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.’
During a trip to Northern France in June 2014, I visited the graves of some men whose stories we are featuring in an exhibition about Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment during the first world war. The family photograph and letters reproduced here are part of the collection of Dave Vaux.
Bill and Alan Furse
Bill Furse and his brother Alan lived in Moseley, Birmingham. When war broke out Lord Kitchener put out an appeal for volunteers, and many white-collar workers joined the so–called ‘Pals’ battalions. Bill and Alan both joined the 1st Birmingham battalion (also known as the 14th battalion) in September 1914. In this photograph Bill is seated to the left hand side, and Alan is standing.
The Furse brothers were middle-class and their background and education would have qualified them for advancement. Both were commissioned to the rank of 2nd Lieutenant. Alan’s letters home give a vivid picture of life in the British Expeditionary Force. He describes the conditions in the trenches: ‘Whilst on your tour of duty round in the front line you are floundering knee deep in mud and both sides are slimy with mud so that you have nothing clean to steady yourself by and when you get back to your dugout to rest you have the slimy walls and at least a foot of mud on the floor. You soon learn not to drop things as of course they are useless afterwards and the great trouble is to find somewhere to put something down’.
Alan also writes to his teenage brother Claude, who was an Army Cadet. These letters present the war as a great adventure: ‘It is a grand sight to see the anti aircraft guns firing at an aeroplane, little puffs like bunches of cotton wool suddenly appearing all round the plane until he gets out of range…Whilst we were walking back to the wood today a couple of shells fell about 100 yds away and kicked up a devil of a row…They are called Whizzbangs because they are of such high velocity and you get no warning of their arrival, just the whiz thro’ the air and then the explosion…’.
Tragically, Alan’s brother Bill was killed on the first day of the battle of the Somme, 1 July 1916. He was 25. Alan was not far away, but he did not hear the news of Bill’s death until several days later when his parents informed him by telegram. Alan’s response to his parents is a prime example of ‘stiff upper lip’, but his grief can be read between the lines: ‘Thus goes the finest pal I have ever had and one of the best and most straightforward men who ever lived. Of course the shock has been bad for me but what you must feel at home having to sit still I can’t imagine but you must not give way more than you can help. Try and bear up. God grant you all His help at this awful time and give you strength to bear the loss of such a splendid man’.
I visited Bill’s grave in June 2014. By the time he died Bill had been transferred to the Tyneside Scottish Brigade, formed of ‘Pals’ battalions of the Northumberland Fusiliers. Bill was temporarily buried where he fell, but was transferred to Bapaume Post Cemetery near Albert after the Armistice.
Alan Furse was discharged on medical grounds later in 1916 and survived the war.
James Edward Weeks Rance
Many men who served in the first world war also went on to fight in the second world war. One example is James Edward Weeks Rance of the 2nd battalion, Royal Warwickshire Regiment. He was awarded the Military Cross for his bravery during the first world war.
In May 1940 Major Rance, now aged 42, was part of the British Expeditionary Force once again. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt. During the retreat to Dunkirk, he was among those fighting to defend the town of Wormhoudt, where he was killed. Following this battle, 80 Royal Warwicks were taken prisoner by the Waffen-SS division, the Leibstandarte SS Adolf Hitler. They were locked into a barn and murdered.
Rance is now buried at Wormhoudt Communal Cemetery. A small number of Commonwealth war dead from both world wars lie among civilian graves. It was quite moving to see war graves scattered among the tombs of the local townspeople.
Our exhibition ‘Soldiers’ Stories: Birmingham and the Royal Warwickshire Regiment 1914 to 1918’ opens on 19 July 2014.
Read the first part of this blog: First World War – Private Fred Andrews
Photographs 1-3 courtesy of Dave Vaux.