At the opening of the Staffordshire Hoard Gallery, there were hundreds of precious objects on display, but I was searching for just one; the Story Hoard.
This leather-bound trove of poems, stories and riddles, which now sits on the wooden table in the Mead Hall area of the new gallery, is filled with creative responses to the Hoard. Here are not just facts but characters, not just information but imaginative reflections too. All written, and illustrated, by talented local people, including writers at the Kings Norton Writers’ Group, ESOL students from Birmingham Metropolitan College, metal detectorists and members of the public.
In our writing groups, which ran from winter 2013 to spring 2014, we aimed to be inspired not just by what we know about the Hoard but what we don’t know. We wanted to dream up characters and scenarios, to imagine life and people then. We thought much about what might have happened to the treasure before, and after, it came to lie in the ground.
We also examined works of Anglo-Saxon literature, such as the mysterious poem Deor. We thought about what it means to be human, and inhuman, now and then. We read the epic poem Beowulf and though about the role of the hero, and the antihero – the monster, in the Anglo-Saxon mind.
Then we got down to nuts and bolts. We began to write and write and write. We paid particular attention to working with detail, and capturing our imaginative ideas with images, metaphors and accurate, unusual words. The opening lines of Evan Wang’s poem, The Hoard, rage us back through time in a most thrilling and ominous way.
goes through the body
Just like thunder.
The natural world, particularly weather and the seasons, is revealed in many of the responses, perhaps prompted by our imaginings of what has stayed the same and what has changed in human experience. In Lisa Grace’s poem Untitled, sunlight reveals an ancient warrior:
Coppery tints shine in sun’s midst
Catching my image powerful and true
Of warrior, spear, helmet and shield.
We tried hard to use rhythm, rhyme and vocabulary in meaningful and forceful ways. In Lorraine Boyce’s poem, My Monster, words, and their effective placing, awaken a magnificent creature on the page.
It’s shining metallic, thick headed, foul mouthed
Lurching much closer it marks out our time.
That last word is important. Much of our thinking was around time, and timelessness, particularly what has changed in our lives over the last fifteen hundred years, and, more importantly, which elements of human nature and experience have stayed the same. Anglo-Saxon soldiers Hagan and Edwin, in Lavinia Bousfield’s story Two Brave Warriors, speak for fighters in many battles:
‘Edwin huddled in his cloak to keep the night air from his body. Time passed slowly until he saw the dawn coming. He turned in the direction he heard a bird whistle. Too late, he realised it wasn’t a bird.’
Things are often not what they seem in these tales. In Doreen Goodall’s The Pilgrim and The Shepherd an elderly traveler’s journey takes a very unexpected turn when a mysterious shepherd befriends him:
‘During their walk the pilgrim found that the total of the shepherd’s conversation was sheep, goats and monsters. Apart from that, much to the old man’s chagrin, he moaned incessantly about everything.’
There’s a good, odd, reason why, but you will have to read the story to find out what it is. Surprise and suspense is everything, and everywhere in this collection.
We tried to explore structure, and worked hard to give our stories beginnings, middles and unexpected endings. We thought about journeys as a crucial part of a story. We looked into motivation, particularly what a character wants and why. In Heather J Anderson’s story, The Dream, a hen-pecked schoolteacher experiences a strange escape from his marriage and job:
‘My students are looking at me to help them clarify what they have heard on the news report. I feel all the colour drain from my face as I pick up my marker to point to an area on the map on the board behind me. Suddenly I get the stabbing pain in my shoulder…’
Just as the Staffordshire Hoard is abundant with riches and gems, so is the Story Hoard. I hope you will search through, either using your hands in the Mead Hall, or using your keyboard; you can view the Story Hoard online here. I promise you will find treasure.
Writing group participant comments
Lavinia Bousfield adds:
‘I would like to say how much I enjoyed viewing the Saxon Hoard and the completed Saxon Book on display. I felt proud to see the stories and art work submitted by our writing group from Kings Norton Library, and all the other contributors involved in the project.
The sensory table displaying the pieces of gold was quite fascinating. I found the beautiful workmanship that went into producing the gold pieces by our ancestors quite remarkable. History is here for all to see, and we can learn more about the lives of the Saxons.
This is an exhibition well worth visiting.’
