The Dig

The Dig is on Netflix

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.

Cold Farrow

I’ve seen Orion before, but never from this angle through a byre vent on the coldest night of the year. As the hours moaned and the cleanings chilled in the straw like pudding, the old familiar stars rolled out of sight and new ones took their place.

The first piglets fell into the darkness and vanished without landing. She ate the dead before I could find their bodies, so the only mark they made on this Earth was a thin contribution to the smell of piss and amniotics. Who knows how many had come and gone by the time my torchlight found survivors steaming like porridge in the cold. Then another, curling and whining on the granite setts as I ran for a coat on my pyjamas. Ice woke to the moonrise with an extravagant expansion. Eggs popped in the coops and the hose burst in segments like a roadkill adder; the coldest night of the year, and the hardest.

In strange distress, the sow had walked back and forth and dropped her young like luggage in the bone-cold shedding. I had been reading indoors as they died; dying where they fell in the cold, and let that be a lesson to me – frost kills like a bullet. Even as I lunged to save the new lives, they slipped away through my fingers; they fell quiet and numb and the pauses grew in their endless squealing like sirens breaking. I tried to find them in the straw but the coldest became the quietest; snooker balls chilling in the pockets, knowing that the sow would eat them dead and cycle them back into herself like a birth reversal. I rushed and flustered, causing her to stand with a start and step upon the pelvis of an hour-old boar. The tiny creature squealed in one continuous shriek as if all the air had gone for it. Then it died nodding as if in agreement.

Two cold survivors came into the house and a box on the stove; two I could find and be sure of. Minutes from death, I coiled them in jumpers and socks; a towel which had been drying on a warm rail. One twitched. The other didn’t. The sow made way to lie at last, and that’s when I stripped milk from her teats by hand. I carried the colostrum back across the yard in a coffee cup and the moon-blaze raged in the frost, long past midnight. I used a syringe to leak milk into their hooky little mouths and was glad when they bubbled up a lather. Then I ran to the byre and smashed ice on the water trough for the hundredth time, and the chips jingled in the stoneware like a tumbler, and it froze again.

The sow lurched on with contractions but the afterbirth was hardly flushed. I rolled back my sleeve and pressed inside her to the depth of my elbow, feeling for more or some obstruction. And in the devastating darkness of the shed; in heavy breath and the low-slung dust of autumn straw, I felt nothing but warmth; a comfortable push-back. I turned my palm and moved in silence like a diver in a wreck, coasting through abandoned bedwear and the vacant stems where life had grown, each bay cupped like the empty socket of an acorn. She eats them too, and in withdrawal I brushed against a ham and the swell of backstrap fillets, and I know that place well enough with a saw in my hand.

She was empty, so whatever I had left was everything. One of the piglets on the stove was resurrected. The other was not, and it lay heavy-headed like a drowned pup, and I thought well she might as well eat that now it’s nothing. The survivor went back outdoors and then I was left with two from God only knows how many to start. The Plough stood begging on its tail in the north sky towards the village. A teal called and my arms itched with dry blood.

Towards four, when the heat lamp was hung and the water trough ice was smashed again, I sat with my back to the rough-stone wall and watched two piglets, tiny as mice in the red electric light. I am used to life which comes in immaculate perfection. Perhaps I was overdue some disaster; I deserved it as repayment for work that is often easy. But I couldn’t have known and I did what I could. If I’d found them sooner, I might have saved more lives. And if I’d gone to bed and looked in on the sow at first light, I might have been none the wiser; my beast unburdened with nothing to show.

New Year

The clarity is cleaner in retrospect, and I’m glad I did nothing to record the bellwether days between Christmas and mid-January. There was hardly a cloud in the sky for three whole weeks. When the fronts came at last it was merely to snow and shift the aspect forward.

In another year, I would’ve wasted that time by rushing from the hill to my desk to record every blink and crackle of ice in the haggs; I’d have cupped those details in my hands and hurried to set them somewhere safe before they could dribble away through the gaps in my fingers. Because freshness was everything, and urgency was imperative. Take the deafening thrill of ten thousand geese with their wings set to land in the fields below the house; the details fade, even as you listen. Recall the crunch and tumble of a vixen killed in the snow; if you aren’t careful, the moment can vanish like a puff of blood.

In carrying pails of water to the cows, I almost stepped on a jack snipe. I stopped and we stared at one another as he crouched like a beetle in the burn; the world compressed to a palmful. Then he flared away to the west, and like a fool I took a photograph, which came out as another pixelated lie. That stung me, so I tried to do better; to roll along with the time and be true to it more generally, allowing the most part away, even though it flew against my need to record and engrave.

I was drunk on New Year’s Eve. Some neighbours came and we stood at a respectful distance in the yard while a dumb, honey-coloured moon rolled up through the gaps in the cattle shed roof. Having failed to make much of 2020, we swore that the coming summer would bring better hay than anything we’d ever seen – we could already smell the grass frying like bacon in a pan. So we drank and laughed and never knew that another neighbour would die in his bed that night and his farm would wake into a new year without a plan or a master. The geese tramped his grass in the dark as if the deeds hardly mattered, but we are sorry that he’s gone.

Those pigs I keep were punctured by a boar in September. Progress was inevitable, and it came at the start of this week now passed. A string of wriggling young’uns rolled into the straw on Monday morning, and I would’ve said that a second litter is due in ten days – but the way that sow is standing and heaving at her own drab sides, I think they’ll come sooner than that.

There’s always another stage before the end of pregnancy in pigs; always something which has to happen first. The bar fattens and the milk drops once and then again before the teats turn red and thicken and the whole bay drops like the offload ramp on a digger trailer. She’ll nest and lie the wrong side up, then carry more rushes and bracken into her den like a bear.

Pathetically keen for progress, I mistake every one of these stages for the destination. I exhaust myself with anticipation, so that when piglets rush out into the darkness at last, it’s just another step and no arrival. And the first litter is firm and fit, and she had seven which is a far more sensible number than thirteen she dropped last time and killed one by standing on it. The sty is warmed by a red lamp; cobwebs hang pinkly on the lintels. As she recovered from the effort of delivery, the sow hardly ate and her slop lay for hours in a stone trough until the rats came for it. Checking the smallest pigs between two and three in the morning, I found an owl wedged on the rails above the trough, watching the trough lip, ready to curl in with an ell-shaped grasp like the knight in a chess game.

And always geese over the house, tramping the snow and moving without care in skeins that run for miles towards the bay. I cart muck to the field and shake it out with a grape; I smash ice on the water troughs and lug bales to the beasts in a darkening rush of sleet and expletives. I have become winterman again; The User. Birds die when I handle them; stores wither and dwindle. I revel at the smouldering fuel; I dish out the stuff I worked so hard to keep. So watch me burning up the summer’s fat, with no memory of what it cost to lay this comfort down. I squander as if replenishment was a given.

I wondered if I’d make a Resolution for myself this year; some fresh challenge to undermine the ground I already hold by the tips of my fingers. My time is apportioned with a razorblade and a microscope, but I tell myself that if I can just take on a few more projects, I’ll be satisfied at last – life will finally hurt enough to give me peace. I look around me, realising that there are hedges to renew and sheds to repoint in the summer. Perhaps I could act more as a father, and maybe there’s time to take on another screed of hill ground without losing the peace to write and read, which are two ends of the same thing. And I haven’t slammed into the buffers because that will never happen to me.