Bringing to life Sutton Hoo's ghosts

THERE'S more than a touch of the Dr Whos about it - trying to revive ghosts and make them walk and talk, laugh and love. Daunting, too, when those will-o'-the-wisps are part of a Suffolk legend.

THERE'S more than a touch of the Dr Whos about it - trying to revive ghosts and make them walk and talk, laugh and love. Daunting, too, when those will-o'-the-wisps are part of a Suffolk legend.

And, perhaps, a bit dangerous - if not sacrilegious - to weave the events of Sutton Hoo into a novel and put words and thoughts into the mouths and minds of amateur archaeologist Basil Brown and estate owner Edith Pretty?

John Preston's aware that he could be accused of blurring the line between fact and fiction, or re-writing history.

“I don't know about sacrilegious, but they (readers) may think that it's morally dubious, I suppose. But on the other hand that's what novels do! I certainly don't make any apology for it, but I am aware that it's a morally grey area. What you're looking for is something that's emotionally truthful and is basically as related to the facts as it can be.”

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Having done his research, he's confident the opinions, behaviour, motives and reactions of the characters are anchored in reality, if ultimately products of his imagination.

“I think you've got to be - to use a very pompous phrase - faithful to the integrity of the facts. Plainly, as a novelist, you're not creating a documentary record of what happened; you [underline] are [stop underline] trying to get inside people's heads and hearts, and imagining what they might have felt.

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“At the same time, there is a responsibility to stick as much as possible to what actually happened, and not to play fast and loose with the facts. As it turned out, the facts were sufficiently good that it would almost have been a disservice to have monkeyed about with them. That said, I had to make - as I saw it - certain changes to make the story more dramatic.

“There was a dig started at Sutton Hoo in 1938, that Basil Brown did, but basically he didn't find anything and came back in 1939. I truncated 1938 and 1939 simply to make it more dramatic. And also there's one made-up character. Emotionally it wouldn't have worked without him.”

The trick lies in finding the right tone of voice for his main characters: son-of-the-soil Basil; the widowed ex-socialite Mrs Pretty; and archaeologist Peggy Piggott (who just happens to be the author's aunt).

There are records to be read in the archives “and Basil Brown left a lot of quite dry and factual diaries of the dig, but they do give some flavour of what he's like. There are also daily letters to his wife, which give more of an insight into his personality”.

Then there are diaries by Charles Phillips - the Fellow of Selwyn College, Cambridge, and a specialist in Anglo-Saxon archaeology - who muscled in on the dig: not without some justification, bearing in mind its importance and the imminent declaration of another world war.

“And my aunt also left some diaries. There's nothing about Sutton Hoo, but they give quite a good impression of what she was like at the time.”

And so the material hinted adequately at those voices he needed for the book?

“Largely. Frankly, the only way is to sweat over it! Finally, you get something that just feels right - that doesn't feel fake. I always find male novelists writing about women can be pretty phoney: 'I casually adjusted my bra strap and looked at myself in the mirror.' I wanted to get away from that.”

By good fortune, John's wife is Susanna Gross, literary editor of Mail on Sunday. “She was really helpful when I was writing it. She was particularly good on female psychology: 'I don't think Mrs Pretty or Peggy would have been feeling that at the time' - that sort of thing.

“But you're kind of stabbing in the dark and you've got to hope you're hitting roughly the right targets.

“You know Mrs Pretty is a widow very much in mourning for her husband and is rattling around in this enormous house. I think it had 15 or 17 bedrooms at the time. She's got this young son; and she's also not very well, because she's had typhoid while she was pregnant.

“So you've got a scenario where this woman adores her son and wants to be a good mother, but on the other hand he's almost too much for her. His exuberance throws her own tiredness and doubts about whether she can cope into very broad relief.

“And again, with Basil Brown, you've got someone who was a fantastic character, in that he was self-taught as an archaeologist. He doesn't have any of the right qualifications, but he's got a fantastic nose for the job and has always dreamt of making a big archaeological discovery - and having not exactly social respectability but academic respect from people he regarded as his peers.

“However, he's literally on the threshold of fulfilling his greatest ambition and is not quite chucked off it but he's virtually reduced to carting earth around in wheelbarrows.”

John did feel sorry for Basil, and yet his rather slapdash approach didn't suit such an important project. “Given the circumstances, which were unique - they had to get this stuff out in a hell of a hurry - there was a case for more professional and more experienced people taking the thing over. It wasn't a pantomime event where the baddies come in and kick out Basil. It was more layered than that.”

The discoveries at Sutton Hoo, across the River Deben from Woodbridge, were hailed as Britain's Tutankhamun . . . the first page of English history.

Beneath an Anglo-Saxon burial mound lay the remains of a long, long ship. The site gave up more treasures. There were over 250 artefacts: including gold jewellery, the remnants of a helmet - today the iconic symbol of Sutton Hoo - and shield, and a magnificent silver dish with the stamp of Anastasius, the Roman emperor from 491-518.

The splendour of the find blew a hole in the commonly-held view that folk in the Dark Ages were a rather unsophisticated bunch. Not only could they produce objects of beauty, they looked beyond their immediate horizons - trading as far as Constantinople.

