You want some nice images? I’m your man buddy; I can sort you out, trust me – the inside of my jacket is hung with bits of nice… and countryside stuff? – I’m a fuckin one-stop-shop, I am. Here, look at the hare as he runs in the frost and with running he puts up a curlew. People like hares and curlews, I’ll do them both for the work of one. You tell me where you can find a better deal than that? Just hares you want? That’s fine; here’s a field with seven of them and the sound of lapwings – total bliss, mate – not fussed about the lapwings? Neither am I to be honest, but you know how it is – have it your own way buddy, the customer is king – and I’ve always said that, so it’s just hares then. Or maybe it’s barn owls that you’re after; no problem, that’s fine I’m lifting with barn owls mate, I can’t stand still for bloody barn owls, me, each one combed and softer than the last. Do you want it coasting in the rushes, or are you more of a “framed in a rustic doorway” kind of man? I’ve got them both, to be fair; quick on the draw, me – you name it, I’ll describe it lovely. Hey, how about something for the missus? I’ve got all sorts – I saw a pig’s nob once mate; looked like a tape-measure – you can have that if you like. Although maybe that’s one for the lads I spose, and hey don’t be like that mate, I was only joking, eh? Come on, it’s this bloody Covid nobody can have a laugh anymore can they? Here, you just tell me what you’re after and I’ll sort you out mate, it’s no skin off my nose; I’m in my element – I just say what I see – dress it up nice and you’ll love it.
What was that, mate? You want to know what it’s for?
When all is fed and done, we meet at the hill-road for a fox. It’s nine fifteen and there’s fag smoke and plastic mugs of coffee in the back of a truck; gunslips slick with mirk and dog slavers. Sleet runs about your bunnet brim and it’s good to see your pals again.
Foxes come and go as they please on this hill, and you can hardly shoot them with a rifle. I used to run snares up one side of the glen and my neighbour caught the slack on the other. That kept them down, but the Government’s made snaring so hard that nobody dares try it anymore. Besides, most of the old fox runs are rank with black-and-white these days, and if you catch one of them, it’s curtains. Still, these foxes have to go and the keeper’s a good man so we pitch in beside him a few times in the normal season, even when it’s the last thing you’d choose to do and the rugby’s at four and some of us are leaning into a hangover like it was a headwind.
We line out and make a stand in the lee of dykebacks and slaes. We’re black and glossy in our oilskin hoods and the rain drives on in a reek of tobacco and dead grass. It’s just a line of men and dogs ahead, and they walk with their bellies bagged out in the wind. A few woodcock slide away from the trees like scraps of wrappy old sacking. They’re off downwind and no sooner gone than a roe buck comes out and past us, tossing his head and hating the water. We crouch and lie and steel ourselves against the creeping rain until the skin of our hands is white and puffy as towelling. Water runs on the ribs of our guns and bulges the barrels in beads.
The first drive is a blank, but we find two foxes running together in the second. And they only come when a pair of blackcock have risen up from the myrtle and hurled themselves along with the rain. One passes me at head height and I watch his tail trail behind him like ribbons; eyes wide, beak open and pounding like a cormorant. Smirk, wink and nod him past, saying morning boys.
It’s become a joke that I never shoot the fox. I’ve stood a hundred days like this and only killed him two or three times. Folk laugh that I should leave my cartridges at home, but I did that by mistake one time and guess where the fox came? Gunshots rise flat and drab from down the line, and it’s a nice reminder that I’m not alone on this hillside or ever. I look out to the birch trees turning and replay the expression on Tom’s face when I told him how much that bull calf made at Castle Douglas; bloody criminals, he said, and I laugh again.
Two foxes killed in the rain, carried by the tail and slack as jackets. It’s a good piece of work, but somehow more important to see your neighbours and remind yourself that you don’t have to carry this all on your own back. There’s more talking than killing in this group. We lean together like the limbs of a teepee as the sleet comes harder, and you’ll have a shot of this gin? Separately and together, we hope that spring will take better care of us.
An earlier draft of this post was published here in January 2019
The oystercatchers returned in the darkness, and now the snipe are drumming. Spring is coming, and it’s a matter of hours until curlews drop back into the glen. I won’t see so many as I did last year, and my only consolation is that I’ll have more than I will in years to come. They’ll stay until May, and then they’ll leave empty handed, and I don’t hope for the best anymore.
