Opening a little window on the world of metal detecting today, and chatting about gold, not comedy gold, like last week but kind of tenuously linked gold … Oh, I’ll just get on with it shall I?
A few months back, the finds liaison bod who attends both the clubs I go to and asked us to bring in all the interesting things we’d found detecting. The local museum was mounting an exhibition of lost items and he wanted some of those lost items to be things which had later been found by local detectorists.
To my delight he chose two things from the pile of worthless shite I took along; a King Charles pipe tamper and a Limoges Mount.
It could be that I’ve banged on about them before but basically, they’re that glorious type of find which is not worth that much, so I get to keep it, but is incredibly rare, so it’s cool. The Limoges Mount was made in Limoges (I know there’s a shocker) between the 12th and 14th centuries. At the time a pilgrim route to Santiago de Compostella ran past the town and it was very popular. The good burgers Limoges, with their eye on the prize, started to make religious souvenirs to sell to the passing pilgrims. It’s probably an early one because it’s quite good. Close up there are hints of guilding, green and blue and I think there was some ochre coloured glaze as well, I can’t look right now because it’s in the museum, obviously. It’s bent which is a pity but it doesn’t really matter. It’s worth about £70 and when I tried to look it up on the Portable Antiquities Scheme database there had been about six found in ten years, so it’s quite rare.
The King Charles pipe tamper is worth about £45 and took a fair bit of perseverance. I dug out three nails before I managed to find it and had practically reached Australia by the time it came up. It was about eighteen inches down. I love both these items, the mount because it’s so rare and so interesting, the pipe tamper because it is rare, too, but I also love that because it comes from a tumultuous time in my nation’s history.
England at this time was a police state, people were bullied, picked-on and even ruined over their political allegiances, or those of their forebears. Worse, these were decided on the word of someone in favour with the regime. You could, literally, be executed on the word of someone who claimed to have heard you saying something seditious in the pub if they were prepared to swear it in court. Despite the fear of lying after swearing on the bible, it must have been easy enough to denounce someone who stood in your way, especially as both sides were fighting on religious grounds so would, no doubt, be able to convince you that you were doing God’s work perjuring yourself, anyway. It sounds like a grim time. All the theatres were closed, there may even have been a curfew. The arts were dismissed as frivolity, some of the most beautiful religious artworks were wrecked cf every single statue in Ely Cathedral, where the New Model Army also stabled its horses.
Cromwell really was a fucking vandal.
And he was born just outside Ely so in the case of his town of origin he should really have known better.
Despite being three hundred years ago, the language of that era intrigues me, it sounds so modern, Lord Protector, New Model Army. It’s very now. And much of what we consider to be British traits today, the idea of even-handedness and fair play for example, actually come from Cromwell’s ideas. But for all the new dawn he wanted to achieve, it didn’t quite work. There was to be no music, not even in church and no dancing, very Myanmar under its previous dictatorial regime (as opposed to the current dictatorial regime). I believe there are some places where Christians still believe dancing is the devil’s work, mostly in areas Cromwell’s followers fled to when the monarchy was restored; sorry US and Canada, I’m looking at you again; would the Pilgrim Fathers please stand up.
But for all its horror, or possibly because of it, that time holds a kind of morbid fascination to me. Probably because as an ex stand-up comedienne, who writes comedy, I would be considered the devil incarnate by Cromwell’s regime. However, I also am fascinated at how bravely people stood, and fell, by what they believed. Would I? Could I?
Things I like, they got to wear really cool clothes; you know, big hats, frilly shirts and … swords … and thigh boots. Mmm Three Musketeers anyone? What’s not to like? Oh yes, the dying young, and being a public enemy for making jokes. Alright then, so it’s cool but I wouldn’t want to live there.
Back to the stuff. How did these things end up buried? Who knows? The mount came from just outside Lavenham and it probably fell off something holy as it was being paraded around the fields, to bless the harvest? To pray for newly planted crops? But it could just as easily have been torn off and thrown there by an over enthusiastic Parliamentarian. The pipe tamper would have been a highly political object. If it’s restoration, it’s a celebration of the return to ‘normality’ such as it was – in effect, it was little more than swapping despots. If it’s during the Protectorate, it’s a red hot political potato. The kind of object that would get you beheaded or hung – subject to your social status – if the wrong people saw you with it. Perhaps it was buried, perhaps a concerned wife lobbed it to keep her husband safe? Who knows. But basically, because of that, anything from the Commonwealth era and the years just before and just after it, are bucket list for me.
