Hung up on a growing fixation with Anglo Saxon language and culture, it was inevitable that I should have been drawn to watch The Dig, which was released on Netflix last week. Based around the excavations at Sutton Hoo, the film was heavily promoted on the radio last week. I listened with delight to one interview with the accent coach who taught Ralph Fiennes how to speak with an authentic Suffolk accent; a strange twist of vowel sounds and an emphasis on pursed lips. It was English as I’ve never heard it spoken, and the recording made me laugh aloud in wonder.
At a time when nationalism is locked in noisy combat with globalism, it’s a risky confession to admit that I love regionalism; the microcosmic diversity which permits communities to vary even between parishes and glens. Britain is extraordinarily rich in folk culture, language, food, architecture and outlook – and yet as global forces nudge us all towards conformity, it’s becoming steadily harder to see the line between my home town and yours. I’m inherently touchy about Galloway’s sense of itself, particularly since political narratives have begun to insist that everybody in Scotland shares a common identity. Nationalism downplays regionalism by arguing that the only worthwhile unit of social and political consequence is the nation. But many of us in Galloway would feel more at home in Antrim or the Isle of Man than we would in Aberdeen or Fort William – it has often been uncomfortable to experience this re-kneading of national and regional selves.
Having developed a baggy understanding of my own heritage, I think of myself in terms of Gaels and Vikings. Saxons feel rather distant to me; a foreign people settling a strange land, hundreds of miles away. I study Old English because it allows me to better understand the language I speak today. It’s a beautiful culture and aesthetic, but it’s not my inheritance and it never it was. I feel no personal investment in Sutton Hoo, but regionalism is far more than “each to their own”. Instead, it’s the simple appreciation of local, intricate things that make each of us different on the walkable scale of mountain ranges and river catchments. It’s a useful approach, although it is continually lampooned and ridiculed in the media as narrow-minded parochialism. In a world of constant travel before the Lockdown, it was decidedly uncool to be satisfied by your own immediate surroundings. I hope that’s changing now.
I have never been to Suffolk, but The Dig is set against an extraordinarily compelling spread of wide skies and marshland. I could almost hear redshank calling along the water fringes, and while the sound editor leaned a little too heavily on curlew calls around the dig site, I was utterly sold on the sense of people in an ancient place. Sutton Hoo is not mine, but I’m delighted that it’s theirs. And above all, I almost sobbed to see summer portrayed on screen; rich grass, heavy leaves and the warm light of a lingering evening. Immured in a dull and apparently endless Lockdown winter, it was simply a joy to remember long days and shirtsleeves.
The Dig not an exciting film. It values atmosphere above plot twists and car chases, and entire premise is laid out during a single conversation during the opening five minutes. Mrs. Pretty shows Mr. Brown a jumble of tumuli. He offers to dig into them. After a brief dispute about payment, he digs into them. Two hours later, and with the loose ends fastened on some not-very-interesting romantic subplots, it’s The End.
The archaeological remains at Sutton Hoo are staggeringly significant and vivid, but their modern history is utterly passive – they were dug up. Revolving around that simple fact, the film spins itself into a clean and beautifully textured sampler of pre-war East Anglian life, tapping into a fine atmosphere of rich, distinctive colloquialism which left me feeling like I’d been on holiday. On that basis, it doesn’t need to be an exciting film. I loved it, from beginning to end, and a momentary highpoint came in a burst of perfect comedy – asked how it feels to have uncovered the wildly significant remains of an ancient Saxon burial site, Mr. Brown nods and says “yeah, ‘s alright”. I don’t know Suffolk, but I feel like that warm, self-effacing understatement is part of the puzzle.
My friends are keenly planning the trips they’ll take when the lockdown lifts and the world comes to a new balance. They’re going to New York and Sydney; beach trips in the Algarve and the Mediterranean sun. I say bugger that. I’m off to Sutton Hoo, via the British Museum.