Of course I’ll do what I can for the birds, but in truth they’re already gone. I’m told that I shouldn’t give up, but that makes me cranky now. I’m inclined to wonder if you would continue in my place. And for now it’s only wondering, but I’m not so far from snapping at friends and making a scene. I’ve spent almost fifteen years at this work for curlews, and nothing has come of it. I don’t think I’m naturally glum or downhearted, and I don’t take pleasure in turning out these melodramatic sob-stories. There are times when I can draw a line under what has happened and I can place that sadness in a neat compartment. But this morning I walked in the rushes and was impressed with a wild sense of loss.
Studying curlews and working on their conservation has taught me how it feels to come up short. Looking for bigger lessons, I can claim to have explored the reality of loss in tiny, microscopic detail; to want something so passionately and then be denied. That’s been instructive, although I’ve been hard on myself and cried more than I thought I would. And I’ve learned how sorely we are all being failed by tiers of politicians and conservation middle-managers who lack the courage and nouse to go the extra mile to protect wildlife. It’s been a relief to focus my anger on half a dozen named individuals who have acted as roadblocks to progress because they believed that curlews were incompatible with policy narratives. Perhaps that seems fanciful, but it’s a certain fact that half a dozen people hold a terrifyingly influential sway in Scottish conservation. It’s wholly perverse, and I try not to think too long on it.
Of course curlews will endure elsewhere. They’ll sing long and wonderfully in Angus and Aberdeenshire. I’m being petty and selfish for daring to hope that my niche interest can withstand the currents of development and progress. Things don’t work like that anymore, and I’m sorry it took me so long to realise it. But when I write about the loss of my curlews for a wider audience, I’m often confused by the response. People say “But we’ve got plenty of curlews in Northumberland/ or Sutherland/ or Argyll!” as if they’re trying to console me; as if the fact that my birds have gone will be softened by a reminder that theirs have not.
I’m glad that people care. We never used to, and that’s some progress at least. But I’m uncomfortable with the idea that you can sleep easily at night on the basis of local abundance. Look through the old record books and you’ll find that Galloway used to have the greatest number of breeding curlews in Britain. So it doesn’t matter how many curlews you have – we had more. And now we have none.
What happened here could happen to you in a few brief years. Please do not take these birds for granted. You will be staggered by the hole they leave.
I made myself a table. Days passed in the work, and at first the pine was rough upon my hands. Then it was hard to tell, and now my hands are the harder of the two. I snuffed up the motes of dust and blew woodsnot into a rag. I polished that grain until it glowed, and the job was done at last on Christmas Eve. I fetched that table into my room as if it were a guest. I was scared to use it, and keen.
Of course the wood would warp and turn as it settled in place. Cracks emerged, and my finely measured legs fell slack in their sockets. It’s still a table, but now it has become a compromise between my work and its own dumb will. If I listen carefully, I can hear it flexing like the boring jaws of a grub. Now and then the joints will click to relieve the pain of some pent-up contortion; gaps which I sealed have opened with a small and crescent grin. Three years have passed since I killed this branch and milled it. Now with tweaks and tiny flinches, my work is undoing itself. After all that we have been through together, I wonder if this limb means to leave me; if it is being called away by the memory of a past life and the years before it died and was dried.
And before it goes, the boards will yawn and strain around their new form; they must get to know the shape I’ve made them – the ignorant lines I’ve driven across grains and the flex of a million tiny strings still turning together like weeds in the burn. And I begin to wonder if I am really alone as I sit at this table and it strains for the door.
When I was a child, a ghost would come into my bedroom. I could hear it. The furniture would cringe and the floorboards slacked in panic at the knotholes. The room frowned around me in the darkness and the ghost would pass through as it chose, making traitors of familiar things. I described the wooden groans to my mother and she explained that everything is moving all the time. If things couldn’t creak from time to time, they’d fall down. I wasn’t scared of the ghost after that, because I had a bigger puzzle to unpick.
Last night I walked across the yard in the hours before the snow came. The stars were hard apart and the half moon glared for the rising cloud. There is never silence in this place, and always some bleep or guzzle of birds in the darkness. And as the temperature fell, the sheds curled upon themselves like woodlice. The rafters clacked and the slates rippled; eggs burst in the coops and the spicket strained in its belt and moaned.
