Look Away Now

If you’ve not already seen the film ‘The Dig’ (currently available on Netflix) and would like to come to it fresh and with an open mind, then don’t read on.

Views of the River Alde were used in the film although the actual ship burial was overlooking the River Deben.

Where to begin? The disciplines of archaeology and history are concerned with the substance and interpretation of the past, but interpretation of our past is not the preserve of the academic. This stuff, this substance of the past, provides material for the work of writers, artists and filmmakers to make their own reinterpretations as they create offerings that enrich our lives and entertain us.

However, there is a confidence bordering on audaciousness in taking past events, particularly people’s lives, and re-presenting them in a manner that distinctly departs from the factual, historical record. The question is how far does an interpreter go with invention to bring a history to life? Does it really matter if a film, that in no way suggests itself as documentary, changes the maturity and physicality of a central character. This is the primary difficulty for me with the film, ‘The Dig’. It is a film that retells the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial by Basil Brown and his working relationship with the landowner, Edith Pretty, who commissioned his excavations.

Portrait of Mrs Pretty painted in 1939 and newspaper clipping showing Mr Brown in 1939.

‘The Dig’ has made no claims for historical accuracy and itself is a film drama based on a historical novel (‘The Dig’, John Preston, 2007) which itself is a dramatised retelling of the actual events of the discovery of the ship burial in 1939. For example, in the novel a fictionalised RAF officer, Rory Lomax, photographs the dig replacing the original amateur photographers Barbara Wagstaff and Mercie Lack, who were two visiting school teachers on holiday in the Woodbridge area during the excavations of September 1939.

Literary licence is sanctioned in historical fiction to bring a story to life and when a book is made into a film that licence is often expanded to accommodate other constraints such as, let’s say, a film’s marketability. The long held view from the film industry seems to be that for commercial success well-known stars are required. The brilliant casting of Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown (with the best Suffolk accent I’ve ever heard from a screen actor) is met with the odd casting of Carey Mulligan as Edith Pretty.

Portrait of Edith Pretty painted in 1939. Still shot of Carey Mulligan playing Edith Pretty in ‘The Dig’, 2021.

My response to the whole film is coloured by this choice. Casting Carey Mulligan (35 years old) as Edith Pretty (56 years old and unwell at the time of the excavations) was possibly a choice for marketability at the expense of any vague nod to the lives of the real people in this historical drama. The sidelining of twenty years of a woman’s life and experience is seemingly of no consequence. In fact this woman, Edith Pretty, had had an unusual life for her class and times; she had travelled extensively, married late at 43 years old and had her only son, Robert, at 47 years old. However, this (dialogue below) is how her full and colourful backstory is summarised in the film. Using one scene Mrs Lyons (the housekeeper and cook), describes Mrs Pretty’s life for the benefit of Mr Brown:

She’s only been here 12 year. Came down from Cheshire. Then she married the Colonel. He first met with Edith when she was still at school. And then on her 17th birthday he asked her to marry him. She turn him down. She say she can’t possibly leave her father. She care for her father another 13 year, until he died. She finally accepted the Colonel’s proposal. He’d been asking every year on her birthday. Just after they had Robert her husband went and died too. Imagine that.

Mrs Lyons, Cook & Housekeeper. Film ‘The Dig’, 2021.

During the course of the film there were also a couple of scenes where Edith Pretty experiences episodes of illness and a trip to a London physician for her to receive a diagnosis of serious heart disease. The film gave no indication of her previous adventurous life at all and sadly, all the melancholic staring across the Suffolk landscape together with make-up to both age and make Ms Mulligan look poorly, still did not make her interpretation a believable Edith Pretty. Perhaps actors such as Saskia Reeves (59), Helen McCrory (52) or Tamsin Greig (54) could have brought some depth and drive to the role of Edith. This was after all a woman who had visited excavations in the Nile Valley, served with the French Red Cross at Vitry le Francois in 1917, became one of the first women magistrates and turned down a marriage proposal over 25 times.

Modern times and the River Deben not far from the Sutton Hoo ship burial site.

If filmmakers are going to paint a watercolour of a central character rather than give us the oil painting and thus alter the dynamics at the centre of a story why not just make a different film. This film is based on the discovery of the Sutton Hoo ship burial where the word ‘based’ is doing the heavy lifting, particularly where the female characters are concerned.

