THE STRANGLEHOLD OF THE IVY: A LINCOLNSHIRE CHILDHOOD
February 1st, 2020
Shyamal - Wikimedia Commons
There was a time, when meadow, grove, and stream;
The earth, and every common sight
To me did seem
Apparelled in celestial light:
The glory and the freshness of a dream...
I venture here to write down pages of the truant kind one succumbs to writing when one should be writing something else; to trespass upon the debatable regions of autobiographical personalia, a nostalgic excursus into Memoir. For last night, as not seldom now in the nights of my middle-age, I beheld yet again The Wolds of my childhood: and felt, as though it had been estranged from my waking thought, with a sharp onset of longing, how much I had missed that land. And I woke up missing the space, the taste the air had; the strange glow of the light, even-spreading stained-glass-amber or blinking through tree-limbs, and that light’s feathery, cobwebby shadows; the feeling at once menacing and seductive of the North Sea’s nearness; of being cornered on the edge. The mere fact or elemental presence of that sea; but also its weird beating force pulling you towards itself whilst you wish at the same time to shut it out, an ogre at the door. The sound of the wind, blowing through the emptiness; all the musics of the wind. The vast albino glare of the sky with crow and gull and kestrel in its void. The echoing calls of rooks, roosting at evening towards the tangled eaves of rusty, dusky shaws, and carrs of alder, their dark fringes silvered with birches.
Little boy, little boy, where wast thou born?
runs a mediæval rhyme. The lad answers:
In Lincolnshire; under a thorn;
Where they sup sour milk from a ram’s horn.
The aforesaid customs were somewhat before my time, but Lincolnshire was where this particular clownish yokel, bumpkin, chawbacon, lob, churl or hayseed happened to be born and to grow up. Henry VIII hailed the county as ‘the most brute and backward shire in the whole realm’. Dickens evokes it as a northerly back-of-beyond, a bleakness peopled mostly by crows, where it rains all the time. It is not easy for me to claim he was not right, but of English authors, if you wish for a witness of what Lincolnshire feels like, you must read Tennyson, born and bred at Somersby:
With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall.
The broken sheds looked sad and strange:
Unlifted was the clinking latch;
Weeded and worn the ancient thatch
Upon the lonely moated grange.
About a stone-cast from the wall
A sluice with blackened waters slept,
And o’er it many, round and small,
The clustered marish-mosses crept.
Hard by a poplar shook alway,
All silver-green with gnarlèd bark:
For leagues no other tree did mark
The level waste, the rounding grey.
Even I am surprised by the roster of famous natives. Havelok and Grim were, it has to be acknowledged, Danes; one might start with with Saint Guthlac (viz., of Crowland). Thereafter the list could go:
Hereward the Wake Captain John Smith
Gilbert of Sempringham Wesley
Robert Manning of Bourne Stukeley
Henry Bolingbroke Newton
William Cecil Lady Charlotte Guest
both Foxes George Boole…
Margaret Thatcher was born at Grantham. Without straying into the folly of pretending any great claims, all the same it is hard not to feel that this list of names suggests a character. Colin Dexter endowed Inspector Morse with his own origins here. At Buslingthorpe was born the late Sir Roger Scruton; who wrote, amongst many other things, about oikophilia.
What I, a native alien, himself at once strange and homely, and for whom the homely was also strange, liked about the county was —its sense of Emptiness. My Cockney grandmother would complain, ‘The sky’s too big; it gives me a headache’; visiting relations from India would lament, ‘All this wasted green space, why don’t They BUILD something over it? No cities nothing. Isn’t it? Isn’t it?’
The next village along from ours had indeed been annihilated by The Black Death. The Plague had left only a diminutive husk of a church nestled in a fold amidst trees; graves, hummocks, ivy, moss; celandines and sheep. Inside its shell you entered a rapt and desolate stillness. Shutting the door a near-deafness, perfect but for, as if far or years away, the muffled wuthering of the wind, the sheep bleating faintly. The floor of the nave was carpeted with beetles. Their casques and carapaces crunched underfoot. The crotches of the stooping yews were clustered with snails. For some reason, I spent a lot of time mitching and moping in such graveyards. I was threatened with expulsion from school, for just such skulking in a cemetery.