With a thin sound like twisting plastic, the mud grew upon itself as the ice proved and the turf rose up and away from the stones below it. Deep cold, and a baking, bicarbonised expansion. When they sell diesel, it’s measured by volume at a standardised temperature. A greedy man might ask an agent to value his land at a moment like this, when it shows to biggest advantage. A thaw may come at any moment, and he could stand to lose acres in shrinkage.
Out on the hill, the haggs sagged and the rocks cracked with the powerful swell of frozen water. The scree will come slacker in the wake of a night like this; the clints will drop their boulders like castaway teeth; the sap burst and the burns heal, and it seems like everything creaks as it moves, but it takes a night like this to grab your attention. Dead wood curls back upon itself like a stricken adder, and it’s hard to imagine that until you’ve tried to carve it straight. And it’s awful to find that we lack the most fundamental calibrations of feeling; we are blind to the world as it grows and shrinks upon itself like heat through a pan of porridge. Those trees were taller this morning and the rushes sank to the sunset; phloem swells and the roots respond to the tide-rise and the falling star.
I made myself a table. The work is done and the echoes are deafening.
Have you given much thought to dying? And have you wondered how things will go when you’ve gone? Well here’s what I’ve gathered, for the little it’s worth.
Your family will take time from their lives to dig through your barns and stack your stuff in piles according to the value they place upon it, scratching their heads because you are why these objects came together in one place. Only you understand why those nuts are mislabelled and there’s only one boot. In a grand rack of rivets, the most commonly used are kept elsewhere, in a coffee cup. It’s no wonder that your system is junk in your absence; you built this nest, tucking each new thing in place with the labour of your busy beak. Now the four winds rise for a grand dispersal;
the next in line will measure your treasures with cool and pitiless eyes. So feel for the broken spade that you liked to keep unmended. And the blunted shears you took in exchange for that work at Killymingan – their days are numbered, just like the muscles and veins that used to make you laugh. Without you to speak for these things, they’re finished;
and forget about that scythe your father gave you, and the first sheep trough you ever made as a boy, more powder now than tree. Forget the benches where you lay beside that old bitch as she died in the kennels and you could never bring yourself to unhitch her chain from the wall. Those byre stalls have been there for as long as you can remember, but your family will break them up and fetch the splinters blinking to the yard, cleaning up behind you. Everyone will see how ugly that wood became in the pox of worm and the crust of cobwebs and pigeon shit, and maybe somebody will think you don’t live longer indoors; you just die slower. Clean up and clean out.
I bet they’ll find things you never meant to share – things hidden for so long you’d forgotten they were secrets. They’ll see all that, your family, and maybe they’ll wonder if they really knew you at all; a man who kept a smutty magazine or a pair of lady’s knickers at the back of a filing cabinet. And all your fucking paperwork because when did farming become a desk job anyway? If they bother to read the accounts you made of yourself, maybe they’d see how close you came to losing it all one year in the eighties, and the contradictory lessons you gave about parsimony and You only live once. Everything will be there to see, with your cheque stubs gone rusty at the staple and heaps of receipts like money from a game. The museum might take one of your ledgers for the record, but they’ve already got three that almost say the same.
Your family will come to claim your prizes, claiming they’ll remember you clearly in a clock or some object that you never saw twice in your life. Then they’ll burn what’s left and it’ll be a grand fire on a clear day, raging so well that they’ll be tempted to throw on things which never stood a chance of burning. Lightbulbs and fuse-boxes; bags of bags and litter because the sheds will never sell with all this crap. When the heat fades, the mass will smoulder on and it’ll still be burning in the morning when they come back and dump more of your things to kinnle it up again. You didn’t leave word to say if you wanted a headstone. I gather there won’t be much left by the time they’ve paid the lawyers, so have this instead; a heap of melted plastic and charcoal where nothing will grow for a decade.
I know all this because they did something like it to my neighbour on the hill. He died and his life went up in flames, and now they’re doing it again in the glen and the stinking, plasticated smoke hangs above the freshly dead man’s byres shouting habemus mortem, and we know you. The wind turns and there’s a smell of burning photographs. Smoke hangs in the night mist, and the oystercatchers catch on and peep towards the spring. Then more junk, and it burns for weeks because farmers die old and they can’t help but heap fuel around their ailing bodies like a bier for the send-off.
We don’t burn the dead these days. Modern bodies are rushed away with tact and discretion, so in cleaning the slate in the wake of a passing, we’re obliged to light a different fire. And your life’s end will come in the dispersal of things which hung together only for so long as you held them. Freed of you, they’ll leave in the breeze like a long-held breath.
