The day buried treasure was found in Cheapside

The true story of the Cheapside Hoard is the stuff of fairy tales. But there are reasons why this unique collection of 16th- and 17th-century jewellery has never before been displayed in its entirety.

The Cheapside Hoard: London’s Lost Jewels
Museum of London, EC2

It’s the stuff of fairy tales. Pickaxes fall on the cellar floor of an old house. A workman freezes as he sees something glinting in the dirt. Then pandemonium as he and his fellows scrabble among the broken-up bricks and clay, heaving out clumps of gold, emeralds and pearls. There is more and more: long chains, earrings, bags of loose gems. They cannot believe their luck. They’ve found buried treasure.

But this was real life – Cheapside, London, 1912. And so, before living happily ever after, the navvies, who had been employed to demolish a set of shops, had to find someone prepared to buy goods of dubious provenance. It wasn’t as if they were going to go to the buildings’ owners and sacrifice the prospect of making a bit of decent money for themselves. They knew exactly the man to call on: Stony Jack, the pawnbroker and antiquary. He toured the pubs around the City and paid for bits of pottery, glass or coins that turned up during excavations, which he would sell on to collectors and institutions. Working with the newly established London Museum to save the Cheapside Hoard for the nation was to be his crowning achievement.

But the shady nature of the deals Stony Jack made is one reason why this unique collection of 16th- and 17th-century jewellery has never before been displayed in its entirety. The British Museum, used to getting first dibs on “treasure trove”, had to be placated with several bits of jewellery. Another piece ended up at the V&A.

Now, at last, everything is in one place. The curator Hazel Forsyth has assembled a dazzling exhibition that carefully grounds the hoard in its social and economic context. The displays guide visitors along the journey these jewels once took, by ship to the metropolis, into strongboxes, and finally to a workshop on Cheapside. For that is what the treasure represents – the stock-in-trade of a working goldsmith. As well as many finished pieces, it comprises gems waiting to be set and rough stones waiting to be sorted. The academics’ best guess is that it was buried for safekeeping during the upheaval of the civil war, and never reclaimed.

With the introduction over, we turn a corner into the main room. There is almost too much to take in: rings, necklaces and pendants are suspended everywhere. It is easy to miss some of the smaller objects – a tiny emerald parrot, representing erotic love (parrots were believed to be promiscuous), a red squirrel carved from cornelian, an exquisite strawberry leaf in bloodstone. All are heavy with symbolism. The strawberry leaf has three points for the Holy Trinity. A sinuous, enamelled, emerald-set salamander reminds the wearer of resurrection, as this animal is believed to be able to walk through fire. Most of the jewellery has a rough-hewn quality. The gems glow, rather than sparkle, the gold settings are chunky and irregular. This is no Bond Street jet-set sparkle, no oligarch’s bling.

Yet to look at the early-modern London of the Cheapside Hoard is to observe an elite just as decadent and wasteful as our own. It is only age that makes it seem nobler. In fact, the continuity is startling: One New Change, a luxury shopping mall complete with designer jewellers, stands today where the collection was dug up. And around it loom the financial institutions that have their origin in the “goldsmith bankers” of the 16th and 17th centuries; they were the first merchants in England to change and lend money, and to offer a secure place to store valuables.

So London runs on riches now as it did then. But the hoard teaches another lesson. Wealth is transient. It can disappear. Much of the collection may have belonged to the Stafford family, forced into exile in 1641 and stripped of its assets. Then the treasure fell out of the hands of a goldsmith and into the hands of navvies. It has come to rest in a public museum, where it sits in all its priceless glory, to all intents and purposes worth nothing.

The Cheapside Hoard is on display until 27 April 2014. Details: museumoflondon.org.uk David Shariatmadari is a deputy comment editor at the Guardian

Unique hexagonal watch and "Medusa" emerald. Image courtesy of the Museum of London

This article first appeared in the 17 October 2013 issue of the New Statesman, The Austerity Pope

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Mathias Énard is the most brazen French writer since Houellebecq

Énard's latest novel, Street of Thieves, has ideas and charisma to burn.

This book, though no kind of failure, may seem a little pinched and bashful to readers of Mathias Énard’s novel Zone, a 500-page, single-sentence rumination on European cruelty that was published last summer to giddy applause. A back-cover blurb by the writer Patrick McGuinness, who also teaches French at Oxford, claims that Street of Thieves is “what the great contemporary French novel should be”, but this is a description better deserved by its predecessor – and possibly its successor, Boussole (“compass”), a grand-scale effort published in French this month by Actes Sud, which promises the reader “staggering erudition” and “heartbreaking lucidity”. Street of Thieves never calls for adjectives of that order (“involving” would be closer to the mark) though it still confirms Énard as the most brazenly lapel-grabbing French writer since Michel Houellebecq. Even on a quiet day, he has ideas and charisma to burn.

