Sir Gawain and Owd Grandad Piggott

foxholes, Going Postal

Now this might seem to be a funny subject for an article, but bear with me. It was a short exchange with biddickhallbootboy of this parish (*waves*) that reminded me of my time working in Stoke, and of its dialect, with the characteristic forms like ‘conna, dunna and wunna’ for ‘can’t, don’t and won’t’, and its traditional greeting of ,’Ey up, duck – ‘ow at?’ (‘Hello, mate – how are you?’). Duck in this instance is supposed to come from ‘duke’, as a mark of respect, and is applied to both men and women. For a time in the 1980s, a best-selling item in Hanley’s museum was a mug featuring Stokie phrases, entitled ‘Afer toke rate’ (‘How To Speak Correctly’). Hanley is the centre of Stoke, except it isn’t, because Stoke is actually somewhere else. Hope that clears that up. The dialect continued via the strip cartoon May un Mah Lady (‘My Wife and I’) in the Sentinel newspaper, and also through local character Owd Grandad Piggott (supposedly based on a real person who lived two doors down from his chronicler), who had a tendency to evade responsibility for wrongdoing by saying things like ‘It wonna me. Ah’ve got six brothers, un thay all lewk lahk may’ and supposedly once tried to escape being arrested by declaring ‘Ey up! Ah’ve gorra disease’.

Linguistics expert Professor John Levitt from Keele University once said the Stoke dialect is the hardest for an outsider to learn, and is also closest to the original Anglo-Saxon of all the English dialects, which is interesting, because a short trip up the A53 will bring you to the Staffordshire Moorlands, where the county butts up against Cheshire and the Peak District. This is the setting for one of England’s greatest literary gems – Sir Gawain and the Grene (yes, grene) Knight, a 14th century poem (manuscript in the British Library, shelfmark  Cotton Nero AX). Written in a specific type of Middle English (not Ango-Saxon, but derived from it) called North West Midland, it tells the story of King Arthur’s nephew, who answers a challenge one  Christmas: that the Grene Knight will allow himself to be beheaded provided the beheader takes a return blow within a year and a day. Gawain beheads the knight, who then picks his head up and strides off (!) reminding Gawain he must do likewise at the appointed time at a place called the Green Chapel. After many adventures, Gawain finds the chapel and fails to follow the correct procedure honestly as agreed, including not declaring a green girdle he has been given by a lady who says it will protect him from danger (quite useful, especially if you’re about to have your head chopped off). The Grene Knight then makes as if to behead Gawain, but merely nicks his neck before reprimanding and then forgiving him, telling him it was all a trick and that he can go home. King Arthur’s court wear a green girdle ever after to remind them to be honest. Yes, well.

The poem is unusual in that it mentions many actual places (for instance, Gawain travels to the green chapel via ‘Anglesay” and ‘Holy Hede’). Many of the topographical terms used to describe the landscape are still current in the N. Staffs/NE Cheshire/Derbyshire area, including terms like ‘flosh’ or ‘flasche’ for a large area of standing water, and ‘knot’, ‘knap’, ‘carr’, ‘tor’, ‘roches’ (rocks), ‘bonke’ (bank) etc. The writer Alan Garner, when he first read it, noticed that the language was so similar to that of his father that the footnotes were unnecessary for him to understand it. Current thinking places the Green Chapel at Lud’s Church (a spectacular natural gorge in the Moorlands), with the author possibly a clerk at nearby Cisterian Dieulacres Abbey (now surviving only in parts of a local farm and in the name of a pub), and the hunting scenes centred round Swythamley Grange (not far from Wildboarclough, where the last wild boar in England was reportedly killed in the eighteenth century).

So there we have it. Six or seven hundred years of living history (more if you count the Stokies’ dialect going back to Anglo-Saxon times). Why does this matter? It matters because we Brits like our traditions and have loooong memories. Now Stoke has the chance to preserve another venerable tradition, that of parliamentary democracy, by potentially electing a UKIP MP in the by-election on February 23rd.

Go Nuttall – Go UKIP – Go Stokies!!

foxoles ©