I suppose you’ve dwelt on this before. Nothing’s new; and yet reaching for comfort, we each of us reach for the stuff that will burn when our turn comes to go.
It’s very easy to get bogged down with reading. I have a natural tendency to stick with what I know, and that leads me into ruts and blind alleys. So pushing against that tendency, I’ve made a deliberate effort to read outside my comfort zone; I’ve started to pick books at random from the library or the charity shelves in the supermarket. It’s been hit and miss, but a few stand-out discoveries have recently turned me on my head.
The best of these is The Sunken Land Begins To Rise Again by M. John Harrison, a novel so strange and unexpected that I still can’t decide what to make of it. A fortnight has passed since I turned the final page, but it keeps repeating on me and I’m hardly sure how to go forward.
Without spoiling the plot, The Sunken Land follows the story of two lost and distracted people in late middle age. Shaw is a man in the doldrums, baffled by the drone of unemployment in West London. He meets Victoria, who is similarly adrift and downcast. They embark on a passive, almost desultory relationship. The tale begins when Victoria leaves Barnes and Mortlake to live in her mother’s former home in Shropshire.
Ignoring the specifics, the novel unfolds through a growing accumulation of wateriness; a confluence of imagery, motifs and liquid language which runs beautifully through parallel settings of both muddy Thames and flooded Severn. If the book itself had a texture, it would be damp and spotted with black mould. Leave it on a desk or a table if you like, but maybe put down a coaster first. In fact, the theme of moisture is played and replayed so often that it should be tiring – it’s weirdly repetitive, but the accumulate impact is strangely compelling.
Rooted in the permanence of liquidity, dry land begins to feel ethereal and suspicious. Harrison’s characters look in at everyday situations as if they were fish out of water, making strange discoveries about themselves and the people around them. They are oddly struck by social and cultural normalities which might otherwise pass without comment – the noise of drunk people in the streets; the difficulty of navigating in a car – their lives feel difficult and stodgy, lonely and puzzling. That’s reflected in the actial experience of reading The Sunken Land, which doesn’t slip easily off the page but requires persistence and focus. There are long periods of introversion and pondering; an emphasis on small details and minute transactions which are intricately rendered but tend towards an oily stagnation.
As the story unfolds, strange and terrifying things begin to happen around Shaw and Victoria, and yet it’s disconcerting to realise that they are largely unaffected by weird scenes of horror and distress. Standing beside them at these moments, it’s unnerving to realise that they do not share our discomfort – their horror is bizarrely passive, so we begin to wonder if these things are actually happening at all. Is this a literal account of an amphibious humanoid subspecies living in English waterways, or it some kind of collaborative hallucination which binds the main characters together? In a moment’s clarity, we’re told that “big or small, these events seemed all of a piece; they seemed to point to the same thing. But you couldn’t see what it might be”. That is the novel’s atmosphere rendered solid in just a few words.
As The Sunken Land slops towards a conclusion which begs a thousand more questions, there are heavy leanings on Kingsley’s The Water Babies and the painting Sea Idyll 1887 by Arnold Böcklin, which hangs on the wall above Shaw’s mother’s bed. I’m never quite sure how to read fiction which depends upon visual art – I feel like there’s almost an implicit cue to go and google the image in question, as when you read a child’s book and you’re prompted to press a button for the appropriate sound effect. But I searched for Böcklin and found the result was a perfect match for Harrison’s scene. It looks fine to a passing glance, but it’s creepy as hell beneath the surface.
Puzzled by The Sunken Land, I read some reviews of the book online. It was gratifying to discover that I was not alone in my confusion. Others had drawn wildly different conclusions from the book, but they at least had the advantage of knowing that M. John Harrison is one of the most famous living writers of British science fiction. I hadn’t made that association, and I’ve always steered clear of that genre altogether. I read the book without any preconceived expectations of genre or author, and I later wondered how I would have reacted to various situations in The Sunken Land if I had been making those associations from the start. Not only had I stumbled upon exciting new ground, but this discovery seemed to confirm my suspicion that in categorising, summarising and marketing books, we often start reading them before we’ve even reached the first page.
