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Thoughts on a Language – Part 1: A Tale from the Mud of Mercia

December 11, 2011

Since this is the time of year when newspapers in the West start publishing short stories to amuse readers incapable of rising from their armchairs amidst the torpor of over-indulgent Christmas weekends, I thought I’d do the same.

As usual, I have a sneaky agenda that will become clear later.

But first, enjoy this short story by Andrew H Morton, an old friend. Andrew is a writer, musician, composer and a proud son of Mercia, the Anglo-Saxon kingdom that used to encompass most of the English Midlands, from where I also hail. He has written two highly-regarded books about JRR Tolkein, the creator of Lord of the Rings. Ever since we became friends at University, words and music have poured out from him, while for much of that time I have followed a much more humdrum path in business. But happily for me, we have stayed in touch for forty years.

Here’s the story:

Anglo-Saxon  

Irwin slewed down the pebble slope past sheep’s skull and flint, sea flung, gold and chalky white, to flat sand. Two herring gulls squabbled on a wooden groin and further out terns hovered and dived into grey brown water after herring fry. Late sun shot his shadow out long across the beach, down ribbed sand where starfish stranded waited for the turning tide. Over grey waves, sullen as roughly hammered lead, rarely if ever blue, or from dunes, westward over dim fenland the sky here is always half the world. Here waters come and go as they will over long years, sometimes leaving a seaside town miles inland, or taking back fen and field without a by your leave.

Fifty yards out, at low tide, stumps of trees reared like rotten teeth. Five hundred years ago, the bells of Ingoldby rang among these ruined trees. Children played and farmers came to trade their wares. Folk said you could sometimes hear the bells calling forgotten flocks to church. He would wade out among the tar-black trunks, stick in hand and bag over shoulder. Taking off his boots, he strode through sea’s brim, filthy with mud and salt stew. Gold grit turned to mud beneath his feet and here he knew that he would find some little dab, flounder, or, if he were lucky, red-spotted plaice. The skill was to feel with your feet until a fish were found then spear him with your stick. Old knowledge taught doggedness in this work.

Feeling with his feet in the soft mud he cursed as his toe met something hard and sharp.  Finding man made things out here among the old dwellings was not unheard of – often shards of rough-wrought pottery, but sometimes spoons and coins. Mud preserved them well. Reaching down and groping by his feet he pulled up a cross shape, six inches long, coated in a rind of black sea grime. “Well, there’s a thing” he said to himself and dropped the cross into his bag to look at later. It was a good afternoon’s work, and as he crossed a low saddle in the dunes, he had a handful of dab and two flounders in his bag. From this height, perhaps twenty feet above sea level, he could see where the setting sun cast long shadows from the hedges, making the fen world half black half golden. Daneby farm, half a mile inland, was a squat huddle of buildings down a road that men had made and wind and weather were unmaking slowly. Sparks of the late sun set the hawthorn ablaze by the roadside as he neared the farm. Cows still standing cast weird shapes on the tussocky grazing.

 When the evening work of the farm was done, and man and wife had eaten, Irwin turned his thoughts to the cross. He cleared the kitchen board and got to work with a small file.

“What’s that you’ve got?” asked Hilda, peering at the cross. Her eyesight was poorer than his now. It was a worry.

“Just summat I found down by Old Ingoldby,” he answered. “Looks like a cross – perhaps from the church.”

It would be painstaking work. He put on his reading glasses and turned a lamp round to see better. Bit by bit the black rind flaked off until he could see grey metal cunningly etched with round and swirling shapes. Spitting on a nose-rag, he rubbed until the iron grey took on the hue of silver. At the middle of the cross and around it were five raised shapes set in the silver. He shook some household cleaner on his cloth and rubbed again. First there was a glimpse of gold, but it shone from within, see-through, a deep yellow gemstone. The feel of it was light – not cold like glass – more like smooth wood or wax. He knew it to be amber, old hardened tree gum – a rare thing but sometimes found by the North Sea.

For days, the cross stood propped up on a shelf above the hearth and Irwin and Hilda stopped every now and then to look. Whoever made this, thought Irwin, had a good eye and great skill to make the cross like a tree entwined in shapes like twisted vines or snake-like things. The five beads of amber glowed like little suns against the pale silver background. He wondered that it had lain so long, lost and dumb beneath the sea, but now was speaking its maker’s mind again.

After a few days, Hilda said: “Well, what are you going to do with it? “

“Do with it?”

“It looks like it might be worth a bit. We could do with some income the way this place is going.”

It was true. Times had been they had made a fair living with milk and beet, but now the farm trade had fallen on hard times and it was as much as they could do to break even. A little cash would come in handy.

“You could show it to Mr Eavers at All Saints,” she said. ”He might have a mind what to do with it.”

