Time Team: Sailing into the Sunset?

Next Sunday Channel 4 will be screening the last new Time Team film of any sort. It’s about prehistoric boats and I very much enjoyed being a part of it. So do try to see it, if only for old times’ sake. But when Philip Clarke, the man in charge of making the film, emailed me with the news, it set me thinking.

We’ve been treated to some ghastly horrors in the news of late: scenes of early medieval barbarity in Iraq and Syria; and Russia returning rapidly to the days of Ivan the Terrible. We are being treated to nasty re-runs of history – and why? Because for many people history is about rote-learned texts and semi-mythical tales handed down through the generations. The world view that this engenders is essentially medieval, irrational and certainly pre-Enlightenment. Religious fundamentalists in America describe themselves as ‘People of the Book’, which is indeed what jihadists and others are. But what the modern world needs desperately are ‘People of Many Books’; people who seek rationality and ways in which the whole of humanity can survive on an increasingly over-crowded planet. And this can only be achieved through rationality, and with it, a dispassionate, flexible approach to the lessons of history.

I wouldn’t say for one moment that Time Team had such lofty goals, but in our very small way we took hesitant steps in that direction. I hope others will build on the many boats we floated.

Boats that made Britain

Posted in Archaeology, Broadcasting, Time Team | Tagged , , ,

A Grand Tour: South Tyrol, Leicestershire and my vegetable garden – Oh yes, and Twink

For many people summer is about lying on a beach, getting sunburnt, but although I’ve tried to do it, I’ve never really succeeded. For a start, I turn the colour of an over-cooked lobster in about twenty minutes, but before that I get bored. Bored stiff. No, to be honest, I’d rather be out-and-about doing things and the more diverse the better. The last month has been splendid in that regard. Every day starts with 3 hours writing Alan Cadbury‘s second adventure – known in our household as AC2. And I have to say it’s going quite well and about to get a bit dark and brooding. It’s funny: but although I plan what I’m going to write beforehand, the final product is often very different. It’s as if the book and the people within it are beyond the control of a mere author. I’m just a pipe, a conduit, through which the action flows. And on the whole I think that’s quite healthy – dammit, pipes can’t acquire huge egos. Even the largest conduit of all – the Channel Tunnel – is surprisingly humble, when placed alongside the glories of, say, Lincoln or Ely Cathedrals. Hmm, is this making sense? Perhaps not. And besides, I think I’m digressing (either that, or I’m turning a bit peculiar).

Alpine reservoir, South Tyrol

So back to my Grand Tour, which turns out to be rather Tristram Shandy-esque. It starts with a five-day trip to film strange things in the Italian Alps. I ate and drank far too much – I’ve always said that the Italians are the most civilised people on earth and after that short visit, I’m confirmed in that opinion. Then back in England I headed to Burrough Hill, a huge Iron Age hillfort near Melton Mowbray, where I did some more filming – for a different film. I’m ashamed to say that although it’s not far from where I live, I’ve never been there before. It was FABULOUS. And the sheep were pretty good, too. It was almost as spectacular as Maiden Castle itself, although a lot smaller and univallate (with one encircling set of ramparts). I loved the way that medieval ridge-and-furrow came right up to the main entranceway. Very Leicestershire/Rutland, that. Alan Cadbury would have approved wholeheartedly.

Burrough Hill hillfort, Leics

Then I’ve spent the last few days in my vegetable garden pruning the selfsame plum tomatoes (San Marzano is the variety) I’d been eating a week previously in Verona. But those lucky Italians with all that sunshine don’t have to remove leaves and small shoots to guarantee a good, well-ripened crop. Still, the extra work is well worthwhile as one sucks down home-made ketchup in January. Ah, the delights of vegetable gardening!

Tomatoes close-up

And finally Twink, our sheepdog. Dear old Twink is now an elderly lady. She’s arthritic and almost stone deaf, but she can still get sheep to move just by giving them ‘the eye’. I thought about getting a replacement, but having down-sized to only 40-odd ewes (so 80 lambs max.), the dog wouldn’t get enough exercise – and that wouldn’t be fair on him/her. So now we have to make-do without her, although she likes to join us when we’re driving the small flock and often manages to turn them away from the gate we want them to pass through. Still, I’d rather a few false moves than watch an unhappy Twink standing resentfully outside the field. I fear she won’t last very much longer, as Border Collies aren’t a long-lived breed, but while she’s still with us, I want her to be happy.