Harrison is a deft, confident and magically capable writer, but in reading more and deeper around his work, I found a broader endorsement by the writer Robert MacFarlane;
“Harrison is best known as one of the restless fathers of modern science fiction, but to my mind he is among the most brilliant novelists writing today, with regard to whom the question of genre is an irrelevance”
Working within pathetically narrowed horizons, it’s ironic to realise that I probably wouldn’t have read Harrison if I had known that he was a science fiction writer. And yet in reading him, I’ve reinforced my growing belief that genres are a poor way to bracket message, style or value.
It’s no wonder my hands are cold when the meat falls off them and the veins stand up between my knuckles. There’s nothing left to keep me warm, and the ice bites into my joints and my skin tears like tissue paper on the smallest snag. This never used to happen. I was tight and hot with nothing to fear, but now when I’ve fed the cows in the snow and felt the ice growing into my cuffs, it takes an hour to get warm by the fire. I feel the cold, and that’s new for me at thirty five.
And all the while, I grinned and bore three days when my knee was too hurt to walk for the simple sake of banging it on the byre door. Five years ago, I’d have found that bruise by chance and then wondered where it came from.
And what do I have to warm me by way of consolation? Well, my eyebrow hairs have begun to show a passionate lust for life. Some but not all of them grow like brambles in every conceivable direction. Cabling falls down from my nose and up from my lugs, and if that’s not grotesque then let me call it puzzling.
When I wake in the morning, the skin of my face holds the shape of a sleeping man. There’s give, and the bags hang through my first cup of coffee and sometimes into a second. And when they settle, I’m left with creases creeping between the corner of my eye and the edge of my ear. I’m curling into a million jokes about how it feels to grow old and I think of all those birthday cards that my parents would exchange with their friends about how time flies and hearing fails, and none of it was funny but calling it a joke allowed them to call it something.
I used to play on being young, but that excuse is getting tired. I have less to fall back on now. The next warm day we get, the larks will sing above the yard again. Another year in the making, and I worry that there’s more of this to come.
Revisiting the infamous film Straw Dogs on a cold winter’s evening, I was gripped by the re-emergence of themes which I’ve found steadily more interesting over the last few years. It’s certainly tempting to write an exhaustive essay on the ins and outs of a complex and messy film, but it feels more relevant to this blog to grab two distinct ideas and run around inside them for a moment.
The first is why the countryside should so frequently serve as the backdrop to horror. This bothered me in the autumn as I laboured over films like Midsommar and TheWickerman. I washed up with the idea that horror lies in the subversion of expectation – the countryside is “supposed” to be peaceful and calm, so it’s horrifying to have that idea confounded by gritty tales of rural unease. That’s the main thrust of Straw Dogs, which stars a young Dustin Hoffman in one of his first major film roles, the American mathematician David Sumner.
The first part of the film simply reframes that conceit of an outsider seeking peace and respite in a rural community; Sumner and his wife Amy escape to her childhood home so that he can write a book on Applied Mathematics. The film offers a bucolic vision of farmhouses and drystone walls filmed in a bleak and wintry South Cornwall – but almost from the start, the timid academic seems out of his depth in a macho rural community where “we take care of our own”. Padding around in his little white sneakers, Sumner is bullied and undermined by a host of heavy-handed rustics. Circumstances finally wash him up as the last bastion of moral propriety in a world that has descended to alcohol-fuelled mob violence. So much for the plot, which achieved lasting notoriety off the back of a moment during the film’s finale where a rapist has his head smashed by a man-trap.
Even from the outset, there is a sense of life on the frontier; we are far from the comfort of civilization. After all, this is an American film where the pub almost doubles as an ol’ time saloon, complete with fist fights and smashed glasses. The cliche of “the hostile country pub” appears so often in films and books that it has almost become a standard fixture, drawing strength of unease from the inherent contradiction of a “public house” that is essentially “private” – that feeling when the door swings open and the piano stops playing. Think of “The Green Man“ pub in The Wickerman (1973), or the improbably dire “The Slaughtered Lamb” in American Werewolf in London (1981) – the expectation of hospitality measured against the reality of grudging silence.
The “Wakely Arms” in Straw Dogs conforms to this pattern – Sumner’s visits are wretchedly awkward, and yet this is a comparatively peaceful hub in a film that is otherwise jangled with discordant noises and a score which crawls in and out of your ears like a damaged insect. The landscape is devastatingly empty. Windswept trees drive diagonal lines across the scenery as if they had been carved in place by a prop designer. It’s the perfect canvas to spin this tale, particularly when the warm and comfortable hearth of the pub is utterly sealed by introversion and coolness. The magistrate drinks at a table by himself, but it’s clear that his power is fragile – the unexplained injury he carries to his arm is a neat way to convey his frail grasp on authority.