Which brings me to this:
This is a Commonwealth Shilling, from the time of Cromwell, and it belonged to someone who either a) hated the Commonwealth – perhaps it was the same guy whose pipe tamper I found a few hundred yards away in a field across the road or b) someone who was trying to use it afterwards, had missed the date to return it and be issued with new, Chaz II head-on-it legal tender and tried to scrub the picture off so possession of his cash – and it was a lot of cash in those days – wasn’t treasonable and therefore punishable by death.
This is the best picture I could get, angling it on sideways to the evening sun. If you look at it in normal daylight it’s little more than a silver disc. But the point it, it’s good enough for me to see what it is, but too knackered for it to be worth anything. Indeed, the dealer I showed it to reckoned it was worth about £35, which is brilliant because it means that since it’s worth Jack Shit to anyone other than me I get to keep it.
Sod finding a hoard.
That, my friends, is a result.
In case you’re worried that I’m getting ahead of myself, here’s a picture of the kind of thing I usually find.
So how does this link in with my books? Well, some days, when I’m really in the zone, I get impatient with Real Life. It feels as if it is little more than an annoying obstacle between me and the far more interesting places I make up in my head. Other days, usually when making up the interesting places in my head is going well and I know I won’t forget what I’m doing if I walk away from it, I enjoy the Real World as mightily as any made-up place I could concoct brain-side.
But over and above all, I guess it says that I cannot lock myself away, sit in a garret and write – well, I can but only for short bursts. Because if you want to get things out of your head you have to put stuff in. There has to be living between trips to the garret. According to my conscious mind, much of the stuff in K’Barth is informed by my skewed understanding of European history in the 1930s and 40s. But I never realised how thoroughly I rationalised it through my own national view and, unconsciously, though that period of history when England – but Britain also – underwent a similarly monumental upheaval.
Amazingly, it was only a few months after publishing the last K’Barthan book that I realised where I’d got Lord Vernon’s title, ‘Lord Protector’ from. I would have changed that if I’d cottoned on but at the same time, I guess that’s part of the joy of it all. That this shit goes in, my brain mangles it about for a while, warps it through the prism of weirdness and then something else comes out: Cromwellian Britain with multiple alien creatures and flying cars.
One of my current projects, Space Dustmen, features a truly disgusting – but very nutritious – food called Dagon Porridge. I’d got the Dagons down as being a very practical and sensible but utterly unimaginative bunch of aliens who are now extinct and have left the universe with little more than the benefits, if that’s the right word, of their perfectly balanced nutritional meal. The Dagons lacked the imagination to appreciate the joy of making nutrition interesting, of course, so they are roundly and regularly cursed by our protagonists. I now realise I got Dagon from church, it’s the god of the Philistines; Goliath’s god.
Hmm … to change it or not to change it? I might just have to call them Aygons instead, except then they’ll sound like a baby Toyota (Aygo). But it does go to show that there is so much hidden treasure in Real Life. All you have to do is listen, let your brain suck up the information, blend it and spit out the literary smoothie of your unique warped-eye view. At some point, every experience becomes useful.
Example: About twenty years ago, I remember sitting down on a bench just outside Riquwier, in the Alsace, waiting for my husband and our friends so we could go and see a vineyard somewhere. I was joined by a little old lady – rather glam, dressed in a silk shirt, smart skirt, nylons, heels, immaculate make up, jewellery but not too much, dyed brown hair and silk scarf tied into a type of turban (well smart though, not 1960s sit-com cleaner style). I wasn’t in much of a mood for conversation but she proceeded to chat to me, as old dears do. She turned out to be absolutely lovely and told me, from what I could understand with my rather rudimentary grasp of French, that she’d been one of Picasso’s models and a mistress in the 1950s and that she had a book of his sketches which she hoped her family would sell after she died – or possibly which they had sold already, I couldn’t be sure – to pay for her flat, where she lived, in the walls of the town. Obviously, as an art historian originally, I was really chuffed to meet her. So it just goes to show that however unassuming someone, or something looks, it’s worth paying attention, because it might turn out to be treasure.