Dig The Abbey – Part Four

Day seven, and our workshops of exploration drew to a close with a familiar , faithful retinue of regular poets in attendance sprinkled with some occasional visitors. The atmosphere was akin to that on a ship on the day of disembarkation, with an acknowledgement that the journey was nearing its end, and a desire to make sure that we made the most of the last few hours on board.

Our pilot for this final leg was poet, former archaeologist and canal skipper Jo Bell. By chance, as our journey was closing, so hers was beginning, as this was her first day divested of her responsibilities as Director of National Poetry Day. The entire poetic community in the country owes a debt to Jo who over several years has led national poetry day with enthusiasm, vigour and vim. She hands it over in rude health, and if the day is a pointer, has energy to spare as she applies the skills which made her past tenure such a success on new challenges and opportunities. We wish her well.

Jo Bell

I am, through experience, wary of workshops. Wary of poor leadership and poor value. Jo operates at the polar opposite of this scale. Organised, inspirational and focussed, she sets a demanding pace within an empowering framework designed to motivate, encourage and enable. I was astonished and delighted that the usual “I’m no good at writing in workshops/ this isn’t really finished” excuse train was banished to the sidings resulting in consistently impressive pieces being produced during ten minute exercises. Why settle for less?

Previous workshops had majored on fieldwork, touching, feeling, smelling, seeing, hearing and experiencing the archaeology first hand. Jo took a more cerebral approach asking us to consider archaeology as a metaphor for our existence. What six items might be buried with us to reflect our lives?:


The Football grounds of England Wales and Scotland by Simon Inglis
The Rise and Fall of Ziggy Stardust and the Spiders From Mars by David Bowie
A grain of sand from Caswell beach
A Canaletto oil painting of La Canal Grande
A Pen

I liked the numeric restriction, the random selection of items, and the lack of ability to explain and expand upon their choice. They are what they are, just as archaeological finds appear without explanation leaving the finder to fill in the gaps. Six items, make of them what you will.

Next followed the question of what would remain of us if we died here and now, in Pompei style pyroclastic freeze-frame. It was a clever question, for it was immediate, it could not be written later, what would be left if we were to die now? It was a sobering thought, no grand designs, just the grey of haphazard ephemera:

Discovered After I Am Gone

They found bones stripped of corpulent flesh
Rubbery composite tread
Abandoned by perished leather – size nine
Molars rough tended by dentists
Zip teeth grin in death grip
Eleven sixteen
A watch of cheap inconsequential value
Which was worn on that day not for its lustre
But for the value of the giving

A lottery style draw of phrases and sentences to inspire and provoke produced a fortunate result as I drew Philip Larkin’s “What will survive of us………” which felt a natural progression from the previous exercise. Inevitably my mind raced into metaphysical contemplation, yet I rapidly found myself swamped in cliché and cod philosophy. John Donne , who had written and performed in that very room seemed to be cautioning ;“Don’t- unless its bloody good” (It wasn’t). But what if I were to answer the question counter-intuitively?:


What will survive of us?
A snapped twig crushed underfoot
On a woodland walk
Displaced grains of sand
Compressed by the imprint of our sole
Bruised wood on a door shoved open
And the torn peel
From a half-eaten apple

When a site is excavated the location of the trenches and the depth dug are arbitrary – as are the finds. This poem mirrors that in snatches of my life:


At 6.32 Venice is quite still
Even the morning breeze holds her breath
Lest the sunlit beauty be disturbed
Or a ripple appear on the Grand Canal
No bird dare sing
In fear, in wonder

It appeared, a giant wall of black steel
Towering, defying the largest wave
Or coldest iceberg
To challenge her riveted wonder
A benevolent behemoth calling
To cradle me in her carcass

More generally, the site, and dig has prompted me to see parallels between physical archaeology buried in the ground, and the cerebral emotional archaeology lying layered in our souls by experience and time. They were more closely related than I at first thought:

The Dig

Your face yields few clues
Except when you frown
And the wrinkles become rivulets
For sweat and tears
Which scour your skin
At once soft and hard
A pentimento exposed

Gouged, the detritus of years laid bare,
Discarded memories, cherished days
Disturbed and disjointed from where
They once laid, resting in situ

Sometimes they surface, disinterred
To be examined, dated, reassessed
Then reburied, if you are fortunate
Snug and neat

Sometimes they emerge broken
Disfigured from an uncertain time
Jagged, rough, still bleeding
Impossible to return, they just don’t fit

Others taunt, fraud or find
Their uncertain provenance
Seducing with specious allure
Wanting to be whatever you desire

And some lie rotting, barely recognisable
Half remembered only by their juxtaposition
With the rest, distorted and uncertain
Fading in decomposition

Which just about wraps up my writing, and experiences ,at the Polesworth Dig, 2012. The ground soon to be backfilled, what has been glimpsed for the first time in up to thirteen hundred years, maybe up to two thousand years, returned to darkness. A heritage day presentation of the groups’ writing, and Dig finds, takes place on Saturday the 8th, at the Abbey at 2pm.

But I cannot resist a postscript. This blog is read by over 1500 people a month, but the following, self –indulgently , will make sense to only perhaps two dozen people. This is a tribute to one of our senior group writers, Ray Jolland, a dignified, humble and talented writer who illuminated the sessions with his humour – and his songs. Thanks Ray:

Riff to Ray Jolland

If you like to dig, I tell you Ray’s your man
You win some, you lose some, it depends what’s in your pan

Ray’s the Ace of Spades,
Ray’s the Ace of spades

The pleasure is to play, it makes no difference what you say
If you tell him to write stuff, about old things and muck
He doesn’t give a fig, you’ll be right out of luck

Ray’s The Ace Of Spades
Ray’s The Ace Of Spades

He always knows the score, he’s been there long before
Writing without rhyme, is always such a crime
He’s the king of poetry and archaeology
The only thing you’ll see, you know it’s gonna be,

Ray’s The Ace Of Spades
Ray’s The Ace Of Spades

He can say it in a song
Coz blank verse is so wrong

Ray’s The Ace Of Spades
Ray’s The Ace Of Spades

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1 Response to Dig The Abbey – Part Four

  1. jaynestanton says:

    Gary, your Dig the Poetry output is indeed impressive – and I’m now even more peeved at being unable to make Jo Bell’s workshop today!

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