The Dig, by John Preston (review)


John Preston  The Dig   Viking  £16.99

John Preston’s fourth novel – easily his best – was a gift. An elderly second cousin contacted him, and slipped him some family history. It was his aunt, archaeologist Penny Piggott, who uncovered the first treasure, in 1939, at the Sutton Hoo site in Suffolk. For Preston, whose novels depend on re-creating a real time and place, to which he adds satirical spin, there was gold in them there barrows.

          Sutton Hoo’s burial chamber – of a seventh-century king – contains astonishing, unplundered artefacts from the ‘Dark Ages’. It owed its discovery to an obsessive belief by the site’s owner, Edith Pretty, that there were riches in its largest mound, a belief sustained by spiritualism, by ghostly ‘sightings’. Add to this that Pretty was a widow with one son, born when she was 47, and that Sutton Hoo’s discoveries triggered archaeological in-fighting, and Preston must have clocked how dramatic the material was. The timing, too, was perfectly ironic – an ancient warrior civilisation discovered on the brink of world war.

          Preston’s forte is concocting absurd characters and situations. His last novel, Kings Of The Roundhouse, satirised the ‘winter of discontent’ and the parallel decrepitude of Camden’s rock venue. But he is defter here. He focuses on Basil Brown, the instinct-driven local enthusiast whom Pretty first hired. Brown is a comic masterpiece: a battered, pipe-sucking, permanently grimy digger, as incorruptible as they come. He is in expertly-drawn contrast to the bigwigs of Ipswich and biggerwigs of Cambridge – a soily genius beside ‘proper’ boffins who elbow him aside. Brown’s generous friendship with Pretty’s son, Robert, gives the novel’s first half its emotional core; later, Penny Piggott, recently married to her archaeology tutor, and already dissatisfied, adds further depth.

          By saving his lampoonery for the dons, and also restraining it, Preston brings everything alive. There is one slight weakness: in its succession of first person narratives, the voices aren’t as distinctive as they might be. But subtly, and in a short space, Preston produces a clutch of minor characters, from Brown’s daffy wife through Pretty’s various servants, all sketched with glee. Through them, Preston concocts intriguing sub-plots, too, whilst maintaining control of the central story: the slow, fantastic unearthing of the artefacts.

          Sutton Hoo’s story may have found Preston by coincidence, but he seizes its potential with economy, and verbal invention – when Pretty’s chauffeur tilts his head, his cap’s black peak faces her ‘like a great inane smile’. And Preston lets the rampant snobbery speak for itself. The key image occurs when Penny Piggott explains archaeology’s attraction: early photographs of Victorian London look deserted, because long exposure times prevented moving people from registering. Preston brings the half-forgotten inhabitants of Sutton Hoo into very entertaining and tender focus.


Bill Greenwell

From The Independent