Dane-geld

I have watched the press-pack and timorous MPs demanding a human sacrifice as the price of leaving the government alone, and making the news not breaking it, so today I leave the field to Rudyard Kipling:

IT IS always a temptation to an armed and agile nation
To call upon a neighbour and to say: –
“We invaded you last night – we are quite prepared to fight,
Unless you pay us cash to go away.”

And that is called asking for Dane-geld,
And the people who ask it explain
That you’ve only to pay ’em the Dane-geld
And then you’ll get rid of the Dane!

It is always a temptation for a rich and lazy nation,
To puff and look important and to say: –
“Though we know we should defeat you,
we have not the time to meet you.
We will therefore pay you cash to go away.”

And that is called paying the Dane-geld;
But we’ve proved it again and again,
That if once you have paid him the Dane-geld
You never get rid of the Dane.

It is wrong to put temptation in the path of any nation,
For fear they should succumb and go astray;
So when you are requested to pay up or be molested,
You will find it better policy to say:

“We never pay any-one Dane-geld,
No matter how trifling the cost;
For the end of that game is oppression and shame,
And the nation that plays it is lost!”

See also

Books

I have measured out my life with coffee spoons

Another day draws past, undistinguished from other days, and weeks pass. Is this what retirement is like? But I am not retired and I work, now from home, and occasionally London now that this is smiled upon with an askance look.

Day runs into day, hour into another coffee waiting for the dishwasher to fill – that is how time runs.

This cannot be any new normality. It is a collective coma. If I become despairing, what must it be like for those who suffer mental stresses? Many new MPs of a few months ago (it seems forever ago) spoke to say their major concern is mental health, which is as worthy a cause as one can find (and I will write about Hobbes’s observations on the subject before too long), but of all the things to do, this lockdown is a mental health disaster, and for years after the last coronavirus patient has risen from their bed, the trauma of confinement will haunt many, many in their homes, leading to rash actions and choices, and worse disasters ahead. For the sake of sanity it must end.

Another week looms though, unreleased. I can stretch my legs, and take long, long walks from home, but I have to work proper hours, distracted, staring at the work to be done in the garden – and remembering how fortunate I am to have a garden when many are confined to two-room flats. How must they be at this time?

I have long since lost track of time, the weeks, which day it is sometimes, because there is no familiar rhythm beyond the call of the stomach, which is dangerous so close to the cake cupboard, and with loss of time comes the temptation to head out to clear my head in the fields – and each time I think of those who do not have that luxury.

Lethargy loses its charm soon enough. End the lockdown, please, Mr Johnson. I would rather get the disease, even if it is as bad as you had it, then last through more of this. I am resolved though never to retire if this is what it is like.

Another coffee. Another coffee spoon. Whatever the time is, I do not know any more but by counting the used spoons in the bowl.

See also

Books

Scarcely a street, too few houses

Silence, even in the edge of the suburb. There’s a big town nearby, but R S Thomas comes back to me again, the silent village. “This last outpost of time past”.

I am as far from Lleyn as I could be in space and form but not maybe in mood. Here the once busy local streets (never called streets here – too urban a word – but no shortage of houses), are silent as of the tarmac were no more than one “that leads nowhere and fails at the top”.

I wander in my mind back to those little places, scarcely villages, which the poet wandered amongst, away from any road, where I automatically, without thinking switched to speaking in Welsh, before realising that I don’t actually speak Welsh enough to complete a coherent sentence, but there is no other way to speak of the bracken-clad hillsides wandering down in their own time to the cliff and the inevitable sea.

There are houses here, and neighbours, and the way between the one tavern and the one shop, both shuttered, but stillness in the way.

So little happens; the black dog
Cracking his fleas in the hot sun
Is history. Yet the girl who crosses
From door to door moves to a scale
Beyond the bland day’s two dimensions.

Take me back to Lleyn and its embracing sea.

See also

Books

Waiting for the storm

I keep coming back to R S Thomas, and to the landscapes he described. These days remind me of his Abersoch, and every day of uncertain suspension of life it whispers itself.

I have trodden in his footsteps amongst the timeless crags of Lleyn and the little, ancient villages clinging to the coast endlessly more ancient. I have only walked there though in summertime, while he, the poet and pastor, served all year, in bright summer, industrious harvest and punishing winters and he saw more than a passing visitor may.

I remember Abersoch. It was not as he described it, but I was there in the summer, and the whole little town had been transformed by summer visitors. The fishing boats were there are the men working on their nets, but bustling all over the streets and beach were families in gaudy holiday clothes with buckets and spades and beachballs, speaking English. There was no gathering storm – it as bright and sunny. A clamber round the cliff presented a little more of what it must have been like, and as the wind began to rise, I remembered the Abersoch only read about in those pages.

