Entry from September 28, 2009

The British seem to prefer turning the ordinary responsibilities of private life over to the government, but do they really love their National Health Service or not? The answer is probably that, like an overbearing or interfering parent, it is both loved and hated at the same time. Few would do without it, but fewer still do not resent its delays and inefficiencies, sometimes fatal ones, at least as much as most Americans resent the bureaucratic annoyances of their health insurance companies or HMOs. One advantage of the British system that is not often mentioned in the American health care debate, however, is the extent to which it has been used, as Theodore Dalrymple has pointed out, to medicalize the country’s unemployment problem. A large portion of the long-term unemployed have been reclassified as “disabled” in order to prevent them from becoming a political or economic embarrassment to the government, whose provision of busy-work jobs like “diversity officer” can’t keep up. Obviously, that kind of thing becomes a bit easier when doctors are state employees.

Last week Mr Terry Herbert, who is one such beneficiary of disability benefit, was revealed to have struck the jackpot as a treasure hunter after tramping fruitlessly and in spite of his disability over hill and dale with a metal-detector for 18 years. Presumably, his discovery of an Anglo-Saxon era gold hoard in a farmer’s field near Walsall in Staffordshire has given hope to those who previously could only have hoped to escape their lives as penurious pensioners of the state by winning the lottery or by contriving to be “discovered,” like Miss Susan Boyle (also unemployed), on a reality TV show like Britain’s Got Talent. Besides metal detectors, they will doubtless be making use of Mr Herbert’s prayer to the tutelary deity of treasure hunters, as it was reported by The Daily Telegraph,

“I have this phrase that I say sometimes; ‘spirits of yesteryear take me where the coins appear’, but on that day I changed ‘coins’ to ‘gold.’ I don”t know why I said it that day, but I think somebody was listening and directed me to it. Maybe it was meant to be; maybe the gold had my name on it all along. I don”t know.”

Of course, he also spoiled the rhyme, since “gold” would have had to take the singular “appears” — but presumably the spirits, like everybody else, have been influenced by rappers’ insouciance about rhyme and don’t care anymore.

Steve Dean, the county archaeologist for Staffordshire — whose office must be another of the perks of living in big-government Britain — told the Telegraph that “It is almost certainly nationally important and potentially internationally important, and it is going to tell us an awful lot about the development of the Mercian kingdom, which obviously Staffordshire lies within. The quality and quantity is something I haven”t come across, and I don”t think any archaeologist in this country has. It is out of this world. It is going to be the basis of research for the next 20 years.” As something of an amateur Anglo-Saxonist — though not what Mr Herbert calls a “detectorist” — myself, I am excited about this discovery too, and intrigued by a comment in The Times that “the fact that the largest of the golden crosses had been unceremoniously treated, its arms folded inwards so that it could fit into a smaller space, has already prompted speculation that the hoard was buried by pagans.”

Was this, then, the spoil of one of those Viking raiding parties that were the bane of the Anglo-Saxon tenth century? Had some “Dane” plundered a Mercian church and left the goods where Mr Herbert found them more than a millennium later, hoping to come back for them later himself? The very thought affects me as the Dorsetshire Roman Road did those in Thomas Hardy’s poem who were

Visioning on the vacant air
Helmeted legionnaires, who proudly rear
The Eagle, as they pace again
The Roman Road.

I seem to hear again the doomed Byrhtnoth from “The Battle of Maldon” urging on his dwindling fyrd against the Danish pirates: Hyge sceal the heardre, mod the maere, the ure maegen lytlath. I quote from memory, but it means (roughly) “Our mind must be the stronger, our heart the greater, as our strength lessens.”

Speaking of Romans, the comment on the gold hoard that I liked best came in a letter to The Times of London from Professor Paul Gazzoli of the Department of Anglo-Saxon, Norse and Celtic at Cambridge, where I learned what Anglo-Saxon I know many long years ago. “Sir,” he wrote,

If you examine the pictures of the Anglo-Saxon hoard from Staffordshire. . . you will note that the Latin inscription on one of the objects reads surge domine disepentur inimici tui et fugent qui oderunt te a facie tua, which should read surge domine et dissipentur inimici tui et fugiant qui oderunt te a facie tua. This is taken from Numbers 10:35, “may they who hate Thee flee from Thy face”, fugiant being the third person plural present active subjunctive of fugio, “flee”. Fugent, however, is third person plural present active subjunctive of fugo, “put to flight, rout, cause to flee”, thus altering the meaning of the phrase considerably, to “let they who hate Thee rout” — the object is lacking, so we might fill in “Thee” or “us” or “Thine army” in place of “from Thy face”. Thus the Christians from whom this was putatively plundered by pagans were, through their incorrect grammar, asking for it. This only goes to show the danger posed by poor Latinity, as King Alfred recognised only too well. As our Government threatens further cuts in education and the elimination of so-called pointless studies, this small piece of bent metal should stand in our minds as a grim warning.

He doesn’t mention the “grim warning” of the metal  detector, but I wonder if it, too, could be seen as a harbinger of a civilization’s collapse?

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