Still from ‘The Dig’ showing Ralph Fiennes as Basil Brown watching Thames Barge Cygnet from Snape on the marshy waterways of the River Alde.

The best part of the film was the gorgeous shots of Suffolk’s coastal waterways. The most surprising and unexpectedly disappointing aspect of the film was there was no grand reveal at the very end showing the treasure found on the Anglo-Saxon boat which is now on display at the British Museum thanks to the generous gift of Edith Pretty.

Snow in Town . . . Less Than Picturesque

The last time the Beast from the East visited Suffolk was back in late February 2018. I remember it clearly as I live on a hill, on a residential street that never sees the gritters. Vexingly, early on the morning of the initial heavy snow I was one of the first residents who had to drive down the treacherous road on my way to a 7.45 am appointment for an MRI scan at the hospital. I had been grateful that I was parked facing down the hill. It was an unpleasant and tricky few minutes behind the wheel.

This time the Beast from the East has turned up courtesy of Storm Darcy. It arrived as I walked down early on Sunday morning to pop in to see my father and drop off his Sunday newspaper. The arrival of a snowstorm and the subsequent whitening of the town does unite the disparate untidiness of the urban view, but it could hardly be called picturesque.

Just beginning to snow.
St Clement’s Church, Star Lane, Ipswich.
Walking down Grimwade Street to the Waterfront.
Turning into Neptune Quay, Ipswich Waterfront.
That’s not fog in the distance, but snow.
View from my father’s flat as the snow sweeps in.

By the time I had walked back home my backyard was covered. I don’t consider it looks particularly picturesque either, and by Tuesday it simply looked comical.

My backyard Sunday morning left, Monday morning right and ‘peak snow’ by the end of Tuesday, beneath.

It’s now Thursday afternoon and still the temperature hasn’t risen above freezing today even though it’s sunshine and blue skies, but at least it isn’t as cold as Braemar’s -23 Centigrade!!!!

Winter Walk in the Park

Last Saturday, we had blue skies with winter sun in Ipswich from dawn to dusk and despite the temperatures hovering all day around freezing, plenty of people visited the local parks for their permitted exercise. I was walking through the park as the sun began to set and stepped away from the busy paths to stand for 10 minutes to capture the sun doing down.

You can see there were both family groups and joggers making circuits of the pond,

My favourite photo from Saturday. All taken on my phone as only space for food shopping and not camera in my rucksack.

and also plenty of dog walkers too, but everyone began to rapidly vacate the park as the sun sank beneath the horizon. Nobody wants to be locked in by mistake in these freezing temperatures.

The sun almost behind the buildings on the horizon and time for me to leave.

When I got home and scrolled through the pictures I liked the ‘through the big old trees’ shot so much I am now using it for the background on my phone. Even though it’s a winter scene and the trees are dark and towering, there is a warming glow (much more noticeable on my phone than it appears here) which I find genuinely uplifting each time I open the phone. For me this is an example of the usually insignificant aspects of daily life that have become those brief pleasures helping many of us get through these grim days.

It was the night before the Covid Christmas

Twenty-twenty, what can you say? Goodbye and good riddance I suggest.

On the topic of watershed years I have found some photos from the last century when all we were concerned about was the possibility of the Y2K bug wiping out technology as we knew it.

A worried angel circa 1997

First I dug out a couple of grainy prints of one of my daughter’s contributions to school nativities. Then to my surprise I found another Christmas photo from a now forgotten Boxing Day trip to an Old Time Music Hall evening in Norwich. The event organisers had suggested the audience might like to attend in ‘Good Old Days’ attire. We had a go donning long skirts and velvet chokers. I seem to remember we were in the noticeable minority.

‘Say cheese’! My late mother, daughter et moi.

On that note and with smiles all round, I’d like to wish everybody the Season’s Greetings and a very, very Healthy New Year.

V-Day – 2020

The first person I know to get the Covid vaccine has been my father. I took him to the GP’s surgery this afternoon and the whole process ran very smoothly. All the staff and nurses were pleasant and kind. The ‘Covid Vaccine Clinic’ was well organised especially considering the need to keep the elderly folk, many with walking sticks or wheelchairs, the appropriate two metres apart. And, of course, it was masks for everybody.

After the nurse ran through the usual health questions with my father I asked her how many people they’d vaccinated so far. She said they had been allocated a batch of 900 doses and had already vaccinated over 600 elderly Ipswich residents this week.

Reading the Covid Vaccination leaflet.

