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Tiffey Song

by George Szirtes

(This libretto appears by kind permission of the author and of Gatehouse Press.)

Chorus:                Mississipi-sissi-simississipi-ssissi-sss-sss


Narrator 1:           The mighty rivers of the world


Chorus:                White Nile, Blue Nile, nothing but Nile

                            Mile after mile


Narrator 2:           Six-thousand six hundred and ninety miles


Chorus:                Amazon and Yangtse

                            Yellow River, Yenisei

                            Longer and deeper and wider than many say.


Narrator 1:           Great veins of silver and sludge, the fast shifting, the sluggish.

                            The lazy Scheld, the wandering Po,

                            From source to delta, from riverbank to seafront

                            They slurp and flow.


Chorus                 Mississippi-Missouri, Zuzzouzou, Missouri



Narrator 1:           Flood-plains, v-shaped valleys

                            The results of glaciation

                            Great dams and canals

                            Cutting nation from nation.

                            And here in Britain…


Narrator 2:           Tyne and Tees and Don

                            Avon, Derwent, Calder, Cam

                            Mersey, Ouse and Dove

                            Severn, Tay and Trent and Wear and Wye

                            Shove and shimmer past, reflecting British sky;

                            And mighty father Thames

                            Gliding past traffic jams

                            Past Parliament and County Hall

                            Loading bay and market stall

                            Greenwich Museum and Royal Hospital


Chorus                 Mississippi-Missouri, Zuzzouzou, Missouri



Narrator 1:           Ant and Bure and Burn and Mun

                            Yare and Wensum


Narrator 2:           Glavern, Stiffkey and Spixworth

                            And then some!

                            For just as Dublin has its Liffey

                            So has Wymondham its own Tiffey


Chorus:                Mississippi-Missouri, Zuzzouzou, Missouri


                            Mississippi-Missouri, Zuzzouzou, Missouri


                            Mississippi-Missouri, Zuzzouzou, Missouri


                            Weilala, lala, weilala


Narrator 1            Tiny Tiffey

                            Little squiffy

                            Brook or runnel

                            Trickling through its narrow channel

                            No Officer but Other Ranks

                            Bursts out of its shallow banks

                            Excels itself

                            In Nineteen-twelve.


Narrator 2            All rivers, however thin,

                            Bear light-brushed wind-scars on their skin;

                            All rivers, however shallow,

                            Have seen more springs than any swallow;

                            All rivers, short or long,

                            Continually sing their river song.


Chorus:                Weilala, lala, weilala

                            Lala weilala, lala


Narrator 1:           Through town and city


Narrator 2:           Farm and field


Narrator 1:           Past bridge and mill


Narrator 2:           They’ve swayed and reeled.


Chorus 2:             Drifted, shifted, lifted, Tifted




Narrator 1            Hold yew hard, it be a titty-totty little river


Narrator 2            Ha' yer fa'r got a dickey, bor?' 'Yis, an' he want a fule ter roide 'im, will yew cum? Time for a bit of mardle? Lend a lug?


Chorus:                Weilala-lala-weilala


Narrator 1:           When dinosaurs roamed Norfolk

                            And pterodactyls sat in trees

                            Eyeing the broads that were still to be

                            When Neanderthals in furs

                            Were choosing loincloths His and Hers

                            And Raquel Welch was fleeing apes

                            Of miscellaneous crude shapes;


Narrator 2:           Before we broke from the great mass of Europe;

                            Before Europe existed, when the Scandinavian Ice Sheet

                            Covered Cromer and Sheringham;

                            When you could walk through the Last Glaciation

                            From Lowestoft to Le Havre

                            From Bacton to Bruges

                            From Cromer to Copenhagen

                            From Yarmouth to Ypres;

                            Before names even existed

                            Water was thinking:


Solo:                    My limbs are warming, shaking loose in the cold

                            I am cutting through Avon, Thames, hurtling underground

                            And springing through vents filling valleys

                            Channelling myself down narrow alleys,

                            Settling in ponds, marking out great lakes

                            Everywhere the gurgling, chortling sound

                            I make in my throat that now and then aches

                            With the sheer joy of being,


Chorus:                The water is beneath your feet forever fleeing,

                            Running through crevice, ditch and fleet.

