Quentin, Rudyard, Hobden and Peter

This brings together too much of my personal history and interests for comfort. I remember Peter Bellamy from the days when he was a year behind at Fakenham Grammar School, when we shared the experience of playing jazz records in the coal-hole at Walsingham, when it rained so hard the excavations at Walsingham Abbey were suspended.

Let’s proceed, quickly, to an apology to all sensitive souls. For the second day in succession, I have to refer you to Quentin Letts of the Daily Mail. I know. I know. Take a deep breath, or even something stronger. The shock will pass, I promise. His “parliamentary sketch” (none-too-lightly skating over that Cameron took a pasting at PMQs, not least from his own Ministers, who feel dumped upon) ended thus:

Finally, thanks to reader Mrs Morris of Clifton, Bristol, who sent me a copy of Rudyard Kipling’s poem ‘The Land’.

 It states eloquently that people who live on the land are far more likely than distant grandees to be sensible about dredging. 

Kipling should be required reading for those Islingtonian bird-fanciers at the Environment Agency.

Let’s not fret too much about yet another Lettsian gross misrepresentation: we can rely on more coming along shortly.


Bateman'sLet us, however, note that just none of Kipling’s fourteen stanzas relate to “dredging”.

The “brook”, we may presume is the River Dudwell, which runs just south of Bateman’s, Kipling’s house at Burwash. After Julius Fabricius (who put in the Roman drains) and Ogier the Dane (who limed the water-meadow, to make it less acidic), we have now reached William of Warenne and the third ownership of The Land:

But the Brook (you know her habit) rose one rainy autumn night 
And tore down sodden flitches of the bank to left and right.
So, said William to his Bailiff as they rode their dripping rounds:
“Hob, what about that River-bit—the Brook’s got up no bounds ?” 

And that aged Hobden answered: “‘Tain’t my business to advise,
But ye might ha’ known ‘twould happen from the way the valley lies.
Where ye can’t hold back the water you must try and save the sile.
Hev it jest as you’ve a mind to, but, if I was you, I’d spile!” 

They spiled along the water-course with trunks of willow-trees,
And planks of elms behind ’em and immortal oaken knees.
And when the spates of Autumn whirl the gravel-beds away
You can see their faithful fragments, iron-hard in iron clay.

Spile in its oldest sense is pre-English: originally, the German spiel — sport, play, used both as noun and verb. Then, early in the Sixteenth Century, we have the bishop and maker, Gavin Douglas doing his Lallands rendering of the Aeneid IX, uses spilis:

On thair awin wapynuis stikkand he and he.
Sum stekyt throu the cost with spilis of tre
Lay gaspand…

Which might be recognisable as:

Half-dead they fell to earth, the huge mass following,
pierced by their own weapons, and their chests impaled
on the harsh wood.

The OED reckons spilis is north. dial. and †Sc. A splinter, chip, or narrow strip, of wood; a spill. And the Ultimate Authority suggests an alternative etymology: Middle Dutch or Middle Low German spīle … splinter, wooden pin or peg, skewer, etc.

We are getting closer

Sure enough, appended to that we get a further iteration of spile. This was what was used in every good beer-cellar in the days of oaken barrels (and, if “Chiefly dial.”, certainly in use in north Norfolk half-a-century ago:

A small plug of wood for stopping the vent of a cask; a vent-peg; a spigot. Chiefly dial.

As for Kipling’s use, we have to go to the OED‘s third definition of the verb:

To furnish, secure, or strengthen with timber or iron piles; = pile v.1 2.

This comes with a single citation:

1829   J. T. Brockett Gloss. North Country Words (ed. 2) ,   Spile, to make a foundation in soft or boggy ground by driving in spiles; i.e. piles or pieces of timber.

Hold on! Kipling’s old Mus’ Hobden is broad Sussex, about as southern as one can get.

All of which is mere linguistic dredging.

A Malcolmian afterthought

I always found Kipling’s ballads, particularly The Land and The Way Through The Woods worked for me with lower secondary-school classes. That, of course, was in the bad old days when teachers had discretion in the materials presented to classes, before Secretaries of State for Education became all-powerful.

As a result, I had work-sheets on both (originally done for a spirit-duplicator, and then sophisticated by an Amstrad 8512, which puts us in the later 1980s). The spin-off for this Head of English was an instant filed resource when, at 8:50 a.m., the message came through from the School Office (she who must be obeyed!) that so-and-so teacher was sick, and work needed to be set.

There were two consequences of this, both versions of “Up yours!”:

  • First, anything which included the name of Kipling was anathema to the feminista brigade (who had never actually read any Kipling, but knew what they thought about such a rank old white male sexist, imperialist, racist, etc. This, of course, was worth a giggle in itself, for it never failed to épater la bourgeoise.
  • Second, much time passed. Many years after I had taken my early retirement, and was coining it, supplementing my pension, as a supply teacher in schools many boroughs distant from where we were in that previous bullet-point, I was handed work-sheets of a poem to present to an unknown class. A Xerox-copy from umpteen generations of photo-copies was thrust into my hand. Guess what? What goes around, comes around.

Smugly I was able to say I had an Ur-version on my 68040 Macintosh, which included the original (Tippexed by some earlier hand) subscribed copyright symbol.


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Filed under Daily Mail, education, Norfolk, Oxford English Dictionary, Rudyard Kipling, schools, Wells-next-the-Sea

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