About bricks

So. I’ve spent some time in Siena and, apart from the Duomo and its marble, the overwhelming impression is one of brick. Mediaeval brick, renaissance brick, modern brick. Brick which makes walls, arches, columns, even floors (though strictly the Sienese probably count that as tile).

You can trace the history of a wall in the changes in the brick, the infill, the lack of bond in one corner, the change in brick size, or the way a string course suddenly stops. The wall I am facing now has a blocked up window with three different brick lintels and arches above it. Some of the arches are uniform, some have rubbed bricks at the centre of the flat arch to create the necessary forces to hold it up: each arch reflects a remodelling, someone’s decision to change the way they use the building.

Now, one of the things about these bricks is that they have all been made by hand. Someone has dug out the clay, puddled it to get out the biggest impurities, slapped it into a mould, let it dry and then fired it. All of that before any kind of building work has taken place. Also, at one step further down the process, someone has cut down a lot of trees in order to feed the kilns that fire the brick. Every brick is therefore a hand-made object and a record of human activity.

There are maybe ten thousand bricks in the wall facing me, which is one wall of four storey building. The rest of the street’s façade has maybe ten times that number: so a hundred thousand bricks on one short stretch. Give each building a back, party walls and floors and we are up to maybe half a million bricks. Add the other side of the street and we are up to a million bricks. (By this point my numbers have become very approximate and I should perhaps stop estimating and multiplying, but it is tempting to continue.) If we say the streets of mediaeval and Renaissance Siena are somewhere between two hundred and fifty and five hundred times the length of this short street – which is not impossible – we end up with a somewhere between a quarter and half a billion bricks in Siena.

That naive, arithmetical reflection can lead me in one of two ways: I can think about the community of interdependence required to create those bricks: the digger-out of clay, the brick-maker, the forester, kiln-master, waggoner, blacksmith, wheelwright. All those people need to eat, drink, sleep, marry and give in marriage. There needs to be a whole bunch of other people busy at their work before a single brick can be laid. (And I haven’t even started on the making of the lime mortar necessary to bed the bricks. Somehow, perhaps because it is shapeless, the mortar doesn’t get the attention it maybe should.)

And that actually brings me round to the second way of thinking about bricks: economically, as an expression of the use of surplus. The level of production in Siena and its territory has to be much greater than would be required just to keep everyone fed, clothed and sheltered.The bricks consume the surplus, just as the city elites consume the surplus of the countryside (leaving trade aside for the moment): in fact, as I think about it a little further, the bricks are a consumption of the countryside, as much as the brocades, velvets and laces of the city.

There is a weight pressing down in the bricks of Siena that is more than just the mass of burnt clay.

The morning after the morning after


So. At this time on a Saturday morning, with the weekly shopping done, I would normally be writing poetry. But poetry takes a certain amount of focus, and today I do not have that. Following the referendum result, the UK and Europe face years of challenge and uncertainty. I find myself uneasy and worried.

I know there are many people who see this as a wonderful new start for the UK, free of the shackles of the European Union. I trust they will use their sudden freedom responsibly, to make the UK a peaceful, stable, generous, welcoming place.

As for me, I do not share their near-mystical faith in the British (look how I am already in a terminological mess by the third paragraph as I try to tease things out). There are many, many good things about the UK and, having lived here all my life, I know how things work and I can be comfortable here. (I prefer East Anglian beer to any other in the world, but that is, in part, because that was the beer I started drinking.)

I can admire the view across a valley, seeing the pattern of the hedgerows and fields, the woods and the single oaks in the pastures. Yet at the same time I know a large part of that landscape was formed as the result of an eighteenth century land-grab, carried out by the elite and sanctioned by their unrepresentative parliament. (And the same, or worse, can be said about the grouse moors of Scotland.)

There is a certain inevitablity in quoting Chesterton when talking about the UK (and again, the terminology: Chesterton wrote a History of England, not a History of Britain). When, during the Boer war, he was faced with maddened imperialism, he observed:

‘My country, right or wrong,’ is a thing that no patriot would think of saying. It is like saying, ‘My mother, drunk or sober.’

You love your mother because she is your mother, but do you want her to behave like that?

Britain no more has a ‘rightful place in the world’ than the USA has a ‘manifest destiny’, and the ‘British way of life’ has no more intrinsic value than any other. Such value it has comes from its alignment to universals such as justice, truth and kindness.

But we are where we are. So the question is ‘what do I do?’

Despair and resentment are not options. My answer is that I must act with justice, truth and kindness, and I must work that out in everything that I write and create.

It is time to write poetry again.

The Fourth Crusade

The Taking of Constantinople by Palma Le Jeune (1544–1620)

So. Let us briefly turn away from today’s momentous events and bask in the warm and comforting glow emitted by the distant past. A period so remote that in our house it is referred to as ‘days of yore’ (which is much longer ago than ‘the olden days’). The period of the Fourth Crusade.

