Mongrel Nation

By David Rudkin

mongrel-nation.jpgPenda’s Fen, 1974

From a pagan place to Penda’s Fen: Reflections on England and Englishness

Westward of the Worcestershire market town of Evesham one has a choice of two roads to the cathedral city of Worcester herself. By the direct, and busier ‘high’ road, along the steeper left bank of the Avon, one will soon thread through the handsome Georgian main street of Pershore, and descend into Worcester past the hill where Elgar lived his last years in darkening melancholy and critical repudiation. The lower, what some locally call the ‘old’ road, leads out from Evesham past the railway station and the Tesco store, soon following the lower, right bank of the river.

Hereabout, amid the gentle now orcharded slopes rising to the right, the gruesome battle of Evesham was fought in 1265. The body of the defeated ‘proto-parliamentarian’ Simon de Montfort, obscenely mutilated by his enemies, vividly showed how loathed he could be. He’s a local hero today, and a Middle School in Evesham is named after him. Those same orcharded slopes send echoes too of wars more recent, pre-echoes indeed of wars to come: deep in their earth they house, so local rumour persistently has it, a subterranean command centre for government and communications in time of national emergency. All we see as we pass is a driveway that could lead to a country hotel, and an innocuous BBC sign.

Opposite, from beyond the river, looms the whaleback form of Bredon Hill – echoes here of AE Houseman and his sexually exacerbated sense of our transient life. Echo too of wars more ancient yet, for Bredon is Bri Dun, ‘fortress hill’ in the old native British Celtic language. The river herself has a Celtic name too – when Roman military surveyors asked the locals what they called it, they answered simply ‘river’ – abhona – and that word entered the Roman itineraries as the river’s name. And so it has remained.

Suddenly, across the pastoral plain where Avon and Severn valleys join, the peaked ridge of Malvern is seen, often a leaden purple from this distance, and in certain angles of sunlight glistening and wrinkled. To this clay, at that sight I hear rise from the landscape some massive Elgarian harmony – not a specific quote, but some amorphous chord in the head that is essentially him, in its brazen exaltation that is also the cry of an anguished soul.

This England we’re seeing here is archetypal Three Choirs England. Yet already, through that ‘grand mysterious harmony’, anomalous notes are sounding. The very name Malvern is British Celtic too – moyle vryn, ‘bare hills’; and on your way there you would pass the giant golf balls of a radar research establishment, where in 1944 some of the brainstorming was done that made the night fire raid on Dresden feasible. This gentle land, her selfhood shaped through centuries by the sword and long so quiet now, still sounds a note of flame and blood. And those ‘bare hills’ themselves, long before Elgar dreamed his Gerontius there, had been another dreamer’s place – when, ‘on a May morning’, Piers Plowman lay down ‘by a bornes side’ and dreamed his Dream. One doesn’t need second sight or clairaudience to see or hear this landscape in any ‘visionary’ way. A few simple facts such as these, and all the tumultuous dissonance is there.

david-rudkin.jpgDavid Rudkin

A mile or two further along our road lurks the darkest and most disquieting surprise of all. After a new length of bypass that skirts the riverside village of Wyre Piddle – one of those double-barreled village names that Noël Coward recommended to aspiring dramatists as sure to raise a laugh with the so-sophisticated London audience – as we resume the old road, we come to an undistinguished-looking village: council houses, a dog-leg crossroads with traffic lights, and a strange name that looks as though like Malvern and Bredon, it should be Celtic too. Pinvin.

One day, over 30 years ago, someone painting a temporary road sign hereabouts inadvertently gave a clue to this strange name’s stranger origin. He had lettered the name Pinfin. If a Welshman perhaps, that’s how he would naturally spell the v-sound. If he was local, it seems he was hearing, as people do, an earlier form of the name. For the previous recorded form was in fact spelled with an f, and the form before that, looking distinctly Saxonic now, was Pendefen.

Penda was the last pagan king in England, killed in battle against the Christianizing forces of Northumbria in 655. We do not know why, in this remote region of his Mercian kingdom, he should be particularly commemorated here, nor why it should be called ‘his’ fen. It’s a shock to encounter, at this unremarkable crossroads with its traffic lights and cluster of council houses, an epiphany of that critical convulsion in our history when officially the old gods died and their light went out.

My old TV film of that year of the road sign, Penda’s Fen, might look – particularly in some technical respects – rather creaky now. My screenplay did require an angel to materialize on a church tower, a gargoyle-like incubus to squat on a boy’s chest, a church aisle to crack and split into a yawning chasm… and we didn’t have computer-generated imagery then (I particularly cherish a note in the production schedule: 10.30a.m, Jesus to arrive by M5). In one crucial thematic respect, though, Penda may well seem problematic today.

It appears, superficially, to project an ‘England’ that exists only in some Romantic, almost Fascist mythology. There is no hint in this landscape of the African or Asian peoples who in their turn are becoming ‘English’ now. Those massive demographic changes had then not happened. Penda was written, in fact, against then current British nationalist notions of ‘pure’ Englishness. One note that the film persistently strikes is the note of ‘dissonance’ itself, the literal dissonance that is musically essential for progression to happen, and a more metaphorical dissonance – in our sense of our own selves – that seems to me essential to our inner lives.

The boy at the centre of the story – Stephen, whose name denotes a crown, and whose surname Franklin suggests a freeholder – that boy’s journey is toward the very opposite of a simplistic ‘purity’. That’s the naive image of himself with which he starts out. In a series of encounters, on various levels of reality, this ‘pure’ self of his is deconstructed. Even his iconic Englishman, Edward Elgar, proves to have Celt in his blood. And those Celts themselves, who might seem original to these islands, came here once from Asian lands.

Whatever else ‘history’ may be, it is also a constant moving of peoples, restless or dispossessed, washing over the lands of this earth, settling and absorbed, in layer upon layer bequeathing everywhere the traces of their seed and their speech. A Penda could still be written today (though whether TV is up to it is another matter). The issue is not that Stephen, in his quest for ‘belonging’, should settle for an ‘England’ dead and gone. At his last encounter, with Penda himself, what the old pagan king enjoins upon him is to reject the notions of belonging and ‘type’ altogether, and go out instead into a complex world, truly individuated, empowered by his own mixedness and inner contradictions, and unique.

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