Wednesday, 9 March 2011

The Dig by John Preston

This novel must surely be the only one ever written in which the author is also the nephew of one of the main characters! It is of course a blend of fact and fiction, telling the story of the excavation of the ship-burial at Sutton Hoo in 1939 and the discovery of the priceless Anglo-Saxon treasures now exhibited in the British Museum, which radically altered our view of what used to be called the "Dark Ages".

In my youth I must have passed the Sutton Hoo site over a thousand times, probably without giving it a second thought, although I knew from local history at school that some important find had been made there some years earlier. More interesting for me as a child was to see whether there were men standing guard on the nearby bridge over the Deben, a relatively common occurrence indicating that borstal boys had escaped from Hollesley Bay. I often wondered though whether this served any purpose other than to frighten local residents, which it certainly did me, for all the escapees had to do was make a detour and cross the Deben at a narrower point further upstream!

The novel itself is highly evocative of time and place: sleepy class conscious Suffolk in the 1930's, with the sense of the impending war hanging over the excavation and giving it an urgency and a poignancy it otherwise would not have had. Peggy Piggot (the author's aunt) comments that "it seemed an especially cruel joke that we should be unearthing the remains of one civilization just as our own appeared to be on the brink of annihilation."

Preston provides no single narrator, the excavation at Sutton Hoo is explored through the eyes of its principal characters: the landowner Edith Pretty, a Lancastrian, marrying late after the death of her father, surprisingly giving birth at the age of 47 to her only child, Robert, and now trying to get in touch with her dead husband through a spiritualist; Basil Brown, the local archaeologist recommended to Mrs Pretty by Ipswich Museum, without the right letters after his name as his wife comments, he is inevitably pushed aside by academic archaeologists when the importance of the discovery becomes apparent; Peggy Piggott, a young archaeologist recently married to a Professor, she is taken by her husband from a passionless honeymoon to participate in the dig at the request of the Cambridge archaeologist, Charles Phillips.

The novel forces us to confront the meaning of an existence in which even the body of a Saxon King, Raedwald, may have decayed, teeth and all, becoming virtually indistinguishable from the soil in which it was long ago buried. So also Edith Pretty's photographer nephew points out that Victorian street scenes appeared devoid of people because the photographic plates needed long exposure: "All those ghostly, transparent people making no lasting impression." Peggy Piggott says that she wanted to be an archaeologist because "so much of life just slips by and with so little to show for it. I suppose I wanted to make sense of what does endure." Mrs Pretty of course finds the treasure she had always thought was there, but never manages to make contact wth her dead husband. "There were no voices to be heard, no messages coming from some unimagineable beyond. That surely was the truth. Everything else was a delusion. Crumbs of comfort to keep the pangs at bay."

Inevitably in a work of this nature one wonders what is true and what is fiction. It appears that the main liberty taken is the compression of the dig into the hot summer of 1939, when in fact it took place over 1938 and 1939.

I was intrigued to find a picture of Mrs Pretty on the web, and to find that she lived with her father, a Manchester industrialist, for a number of years at Vale Royal House in Winsford, Cheshire, where she is remembered for giving the Dempster Challenge Cup (her maiden name) which is still awarded annually for the best local allotment. So her name will always be associated with digging.

Anyway I found this a delightful read: one of a pile of books taken away with me on a recent holiday; as soon as it was finished I read it again. I can pay a book no greater compliment.

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