Twink on her back

And on that sombre note I’ll go and peel a few plum tomatoes, then cook them up with a little white wine, garlic and chilli peppers. I call it a Mexican Ratatouille. Maisie calls it ‘Your Poison’. But it’s hot and tasty. Yum!

Posted in Broadcasting, Farming, Gardening, My life | Tagged , , ,

Lifers: First the Doorstep, then the Mind?

You’ve got to arrive somewhere if you’re ever to enter people’s lives and the doorstep is as good a place as any. At least that’s what I’ve been telling myself as my Twitter account is increasingly packed with images people have sent me and their friends, of The Lifers’ Club on their doorsteps, desktops (spot the MDF), and in one notably scary instance, their dentist’s chair! Then these pictures get re-Tweeted and Favourited, and before I know it the cover of Lifers is everywhere. HOORAY! That’s why I wrote (and re-wrote) it: to be read and (hopefully) enjoyed. So if you’ve just received your copy and you inhabit the Twittersphere, then please Tweet it; if I may coin a phrase: many Tweets make a Cheer! I must say that publishing through Unbound is proving an extraordinary experience. Over the years I have published lots of books, but the only feedback I’ve received from readers has been at Book Fairs – gigs like Hay-on-Wye or Ilkley – or when I bump into people by accident, in the train or supermarket – although having said that, I’ve never actually seen anyone reading one of my books in public, like in a bus, or on the London Underground. It’s always something that comes up in conversation. You could say that up until now, my contact with readers has been rather distant – almost at one remove. But not with Unbound. I’ve had Tweets that have been sent me when the book is first received, then at various times during its reading and then something at the end, when it’s finished. So far (thank Heavens!) the comments have all been kind – enthusiastic, even. It seems to have been a hard one to put down – which is what I intended. I think readers might find AC2 a bit different. I hope it’ll be a good read, but it’s turning out to be more reflective. Alan has been bruised by his experiences in the Lifers’ Club and he’s a bit older and wiser. It’s again set in the Fens, this time on a dig-cum-television-shoot and has benefited a lot from all the films I made for Time Team and my own docs for Channel  4. I have to say I’m very much enjoying writing it – and in my experience that will make for a happier read, too. The main thing is that I’ve really appreciated what readers have had to say. Without their encouragement I might well have given up the attempt to change tracks from non-fiction to fiction. So a million thanks to all my subscribers and buyers. Do come to Ilkley (I’ll be speaking there on Sunday October 5th) and of course I’ll be at Hay-on-Wye in 2015. I’d be surprised if my publicists at Unbound and Penguin don’t manage to find any other gigs before then. Anyhow, I’ll keep you posted in this blog. But again (and I can’t say it enough): MANY, MANY thanks for all your good wishes and encouragement. I really do appreciate it! So to finish I’d like to include a selection of the pictures of Lifers that people were good enough to Tweet. Spot the floors, the MDF desktops and of course the dentist’s chair. And I don’t want to sound pretentious, but these aren’t photos of a book cover: they’re snapshots of time and emotional connection – and I for one, find them very powerful and evocative. I suppose you could say they illustrate the reasons why I persist in writing… Btz2fKFCYAAQjkG BtzBQaACEAE_zpc BtzpISsCEAARsJF BuJ5g7QCMAA8KZp BunmNnCIQAAWHZJ BuXVk1QCYAA0eyo Bt0BQWUIAAAXBKP Bt3QiSKIEAAezbm Bt4G5lJIUAA0o_c Btp6pB-IQAEqa0N BtxtknFCEAAfKHC Btycsq-IQAAvv9F BtyD31LIgAAvltr Btz1jHWCQAE9hvd

Posted in books, My life | Tagged , , ,

Sorry About the Silence

It has been a long time since I sat down at this keyboard and up-dated my blog, but I’m afraid events got the better of me. After all these years, I’ve discovered that I am indeed human and bits of me can sometimes cease to function. In that respect I’m rather like my old (1964) International  B414 tractor which didn’t operate in the early summer because a family of wrens had decided to take up residence, and raise a small family, inside the lift-arms of the muck-bucket. They didn’t move out until  well into June, by which time the grass in the orchard was up to my waist.

