Monday, June 24, 2013

A Tribute to Mick Aston

It's rather sad today, as a long time fan of Time Team to read that the former presenter, Mick Aston has died at the much-too-young age of 66.  (announcement here)

This compounds the sadness at the end of Time Team itself, which Mick left in February 2012 - which seems to me one of the more baffling decisions on the part of TV execs.  Time Team was educational, informative, amusing and sat firmly at the quality end of reality TV.  But this is more a personal account of my relationship with Time Team, as something of a tribute to Mick and his work.

I was living in China when the series started in 1994, but when I came back to the UK it quickly became the Sunday afternoon slot that I had to get home and turn on the TV for.  What can I say, I love history, and the subject matter of the second series was like soul-food: it nourished that fascination like nothing else.  Lord of the Isles; The Saxon Graves; The Lost Villa; The Archbishop's Back Garden; Medieval Dining Hall: these were local stories, small, intimate looks inside Iron Age huts, a Saxon graveyard, a Roman fort resettled and rebuilt by a Saxon lord, the slow decay of a Roman villa on the South Downs as the social structure that supported them began to decline with the loss of the Roman legions.

These were historical stories you never found in books.  They were stories not grand enough to make it into histories.  But through the intimate and everyday details, through them you could find the universal. 

My relationship with Time Team has been an odd one.  I had a friend who worked on the set, and whenever she appeared in the pub or kneeling in a wet trench uncovering a bit of pot and handing it over to one of the period experts, I would think: huh, I know her!  Small world!

I was back in York when the York dig happened, and here I learnt that the place where I had locked my bike up, at the Museum Gardens, was inches from St Leonard's Hospice.  That the lawn around the Station Hotel was the site of a great Roman palace. I stood at the fence and peered down at the archaeologists working, and nothing much happened, and I moved on.

But most of the time I was abroad and had to work hard to get my fill of Time Team episodes.  At one point they were videoed and sent to me in a parcel.  Thirteen episodes on a single disc, with all the random quality home videoed tapes had: starting half way through the title music, half way through Tony Robinson's introduction, or half way through the program, when the dig is already going pear shaped on day 2.

Since broadband, I've taken to streaming Time Team episodes, and catching up on series I missed.  When the first kids stopped napping, I would watch one each lunchtime and we would sit in a hot flat on the twentieth floor of a Hong Kong skyrise and watch people knee deep in mud battle with the English weather.  I took notes, and called it research for novels.

We still watch them, though now it's usually on a Saturday afternoon, when the youngest is asleep and the rest of us pile onto the sofa and watch what is called in our house, 'Daddy TV'.  It is probably how my children, now 9, 7, 4 and 2 imagine England: pock marked by archaeologists and holes in people's lawns.  Not a bad way to think of their homeland.

I suppose the important think Time Team,and Mick Aston did was to show us how you need only dig a hole and find history.  A story, I like to think - and that we are surrounded with stories are all about us.  The past lives on in the landscape we live in, the lay-out of our streets, the location of villages, churches, the width of Edwardian terrace houses in York, which retain the Viking property boundaries a thousand years on. 

Mick will be missed, by all those who knew him, but also by those, like me, who never met him.  I hope he has a beer and a hole to dig somewhere in the hereafter.  The greatest compliment is that he made a difference. 

UPDATE: there's an internet campaign to get a special one-off dig in honour of Mick.  Check out the fan page here

Mick himself, in this interview said that ''My favourites are usually sites in the Middle Ages (1066-1540) or even better, the post-Roman, 'Dark Age' and Anglo-Saxon sites, though it is usually very difficult to work on sites of this period.  It may be surprising to some but my all time favourite site of the 200 programmes was the Llygadwy site in Brecon (broadcast in January 2001). Viewers may remember this as a Celtic spring site which seemed to be spurious: it had a dodgy collection of material from the spring; and a spurious burial chamber and castle.'