As you probably have already heard in the news everybody has to sit and wait for a further 15 minutes after the jab. This is a precaution in case of an adverse allergic reaction. It soon became obvious that waiting for 15 minutes was more bothersome for some people than the actually jab, but helpfully they were all given a Covid Vaccination information leaflet to help pass the time.

“Can I go yet?”

It’s Tiers and more Tiers

Last week with all the recent positive vaccine news there was a sense of relief and from some folk a hint that it’s nearly all over. However, although there is most definitely a strong light at the end of the tunnel, there is still a long way to go dealing with this virus.

Explaining the tightened Tier system . . . Tier 1 . . . Tier 2 . . . Tier 3 . . .

Today, following government presentations and briefings it appears that it’s Tier 2 and Tier 3 for most of England. It is only the Isles of Scilly, Cornwall and the Isle of Wight that will be in Tier 1. There are also, we now know, rules for Christmas and all those that are going to do Christmas this year they can go ahead with preparations for their own ‘Covid safe’ arrangements.

What, sorry, you mean you don’t understand. Well, for example take West Suffolk, it has the lowest case rate for over-60s in the whole country, yet will be in Tier 2 with the rest of Suffolk.

Family and friends that know me well, will know I like to root around behind the managed political announcements and simplistic headlines. I am not sure if any news outlet in the UK has uploaded a similarly helpful sequence, but this ‘Aerosol transmission of Covid’ in English published by El PaĆ­s, is fascinating. This is by no means a peer reviewed science paper, but an enlightening visual representation of how this virus spreads so efficiently inside rooms. I thought it was worth sharing before the Christmas get-togethers.

So when travelling during the festive Covid season it’s wear a mask. And, perhaps with visitors inside it might also be wear a mask. And, it should most definitely be all about ventilation.

Note. I would just like to say thank you to Sophie Mitchell Photography, London, (top three images) taken as part of a commission for UCL.

A Media Storm: the Covid Christmas

Shall I just begin with saying that I find it disappointing to be writing about Christmas Day in November, but this year the issue of the ‘Corona Christmas’ is all over the media. You can’t switch on the news, pick up a paper or scroll down your social media feed without being bombarded with headlines and commentary on what could be the situation come the 25th December and what rules may be in place. There is plenty of speculation, but mostly it looks like it’s going to be a numbers waiting game for the government before plans are announced.

Whatever the authorities decide the Covid vaccination programme will not be up and running to any significant extent for us ordinary folk. Individually it will come down to how risk averse people feel about spending hours indoors with relatives and friends. Of course there are alternative possibilities, you could meet up for a festive walk somewhere beautiful or failing that reach for your screens for a zoom Christmas catch-up or even postpone the whole Christmassy thing until February, March, April . . . . or even Christmas 2021.

Our annual Christmas Day walk 2014 – sadly none of those gorgeous dogs were mine.

Regardless of our personal choices at least here in Ipswich the usual Town Centre and Waterfront Christmas trees have been installed. On my way home last night after checking in the weekly supermarket order for my father, I noticed the Waterfront Christmas tree was lit and twinkling.

This contemporary Christmas tree changes as the baubles cycle through a sequence of colours.

There was a slightly strange moment when the colours changed through the blues to turquoise, on to the pinks and then the top bauble beneath the star turned red and, to me anyway, it had an eerie resemblance to models of a certain virus!

Cultural Norms

Who would have thought a year ago we’d walk down our local High Street and into any shop to find customers and staff alike wearing face masks, and, not find that strange. It appears that for the time being this state of affairs is going to be the norm. Whichever ‘tier’ you find yourself living in, there is going to be the requirement to wear a mask sometime, somewhere, at some point.

Since May there have been articles in the press about masks becoming fashionable and one early adopter of the ‘colourful’ mask has been the American politician and House Speaker, Nancy Pelosi. However, putting aside the medical and the ultra cheap disposable options, have you noticed, more often than not, chaps where plain masks and most commonly, black ones, especially in public life. Or, is this just a phenomenon of those we see in the spotlight? Does anyone know?

Travelling on the Tube a face covering is mandatory.

Now, I am not sure about you, but I find there is something slightly menacing about black face masks. They bring to mind highwaymen or special forces and it’s already bad enough simply not being able to see faces fully. In these gloomy times wouldn’t it be more interesting and more fun and, just more cheerful if guys wore coloured ones. There is so much choice out there; every type of fabric, every colour, every type of pattern. There’s bees or trees or animal prints and ones with text, or symbols or musical notes or just plain colour. If it has been a cultural norm for men to wear coloured ties what’s the problem with a coloured mask?