Lambing went well and finished in mid-April; and for a month thereafter we concentrated on feeding the lactating ewes and looking after the lambs. Quite early in May I had a consultation with the dermatology specialist in Kings Lynn Hospital, who suggested I should start the course of skin treatment I discussed in my last blog post. I applied the first cream on May 14th and by the end of the month it was starting to feel very uncomfortable. At this point I will show a selfie of my face that I took yesterday:

FP clean face

I think you’ll agree I’m looking very much better. The pain has gone entirely as has the dryness and flakiness. I don’t need to apply aloe vera and moisturiser, but I do – just to be safe. And you’ll never find me outside without my trusty Canadian Tilley Hat and a layer of factor 50+ sun-block. I finished the course of cream on June 28th and I have to concede, it made me feel pretty grim. It took another three weeks to feel better, but after a fortnight progress was quite rapid – helped by rose-hip oil pressed on me by kind neighbours and my new friend-for-life, pure, unscented aloe vera gel.

On July 1st we sheared our much-reduced flock of about 50 sheep and were delighted to welcome a new shearer, Kaylee Campbell (all the way from sunny Norfolk) who did a fabulous job and treated the animals with enormous care and consideration. It was a treat to watch Kaylee, who must weigh around half my weight, handle 60 kilo ewes as if they were made from Styrofoam. Admittedly she did need some assistance when it came to the largest rams (90 kilos?), but then so did most of our previous shearers. When it comes to rams, shearing doesn’t always follow the textbook. It must be fun to watch.

Meanwhile, throughout June I was carefully reading and correcting the first and second proofs of my Penguin book, HOME: A Time Traveller’s Tales from British Prehistory, which will be published on October 3rd. I also managed to pull a muscle in my back, probably because I was so unfit thanks to the face cream and enforced periods of inactivity indoors – frankly it hurt to rub-in sun-block, so I couldn’t venture outside. So I read many of the proofs at an improvised ‘desk’ of piled-up cardboard boxes. That way, I could at least stand and read – which was much more comfortable.

Between batches of proofs, we managed to snatch a 5-day break at the Vivat Trust’s wonderful little Church Brow Cottage at Kirby Lonsdale, Lancashire. I feature it in The Making of the British Landscape (pp. 502-3). Vivat have done a wonderful job there: the garden is kempt, but rambling and the place has a splendid authentic  Regency feel to it. And even the supermarket in Kirby is superb – why don’t we have a branch of the wonderful Booths in south Lincolnshire?

I returned to more proofs and captions, then on July 15th our neighbour, Charles, cut the hay. It was blazing hot weather and the forecast outlook was good. On July 17th he turned it, then rowed it up ready for baling on July 18th. I took this picture as  Charles was setting-up the tedder:

Rowing-up hay

The baler was meant to arrive around noon on the 18th, but couldn’t, because at 11.00 AM a solitary cloud meandered in from off the North Sea, presumably bored and desperate for a leak, spotted our hay and relieved itself. Then it thundered and rained over the weekend. It dried out on Sunday afternoon; the dry spell continued and Charles was able to bale on the following Tuesday. Then more picture proofs arrived. At the end of that week I went up to London, feeling a bit stiff after driving my International for 8 hours the previous day, shifting bales, and signed copies of the Lifers’ Club at Unbound’s office tower (two rooms, actually) in Dean Street, Soho. While I was there I Tweeted this picture:

Lifers Club book signing

And Twitter now tells me that people (or their pet cats, in the case of my friend Mark Allen) are receiving their copies. I hope they arrive in time to be read in bars or on beaches during the summer holidays – I also hope the book keeps folk awake, just a bit…

And to add to the mix, I’ve been writing Alan Cadbury’s second murder/mystery, also set in the Fens, but this time in the peatlands around Ely. It’s turning out to be a rather different sort of book and although I’ve planned it in some detail, it’s changing quite a lot, as I write. The characters have taken over and I’m doing my best to record what they’re doing. It’s strange to be playing catch-up with your own creations.