Overall there are, or were, more pigs and potatoes than folk of farmers and fox-hunters; and a feeling that the present yet-surviving human habitations were also transient, fugitive, thresholdly; subsiding inexorably back: to join the lost plague-villages, the remnants of Roman wall, of Celtic dyke, under the turf; to be overgrown with nettles, to be engulfed, in the stranglehold of the ivy.
On school-afternoons, for some reason, albeit not unconnected perhaps with sojourns at The Red Lion, I liked to catch up on my sleep in the tussocky, bracken-plumed copses I believed were my own secret groves. I would lie down on tapestries of mosses under the motheaten or whiskered trees, dingles in secluded marshy woods crisscrossed with becks, tiny gullies and streams. Listening to the lisping of these watercourses and to the wind in the boughs, creaking
and sighing overhead, I would be lulled into slumber —only to resurface to find myself becrawled by newts.
An hour maybe had passed, the wind had hushed, a cloud had drifted over the hazy sun: and I would feel as though I had been lying there for centuries, and wakened only now from agelong sleep, my unmoving trunk mummified by undergrowth. Had Earth chinked an orifice and spat me out again? Or had I worked my way up, as the world had grown and aged, and squeezed through her rind, like a splinter? I would have to wrench myself off the ground, damp with the earth’s dewy birthsweat, sputtering turf through gritty teeth, trailing torn taproot like umbilicus, angletwitch-grubs, scattering leaves, nests and hibernating vermin, scratching battletwigs from my ears with my fingernails and snails from each eyesocket. Peeling off lichens like scabs. Breaking cover through the frond-frontier, my boots would encounter the clart of ploughfurrows.
Here beyond the world of the ghostly woods stretched the tilthlands of the seeming-endless fields, where stood the Treasure-cities of the Haystacks, like the cyclopean granaries devised for Pharaoh; and the baroque hulks, long-necked and beaky, of farm engines like machinedinosaurs: frozen in the angular throes of their extinction.
The primordial English Kingdom of Lindsey was inaugurated by scions of Woden.
Geot, or Geat as in the Geats of Beowulf; or Frioðulf
Gautr (another name for Woden) Frealaf
Godulf Winta (as in Winteringham and Winterton)
Finn Aldfrið —&c.
But the Arthur of Nennius may have fought here three of his twelve battles; which perhaps has some bearing upon why Lindsey had already vanished as soon as around 500AD, fleeting back into Dark-Age prehistory, swallowed up by Deira and Mercia. (Wold is Anglian: weald, WestSaxon.) It had (th)Ridings (thirds), Hundreds, and, finding itself in due course swarming with Vikings amidst the Danelaw, Sokes and Wapentakes.
As a child I felt as children do I guess, as though I knew of my tiny village not only every grassblade but on each grassblade every dewdrop. Awakening abed of a morning you felt as though you could fan your fingers and reach out and feel, like a tree spreading its rootsystem underground, from the disused chalk-quarry down the hill to The School and The Church and along, to The Vicarage, caressing familiar hedgerows, to the farms and fields. I knew each farm and its family. I recall their names: Wilmot and Sutton, Threlfall, Frankish, Ayscough… The same names were also on the gravestones. Sally Wilmot, with her puddingbasin-bangs, huge glasses, braces on her front teeth; Emma Sutton, with her long chestnut-brown plaits, whose girlish smell was like bread and strawberry jam; Old Mr Haggitt the gardener, who wore his corduroys up to his armpits; a pipe clamped in his dewlapped mandibles, grower of prize turnips, a Nimrod-like hunter of the moles.
A few steps straight across the lane from the miniature foursquare mediæval church amidst the walled island-precinct of its god’s-acre with tufts and skew-whiff headstones, stands the village school. Thus (I always thought) the village youngsters, but lately born, and the village corpses, the late dead, were neighbours, schoolyard and graveyard cheek-by-jowl. Rubbing elbows.