Plenty of Fresh Air

Oh dear, what is there to say today? There has been so much bad news and less and less consensus. Is there any light at the end of the tunnel? It appears that all hope is being pinned on the production of an effective vaccine.

Let’s leave the Covid Crisis behind and head off for an exhilarating, bracing walk along the North Sea at Sizewell. There is plenty of cool, fresh air and not many people on this stretch of the Suffolk coast in mid October.

Sizewell Beach with Dunwich Heath in the distance.

After Shingle Street, Sizewell, is my next favourite Suffolk beach. I have been coming here since I was a child. Over the years the small fishing village has been put on the country’s map as a site for nuclear power stations. Initially, supplying electricity for the National Grid from the big old Magnox nuclear power station commissioned in 1966, and then the more elegant (?), pressurised water reactor version, commissioned in 1995.

Nuclear power stations. Magnox to the left and pressurised water to the right.

I have always thought it a slightly, eerie place and you would never guess that its next door neighbour is the glorious RSPB’s Minsmere Nature Reserve. The walk from Sizewell along to Dunwich Heath passes along the edge of the Reserve’s wetlands and is a short section of the 60 mile Felixstowe to Lowestoft Suffolk Coast Path.

Normal – A Moveable Feast?

Another week and another set of announcements for the ‘new normal’. Last Friday it was the beginning of compulsory face coverings in shops, then earlier this week it was the abrupt announcement of 14 days quarantine on returning to UK from Spain and then this morning I heard the seven-day self-isolation for suspected Covid is to be increased to 10 days.

Many people find change difficult, but if you take a moment and glance across the last century for example, you see it is normal for humans to live with a constantly changing world. It is the pace of change, when it is fast and furious, that unnerves us. And, global crises, such as world wars or infectious pandemics or even the invention of the Internet bring with them discernible change. Of course, most change is slower and continuous, we probably don’t notice it, but it is nevertheless happening.

Last week a couple of the old Thames barges turned up and tied up on the Ipswich Waterfront. They were from Maldon, just down the coast in Essex, and they have been the first and only old barge visitors to dock at Ipswich since the lockdown. They are a beautiful example of how we adapt and change and then accept a new normal.

A hundred years ago there were many of them sailing up and down the coast moving the grain grown in East Anglia, the country’s bread basket, down to London. They were an everyday sight for the folk of Ipswich. Nowadays, only a few are still seaworthy, some have been converted to fixed ‘dwellings’, but many have or are rotting away abandoned in the marsh creeks of Essex and Suffolk.

Pin Mill is a picturesque village on the River Orwell and it is also a boat graveyard. A variety of wooden-hulled vessels are slowly disintegrating on the riverbank including several old barges.

Adaptation is a key mechanism of evolution and survival, and so it has been for the Thames barges. They have adapted from transporting grain to hosting curious visitors and have gained a new lease of life as tourist attractions. Yes, the Coronavirus crisis has brought many changes, but taking people on trips down the river, outside on deck, is still possible although with fewer people on board – it’s the new normal.

Old Thames Barge ‘Will’ with, in the background, the Salthouse Harbour Hotel and Neptune Square apartments built on the site of the old dock warehouses.

Birthday Surprise

Like many people during the last three months I marked a birthday. It was one of those ‘milestone’ birthdays (no need to mention which one!) and the small treat organised by my daughter was cancelled due to you know what.

Hand painted DMs.

Being furloughed from work and locked down in London she was unable to travel to Ipswich to make a visit (unfortunately her name isn’t Dominique). However, she did find she had more time on her hands than expected and decided to make up for the cancelled event with a surprise gift instead.

Unbeknown to me and through a series of seemingly random and cryptic messages, she deduced that my current favourite colours are green, lilac, turquoise and gold.

I was also sent a sketch ‘for my opinion’ under the ruse of entering a competition being run by Dr Martens. It never crossed my mind she was painting a pair for me.

Painting Dr Martens shoes.

So, when the postie knocked loudly on my door and was already back in his van waving at me as I opened the front door, I was genuinely surprised to see a random, unexpected parcel on my doorstep. And, even more surprised when I opened it to find these gorgeous, colourful shoes inside – painted especially for me.