                            The water thunders in the air,

                            Falls from the sky, spreads everywhere.

                            The water laps and nibbles at the shore,

                            At the deep core of wells, in the eyes of rocks,

                            And all the time tide ticks and tocks

                            Under the frozen face of the moon.

                            Long rivers start and very soon

                            Arrive at the sea,

                            Cutting their desperate way

                            Between grass and hay.


Narrator 1:           And the Tiffey was singing:


Solo:                    I have made myself small.

                            I scurry towards the Yare

                            Which is yet nameless.

                            I am young and feeble

                            When the sun shines for a few months

                            I disappear beneath the ground.

                            Small voices in the earth

                            Soaked into mud

                            Small hands against reeds

                            Small veins of clear blood

                            Small lives of birds and worms,

                            Small sounds and simple terms

                            I watch as I sing.

                            Take note of everything.


Narrator 2:           Grimes Graves, Neolithic pots,

                            Hafted axes, early thatch,

                            Bronze, jade, amber


Narrator 1:           We watch our ancestors clamber

                            Across fens, creep through forests,

                            Erecting settlements, working land,

                            Bringing down prey, fighting and mating.


Narrator 2            Mating, swelling, sickening, dying


Narrator 1            Whispering, roaring, laughing, crying.


Solo:                    Weilala.


Narrator 1            They clamber, they build, they employ:


Narrator 2            Domestic creature

                            Sheep, cattle and poultry


Narrator 1            Cat and dog and horse


Narrator 2            Plough and scythe and fork


Narrator 1            Boat and line and hook


Narrator 2            Bridge, jetty and ford


Narrator 1            Manacle, pike and sword


Narrator 2            Bale and stook


Narrator 1            Money and medal


Narrator 2            Coins with holes in the middle


Narrator 2            Language and custom


Narrator 1            Ritual, dance and council


Chorus:                Weilala,


Solo:                    And hands washing clothes,

                            And hands bathing feet

                            And the drowned drunk

                            And the drowned child

                            And the fall of leaves in autumn

                            Red, brown, amber, black

                            The mottled track


Chorus:                Weilala


Narrator 1            Man and woman

                            Briton, Roman


Narrator 2:           Constantine, Vortigern

                            Angles, Saxons, Frisians, Jutes

                            Burning and pillaging, putting down roots.


Solo:                    There is blood in my veins.

                            In the clear light of day

                            You can see the red mist of it

                            Flushing away.


Chorus                 Weilala


Narrator 1            Blank estates, blank unwritten pages

                            Dark nights, dark deeds, dark ages

                            Blind histories, blind rages


Narrator 2            Gone to gravities

                            Gone to grass

                            Gone to graves and gravegoods.


Narrator 1            Brooch and comb

                            Oxgoad, spindlewhorl


                            Fragments of the travelling soul


Narrator 2            Slave labour, bondman, churl

                            Freeman, lord and master

                            Shielding or visiting disaster.


Chorus                 Weilala

                            Sing the ripple and the wave

                            Sing the skirting of the grave

                            Sing master, sing slave

                            Sing what is passing


Narrator 1            Then Raedwald, Bertha:

                            The Cross.

                            Felix, first Bishop of the East Angles


Narrator 2            Now washed away in Dunwich


Narrator 1            Ely, Blythburgh, King Anna


Narrator 2            Peace for two centuries


Chorus                 Nothing disturbs the long run

                            The long run of the current

                            The current that drives to the sea

                            The sea that absorbs the fresh water

                            Fresh water settled with salt

                            The river bed settled with stones

                            The settlements, the set course of things

                            An entire settled state of affairs


Solo                     Look over the land, fields and woods in the rain

                            The rain that drifts from the north speckling the stream

                            As it runs by the village in the flat gleam

                            Of Norfolk, in the thin light of mid-morning

                            Gradually warming

                            Wymondham and surrounding parishes


Chorus                 Wreningham, Hethel, Wicklewood, Morley,

                            Ashwell and Fundenhall

                            Crownthorpe, Hethersett, Carleton, Melton

                            Ketteringham, Wramplingham


Solo                     I am running through Wymondham

                            I swing north at Kimberley

                            North east to Wramplingham

                            Switch back to Barford

                            To end at Swan’s Harbour

                            My course may be brief

                            But I’ve never stopped moving


Chorus                 Move forward, move forward.