Ann Cullen writes:
‘I found the Stafford Hoard Exhibition exciting and very interesting. I was amazed at how clever the Anglo Saxons were, particularly in jewellery making. Some of the designs on swords, daggers and other items are so tiny and yet they are perfectly set out. The garnets are beautiful.
There are some very significant stories about the way of life of the Anglo-Saxon people – the superstitions, the constant battling of tribes, the burial of the hoard and much more.
I would recommend the exhibition to all. It is a story of history set in a great presentation. I recommend it as a suitable and exciting exhibition for young and old.’
The bustle and confusion of 18th and early 19th century Birmingham is not usually associated with works of literature but two objects on display in the Stranger’s Guide section of Birmingham: its people its history point towards a particular interest in verse.
The painting by Johannes Eckstein ‘John Freeth and His Circle’ shows a group of men gathered around a table with their drink and pipes. These are members of the Jacobin Club who meet to discuss news and listen to Birmingham’s great celebrity performance poet of the day, John Freeth. In the picture he is sitting at the front, second from the left. John Freeth (1731-1808), combined ballad writing and performance with running a Coffee House / Inn called the Leicester Arms in Bell Street an area which has now been re-developed as part of the Bullring.
He published a number of collections of his works and several of his ballads were well known outside Birmingham. Politics provided the inspiration for his writing and the tumultuous times of the American and French Revolutions gave him plenty of ammunition to criticize the government. Naturally, much of his work has a Birmingham slant. In this ballad from 1776 called “Birmingham Tranquillity” he pokes fun at London’s handling of its mayoral elections whilst at the same time making the acerbic point that Birmingham for all its 60,000 inhabitants still does not have the right to return a Member of Parliament – a situation which would not be remedied until 1832.
In England’s fair capital, every year
A tumult is raised about choosing Lord Mayor;
Each party engages, with fury and spleen,
And nothing but strife and contention is seen.
Ye wrangling old cits, let me beg you’d look down,
And copy from Birmingham’s peaceable town,
Where souls sixty thousand or more you may view,
No justice dwells here, and but constables two.
In no place besides that’s so populous grown,
Was ever less noise or disturbances known:
All hands find employment, and when their work’s done,
Are happy as any souls under the sun.
With hammer and file time is carefully beat,
For such is the music of every street;
The anvil’s sharp sound is the artist’s delight,
And stamps, lathes and presses in concert unite.
Let cities and boroughs for contest prepare,
In choosing of sheriffs, recorder or mayor,
With most kinds of titles they’ve nothing to do,
Nor discord in choosing of officers shew
The envy and hatred that elections bring on,
Their hearty intention is always to shun;
No polling, no scratching, no scrutinies rise,
Who friendship esteem must such measures despise.
To far distant climes doth her commerce extend;
Her channels of traffic admit of no end;
And Birmingham, whilst there is trade in the land,
In brightest invention unrivalled shall stand.
The second object does not paint such a flattering picture of Birmingham.
This jug was presumably sold as a souvenir of a bare-knuckle boxing match fought on Billesley Common in 1817. It tells the story of how Sam Scott, a boatman from the Black Country defeated his Birmingham opponent, the prize fighter Granby. The poet in this case is unknown.
Sam Scott the fly boatman a chap of renown
Beat Granby the boxer of Birmingham town
He beat him so much with his great clumsy fist
That poor Granby the boxer could scarcely exist
It was on a large common near Mosely way green
That combatants meet too were plain to be seen
The first setting too it were not much amiss
But Sam made poor Granby near ready to p-s
The second set too bets went five to one
For the company knew Granby soon would be done
And in the third bout Sam turned him quite round
He said shall I kick his a-e or knock him quite down
The forth round when they met Granby laugh’d in his face
Sam Scott said d-m thee that shall be to thy disgrace
He gave him such thumps he was forced to come down
So thus with Sam’s heavy blows ended this round
The fifth and last round showed but little sport
Sam pelted poor Granby about his poor throate
He fell muzzle upwards as tho he was dead
And out of the ring he was forced to be led
So this was the way that the battle ended
And I think that poor Granby was not much befriended
For instead as he expected to have beaten bold Scott
To Sam’s satisfaction it was his own lot.
Both objects, and much more besides, are on display at Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.
Curator (Applied Art)