Having established a sense of frosty unease in the landscape, the second point of interest is the portrayal of rural masculinity, particularly as represented by a gang of bully-boy labourers. Sumner is a mouse beside them, and their bullish antics simply accentuate his self-effacing dorkiness. When men come to repair a shed roof, the atmosphere of testosterone is oppressive – but the sexual assault on Amy Sumner which follows is nuanced and eerily ambiguous, dancing back and forth between consent and denial. It’s an extraordinary exploration of manly men; hyper-sexuality and clannish tribalism; this is clearly rape from beginning to end, and yet somehow it becomes steadily more horrifying as the situation escalates. By the end of the scene, we have watched two separate rapes – and yet the film permits us to wonder if one is more understandable than the other. Straw Dogs’ moral compass is boiled in a soup of testosterone – it’s no wonder that the film has been reviled by critics for almost fifty years, but it does offer something more complex than lurid and aggressive misogyny.
As violence gathers, the gang descends into simian lunacy. The men revert to the level of chicks or puppies, pecking at the “weakling” Sumner. In flinging live rats through broken windows during the farmhouse siege, the rat-catcher giggles and, like a nursery rhyme, reminds us that their death is his life. The men caper and play in the darkness, swinging like chimps from the remains of an old greenhouse. And when the magistrate is killed during a confusing scuffle, the raiders reach a boyish consensus that if you break one law, you might as well break them all. So they’re freed by the murder; there is no fear of reprisal when the telephone lines have been cut and it’s miles to the nearest friendly face. That sense of rural isolation compounds the frenzy, but it springs from something more primally human – big, heavy-handed men loosened from the harness and freed to run wild.
Sumner’s feebleness fades as the tension builds. In throwing down a marker to resist the drunken mob, he makes a statement that is bigger than himself. What begins as the symbolic, almost religious declaration: “I will not allow violence against this house” soon becomes a matter-of-fact declaration of war: “I’m going to keep them out of this house”. The bouncy, boyish professor is now pallid, sweat soaked and coldly pragmatic. Provoked and driven to the brink, he is almost more terrifying than the attackers. It would not be hard to revisit the script to recast this softly spoken American mathematician as a psychopath – an insecure wimp pressed to flip by the boisterous hi-jinks of manlier men. By the end of the film, Hoffman has killed or grievously injured six human beings. He seems to have renounced his marriage and, with an expression of lost bemusement, confesses that he can’t find his way home. In any other context, he would make for a strange hero.
Away from bigger themes around sex and violence, Straw Dogs is fascinated by the tension between manual and cerebral work; the role of Old and New masculinities and the shocking reality of life without law or civilization. It’s clear that the film wouldn’t work in a town or an urban setting; it has to be that lonely farmhouse in a backwards parish. But conversely, the landscape alone is hardly enough to be chilling without the knot and roil of human interest.
It’s a nice coincidence that I stumbled upon an essay by Robert Louis Stevenson this morning which worked around the idea of people in place. In Talk and Talkers, Stevenson invites us to treat conversation as a roadmap for good story-telling. Observing that it’s unusual for talk to linger for long upon the literal details of scenery and landscape, he ruefully wonders if writers make too much of setting and geography in fiction. And importantly, he returns to the idea that human beings are primarily interested in other people, first and foremost. The inference is that while a story should have a good setting, place is merely a secondary consideration behind credible, vivid and relatable human interest. Eighty years later, Straw Dogs might confirm this by using a location that is simply “away” – or at least – “not here”. If that’s true, then I’m giving undue emphasis to the Cornish countryside as the location for horror and unease – it could just as easily have been the Argentinian pampas or the Australian outback. A 2011 remake of Straw Dogs was set in Mississippi – it failed because it lacked the edginess and nuance of the original, but there was nothing wrong with the location. And all the while, it’s perfectly possible that I’m just treating Stevenson’s idea like a new toy and I’m bending it to fit in places where it doesn’t.
As one final note on the film, there’s an awful scene where a missing cat is found to have been hung from a pull-switch in a closet. I don’t want to revisit the camera angle in case my suspicions are correct, but it looked to me like that was a real dead cat.
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.
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.