The Victorian schoolhouse, so small and so vehemently Victorian it might best be described as a Gothic Folly, is the creation of the nineteenth-century vicar of the village, Charles Tennyson Turner, a brother of Alfred. (Maud was composed at our Vicarage. The first poet I read was, accordingly, Tennyson.) It is of red brick, overgrown with tangled ivy and cushions of emerald moss, but furnished with stony excrescences of finials and bevelled mullions and transoms on the long windows, through whose panes hang columns of honeyhued light, with flotillas of motes mustering drowsily in their beams. The fragrance of disinfectant mingles with the odours of sticky-fingered cake, and cups of tea, sandwiches and furtive cigarettes, bananas in lunchboxes and the ambience of children occasionally wetting themselves.
We sit at wooden desks with black inkwells; embossed with chewing-gum, stained and scored by immemorial generations with spills, blots, and more-or-less obscene graffiti, they have been worn and gnarled till they look like sculptures of driftwood.
We sing hymns every morning, standing; the tweed-clad Headmaster at the front, gat-toothed Mrs Frankish pounding at the upright piano, warbling. I still hear my child’s voice, all the child-voices of my long-lost friends:
...He made their glowing colours, He made their tiny wings...In Christ there is no East nor West...But would smite the living fountains...
Frankish appears for the village in Domesday Book. Thus the Frankishes had been here since the 11th century —forever marked by name, as neither Angle, nor Dane.
Every Friday morning we had SCRIPTURE Lessons with a local vicar. Our Friday visitor was a jerky scarecrow rigged up out of coat-hangers and pipe-cleaners, catgut and piano-wire, garbed in clerical sable and dogcollared, with scrubbed-carrot hands, and a long sallow face in which bulbous eyes of chalky blue blinked and watered behind jam-jar lenses. They suggested, rather than the fishpooles in Heshbon by the gate of Bathrabbim, fish going belly-up in their bowls. Lank sandy hair in a cowlick surmounted pale features that seemed to be vaguely frosted, scaly or crusted, pastry-flaky: more than a hint of dandruff, and in razored, soap-dried skin, of defunct but caking pustules. The name of this apparition was Reverend Saunders: hence, he had been duly rechristened amongst us as “The Reverend Sawdust”, or, “Neverending Sawdust”; or variants of the same. No nomina more inexorably and manifoldly apt could have been conceived.
These were the occasions of my first readings of The King James Version, over which I pored for years, in that schoolroom tranced with beams of mote-tingled light. I did so more often than merely on Friday mornings with Neverend Of Sawdust in spite of my being exhibited, there being in Christ no East nor West notwithstanding, as a specimen of an exotic heathen —and a right mardy one ’n all. (As a child I was found not English enough; as an adult I am found not anti-English enough.)
We had to read SCRIPTURE aloud for the Rev. Hear our twangy, blunt, bleating voices:
Hath the raine a father? Or who hath begotten the drops of dew?
Out of whose wombe came the yce? And the hoary frost of heauen: who hath gendered it?
The waters are hid as with a stone; and the face of the deepe is frozen.
Canst thou bind the sweete influences of Pleiades? Or loose the bands of Orion?
Canst thou bring forth Mazzaroth in his season, or canst thou guide Arcturus with his sonnes? Knowest thou the ordinances of heauen? Canst thou set the dominion thereof in the earth? Canst thou lift vp thy voice to the cloudes, that abundance of waters may couer thee?
Canst thou send lightnings, that they may goe, and say vnto thee, Here — we— AAARE ?