Sutton Hoo was thought to be the burial site of Raedwald, king of East Anglia from about 599 to 625. His followers most likely hauled the ship up from the river and adorned his burial chamber with riches and other items handy for the afterlife.

John - chief television critic for The Sunday Telegraph, and a feature writer and book reviewer - admits he knew precious little about the tale until about three years ago. Out of the blue came a letter from a reader in her 80s who suspected she might be his long-lost second cousin.

“There's a very ambivalent feeling when long-lost relatives contact you, because part of you thinks 'Oh god, the last thing I need is to meet my second cousin once removed.' But, of course, there is some twitch of curiosity. So we met up and got on very well. As I was leaving, she said, pretty much in passing, 'Oh, I assume you know that your aunt found the first gold at Sutton Hoo.' I didn't . . .”

In fact, John didn't know much about her aunt.

“She was my father's sister and basically there was a big family falling-out when I was a child because my aunt divorced her then husband - (archaeologist) Stuart Piggott in the book - after 14 years of marriage for non-consummation! It was thought to reflect badly on the family. So my aunt was this rather shadowy figure.”

Peggy was one of very few women archaeologists in the 1930s, and there had been considerable opposition to her career choice. She had effectively been thrown out of the family home. When she came back to visit, her father made her sit on his right-hand side at dinner, rather than the left, as he now viewed her as a guest and not a bona fide member of the family.

John did some research “and she turned out to be a remarkable woman, actually. She had a long affair with Lawrence of Arabia's sole-surviving brother”.

He also learned about Sutton Hoo. Charles Phillips, the Cambridge expert, had taken charge of the excavation and brought in two archaeologist friends to help: Stuart Piggott and young wife Peggy. Just two days after arriving in the summer of 1939, Peggy found two small pyramid-shaped objects made of gold and garnets.

The following day the team uncovered more gold: coins, a huge buckle, and plaques decorated with birds and animals. Another 260-odd objects were uncovered over the next fortnight or so.

As a child, John had been “mad keen” on stories about buried treasure. Here, in the saga of Sutton Hoo, was a kind of adult version of those tales he'd loved.

And so was the idea born of a dramatised novel.

“You've got three very strong and very different protagonists; you've got a lot of intrigue, excitement and anticipation, and dirty-dealing, and a certain amount of heartache as well.”

What particularly fascinated him is that, in part, the story is about what we leave behind and what future generations make of us.

“The image that stayed with me is that when Basil finds the boat in 1939 he's actually discovering something that in one sense is not really there. All the wood has decayed and you've got something that is like a giant photographic imprint that has been etched onto the soil. The rivets are still there, but the physical structure of the boat has gone.

“To me that was a fantastically ghostly, evocative image, because it said a lot about what we did and didn't leave behind in terms of mortality.”

Bit different to some of his other output, such as interviewing Bob Dylan, Eric Clapton or Woody Allen, isn't it? Wouldn't it be great if he could turn back time and interview Edith Pretty, Basil Brown and his aunt?

“It would - but it might be quite alarming, because they may all turn round to me and say 'No, no; I wasn't like that at all!'”

The Dig is published by Viking/Penguin at £16.99. ISBN 978-0-670-91491-3

HE might be a metropolitan media type but John Preston's the latest Londoner to fall for the slow-burning charms of Suffolk.

However, he wasn't exactly overwhelmed the first time he set eyes on the county.

“It's quite a challenge to write about East Anglia in terms of landscape, because it is ostensibly undramatic. I remember when I first went to Sutton Hoo - I spent a few days driving around, trying to get a feel for the place - I would think every evening 'How the hell am I going to write about this landscape? It's a bit like writing about the Gobi desert!'

“But I found it did steal up on me the longer I stayed there, and becomes very atmospheric. Professor Martin Carver (who led a further excavation in 1985) wrote in his guidebook that it is a landscape of childhood; which” - he laughs - “is probably why middle-class people from London are buying homes there! And so, actually, I ended up falling for the place in a way I'd never anticipated.”

So much so that the 52-year-old will continue to visit. Suffolk's definitely won a place in his heart, then?

“Absolutely. If you're writing about something and it's going well, that landscape inevitably comes to mean a lot to you. You have quite a strong emotional identification with it and the people who inhabited the landscape at the time.”

Extracts from The Dig

Edith Pretty on Basil Brown (in the words of John Preston . . .)

I am not quite sure what I had been expecting, but it was not this. My first impression was that everything about him was brown - dark brown. His skin was mahogany-coloured. So were his clothes: a cotton tie, a tweed jacket with the top button fastened and what appeared to be a cardigan beneath. He was like a kipper in human form. It seemed absurd that his name should be Brown too.

And Basil Brown on the moment of discovery . . .

“What is it?” the boy kept asking. “What have you found, Mr Brown?”

I didn't want to tell him. But it wasn't just him. I didn't want to tell anybody. Not for a little longer. Once I did, everything would be out in the open. Then there'd be no going back.

I looked up. The three of them were crowded round, staring down. I could see the boy was bursting to ask another question. Before he could open his mouth, I said “I think it's a ship.”

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