill, which marked the end of what Everitt called ‘the last, in fact, of the great local insurrections of English history’.
‘The Kentish Rebellion’ is out now, published by Shoestring Press.