Picking up Gold and Silver: Memory and Tragedy in Rumer Godden’s Brede

Picking up Gold and Silver: Memory and Tragedy in Rumer Godden’s Brede

Spoilers: major plot point for In This House of Brede. If you haven’t read the novel and don’t like to know about important plot points ahead of time, then do not read this post. You have been warned.

In Rumer Godden’s novel In This House of Brede Dame Philippa keeps flashing back to a pivotal moment in her past. The first time is in the Prologue, and there we know that it has something to do with someone named Keith and a memory she cannot shut out; but we don’t know what that memory is or understand the significance of these little flashbacks until Philippa recounts the entire story in Chapter 12.

In the Prologue it comes as a memory association as Philippa is thinking about saying leaving her Siamese cat, Griffon:

It was better, Philippa found in the train, not to let herself think about Griffon. It was possible to shut Griffon out, not to think of Griffon—- she had succeeded in doing that—- but she could not always do it with Keith.

He came like a ruffle, a ruffle of wind on leaves or water, a cool little breeze. Well, Keith means a wind. Even as a baby he used always to be disappearing:

“Keith, where are you? . . . going round the garden without being seen.”

The treble voice came back from unexpected places: under the arch of the steps, from the barn roof— “You naughty little boy”— behind the hydrangeas Philippa remembered the time he had climbed the great elm tree at Roughters, her mother’s house, and fallen, plummeting down until a branch had caught him, hooked by the straps of his dungarees, and there he had dangled, quite trustfully, as she stood below talking, while her mother and Morton, the gardener, ran to fetch a blanket into which he had fallen laughing. He was only four then, but he had climbed that lofty tree. Laughing . . . think of him like that, not:

“Don’t cry, Keith breathe breathe I’m here quite close Mother’s here breathe” . . . and, “picking up gold and silver . . . picking up gold and silver . . .”

The way Philippa tries to close off the memory suggests something unpleasant and rather ominous. And the foreshadowing of the child falling from the tree, albeit unhurt, and the way she remembers him “always disappearing” suggests that the short passage with its ellipses and lack of punctuation and the odd phrasing is a memory of something terrible; but we don’t know what it is that Philippa is trying not to remember.

One phrase which keeps recurring from that very first time is “picking up gold and silver . . . picking up gold and silver . . . ” It’s quite clearly a song someone —probably Philippa?— is singing. And the last time I read the novel that phrase kept disrupting the memory passages, tossing me out of the narrative a bit for a silly little reason: I didn’t recognize the song or know the tune. What is this song? It kept niggling at me. Finally I tried to look it up. I didn’t get very far on Google. A possible clue was that Rudyard Kipling had published a collection of stories under the title Picking up Gold and Silver. A possible lead. Google tells me the stories are mostly set in India.. Godden lived in India, perhaps there’s a connection. But a story collection isn’t really a song. What is the song that it is likely that both Kipling and Godden are referencing? Maybe I should hunt down a copy of the Kipling book, I thought.

Then I noticed that some of the snatches of song also included a name that I also didn’t recognize: “Tom Tiddler’s ground,” which also seemed to be associated with the phrase “picking up gold and silver”:

I’m on Tom Tiddler’s ground picking up gold and silver . . . Sing, the doctor had said sing anything keep on singing talking singing let him hear your voice . . . picking up gold and silver. A tactless song for poor Louis Freymus but the only song that came into my head at first . . . sing any song . . . Tom Tiddler’s ground. Lily Marlene. I saw three ships a-sailing, Roll out the barrel . . . sing talk. He may not be able to hear you but try sing talk talk . . . don’t cry Keith try not to cry it wastes breath breathe breathe breathe like a big boy. I’ll count one two one two one two we’re coming as fast as we can. I’m here quite near Keith. Mother’s here. picking up gold and silver, gold and silver”

Maybe it will be easier to hunt down “Tom Tiddler’s ground” than the phrase “picking up gold and silver.” Something to triangulate with, at least. So I started hunting again. Wikipedia has an entry on Tom Tiddler’s Ground, a child’s game, but it doesn’t include the phrase “picking up gold and silver,” so I’m not sure it’s the right thing, but I feel I’m maybe getting warmer.

It seems that the phrase has been used by many authors. Charles Dickens wrote a short story called Tom Tiddler’s Ground. Walter de la Mare published a collection of poetry for children under the title Tom Tiddler’s Ground. I did also find a song, but it was dated after the novel came out, so I didn’t think it a likely candidate and indeed it doesn’t really contain the phrasing from the novel. But there was a poem by that name by Eliza Cook, which Google Books helpfully let me peek at. Here are the first and last stanzas:

“The sports of childhood’s roseate dawn
Have passed from our hearts like the dew-gems from morn;
We have parted from marbles– we own not a ball,
And are deaf to the hail of “a whoop and a call.”
But there’s one old game that we all keep up,
When we’ve drunk much deeper from Life’s mix’d cup:
Youth may have vanish’d and Manhood come round,
Yet how busy we are on “Tom Tiddler’s ground
Looking for gold and silver….