Elsewhere on Lleyn I wanted to find the village of another poem “Scarcely a street, too few houses” or the places where he found the universe and all of history wrapped up in the stillness of the village church. In Abersoch though I wanted to find “that headland, asleep on the sea, The air full of thunder” and imagine the girl riding her cycle, hair at half-mast, as a carefree symbol, but found families busying themselves into misery with their determination to enjoy the day.

Instead, I found it at home in these recent weeks, enclosed but for long, daily walks, waiting for the stroke while might fall or not, or for the return of normality, or knowing that a release to familiarity may still be followed by the clasp of the deadly disease.

….. There were people going
About their business, while the storm grew
Louder and nearer and did not break

Books

The oldest story in the World

The oldest story in the World, intriguing… How many ancient tales survive among our own nation? Very few.

Once there would have been more, but while printing saved stories, it lost them too by its silence, so the first printers gave new life to the Canterbury Tales, they ignored peasant stories, which have been lost. One 15th century writer said he would pass over in disdain such traditions ‘Concerning Wade and his bote called Guingelot, and also his strange exploits in the same’ but what is this lost tradition?  Soon came the Reformation, and old, heathenish stories were cast out deliberately.  It was a blessing to the nation overall, but incalculable loss to our folklore.

Writing discourages the oral transmission of stories, perhaps because we look to the page for confirmation, perhaps because those written down lose their vitality when nailed to paper, perhaps because the old is drowned in the huge volume of new, printed stories. Many of our traditional fairy takes survive only because the Brothers Grimm hunted them down in the forests of Germany and Walt Disney committed them to film. We have a lot to thank Mr Disney for if the opposite of ‘Disneyfication’ of stories is losing them entirely from our consciousness.

The oral tradition is stronger than a book-bound people can imagine.  The Book People at the end of Fahrenheit 451 are a fantasy suggested by oral stories but are actually celebrating the written word. We are Book People. Beyond our paper culture, the story long handed down is a phenomenon.

For bookless people, a story is more immediate.  When John Ross moored his ship further north in the Arctic than any ship had hitherto sailed, the local Eskimos told his crew of another fleet which had visited them, and recounted all the detail as if it had been yesterday: but it was Martin Frobisher’s fleet of three hundred years before.

Britain has some older stories surviving from a distant age, like those of Beowulf, and the lively tales of the Mabinogion, which would have been lost if not written down. Ours is a young nation, of just fifteen centuries or so.  Beowulf is but a youngster, and the older stories it recounts, of the Volsings and of Waldere reaching into pan-Germanic legend, are wet behind the ears compared with the classics.  We have some older snippets – the legend of the Lady of the Lake, who wed her suitor on condition that she be touched with no thing of iron, may come from the collision of the Bronze with the incoming Iron Age.  Even this story is young.

The Trojan War reaches deep into the Bronze Age.  The names of Graeco-Roman deities can be traced to the early Indo-European languages, but not their legends. The Bible reaches back to Creation itself, but the earliest actual stories are of the Bronze Age, and in parallel the earliest written stories from Babylon and the east tell of the great flood, which happened millennia ago in many places across the world.

We can tell stories that are written in the landscape, as Rudyard Kipling did of his beloved Sussex, and wind yarns about the bits of history we know and the castles, the carved hillsides and the ancient standing stones, but this is not a living story of those times.

See you the dimpled track that runs, All hollow through the wheat?
O that was where they hauled the guns That smote King Philip’s fleet!…
And see you, after rain, the trace Of mound and ditch and wall?
O that was a Legion’s camping-place, When Caesar sailed from Gaul!
And see you marks that show and fade, Like shadows on the Downs?
O they are the lines the Flint Men made, To guard their wondrous towns!

In Australia there are tribal tales that have no dates and were not written down, until white anthropologists passed by. We may think of Australia as young, but its native people had the place for untold ages without interference.

There is in Victoria a mountain called Mount Eccles with a slot-like crater lake in its heart, and around it a wet landscape, inhabited since tie beyond estimation by the Gunditjmara tribe, and they have a creation story of the High Head emerging from the earth, spreading his blood and teeth across the landscape and creating the wetlands, just as the lava did when Mount Eccles erupted. Stone tools have been found buried in ash from that time, so the people were already here.  The thing is, the scientific data for the eruption puts it at 36,900 years ago, when even in Europe the Old Stone Age hunters were still wandering an untamed continent.

It is unimaginable that a story could be told uninterrupted since Palaeolithic times, but somehow among a tribe in a once forgotten continent there is proof of a form of immortality of the spoken word.

See also

Books