All Stories, General Fiction, Historical

An Historical Footnote by Michael Bloor

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.

Michael Bloor

Image – Pixabay.com

18 thoughts on “An Historical Footnote by Michael Bloor

  1. Hi Mick,
    I echo what Leila has said.
    Your writing is excellent as always and you have been a delight to work with from our very first encounter.
    Hope that you have many more for us going forward.
    All the very best to you my fine friend.
    Hugh

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    1. Thanks Steven, you’re right that the Arthurian stories are great potential source material for a writer. I did try once try one reworking the death of Merlin (unsuccessfully). Maybe I’ll give it another go.

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  2. That’s cool the way the story opens up and draws you in, with the protagonist’s background, then the search for something relevant. Hopefully it wasn’t Arthur Jones the manuscript referred to! That would be quite a find, and a vindication for the niche knowledge of Old Welsh.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. I enjoyed the historical drama, a nice change of pace. I Googled some of the references such as Book of Aneirin and see that they are real. That made the Arthur “discovery” more believable. Maybe the MC can uncover convincing evidence of Excalibur next. Well done, Sir Michael!

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks David. Yes, the Book of Aneirin is the earliest (albeit passing) reference to Arthur, though it was composed to commemorate an heroic British defeat that occurred many years after Arthur’s supposed death. So you’re quite right that it does make the discovery of a contemporary Arthur ms more believable. Well googled!

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  4. Can’t remember the French, but “La Morte Du Artur” has fascinated me for years. I read “biographies” of Arthur and Jesus close to the same time. The conclusions of both books was that their subjects did exist, but their stories were largely fabricated (in the case of Arthur made more romantic by the French). Much of Arthur speculates that he was from what is now Wales. What unifies Arthur and Jesus is that they were seen at some point as national heroes who would return when their land needed them. Other places have similar hero stories.

    I agree with Steven French, this could have a sequel with more Arthur materical being uncovered.

    One more thing – Excaliber is a fine movie. Helen Mirrin as Morgana.

    Probably much misspelled.

    Liked by 2 people

    1. Thanks Doug! Me too, I read the Arthur stories at an early age and they continue to fascinate me (incidentally,, my favourite these days is John Steinbeck’s retelling of Thomas Malory’s Morte d’Arthur, published posthumously in 1976). Wales likes to claim Arthur and was the disseminator of the legend, but a chap called Alaistair Moffatt has made quite a convincing case for Arthur being based in Scotland (and remember that Arthur’s Seat is the crag that towers over Edinburgh!).

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      1. I should look at the book again. I started and decided it looked so much like the movie “Excalibur” that I needn’t read it. I’ve got “Gilgamesh” somewhere, another interesting history / fantasy.

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  5. So much to love about this one. Firstly, I’m a huge fan of the Arthurian Legends (I named my son ‘Arthur’ for that reason). I also love the kind of cynical, savvy voice of the narrator and the pace is great too. Enjoyed this immensely.

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  6. Thanks for the comment, Paul! You’ve got me wondering why the Arthurian legends have such widespread and enduring appeal. Only the Trojan War stories could be said to have similarly enduring popularity.

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