Anyhow, I thought I’d close with a moody sunset view, taken from our bedroom window:

Fenland sunset

Sometimes a picture just works – one can get it spot-on.  Although as I look at it, I don’t recognise my own hand in it. I can’t help wondering:  was it me, or Alan Cadbury who pressed that shutter?

Posted in books, Farming, My life | Tagged , , , , , , , , ,

Sunburnt Skin Isn’t Sexy

My father was fair-haired, one of my sisters is blonde and we’re all descended from Vikings – or that is what Oxford Professor Bryan Sykes’ laboratory discovered when they analysed the mitochondrial DNA in my blood.  So I blame Eric Bloodaxe the Skullsplitter, or a similar friendly Dane for my reddish blonde colouring. And red-blonde skin (sometimes called auburn) is what burns the worst, or so I’ve been told. Having said that, I’ve known from when I was a small child that I burn in the sun. True, ultimately I will tan, but that process requires me first to go bright red and then to peel . After that I do start to tan. And of course my hair rapidly goes white blonde after a few weeks of summer sunshine. And yes, I suppose I did look slightly more attractive to the opposite sex when I was fit, young, tanned and blonde, but even so I was never a Robert Redford, nor a Steve McQueen. In retrospect I shouldn’t have bothered, but then the minds of young men in their teens and twenties, on those rare occasions when they are not rendered completely useless by the over-secretion of testosterone, don’t have time to think such sensible thoughts. Or at least mine didn’t.

Then when I became a full-time field archaeologist I wore cut-down jean shorts, boots and not much else.  And that was every year, from April/May to the end of October. Meanwhile, of course my skin was being attacked by the increasingly strong rays of the sun, which, I gather, are even more harmful now that the ozone layer has been depleted. I rarely wore a hat, as it made my very long hair go all sweaty. And sunscreen didn’t  become available until the 1990s, but when it did it was so scented you ended up smelling like a whore’s boudoir.

I started to be conscious that I’d damaged my skin quite badly in the late 1990s, when people in general became more aware of sun-damage. But by then it was too late. I’ve already had a malignant melanoma removed from my left shoulder. Mercifully it was quite small (6mm across) and shallow (less than 1mm), but it had to be removed under anaesthetic and it gave me one hell of a scare. The next ordeal I’ve had to face (quite literally) is a 28-day course of a viciously strong ointment called Efudix 5% fluorouracil cream, which I apply to my face every morning, after my first daily session of writing Alan Cadbury’s second adventure for Unbound. Then I have to stop doing anything for a bit, while the cream digs into my skin and set about killing all the pre-cancerous and sun-damaged cells on my face. I won’t say it’s painful, just very, very unpleasant. And it makes my face look like something at Madame Tussaud’s waxwork horror gallery.

So I’m writing this to warn younger archaeologists, farmers and gardeners, especially those of you who are blessed with fair skin, to wear good, strong sunscreen (at least S.P.F.  30) on your faces. You’ll still tan, but more slowly. I’d also strongly recommend a wide brimmed hat, although I’m well aware that swinging a mattock is difficult in a hat. So put one on when you pause to gather breath. The thing is, when people think of sunburn, they imagine their backs and shoulders. But in actual fact it’s your face that’s most at risk.

And I really DO mean it. No matter what your age, but most especially if you’re young, PLEASE heed my warning. You must act now and with luck you won’t have to face the many unexpected horrors of long-term skin-damage, of which the worse, of course is the dreaded C word: cancer. So if you’re young and fair, PLEASE, PLEASE COVER-UP!!!  The sun isn’t something to mess with. So out with the hat, and on with the sunscreen: I promise, you’ll never regret it. I’d hate to think that in a few decades’ time you’ll have to put powerful creams on your face that will make you look like this (isn’t it sad, this is only my second selfie; the first featured two china eggs – and is actually a lot more sexy!):

This is not sunburn, this is the treatment for a lifetime of sun exposure

This is not sunburn, this is the treatment for a lifetime of sun exposure.

