I spent much of my childhood curled up on a beanbag devouring books. I loved Arthur Ransome’s books because they resonated with my love of sailing and the Suffolk coastline.
Stories such as ‘We didn’t mean to go to sea’ are set in a landscape that I understand well. Dinghy racing on the River Deben or tacking under the Orwell Bridge were both aspects of my childhood that I look back on with great affection. Getting stuck in the mud at Pin Mill and capsizing in choppy waters were all part of the fun. If Ransome’s works provided me with a literary space that felt familiar then nothing speaks to me as vividly as Benjamin Britten’s Four Sea Interludes from Peter Grimes. Aurally, the depiction of the shingle beaches and rough North Sea gives me a sense of total belonging – a sense of being East Anglian. That music will forever draw on my heartstrings and lead me back emotionally, if not physically, to a place I know so well.
If we want our children to read then we must help them find that which best resonates with their souls or inner sense of being. What they read must be relatable. When I was growing up people tended to be very critical of Enid Blyton. It is true, the ‘Famous Five’ and ‘Secret Seven’ series are filled with outdated stereotypes but they do at least speak to many children’s desires to be part of a team, part of a gang – to belong. When I was a little older, I turned to Willard Price’s adventure series, featuring teenage zoologists Hal and Roger Hunt. I feel a little guilty on this front as these books are so obviously an egregious affront to modern views on wildlife conservation. Hal and Roger travel the world capturing wild animals. Price wrote the series for boys, ‘hoping that when they got old enough to hunt they would leave their guns at home’
Shortly before his death, he commented that:
‘My aim in writing the adventure series for young people was to lead them to read by making reading exciting and full of adventure. At the same time, I want to inspire an interest in wild animals and their behaviour. Judging from the letters I have received from boys and girls around the world, I believe I have helped open to them the world of books and natural history.’
Surely, that is the point of writing for children. Reading is not just an end in itself, rather, it is a fantastic way of stimulating interest in the world beyond ourselves. Great literature endures because it inspires us to action or leads us to reflect. Of course, reading does act as an educational facilitator in a strictly academic sense but, more importantly, it helps young people to gain a greater sense of themselves and it enables them to explore emotions that they might not have the vocabulary or confidence to express in person.
It was a real pleasure to watch ‘The Dig’ on Netflix. This wonderful film explores the discovery of Anglo-Saxon treasure. In particular, it dwells on the contribution of Basil Brown, the local Suffolk archaeologist who was initially commissioned by Edith Pretty to excavate the strange looking mounds in the grounds of her estate which was situated on the banks of the River Deben. Growing up in Ipswich in the 1980s, I was aware that Basil Brown was the real hero of the discovery. The better educated archaeologists from Ipswich Museum and The British Museum may have had more letters after their names but autodidact Basil Brown (played by Ranulph Fiennes) boasts that he can identify precisely which Suffolk farm any given handful of dirt comes from.
The film is not just about the Suffolk landscape and the excitement of spectacular finds which date from a hitherto unknown time in British history – an age with warring kings (sometimes known as the Heptarchy). It is about much more than that, it is about the fleeting nature of human life. Indeed, Edith Pretty, who has a fatal heart condition tells us that ‘Life is very fleeting. I’ve learnt that. It has moments you should seize’. Basil Brown, comforts her by reflecting that ‘From the first human handprint on a cave wall, we’re part of something continuous. So we don’t really die’.
At times like this, we can draw great comfort from looking to the past for inspiration. The fine craftsmanship of the Sutton Hoo golden belt buckle provides tangible evidence of the age of Beowulf. It brings to life a period of history shrouded in mystery and inauspiciously referred to as the ‘Dark Ages’.
Why does any of this matter? Well as a historian it thrills me but more importantly, reflecting upon the burial finds at Sutton Hoo gives me a sense of belonging within a landscape that I love. It serves to root us in time and reminds us that alongside the permanence of these splendid treasures our existence is fragile and fleeting. The iron rivets of the Anglo-Saxon longboat are preserved in the earth but absolutely no trace is left of those who farmed Suffolk’s landscape in the seventh century.
It is a call to action, a reminder that our lives do count, not least because, as Basil observes, we are part of something enduring and beyond the chronological brevity of our lives.
Finally, we lost Captain Tom this week. He rose to prominence at the age of 99 and inspired a nation during the darkest of times. It is really striking that during such uncertain times, this country has been inspired by nonagenarians and centenarians. Those who have lived so much longer than us have a wisdom that tends to be communicated with a directness and simplicity that speaks to us in a way that transcends the barriers that position, education or wealth so often impose.
There are so many reasons to be positive at the moment – not least because over ten million people have now been vaccinated.
Mr Jeremy Quartermain
Headmaster of Rossall School