Jack Frost and Other Old Friends

The past four or five days have been bitterly cold, with penetrating frosts and freezing fogs. The Fens have seemed positively hostile at times. And then the sun cuts through the mists and suddenly everything, and everyone, is transformed. That’s why I love this time of year. It’s the contrasts and the delight on people’s faces when the gloom lifts…

As a gardener I love the effects that hoar frost achieves on plants like the tall Molinia grasses which are now past their prime, but when touched by Jack Frost they gain new life, like elderly pensioners dancing to a Glenn Miller record. The older folk  do it so much better than youngsters, even when  dressed-up in the clothes of the nineteen- forties. I suppose it’s all about having lived the life and experienced the times – it’s not something you can act or, worse, re-enact.

Now that Time Team is finished as an eater-up of my time, I’m getting heavily involved with writing, which is what I really enjoy doing. More than that: it’s what I have to do. I know that might sound a bit pretentious, but it’s a fact, nonetheless. To be honest, it’s something I’ve only recently come to accept. For me, writing’s not so much an addiction, as a necessity. Like gardening, it’s something I’ve got to do. But I wonder, is it the same with bankers? Do they have to make money? But I think I’ll stop: maybe I detect the start of a digression.

Or do I? This writing business is strange. My current book for Penguin was commissioned over two years ago and the original deadline was the end of May, this year. But before that, I was asked to take a larger part in what we now know was the to be the final series of Time Team. As followers of this blog will know, I spent most of last summer whizzing around the country filming. And it should go without saying that filming and writing don’t go well together, unless, that is, the writing is the sort of work that doesn’t require deep research and reading – which is another way of saying the dreaded word ‘fiction’. Happily, my venture into this new field didn’t have to be a solo one, as I was accompanied by my old friend Alan Cadbury, who metaphorically held my hand throughout. I think you’ll be hearing more about our joint venture very soon. But to return to the subsidiary plot (and I’m getting much better at plotting, sub- and false-plotting in my old age), from September 2012 I was able to return to the writing of serious books, and that meant my current volume for Penguin.

Now if truth be told, yes, Time Team did interrupt my researches, but the actual writing hadn’t been going too well either, which is perhaps why Alan and the fiction came as such a welcome relief. I now realise the problem was a basic one: the new book lacked a driving theme, or any polemic. It was simply an account, a description, and as such it was lifeless: like some long dead text-book. Then I had the Big Idea. I’ll have more to say about that nearer the time of publication. If I mention it now the BBC will probably screen a mini-series on it, fronted by a grinning ‘personality’. So, sadly, mum’s the word – but rest assured it’s a corker and the words are now flowing.

StonehengePart of my research is into other people’s excavations, and I’m currently reading Mike Parker Pearson’s superb book on Stonehenge and the sites and landscape around it: Stonehenge: Exploring the Greatest Stone Age Mystery (Simon and Schuster, London, 2012). It’s a cracking good read and illustrates the extraordinary power of a modern archaeological project to get back to the roots of everything. It’s wonderful – and I’ve only got as far as Chapter 5. As I laid it down last night, my eye fell on an advert for Doctor Who and I thought about time travel – and is it such a great idea, after all? The trouble is, if you actually went back in time all you’d see would be a thin time-slice, and I don’t think you’d be much further forward. But what Mike and his team have revealed is how those great monuments on Salisbury Plain actually grew and developed. He has also put forward some very convincing ideas on why they were put there in the first place. I very much doubt whether Doctor Who, or one of his lovely young assistants, could even begin to offer such enlightenment. Like so many modern celebs and other heroes, they’re smugly content to skate over the surface: seeing much, but understanding so little.

Durrington Walls: houses within the South Entrance

I made several visits to Mike Parker Pearson’s digs near Stonehenge. This photo (taken in 2007) features Mike (right) showing a group of visitors the remains of a Neolithic house at Durrington Walls. We now know that this house was part of the largest known settlement of the period in north-west Europe.

Anyhow, as I said, I’m now in full-on writing mode, so I tend to get up very early (around 5.00 or 5.30 AM) and work till 8.00. I don’t always do silly things with tea-cosies (see the post: Hunting Disguises), but I do get to see some very beautiful frosty dawns, and yesterday morning’s was a stunner, as I hope these two photos make clear.

Frosty Garden

A general view of our garden shortly after dawn with a very heavy covering of hoar frost.

Frosty Small Border

The view from downstairs along the small border, still too wet from the heavy rains of late November.

I close with this thought: why do so many people try to avoid the contrasts that life has to offer? Why escape the rigours of an English winter in favour of the sameness of a Spanish one? Part of the pleasure of an English summer is the thought that the lovely pond with yellow water lilies glinting on the surface was once a sheet of ice, where moorhens once strutted their stuff, like so many traffic wardens in an empty marketplace… Now I admit, that really is a digression.

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