Posted in My life | Tagged , ,

Truth, Archaeology and Fiction (2)

As time passes I find I am more and more interested in what we mean by the terms Truth and Fiction. Indeed, the more I think about it, the more convinced I have become that analysis won’t help me come to grips with the problem. In fact I’m becoming fairly (but only fairly) certain that our modern, western obsession with what I might call the ‘scientific’ approach has its own limitations, too. I think as a culture we place too much emphasis on analytical thought: on observation, hypothesis and test – the three classic steps of science. As an archaeologist I am, of course, thoroughly steeped in this tradition and it affects not just my professional work, but my attitude to life in general. When I was a student at Cambridge in the mid-1960s, archaeology was starting to shake-off an earlier tradition of historical- or narrative-based thought and replace it with something more overtly ‘scientific’. My sympathies still generally lie with the reformers, because the new approaches did inspire hugely improved excavation techniques and an ability to think more originally and to come up with new interpretations which were less hindered by rigid conventions. But there was a cost to this progress.

Today students and academics in archaeology still have to accept what is essentially an analytical climate of thought, or ‘paradigm’ to give it its jargon name. As a consequence, the brightest students tend also to be the most analytical – no surprises there – but often they lack those other, more intuitive, skills which make for a good researcher. In my experience most team leaders and innovators have good degrees, but not brilliant ones. The brilliant people tend to become quite narrow specialists, which a cynic might suggest means they are not brilliant at all. Except that they are, and have starred first class degrees to prove it. The problem lies at the university, where analysis is God. I think you have something similar going on in the field of English Literature, where the great analysts and critics, one thinks here of people like F.R. Leavis, couldn’t write a good novel, even if they wanted to. Similarly, most musicologists are uninspired as composers. Of course there are notable exceptions (one thinks of the Dept of English at the University of East Anglia), but as a general rule, analysis remains at the heart of the western academic tradition. And of course there are good historical reasons for this, going back to the Enlightenment and even earlier, to the Renaissance, and the struggle of people like Galileo with the anti-analytical self-interest of an all-powerful Church. Given the choice between Pope and Professor, I’d opt for Prof. every time.

When I was a student I soon realised that I wasn’t clever in an analytical way. I still can’t do Sudoku or crosswords, but on the other hand I found statistics relatively easy to grasp (largely I think, thanks to a wonderful book by M.J. Moroney: Facts from Figures), but only when I had a good, well-defined reason to employ the knowledge, which happened to be the spatial distribution of objects found in our excavations. At university the emphasis seemed to be on analysis for its own sake, which struck me then, and now, as pointless. So I did other things. I was active on the then rapidly developing rock music scene; I rowed to keep fit; I drank lots of beer to counteract the training; and I read. And how I read: everything from Tolstoy to Henry Miller, via Dorothy Sayers, Conan Doyle, Tom and Virginia Woolf. The thing is, I knew in my heart-of-hearts that I wasn’t much good at analysis and that even if I worked twenty-five hours a day the best I’d manage might be a rather lack-lustre 2/1. So I decided to do a little bit more than the bare minimum and get a workmanlike 2/2 – which is what happened. And I’ve never regretted making that decision. What I didn’t appreciate back then was, that by avoiding the approved, but very limited, academic menu that was then on offer, I was giving myself a real education, as opposed to an over-specialised training.

So the books I began writing later in life, starting with Seahenge back in 2001, were only made possible by the fact that I hadn’t allowed the creative side of my brain to be strangled by academia. Indeed, Seahenge sort of wrote itself. It just poured out. In fact I spent more time editing and cutting it back, than actually putting words on paper. As time passed I learnt how to tame the creative beast and keep her more firmly under control (I’m convinced my muse is a female, because she doesn’t approve of me drinking when I’m at the keyboard). But everything I wrote was motivated by an urge to reveal to myself and my readers what it might have felt like to have been alive in a particular time in the past.

