The Camera That Hibernated for Over Two Years

Anyone reading my last blog post must think me the unluckiest person alive. But what I have to report today is far more worrying, because I have recently discovered incontrovertible evidence that inanimate objects can come to life – and if that isn’t a miracle, I don’t know what is. The story begins back in the early summer of 2014. I was about to take part in my last television documentary, a film about the life and death of a Copper Age man, whose frozen body was found high in the Tyrolean Alps on the Italian/Austrian borders. He is known throughout Europe as Otzi, the Iceman.

Come to think of it, the story actually starts two years earlier, when Time Team was making Series 20, and I was told we were to film an episode about 16th and 17th Century copper mines, near Coniston, in the Lake District of Cumbria. As readers may have gathered I was never somebody who used to read Health and Safety information at all closely, but even I couldn’t fail to realise that excavating old mines in mountains would require heavy-duty footwear. So I went along to an outdoors shop (and by that I mean a place that sold stuff for outdoors, rather than one that was roofless) and bought myself some stout boots with good, grippy soles. They seemed very light and strong and I suppose I ought to have tried them on more thoroughly first, but it was getting late, I was famished and Maisie had bought fresh crab in the market. Need I say more?

When we got home, I put the boots straight into the special bag I took with me on Time Team shoots. Incidentally, I discovered long ago that all regular members of TT had a TT bag that lived, ready packed, in a convenient corner of the bedroom. Then, a week or two later I went to the Coniston mines. Everything went well – very well – until about two in the afternoon, when I noticed that my toes were starting to feel rather constricted. By the tea break, my boots felt like clamps. I removed my socks and loosened the laces and that was a little bit better, although I’m still not certain whether the relief was actually caused by the near-freezing waters that flowed around the floors of the abandoned mines. To this day I can’t remember how I managed to survive for two more days’ filming in those boots. But I did – I was tough, back then.

Now fast forward to August 2014 and picture the scene: I am packing my bag for four days in the Tyrol. It was all going quite well, then something unfortunate happened: Maisie suddenly remembered those damn boots. She looked very pleased. She obviously thought I’d forgotten all about them.

‘I’ll go down and get them, shall I?’ she asked brightly. ‘It would be a shame not to wear them, as they weren’t particularly cheap.’

Of course I knew she was right: they were quite pricey. And she’d paid for them, as I’d also forgotten to bring my wallet and my Visa debit card, so she had had to use hers.

‘Oh yes,’ I said brightly, ‘Well remembered. I’ll put them in the bag in the morning.’

That way, I could hide them somewhere and then slip them into the charity box in the village hall car park, when I returned from filming. But she was having none of that:

‘No, don’t be silly, you know what we’ll be like tomorrow morning. There’s bound to be a panic and you’ll forget them. No, go downstairs and pack them now.’

What could I say? I smiled bravely and brought them upstairs. To my surprise they weren’t coated in blood.

Happily for me, the actual shoes I wore for travelling were fairly heavy-duty and I was able to wear them for the three days of filming. So all was well. It had been a couple of years since I did my last Time Team and the industry had changed a great deal: the big shoulder-mounted cameras were replaced by jumped-up SLRs that looked no bigger than my Nikons at home. The cameraman was also the lighting man and the sound recordist – and the driver of the car. We started filming early in the morning and didn’t stop until the light began to fail. Meal breaks were short and sharp. Having said that, the crew were great and there was a nice, relaxed atmosphere. But it certainly wasn’t Time Team. Sadly, those days were well and truly over.

I didn’t take one of my clunky digital SLRs, as I reckoned, correctly, they’d put me over the airline luggage weight-limit. So I carried a small, tough and lightweight Olympus camera I’d bought a year previously. It was an excellent camera and I had become very fond of it. So I took lots of pictures in those rare moments when we weren’t filming.

On the last day of the shoot, the Director treated us to a splendid evening meal in a very good restaurant, and I have to confess I drank rather more local wine than was good for me. The next day I was catching a morning flight from Milan and it was quite a long drive to the airport, so I had to get up, shower and have breakfast, with a thick-ish head. In fact, I remember having flashbacks to my days as a naughty student, as I fought off occasional waves of nausea. After a couple of Alka-Seltzers I began to feel a bit better and I was able to grab a bite to eat – and we set off for the airport. At the airport, however, disaster struck.

I had a firm memory of having put my camera in my knapsack, but when I removed it from the tray that had just passed through the baggage X-ray machine, lo and behold: the camera had vanished! Suddenly I saw the friendly, rather garrulous Italian security men, and women, who were standing all around us passengers, in a harsh new light. Their ‘friendliness’ was all just an act to get me to lower my guard and relax my natural vigilance. Somehow, and with devilish Continental cunning, they were able to pilfer the X-ray chamber, doubtless with extra-heavy lead-lined gauntlets. For a brief moment, I could see what the Brexiteers were on about. I felt let down, sad and depressed, because I knew the memory card in the stolen camera held some great pictures.

On my return from Italy, I used one of two photos I’d taken with my then new iPad to illustrate an Alpine scene for the blog post I wrote on August 19th. I’d hoped to have offered my readers a wealth of stunning views, but those Italian security guards had put an end to that. In fact, I couldn’t bring myself to write anything more about that trip until the following May (2015) and if you’ve read it, you’ll have noticed it wasn’t illustrated at all. But now my story takes a very unusual turn.

This winter we decided it was time to have a big clear-out, because some rooms, especially my office, were close to becoming no-go areas, such were the vast accumulations of unsorted clutter and unread journals. I can’t remember the last time I managed to run a vacuum cleaner across my office floor. The place was a tip. In amongst a pile of old shoes in a rack near the door I came across those boots I’d worn in the Cumbrian mines. They looked in good nick, and I decided to do what I should have done when I returned from Italy: put them in the Salvation Army recycling box in the village hall car park. So I picked them up to dust them off, but one boot felt distinctly heavier than the other. Gingerly, as I didn’t want a finger removed by a lurking Italian Tarantula, I reached inside. Whatever it was, had nestled right into the toe of the boot, as if seeking refuge. I expected to pull out a nest of mice, or a dead rat, maybe pickled like Otzi. But no, it was my Olympus camera! I was exultant. Delighted. But also puzzled: how had it hidden itself away there? Doubtless it had been trying to escape the greedy clutches of the Italian security guards, because the only other explanation, that I’d stuffed it into the boot when half-pissed after the end-of-shoot dinner, is too ludicrous even to contemplate.

So here are a few Tyrolean views, rescued from my camera’s memory card. They make a refreshing change from the diet of flat Fen landscapes that normally adorn, if that’s the right word, the pages of this blog. Oh, and I’ve absolutely no idea what they show, but I can vouch for them being genuine. Or at least I think I can. Given my current confused state of mind, I sometimes wonder whether Otzi might not have snapped them.

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