In a doomy, plague-ridden future, Lakhdar recalls a late adolescence torn between his duties as a Moroccan-born Muslim and the temptations extended by the north, an alternate universe situated just across the Strait of Gibraltar. In one scale sit “prayers, the Quran and God, who was a little like a second father, minus the kicks in the rear”. In the other sit miniskirted female tourists and the pleasures portrayed in the French detective novels that Lakhdar consumes “by the dozen”: “sex . . . blondes, cars, whisky”. When he is thrown out by his family for having an affair with his cousin, it looks as if fate is tipping the balance. But it doesn’t work out that way. Poverty keeps him tethered to his homeland, and he takes a job working as a bookseller for Sheikh Nureddin, the local imam.

Meanwhile, Lakhdar’s best friend, Bassam, is playing out the same conflict in more volatile ways. Though no less lustful and weed-smoking, he is devoted to Nureddin, for whom, it soon emerges, the Propagation of Quranic Thought is an activity broadly defined, accommodating sticks and stones – and knives and bombs – as well as the pamphlets peddled by Lakhdar.

For much of the first half, the novel is an odd mixture of picaresque and parable. Lakhdar is sometimes an object or victim of fate, sometimes a plaything of his author’s purposes, and the gear changes required can be jerky. One moment, Lakhdar will tell the reader, “And that’s how I entered the service of Marcelo Cruz, funeral services,” in a fish-out-of-water, “isn’t life funny?” sort of way. The next moment, he coolly notes the thematic overlap of his work for Cruz with a previous position that involved digitising the records of an Algerian infantry regiment in the First World War. “The idea of sending real stiffs back to Morocco after having imported dead soldiers to it virtually was rather amusing, I thought.”

Énard’s parable-making instincts frequently take control of the plot, with results that verge on tiresome. When Lakhdar sets sail on a boat named after one of his heroes, the 14th-century traveller Ibn Batuta, the vessel equals Freedom. But lack of an exit visa confines him to the port of Algeciras, then a dispute with the Spanish government keeps the boat there, too. So the Ibn Batuta becomes a symbol for the way that life dashes our best hopes – or upends them. Dreams of freedom produce a nightmare reality. An ideal of escape leads to more stasis.

Yet it feels churlish to grumble about the novel’s design when it enables so much potent writing. Sending Lakhdar from Tangier to Barcelona is a contrivance that you wouldn’t want undone. As well as furnishing different possibilities in terms of scene-setting and atmosphere, it turns the novel into a comparative portrait of two societies through their common factor circa 2011: a period of civic unrest and popular anger that failed to produce a revolution. Morocco is the country that the Arab spring forgot, while in Barcelona the deepening despair is only punctuated, never alleviated, by the occasional protest.

In the Barcelona section, richer by far than those set in Tangier and Algeciras, Énard uses Lakhdar’s outsider perspective to lay bare the shallowness of the type of dissent you find in a democracy. He notes that a general strike is claimed as a victory both by the organisers, because “they reach such-and-such a percentage of strikers”, and by the government, which didn’t have to make any changes. To Lakhdar, Spain appears “a land beyond politics”, where the nationalist government “no longer gave a shit about anyone” and industrial action has become an end in itself.

The workings of orientalism – or whatever cross-cultural logic shapes European responses to North Africa – are exposed with clarity, even flair. A feeling for paradox crowds out the platitude, derived from ­Edward Said, whereby representatives of the developed west are only ever blundering and stupid. It’s true that Judit, a student of Arabic literature at Barcelona University, so narrowly associates Tangier with sexual licence and foreign visitors (Burroughs, Paul Bowles) that Lakhdar, as a Muslim from the suburbs, feels that “we were discussing a different city”. But Énard – who teaches Arabic literature in Barcelona – is careful not to present Lakhdar’s Tangier as the “true” version and Judit’s as a romantic Other-laden mirage. Despite her overemphases, Judit never comes across as a dabbler, and it is Lakhdar’s mistiness about Barcelona that receives the harsher humbling. (The “street of thieves” lies not in Tangier, but in the Raval district of Barcelona.)

So, it is a shame, given this balancing of myopic perspectives, that Énard also feels the need to grant the older, reminiscing Lakhdar, smug in his 20/20 hindsight, a prominent place in the telling. But then Street of Thieves gives the consistent impression of a writer who, not unlike Houellebecq, views formal choices as not just secondary, but irritating. The unpunctuated first-person rant, as used in Zone, is surely Énard’s ideal device. It turns crude technique into an engine. The more intricate demands of the novel – the niceties of plotting and narrative point-of-view – merely serve to slow him down. Lakhdar is most convincing when neither a picaro nor a symbolic type, neither totally himself nor entirely representative, but a balance better suited to Énard’s analytic needs: specific enough to be vivid, while clearly standing in for the migrant who, drawn by fantasies of easy passage to streets paved with gold and teeming with blondes, finds instead an obstacle course from one site of crisis to another. 

Street of Thieves is available now from Fitzcarraldo Editions (£12.99)

Leo Robson is the lead fiction reviewer for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism