A present to the Queen, from Suffolk
- Credit: Jeff Fisher
Most of us have struggled to find a present for the person who seems to have everything. Imagine finding something for the Queen. Ingeniously, a group of people have made a gift for the monarch... and for the people of Suffolk too
This year, the county is celebrating the Queen's Platinum Jubilee with the Festival of Suffolk. Community events are taking place throughout the county, but the occasion also calls for a lasting memento, a particular and very special gesture to recognise the Her Majesty's 70 years of service.
The answer is a book... and not just any book. The New Suffolk Garland is an anthology of words and pictures reflecting the diverse landscape, history and people of the county. It is published this month and the first copy will be sent to the Queen.
A beautifully presented hardback of almost 300 pages, it contains 90 contributions, and has 45 colour illustrations. There are many familiar works – the writing of MR James, Wilkie Collins, WG Sebald, Penelope Fitzgerald, and the paintings of Gainsborough and Munnings, all inspired by Suffolk. But there are also pieces from contemporary writers, poets and artists with works specially created for this publication.
“This is a modern anthology,” says Mary James, owner of Aldeburgh Bookshop and a member of the small team involved in putting the book together. “We’ve got screengrabs, film scripts, song lyrics, Instagram. At first we were quite strict that the entries had already to be printed or published in some way, but then we decided to include interviews - with a fisherman in Lowestoft, refugees, a shopkeeper, and the first black mayor of Ipswich. It’s not wholly literary, it’s reflecting what’s unique and at its best in Suffolk.”
The book was the idea of the Lord Lieutenant of Suffolk, Clare Countess of Euston, who was inspired by another anthology of poems and prose produced 60 years ago. That was called A Suffolk Garland for the Queen and was published in 1961 when the Queen and Prince Philip came on a royal progress to the county.
Much has changed, and little has changed, since that publication. This new book aims to show the essence of Suffolk countryside, enterprise and society, new and old. So there are articles about hedge-laying, churches, dialect, and swimming with otters in the River Waveney, as well as official documents about UFO sightings at Rendlesham, song lyrics from Ed Sheeran, lines from a film script from Richard Curtis and images of the ships waiting to dock at the Port of Felixstowe.
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The four people responsible for collating the material all have homes in Suffolk and were chosen for having the necessary skills, knowledge and passion for the project. Mary and John James from Aldeburgh Bookshop directed the work and were joined by Dan Franklin, former publishing director at Jonathan Cape, and radio producer Elizabeth Burke.
“We drew up a list of who we thought we ought to include,” says Mary, who has been running the bookshop and literature festival with her husband in Aldeburgh for more than 20 years. “We had Ronald Blythe, Adrian Bell, Roger Deakin, but we’ve tried to choose slightly unusual pieces that haven’t been in other anthologies. And we all went away and looked up things and read things. We could have gone on for another year because it was such fun, and we could keep adding people.”
“We all brought our reading to it,” agrees Elizabeth. “Dan was more familiar with younger, contemporary writers. I was going through volumes of Charles Dickens or PD James or Millicent Fawcett to find the pieces. And that was fun. You’d tell the others that you’d found a link with Suffolk and they were so marvellously enthusiastic. It has been a joy.”
There was also a wonderful serendipity to the project, says Dan, who recalls how word spread about the book and people offered to contribute. Actor Ralph Fiennes heard about it from friends and called Dan to ask if he could send his memories of growing up in Suffolk. “There was room for everybody,” says Dan. “I thought when I got involved that we’d produce a nice anthology, but now I think it’s absolutely fantastic. I’ve read it 20 times. It’s completely wonderful. I’m terribly proud.”
The variety and concise nature of the contributions means readers will turn to the book over and over again, dipping in and finding something new every time. Elizabeth describes it as a time capsule. "It tells you what the editors value at a particular moment in time. And that’s what makes the book interesting historically too.”
There is nature writing from Melissa Harrison, Olivia Laing describing her garden, and passages from the novels of award-winning authors Rose Tremain and Esther Freud. Paintings by Maggi Hambling and an illustration from Charlie Mackesy appear. There are poems from Robin Robertson and Luke Wright, as well as the pedigree details of the racehorse Frankel and memories of Newmarket from Brough Scott, and of Portman Road from David Sheepshanks.
Oral histories have also been collected for the project. Elizabeth met people in communities in Lowestoft and Ipswich to record their experiences of living in the county. “Because of my radio background, that was what was assigned to me,” she says and she was surprised at what these people said to her. “They were very reluctant to tell me about anything awful that had happened to them. They were so positive and it was very heartening to hear how hospitable people were to them.”
She also commissioned a piece from Lucy Walker about Benjamin Britten and his home with Peter Pears at the Red House in Aldeburgh. “Here was an openly gay couple when homosexuality was illegal,” she says. “I thought that was an important thing to cover.”
The strapline for the book is ‘Everything is unexpected’, says Elizabeth. “It’s a county where people can feel a lot of freedom and make their own lives. They can find a place to be themselves, whether it’s Pears and Britten, or whether it’s a refugee coming from Rwanda. There is a sense of people being creatively free and reinventing themselves. I think it’s a place where people can come and become someone new. I love Suffolk and it’s made me love Suffolk more.” In addition to raising a lot of money for charity, Elizabeth hopes that people will think that Suffolk is a marvellously rich, creative county. “I hope they’ll buy lots of copies and give it to people as a present and say, look how proud we are of where we live.”
Copies of the book will be given to every library in Suffolk and every senior school and higher education establishment. But Mary says: “I hope that there will be a copy on every coffee table and bedside table in Suffolk.”
The New Suffolk Garland, published by Boydell & Brewer, is priced £20, with special limited edition in slipcases for £100. It is available from Aldeburgh Bookshop and all good booksellers. Proceeds from the sale will be distributed among charities of the Festival of Suffolk through the Suffolk Community Foundation.
