A while back, I was reading an account, by the poet and journalist James Fenton, of the fall of Saigon (aka Ho Chi Minh City) in 1975*. In the middle of the despairing mob outside the US Embassy, begging to be evacuated, as the last of the helicopters departed, Fenton came across one man simply shouting over again, ‘I’m a professor, I’m professor.’ Poor guy, he was well behind the times, we university professors get dumped on nowadays just like any other employee. The trick is to spot when the shit-shower is imminent.
Me, I knew quite quickly after Hopkins was appointed the new Head of the Welsh Department that my days at the university would be numbered. He seemed harmless enough, with his bow tie and his squeaky voice, but I could tell he harboured a vaunting ambition and was itching to make a name for himself by making a few heads roll. That was when I started writing my secret memoir: ‘Eating Your Own Vomit – life in the modern university.’
Anyway, I decided to jump before I was pushed and applied for voluntary redundancy. I knew I could always make a bit of money by coaching monoglot English-speakers who wanted to get ahead in the newly bilingual Welsh Government machine. But, as it happened, I heard that there was a job coming up in the National Library of Wales that would suit me down to the ground. The same chap (an ex-postgraduate student of mine) who’d tipped me off about the National Library job, was able to recommend me for a cushy temporary job while I waited for his librarian colleague to retire. An old landed family with a ramshackle stately home outside Llanelli were looking for someone to catalogue and organise their library, including a number of old manuscripts. As I was a specialist in Old Welsh and had even written (some thirty years ago) the go-to-text on the Book of Aneirin, the oldest poem in the Welsh language, the family were delighted to offer me the job.
The son, who interviewed me, was very clear that they needed to know if any of their books and manuscripts were valuable. For insurance purposes, he said. But it was pretty obvious to me that they were hoping I’d turn up a few tasty items that they could send to auction to replenish the family coffers.
In fact, very few of the manuscripts were of any interest to anyone. A few letters in Welsh from the estate’s tenant farmers might be of passing interest to an agricultural historian, but the rest were everyday estate legal documents, all written in English.
Likewise, the books were an almost total disappointment. Books of sermons predominated. A few dated back to the end of the seventeenth century, but almost all showed signs of bookworm infestation. I made the family aware of the problem and they offered the use of their large chest freezer for any books I thought might be of some value. The freezer would kill both the insects and their eggs, but I wasn’t sure it was a good idea because I understood that freezing could damage the leather bindings. However, the employer always knows best, and I reckoned there would be very few volumes worth preserving.
That was until I came to study an early biography of the great itinerant Methodist preacher, Howel Harris. The book had been printed in Newtown, Montgomeryshire, in the 1770s, but some accident had subsequently detached the book from it’s original spine and it had been rebound, re-using a sheet of old vellum. The outer surface of the binding was blank, but the inner surface was a revelation…
The original use of the vellum was clear from that inner surface: on it, a scribe had written a fragment of a poem. The language was a bit of a puzzle. It was not Old Welsh (my specialism), but yet there were similarities with Old Welsh. I made a careful transcript and took it home to study more closely. Many of the individual words were familiar, including the word ‘Arthur’ that occurred three times. I was sure that the poem wasn’t written in any of the existing near-relatives of Welsh, like Breton. It occurred to me that it might be an extinct near-relative of Welsh, perhaps the ancient Pictish language of North-East Scotland.
Then, as I was brushing my teeth before retiring, it suddenly struck me. It was not a contemporary of Old Welsh at all: it was the progenitor. It was the ancient language of Britain – the language from which Old Welsh evolved.
Too excited to go to bed, I washed the toothpaste taste away and opened the bottle of Highland Park that Dorothy had bought me for Christmas. Not only had I stumbled on the only surviving written fragment of British, but I had proved, against all the doubters and nay-sayers, the truth of the legend of Arthur. Back there, outside Llanelli, was the only contemporary account of Arthur, the war duke who rallied the Britons against the Saxon invaders, beat them in twelve battles and secured a hundred-year peace, before the tide turned once more and the British princes retreated to the mountains of Wales, Scotland and Cumberland…
And what’s more, I had secured for myself a footnote in the historical record. So screw you, Hopkins.
*James Fenton,’ The Fall of Saigon,’ Granta, Spring 1985, p.82.
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