                            Though you dam it, divert it,

                            Force it through channels, past mills

                            Like time it keeps moving

                            Its little waves ticking and tickling

                            Marking the hours and the centuries




Narrator 1            But no peace is permanent


Narrator 2            Here come the west Saxons

                            Here come blood-feuds, vendettas

                            Barrows, executions


Narrator 1            Here come the Danes


Narrator 2            Here come the Normans


Chorus                 Weilala


Narrator 1            Here comes d”Albini

                            Fresh out of Hastings

                            Where Harold has suffered

                            The mother of  pastings.     


Narrator 2            Here comes the Abbey

                            Here comes the Priory

                            Here Becket’s killers

                            Foaming and fiery.


Narrator 1            St Mary, St Alban,

                            D’Albinis in sequence

                            Bishops and friars

                            Novices, deacons


Solo                     Here’s the dead mother with her baby

                            The auburn haired mother scented

                            With cumin, coriander

                            Wrapped in mummy cloth

                            Untouched by worm or moth

                            Beyond sorrow or wrath


Narrator 1            The body of Maude d’Albini

                            Discovered in the presbytery

                            A daughter unborn

                            Sharing the lot

                            Of farmer and commoner

                            Of reeve, serf and  summoner


Chorus                 For those laid to rest

                            Beside the small waters

                            For fathers and sons

                            For mothers and daughters

                            For all humankind

                            Quick souls of the parish

                            Fated to laughter, to sorrow,

                            To vanish


Solo                     Untouched by worm or moth

                            Beyond sorrow or wrath


Chorus                 Weilala


Narrator 2            Battles between authorities

                            Between bishop and pope

                            Between kings and their nobles

                            Between halberd and rope


Narrator 1            Kings come and go

                            Like nations and borders

                            Dissolve the monasteries

                            Break up the orders.


Narrator 2            For drunkenness, for fornication

                            For laxness in worship

                            For theft, for corruption

                            For oath breaking and deception


Narrator 1            For greed, for enclosure.

                            For the thief with the cloak


Narrator 2            For all those who gather

                            To march from the oak

                            Fifteen forty-nine!


Narrator 1            Robert and William

                            Respectable farmer

                            Respectable tanner

                            Who would imagine them

                            Raising a banner


Narrator 2            That which I have enclosed I return.

                            I tear down my fences

                            I argue, I summon

                            The land held in common

                            We share common fates

                            We’ll all lie beneath

                            Let us march onward

                            And camp on the heath


Narrator 1            But down came the army

                            They cut the men down

                            Hanged Robert from the Castle

                            In full sight of town


Narrator 2            And William returned

                            At his fatal hour

                            To dangle and twist

                            On Wymondham West Tower..


Solo                     Rivulet, rivulet

                            Winding downstream

                            Below the blind eyes

                            Shut as to dream

                            Shut as to dream

                            As the body hangs high

                            And the late moon looks down

                            With its one silver eye

                            Rivulet, rivulet

                            Little Tiffey


Chorus                 The Tiffey at night

                            The silver dark holds

                            Its welter of life

                            Its chills and its colds

                            Small fish in the mud

                            The floatings of foam

                            The drift and the distance

                            Not too far from home.


Narrator 1            Up to Crownthorpe

                            The ancient temple

                            Where Britons once worshipped

                            That Romans once tended

                            A great square of stone

                            Neglected, alone

                            Where history ended.


Narrator 2            Past Crownthorpe

                            Proceeding slenderly

                            Onward to Kimberley

                            Where find the laid stone

                            Of composer John Jenkins

                            Latterly of Maidstone

                            Retiring to Kimberley

                            Sleeping eternally.


Chorus                 Under this Stone Rare Jenkins lie

The Master of the Musick Art

Whom from the Earth the God on High

Called up to Him to bear his part.

Aged eighty six October twenty seven

                            In anno seventy eight he went to Heaven.


Solo                     There is music in all things.

