In the second part of my reading of ‘The Cutty Wren’, my folk horror story based on the lore around Saint Stephen’s Day, our heroes Ian and Jenny discuss the story of how the wren was crowned king of the birds on false pretences. I suppose in the back of my mind was also the three crowns in M.R. James’ ‘A Warning to the Curious’, which now I come to think of it has its counterpart in the three farthings mentioned in my tale. But devotees of M.R. James’s ghost stories will be all too aware that archaeological treasure hunting is a far from risk-free activity.
Most of James’s protagonists would probably be aghast at anyone thinking their antiquarian pursuits were for material gain, and yet anyone who has watched Lawrence Gordon Clark’s 1972 adaptation of the above story closely will have observed the way the innkeeper clocks the state of disrepair Paxton’s shoes are in, and the shame-faced way Peter Vaughan as Paxton catches him looking from the newspaper, announcing “Three Million Unemployed”, to the aforementioned footwear. Vaughan’s jobless bank clerk has come to the end of the line, quite literally, the steam train dumping him and his suitcase, complete with strapped-on spade, onto the platform at Seaburgh. Making the hapless Paxton working class was a deliberate choice on Clark’s part, departing from the Oxbridge ivory tower occupied by the typical Jamesian figure and giving the character a motivation for his desperate search for the last remaining crown, as a means of rescuing his fortunes.
Another of Clark’s Ghost Story for Christmas films, ‘The Treasure of Abbot Thomas’, also derived from one of James’s tales, has an apparently more well-connected duo of ill-fated ecclesiastical gold-prospectors, Michael Bryant’s “rational clergyman”, the Reverend Justin Somerton, and his aristocratic young protege, Lord Peter Dattering, played by Paul Lavers. But while Somerton may be happy to use his superior cultural capital to expose both the fraudulence of working class chancers posing as spiritualists and the folly of their upper class benefactress, Lady Dattering, holy orders were the refuge of disinherited younger sons of the upper middle classes.
When Lord Dattering teases him for “treasure hunting”, Somerton denies it vehemently and unconvincingly, hinting that if the Church authorities accommodating him thought his motive for cracking the Abbot’s code was filthy lucre, he could be thrown out on the street as unceremoniously as the fake mediums whose eviction he has brought about. But the expression on his face, unseen by Dattering as the younger man idly speculates upon the value of the haul, as well as Somerton’s subsequent eagerness to brave the indignities and horrors required to acquire it, tell a different story. And when his lordship discovers him trapped in his rooms by his terror of what he’s unleashed, it seems he is still in denial. This scene gives us a stark sense of the contrast between Dattering’s gilded life and Somerton’s cramped existence and the material gulf between the two men, with the young lord’s expression one of almost disgusted pity for the reduced stature of a man to whom he used to look up, now huddled in a poky room, starting at shadows.
Anyway, let’s hope our two intrepid seekers of ‘The Cutty Wren’ don’t end up in similar bother…