A glimpse of New Suffolk Garland
Some excerpts from the book
Everything about Suffolk is Unexpected
Solitude, and all the beauty that goes with it, is the whole essence and character of Suffolk; not the severe, inhuman desolation of the wilderness, but that deep and inherent sense of peace which comes only from an old, wild land, a land too shy and too lonely and too forgotten ever to be tainted by the doubtful benefits of progress. Suffolk was once glorious and wealthy in material things; now it is poor and unkempt; but because no one has tampered with it, because for hundreds of years it has been left to mould its own shape and to decide its own destiny, it has managed to preserve within itself a calm strength and an inward loveliness which are the aftermath of its former power and pride.
Millicent Garrett Fawcett
The Aldeburgh of Long Ago
Whenever the lifeboat was launched, even were it only for a practice, every man, woman and child who heard the gun hurried to the beach, some to lend a hand, and all to see and wish and hope that the departing men would return in safety and bring their rescued comrades with them. It was a deep, angry sea where a tall man would be out of his depth three yards from the shore, and the great breakers in a storm beat with deadly weight upon men and ships alike.
A Suffolk Glossary
Suffolk is where the English (the Angles) first settled and gave England, English and East Anglia their names. It is where the Angles and Saxons first mixed and formed the basis for our rich language. So Suffolk is where the English language began and by simple deduction, Suffolk is the oldest English dialect.
Furrener – anyone born outside the local area, especially someone from outside Suffolk
Sloightly on th’ huh – lop-sided or wonky
A More Gentle Country (2021)
Josephine left Rwanda in 2013 with her two young sons; her husband had left three years earlier, and had studied and settled in Suffolk. Josephine is a home carer for the elderly. They now have three boys and live in the county.
I was born into a big family but when the fighting started, my family was killed, apart from my aunt. I came to England in November 2013; when I got off the plane, I thought I was going to a beach - I was wearing a summer dress and sandals. I had never worn trousers or jeans in my life, only dresses. So the cold was a great shock to me. In my country we have only two seasons and it’s never as cold as here. My husband had bought me a jacket but when I arrived in Suffolk I was very, very cold.
We went to our local church and another woman looked at me and could see I was only wearing a cotton dress. She took me aside and showed me what she was wearing, several T-shirts on top of each other, and she showed me how to wear layers to get warm. So I went to the shops and bought winter things.
The people here have everything, they don’t know suffering. If you don’t have money people will help you; if you want to be educated they will help you. At home I had to walk two hours to school. Here everything is easy. But I know what it’s like to live with nothing. And I’m used to wearing trousers now. I enjoy it. It’s much more practical. Because I wear trousers, I am even learning how to ride a bike!
Els Bottema and Lida Kindersley
One Shell Wide
nothing new was brought to the beach
the shells were there, thrown from the sea.
beautifully white and tempting shapes
we had to pick them up, the best
the least battered ones
they are all a little broken
we are all a little broken
none are perfect here in this wild corner
wind blowing, howling and rain beating
and we brave the elements
as we conquered our misfortunes
A Political Crisis for the Suffolk Punch (1990)
Star… as good a workhorse as you could wish for. Star has never been known to be bad-tempered, or ever refused to pull with all his might. I heard that a previous owner had accidentally driven Star into a ditch so deep that it needed the fire brigade to drag him out. When the rescue team arrived they found a peaceful old Star, up to his knees in mud, eyes half closed, blissfully enjoying the fresh grass growing up the sides of the deep drain and blaming nobody. It took a crane to lift him out, after which the old statesman was put back between the shafts and off he ambled as if nothing had happened. It was his finest hour. When he dies we may have to have him sculpted in bronze.
Searching for Doggerland
From Time Song (2019)
Yesterday the coast looked very battered. Big pieces of land had tumbled down, some of them tufty-topped with fresh grass or with the Chinese lantern shapes of a recent sugar beet crop. Within the side of the wounded cliff I could see the arterial systems of drainage pipes and rolls of barbed wire from the defences of the last war or the war before that one. Things here often appear magically out of nowhere and then vanish with an equal magic. Recently a concrete pillbox settled its awkward weight on the sand like a prehistoric creature and it reminded me of the last scene in Planet of the Apes, when Charlton Heston thinks he is back in the dawn of time but then he sees the arm of the Statue of Liberty sticking up out of the sand, along with the spiked crown and the 1920s haircut, and he realises he has arrived in the future, and the sand is covering the city of New York.
A World of Its Own: The Lowestoft Fish Market
Now and again you get an unusual catch, some fish that would go up to the fish lab here and they’d find out what it was, a ribbon-fish or a balloon-fish or whatever. But one day in the 1960s there was a Royal Sturgeon landed. It was enormous, at least 10 feet long. Sturgeons very rarely come into the North Sea. And it was called a Royal Sturgeon because it belongs to the Queen and you have to offer it to the Queen. But this was only a formality. So my uncle in his wisdom rang the Royal Household. And then he got a call back to say that the Queen was delighted and she would accept it! We weren’t expecting that. I think in his mind he’d already carved it up and sold it, so that was a bit of a shock. It had to be delivered to Buckingham Palace at a certain time two days later.
So the best lorry, which was hardly new, was painted and scrubbed and polished. And a special coffin was made for the sturgeon. And ice. And a brand-new tarpaulin, new ropes, everything. And Tommy Wright who was also a filleter, he drove a lorry and decided he was going to take it to London. And so he took it to London and drove straight through Buckingham Palace gates, and to the Royal Kitchen. Three days later, we got a personal letter from the Queen thanking us and saying it was enjoyed by the Royal Household and it was delicious.