                            In men, women, children and creatures

                            In rivers and rain

                            In broken house and new plot

                            In the living and the dead

                            Between Kimberley and Maidenhead


Chorus                 Music in all things

                            In breath and in walking

                            In bonding and breaking

                            In pleasure and aching


Solo                     I run past houses at night and can hear

                            The dream-song of field mouse and weasel

                            The music of the worm in its cast

                            Tunnelling with the mole,

                            The scurrying drumbeat of insect feet

                            Echoing on dry leaf

                            I am John Jenkins

                            Listening out for chords

                            Sounded by neighbouring trees

                            The music I have been listening to

                            Since fifteen ninety-two.

                            It is late.


Chorus                 Music late and early

                            Dawn, day, twilight, night music

                            Just a little

                            By a little river.


Narrator 1            Kimberley,

                            Carleton Forehoe



Narrator 2            At Carleton Forehoe

                            Lord Wodehouse

                            The Reverend Algernon Wodehouse

                            The Reverend James Champion


Narrator 1            Samuel Laskey


Narrator 2            Shopkeeper


Narrator 1            Peter Thurling


Narrator 2            Carpenter


Narrator 1            William Thwaites


Narrator 2            Farmer


Narrator 1            John S Turner


Narrator 2            Farmer


Narrator 1            And the Bidewells of the Eighteenth and Nineteenth centuries


Narrator 2            Sullivans and Westbrooks and Culmers


Narrator 1            Gooches and D’Urbans


Chorus                 Names in which we live

                            Names of the parish

                            Names running through fingers

                            The sound that lingers

                            Of family, intimacy

                            Safety, legitimacy


Solo                     I ring with their names, when you lean

                            To the edge of the stream

                            You can hear them, half nonsense-half dream


Chorus                 Gooches and D’Urbans

                            Hymns, prayers and sermons

                            Oranges and lemons

                            Say the bells, say the bells

                            And the Tiffey says:


Solo                     Tiny bells in ringlets of water

                            The tinkling of cups and spoons in the saucer

                            Frogcroak and batsqueak and dovepurr

                            Birdsquabble, beakwhistle, trill and churr

                            I run on light feet in the darkness.


Chorus                 Mississippi-Missouri




Solo                     Light feet, light thoughts

                            Taken at a run

                            Billowing on


Narrator 1            To Wramplingham and the mill


Narrator 2            Three storeys, no chimney, the Yorkshire rose on the gable…


Narrator 1            Archways under weed


Narrator 2            And the little miller girl…


Chorus                 Eine Mühle seh’ ich blinken

                            Aus den Erlen heraus,

                            Durch Rauschen und Singen

                            Bricht Rädergebraus…


Solo                     Mill gleaming, rain teeming

                            Waters twist and purl

                            Around the miller girl…


Narrator 1            Four stones, the overshot waterwheel,

                            The chimney pouring steam

                            The chimney falls, mill vanishes

                            A story finishes…


Narrator 2            Hurry over little river

                            Past the fishing lake at Barford


Chorus                 Et wilkommen, et wilkommen,

                            Süßer Mühlengesang

                            Und das Haus, wie so traulich!

                            Und die Fenster, wie blank!


Solo                     River, millstream, pond

                            Water calls to water

                            Murmurs under leaves

                            Like mother to daughter


Narrator 1            Down to Swan’s Harbour

                            Where our story is ended

                            Where the Tiffey joins the Yare


Solo                     Water swallowed up in water

                            Water everywhere

                            Who knows how the streams are mingled

                            Language mangled

                            Roots tangled


Chorus                 Weilala


Solo                     The mute swan sings

                            At the base of its throat

                            Its long white body a grace note

                            Set afloat


Chorus                 Weilala

                            Little Tiffey



Solo                     So the mute river

                            Floats within the stream

                            Flecked with light,

                            Brilliant white,

                            Pale cream…


Chorus                 Weilala







Solo                     Silver lines at dusk

                            Exe, Wye and Usk

                            Golden lines at noon

                            Mimram, Efra, Churn

                            Glitter and burn


Chorus                 Weilala

                            Ganges, Thames, Rio Grande,


Solo                     Tiffey…


Narrator 1            Wymondham, Crownthorpe,


Solo                     Kimberley, Carleton Forehoe

                            Wramplingham Mill

                            Barford, Swan Arbour


Chorus                 Safe harbour


                            Now the song is done

                            And the river dumb

                            As a mute swan.


Solo                     Tiffey


Chorus                 Weilala

Norfolk Poems





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