In the School playground we yarmed and beeled in dialect, we tormented one another with “Itching-Powder” concocted from haws or dogrose-hips, played ear-ringing and sickeninglyplexus-winding internecine onslaughts of ‘British Bulldogs’, and descanted merry ditties detailing Hitler’s monorchidism, and the general procreative inadequacies of the Nazi topbrass. In season we duelled at conkers and debated the best method to make sledge-runners slide. This too the forum, and in secret dens in the ivy-lairs amidst the trees beyond the fences, where one agogged to uncanny rumours: of a labyrinth of catacombs delved from the quarry all the way under the village till it reached beneath the graveyard… for some dark unspeakable purpose, whereon, in fact, no light ever was shed.
Thinkably these mysterious sinister tunnels may have had something to do, one suspected, with “The Wizard”.
The Wizard had lived at some indefinite period in The Olden Days. The Wizard had made a wagon go up the hill without a horse. One listened, with spinetingling chills, as the tale was told and retold: how The Wizard, after a life of unnatural longevity, had finally died and been buried, over there by the Church but he had not lain quiet in his grave, which disagreeable turn of events had compelled the boldest of the villagers to take a long iron bar, and drive it through his coffin, transfixing the corpse.
Further it was said, IF you went to the Church at midnight, and walked round it three times, widdershins, and called him by his names— The Wizard’s own Master would surely appear to you.
I imagined this rather often. Listening, in bed, to the drumming of rain in the night; or to the wind as though the house were embarqued, galleoning on seven seas of the air; or to the moot of the owls; or to the branches rustling and murmuring like an orchestra: but most of all hearkening for the belfry, to count as it dropped its chimes into darkness and tell the hours. The peals sounded as though muted, muffled in the gloom; seeming to dwindle to a yawning faintness; fading away, softly into snores of slumber.
Now the boy treads the notes of the tolling bells like stepping-stones, over the rooftops, to the walled graveyard. He shivers in the night air with its tang of frost. The stars are clear: Orion strides in the sky right overhead. The cobbles of the churchtower are silvered by the moonlight; the headstones are gnomons and obelisks spilling long ink-shadows; the slabs sarcophagi, palisaded with twisted bits of rusty railings. This is pictured in eerie black and white like a photographic negative. He imagines the old inhumations, interred in their sepulchres, charnel layer upon layer, Victorians, Tudors, Normans, Saxons, bones like chalk, shardware, deathsheads gaping, spines sawtoothed, pithless fist-clusters of knuckles; and, since this was told him of the dead, dreams their nails and teeth are still growing. They chit like spuds. The hair still growing from and through pods of brainpans in manes spooling and furling out like floss, tangling with the scrollwork-curlicues of weaving roots and the burrowings of riddling worms, inscribed as winding wire-patterns against the earthy blackness. But all this is hidden huddled away under the long, dewy grass.
Midnight strikes. The witching-hour. Through the headstones it comes, it is strutting on elbowed shanks, it has cloven hooves. The misshapen noggin, crowned with stumpy horns and barnyard ears poking out on either side, sits as if without enough neck on a squat furred torso. It lolls its face lopsided to the dreaming boy and gapes at him, with its snaggletoothed leer.
But this goblin his dreaming brain has conjured up is not, is not quite, His Satanic Majesty. Where has he seen it before, he wonders? Of course. Smiles in his sleep. It’s the Imp he has been shown in the cathedral.
Then he woke up. And wrote down these pages.
Dialect for ‘earwig’. Snails would correctly be termed “hodmandods”.
Dial., “mouldewarps”, Old English for lit. ‘earth-thrower’.
Rahul Gupta, an Anglo-Indian born and raised in the North of England, holds a PhD in modern and mediæval poetics from the University of York. His poems and translations have appeared in Agenda, Acumen, Carillon, Eborakon, Equinox, and Molly Bloom, among other journals. His main enterprise is a reinterpretation of the Arthurian legends retold as an epic in “the most accomplished, imaginative and technically-correct alliterative verse in Modern English since Tolkien” (Tom Shippey), from which two excerpts have been published, in The Long Poem Magazine, Issue 15, May 2016, and, “one of the truly great mythic works of our time” (John Matthews) in The Temenos Academy Review, Issue 21, 2018. A volume of imitative verse-translations from Old English and Norse is forthcoming.