The next day, Irwin drove the two miles to All Saints with the cross neatly wrapped in cloth on the seat beside him. He had not the slightest holiness about him and lacked belief. It was all well and good this talk of God, God’s will and God’s kindness, but he had seen little proof of it in his life. Since the children had left, his life often seemed empty, an unforgiving round of hard work. He and Hilda had been married in the church thirty years back, and his two children christened there. Each time he had awkwardly muttered the words on the page, reading with difficulty and painfully aware of his gaping lack of belief. This was why he felt a little sheepish as he knocked on the priest’s door.

“Ah yes, Mr Bleasby, from Daneby Farm,” said Mr Eavers. “I believe we see you wife every now and then.”

Irwin nodded and doffed his headgear as he went inside.

“Now what can I do for you?”

Irwin unwrapped the cross.

“I found this,” he said,” in the sea, by the tree stumps at Ingoldby as I was fishing.  The wife thought you might know something about it.”

Eavers took the cross in his hands and a look of wonder came over him.

“I’ve cleaned it up a bit,” said Irwin. “It shows well now, don’t you think?”

“This is old – very old,” said the vicar. “Older even than Ingoldby. It’s Anglo Saxon work from the look of it. Seven to eight hundred years A.D. It’s a very good find.”

“And worth a bit I would think?”

“Quite a lot. You should see something from this. A few hundred pounds at least.”

“I’m not sure I want to sell it,” stammered Irwin.

“ The best thing, “ said Eavers, ”is to leave it with me. I’ll take it to Lincoln and show it to someone who knows more. Most likely they will offer you a great deal of money for it, but it may take some time to work out.”

Something inside made Irwin bridle, a feeling of unease, not to do with the worth or even ownership of the cross, but where the thing belonged.

“I’d like some time to think about it,” he said, and Eavers felt his unease.

“You can’t sell it, Irwin. You can’t keep it either. It would be wrong. The world needs to see this thing. You can’t keep it to yourself.”

Irwin fought to find words.

“Go on,” said the vicar, as Irwin fumbled with the cross.

“Whatever happens,” said Irwin, “I’d like it to stay here. It belongs here, not in Lincoln. I don’t mind where, but somewhere that folk round here can see it. You could put it in the church, perhaps?”

“I’ll bear that in mind,” said Eavers. ”I’ll see what can be done.”

After dinner that night, Irwin took the dogs and walked up the lane to the sea. It was a still evening and the tiny black shapes of bats flitted back and forth on the landside of the dunes. Further on, all was grey as the beach melted into the sea and the sea melted into the sky. The only lights came from a little coaster and the on- off beam of the Anderby lighthouse. Now he knew what he had wanted to say to the vicar, but dared not for fear of seeming a fool.

You could not love this land. You could barely make a living from it with business the way they was. If he could sell mud, he would be a rich man, he often grimly joked – the slippery mire of the cowsheds or the sticky furrows of the crop fields, which always threatened to flood if the drains got blocked. Now, in summer it was bearable- just about. A few hardy folk even came from Sheffield or Nottingham to breathe the bracing North Sea winds, fly kites and play on the sands, shivering in sheds where they brewed their hot drinks. But in the winter –when the east wind wields its ruthless blade and sleet or snow billows in from the sea, no man would thank God for living here. Irwin had no time for God. But in this half-light, the cross loomed above and before him in his mind’s eye. When he had chipped away the black coating and seen the silver and amber shine once more, it was not God who spoke to him, but some other man of great skill and understanding who, a thousand years ago and more, had made this land his own; who had doggedly clung to this rim of the world and named it in his own tongue. The edge of the land had frayed, undone his world, sunk it beneath sand and mud. Held firm in earth’s grasp, a ghost now, the nameless maker had whispered once again life’s old riddle of love and pain. Everything is lent to us – land, children, love, friendship, riches and whatever happiness comes our way. Everything is taken back in the end but, while we live, we cling on for dear life and try to make the best of what we have.

I reproduce this piece for its own sake as an unusually vivid piece of writing that speaks to me in a special way. It reeks of the country where I grew up. And as a lover of history and collector of ancient coins, I have always wanted to be one of those people who roam the fields of England with metal detectors, hoping to find buried treasure. Sadly, time has never allowed.

But there is another reason for sharing Andrew’s story. If you’re interested in the English language and its origins, you may already have figured it out. In the next post I will reveal all….

From → Books, History, Media, UK

3 Comments
  1. Steve,
    that’s a beautifully, poetic story. I love the way the words flow, the mellifluous use of alliteration and the onomatopoeic words, but what that special feature is I cannot even guess! So, await your revelation with bated breath. Keep us posted.

  2. Andrew Morton permalink

    Thanks for posting this, Steve. This is a story close to my heart, finding its origins in my fondness for the bleaker stretches of the Licolnshire coast and visiting godforsaken farms with my father.
    But there’s a linguistic point to the story as well – I have used only words of Germanic origin or words like “priest”, which were in common usage in Old English. However, looking over this again, I don’t know how I missed “preserved”! I should have said “kept”.As your contributor above hints at, it’s almost impossible to write with Old English roots without slipping into the rhythms of Old English, and also their technique of alliteration.

  3. Andrew Morton permalink

    Apologies – seem to have blown your revelation here. I’m a terribly careless reader.

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