Stones and roses

Gary Day on Stonehenge (according to Time Team), flower arranging (by the WI), memories and poetry

June 11, 2009

It's amazing what you can tell about people from their rubbish. So, be careful what you throw away. You may reveal more about yourself than you realise. Take Neolithic man. He can hardly have imagined, as Neolithic woman reminded him, yet again, to take out the trash, that thousands of years later a team of archaeologists would be rooting through their bin. Well, strictly speaking, it was a pit. Our ancestors did not have weekly refuse collections and so had to bury their waste. And thank goodness they did, or Time Team would not exist.

The programme has a rich cast of characters. There's Phil Harding with his long hair, West Country burr and teeth like ancient monuments; Mick Aston who has a cloud stuck on his head and a jumper loud enough to create serious radar interference in the Bristol vicinity. Then there's osteoarchaeologist Jackie McKinley: "That's a lovely triquetral bone! Oh, and look at this beautifully preserved inferior nasal conchae!" But even her enthusiasm cannot match that of presenter Tony Robinson, lashing on the extras who dig in the background.

For the past six weeks, under the supervision of Professor Mike Parker Pearson, they have been excavating the area around Durrington Walls and Stonehenge. And what they have discovered, shouted Tony, trying to make himself heard over the constant foreground music, is the meaning of that famous circle on Salisbury Plain (The Secrets of Stonehenge, Channel 4, Monday 1 June 9pm). The stones are not a calendar, a fertility symbol or even giant croquet hoops, they simply mark the place where the elite of Neolithic society were laid to rest.

They were erected on a site already steeped in ritual. Long before blue stones were dragged from Wales to Wiltshire, tribes would make their way to Durrington with the cremated remains of their relatives, kill a few pigs, party and then take a trip down the River Avon to deposit the ashes into the water before processing up the Avenue, a route to the ceremonial site that would become Stonehenge.

Those who built the monument resided at Durrington, which, with its timber circle, was seen as a place of life while its grander neighbour was seen as a place of death. Stonehenge is nothing more than a graveyard, the most popular one in the world. It was all very plausible, but we need our mysteries and it won't be long before someone provides a less credible but more exciting account of Britain's most ancient monument.

There was more uncovering in Calendar Girls: Ten Years On (BBC Two, Thursday 4 June 9pm). This time, it was the human body on display rather than old bones, although the models concerned, whose ages ranged from 59 to 74, might very well have said it was both. It is not easy to look alluring in a greenhouse with a broccoli sprout, even given the English love of gardening, but Miss September pulls it off with aplomb.

Once again, the ladies of the Rylstone and District Women's Institute are baring all for charity. So far, they have raised more than £2 million for the study of non-Hodgkin lymphoma. Before they began their campaign, sparked by the death of Angela's husband John, half of all patients who received a bone-marrow transplant died; now more than 80 per cent survive.

The WI had a reputation for being rather staid until the members of this branch showed that flower arranging could be sexy. An old black-and-white film of a tweed-skirted pensioner executing a judo move to upend a man twice her size, suggested otherwise. Tony Blair wilted under their disapproval. You will remember they slow-handclapped him in 2000. It was not quite Pentheus and the Maenads, but it raised a shiver.

Posing coyly behind vegetation, Miss October was a perfect illustration of St Paul's observation that we see through a fern darkly, or something like that. And we didn't get the whole picture of what happened to break up this happy breed either. When they were approached by two rivals for the film rights they had a vote. Six went one way, five the other. We didn't hear the details of the disagreement, nor did we learn what happened to the five, except they never became famous.

The BBC's poetry season gets better and better. Robert Webb of Peep Show recalled how he fell in love with modern poetry when his English teacher, David Slater, read T.S. Eliot's The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock (My Life in Verse, BBC Two, Friday 5 June 9pm). Robert didn't say anything original or profound or even striking. But what he did say was sincere, deeply moving and occasionally very funny. We dispose of things or time removes them, but, for better or worse, poetry preserves them, or at least their memory.

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