. . . Faith zealously points out a kingdom to come,
Another– a pure– and a beautiful home;
Where all joy shall be known, where the poor shall be blest;
Where all burthens shall fall and the weary have rest,
Bright promise! but answer me, children of earth;
Don’t it seem that the land of most glory and worth
Would be where the limitless dross could be found,
Where you’d walk on eternal Tom Tiddler’s ground,
Picking up gold and silver?”

The introduction to the Walter de la Mare was most helpful. It seems that there was a game English children played, something like King of the Mountain, but with a rhyme to go with it like London Bridge. 

“It was typical of de la Marc, too, to give his anthology such an unexpected title. For ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’ is that no-man’s- land where gold and silver can be picked up just for the asking. 

‘Tiddler’, at one time spelled ‘tidier’, is said to be the shortened form of ‘the idler’ or ‘t’dler’. And ‘Tom Tiddler’s Ground’ is the name of a very old children’s game, played, especially in the north of England, as soon as the New Year has begun. The rules of the game were very simple. A line was drawn on the ground and a boy was chosen (by one or other of the counting-out games) to be the Tom Tiddler. He took his stand behind the line, sometimes mounted on a pile of stones, to guard his territory. The other players in the game would then proceed to dash in, to invade his ground, shouting as they did so :

4 Here I am on Tom Tiddler’s ground
Picking up gold and silver.’

Tom would have to do his best to repel them, not, one imagines, a very easy task if there were many of them on the foray. The phrase passed into the language and Charles Dickens referred to it at least twice in his books. In 1848 he wrote in Dowbey and Son :

c The spacious dining room with . . . the glittering table . . .
might have been taken for a grown-up exposition of Tom
Tiddler’s Ground where children pick up gold and silver.’

But there is little real gold and silver for children to pick up for nothing, Tom Tiddler’s Ground is imaginary ground for them.

Of course, de la Marc knew this. Perhaps, too, he remembered A. C. Benson’s remark in 1907, in his book From a College

‘I would rather regard literature as a kind of Tom Tiddler’s
Ground where there is gold as well as silver to be picked up.’

Walter de la Mare would certainly have regarded the world of poetry as the richest kind of Tom Tiddler’s Ground because all the treasures of poetry are free and there for the asking. They are compounded, too, of the finest gold and silver, since they arc the treasures of man’s mind and spirit. But it is one thing to display the bounty of poetry but quite another for full advantage to be taken of the gift. Walter de la Mare makes this quite clear in his Introduction.

So why that song? I suppose because of the nugget of gold that Keith found, picking up gold and silver. Though I wonder if there were other associations that Godden expects it to evoke? And why was it “tactless… for poor Louis Freymus”? Because Louis was the one who planted the nugget for Keith to find and “gold” rubs in the fact that the nugget was the beginning of the trouble, starting the fight between the boys that led to Keith running into the cave.

It seems, then, that Philippa is probably remembering a sort of nursery rhyme, the sing-song of a childhood game. I’m still not sure what the tune is (I’d love it if someone could hunt it down or any more information about the game) but at least my curiosity is somewhat satisfied. I now know something about what it is Philippa is referencing. But maybe I will hunt down the Kipling book after all…

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  • I think Griffon was her cat … maybe a Siamese? Just because I always thought she was precisely the person to have cats. It never occurred to me to think of the song origins. Interesting and I enjoyed reading it … and all the reviews you posted recently. 🙂

    • Doh! You’re certainly right. From the prologue: “a Siamese called Griffon.”

      I didn’t think to check whether Griffon was a cat or dog, probably betraying the fact that I’m really neither a cat person nor a dog person and so these things don’t register much for me. I will edit that, thank you for catching it.

      I’m so glad you’re enjoying all the reviews. I’m having such fun writing them.

  • Thank you for this. I love Rumer Godden. I’ve read Brede at least 4 times and always wondered vaguely what the song was. I’m impressed at what you’ve been able to discover.

  • In regards to the rhyme. I am watching an episode of sapphire and steel, where sapphire sings ‘here, we are, on tTom tiddlers ground, picking up gold and silver’ . I am thinking a very old nursery rhyme too!?

  • I’d always wondered about that song. Thanks for posting the results of your research.