Now I freely concede, my impression of those feelings is based on my past analyses of data from excavations, but it isn’t as simple as that: at the end of the fieldwork stage in a dig, you do more than merely manipulate data. Writing a good and original final report is a creative process, as I think the very best examples illustrate (and I’m thinking here of people like Sir Mortimer Wheeler, Grahame Clark,  Brian Hope-Taylor, Geoff Wainwright, Mike Parker Pearson and Richard Bradley). These reports represent some of the best combinations of analysis and creative imagination you’ll find in any humanity – but it’s only the analysis and techniques of excavation that ever get credited and I think it’s time we redressed that imbalance; what about the imagination that went into the conception and planning of the project, the composition of the specialists and the creative side of the report-writing? Why don’t universities treat this side of archaeology with greater respect, as I consider it every bit as important as mere analysis? In this debate I tend to be more concerned with the emotion than the analytical truth, which doesn’t make me a fantasist, either. Indeed, fiction can be truthful, as any reader of Tristram Shandy will know.

Which brings me back to the fiction/non-fiction/truth business. To be honest I see The Lifers’ Club as a natural successor to my latest non-fiction book, Home and its predecessor, The Making of the British Landscape. In all three books, I had to inhabit worlds and landscapes that were unfamiliar to me. If anything, Lifers’ Club needed less imagination, because it was all around me, all the time. It was almost like writing a diary, or, come to that, a blog. Now I concede that the style of writing is rather different from my other books, and very different from my academic reports, but the imagination and the mind-set behind them all was essentially the same. And I refuse to admit that the short-sentence, rather snappy style of the thriller is somehow easier to do than the more verbose style of the heavy-duty academic report (like my English Heritage volumes on Etton and Flag Fen). Far from it, in fact: academic writing can be very easy to do, simply because one can relapse into meaningless jargon, when the truth is proving difficult to nail-down. But flannel and bullshit stands out a mile in a tightly-edited crime novel, which requires more personal involvement, less posing – and none of the dreaded gravitas (a synonym for bloated pomposity). It also involves a huge amount of mental discipline and total immersion. Indeed, there were times when I was writing Lifers that I became quite convinced I was reporting things that had actually happened. Real life and fiction became confused. Characters in the book got mentioned casually over the breakfast table, as if they were there, beside us, spooning out the marmalade. Sometimes these little incidents could be quite upsetting, creepy even…

Anyhow, I’ve just learned that the ebook version is now published. Trouble is, I’m not sure I’ve got the courage to read it. Maybe later. Some day. And if you Tweet (@pryorfrancis), do let me know what you think of it.

Posted in Archaeology, books, My life | Tagged , , , ,

Car, Bank, Mirror

Maybe I’m working too hard on my second Alan Cadbury book, or maybe I’m just going a bit weird in my old age, but today I fully intended to write the second part of my last blog post. Either that, or an instructive, yet quietly informative, item on spring flowering shrubs. But no I’m offering my patient readers this strangely pointless non-story – and there aren’t even any pictures…

We’re in something of a tailspin in the Pryor household right now: Maisie has very soon to return to her excavation and make careful observations on prehistoric woodworking, whereas I still have a small farm to run and am about to get involved with the launch of The Lifers’ Club and the proof-reading of Home, my latest book for Penguin. So we both tend to make lots of Do Lists, which we promptly mislay – but the value of those lists lies in their writing more than their reading (or so I tell myself). Anyhow, early this morning, while making my first cup of tea, I caught sight of Maisie’s Do List for our planned trip this afternoon to Spalding. There were three items:

  1. Car
  2. Bank
  3. Mirror

I won’t bore you with the details of each, but the car was about a new licence, the bank was about depositing a cheque and the mirror was a new shaving mirror I need, as I have soon got to apply some powerful cream to the sun-damage on my face – and being a beardie, I don’t possess one. Then, as I wandered my way from the kitchen back to my office to resume the chapter-by-chapter outline of AC2 (the second Alan Cadbury book), I found my mind was reciting Car, Bank, Mirror over and over again, shortly to be followed by Paper, Rock, Scissors. Suddenly I realised I had stumbled upon a new word game that families could use on those up-coming, interminable car journeys to the seaside. We all know the rules: paper beats stone because it can wrap it, stone beats scissors etc., etc. So this is how you play Car, Bank, Mirror. It’s so easy:

  1. Car beats mirror (there’d be very few mirrors if cars didn’t exist)
  2. Bank beats car (you can’t buy a car without help from the bank)
  3. Mirror beats bank (bankers see no reflection when they look into a mirror)

Good eh?

Posted in humour | Tagged , , , ,