Now, the Fourth Crusade, which was led by an Italian count, Boniface of Montferrat, was intended to regain the Holy Land by attacking through Egypt. The crusaders gathered in Venice in 1202 and readied to sail for Cairo. Unfortunately, they couldn’t pay their debts to the Venetians (who were supplying the ships and sailors for the expedition). After some negotiation it was agreed the crusaders would harry Venice’s competitors on the Adriatic.

In 1202 the crusaders arrived at the city of Zara (present-day Zadar) which was independent but under the protection of the King of Hungary. Pope Innocent III had forbidden the crusaders to attack any Christian cities: the leaders of the crusade chose to conceal his letter from their followers and stormed the city.

After that bad start the story becomes even murkier, as the crusaders became involved in the politics of the Byzantine Empire, most probably for money. They sailed for Byzantium (Constantinople). In April 1204, after a complex series of events, the crusaders attacked and took the city, sacking it for three days.

“O City, City, eye of all cities, universal boast, supramundane wonder, nurse of churches, leader of the faith, guide of Orthodoxy, beloved topic of orations, the abode of every good thing! Oh City, that hast drunk at the hand of the Lord the cup of his fury! O City, consumed by fire…” (Niketas Choniates)

The crusaders set up a Latin kingdom centred on Byzantium. Ultimately, the Latin kingom was overthrown and Byzantine rule restored, but the Byzantines had been fatally weakened and they proved unable to resist the advance of the Seljuk and then Ottoman Turks. The city fell in 1453, and most of the Balkans were overrun by the Ottoman Empire.

Only a very small proportion of the crusaders ever reached the Holy Land.

But that was then. In the present day we can be confident that no ideological crusade which starts out to ‘liberate’ a land can ever lead to disaster and impoverishment for millions across Europe.

So not a therapist

The Nightmare (Thomas Burke (artist), after Henry Fuseli (Johann Heinrich Füssli) – Tate Britain, Public Domain)

So. Recently, I ran a workshop on techniques to start creative projects. I have run it a few times now (and I have written about the techniques elsewhere), but not so often that I am on autopilot. Almost every time I find out something interesting for me. This time was no different.

We started the session doing some free writing starting from the phrase ‘a garden is …’. Everyone got their heads down and wrote, all in handwriting tidier than mine. Then we went round to see what people had found in their writing. As you’d expect, even with that starting point there was a huge variation in the approach, subject and style of the writing. But what I hadn’t expected was that one person became quite emotional as they finished going through their text.

It came as a surprise, but, on reflection, really shouldn’t have. We aren’t doing therapy, but any workshop which involves people accessing the things inside them, has the possibility that some of those things will be disturbing or distressing. We are always hoping for wonders, but there is no rule that the things which emerge will be beautiful and uplifting.

No life is entirely free of pain, and for many people life is grim. If we invite them to an act of self-exposure – which is what writing is – we should expect evidence of those experiences in what they create.

In fact, given that we are dealing with human experience I’m surprised that so little of what comes out is negative. On this occasion, we gave the person a moment, then moved gently on to the next exercise.

And I was reminded, once again, of the power of this writing stuff, which I sometimes treat too glibly.

The nature is back

Probably not the same deer

The nature is back. Not that it has ever entirely gone away. The fieldmice which live in the drystone wall in the front garden have become more enthusiastic about our house again. They have been wandering about the kitchen, the hall, the lounge and my study.

The one in the study was making a terrible clatter behind the Welsh dresser. Then the noise stopped and a hazel nut rolled out from behind it. I waited and a mouse scampered out after it, disappearing under the bookcase. A minute later the mouse reappeared carrying the hazel nut with that same curve of the back as the squirrel in the Ice Age films. I let it carry its booty into the dark of the hall.

I think they are getting in through the air bricks at the back of the house then romping under the floors, popping out where they choose. (A couple of years ago I found one of an earlier generation of mice stuck in one of those airbricks: a pair of very dead back legs poking out. The answer is long-nosed pliers lightly clamped around the pelvis and a gentle, steady pull.) I am going to have to put some mesh across the openings.

A larger visitor was the grey heron which occasionally lumbers in to check out next door’s fish pond. It didn’t stay very long this time; put off perhaps by the plastic herons (less than life size) they have stationed around the edge of the pond. I am always astonished that something that big can get into the sky: it reminds me of propeller transport aircraft lumbering into the sky.

And then there were the unfamiliar birds, a bit bigger than a sparrow, with green wings and a red splodge on the head. They were hanging upside down from the spindly branches of the silver birch among the light brown precursors of the leaves (rats, now need to know what is going on with those). I had to look those up. Turns out they were greenfinches: I would have called them red finches, as that was the most distinctive part of their colouring.

Finally, I was cycling along the lane that runs beside the golf course. I slowed to overtake a pedestrian. As I passed, she pointed toward the golf course. There, to my right, was a deer loping along the nearest fairway. It was cantering roughly the same speed as I was cycling, so we traveled in parallel for a hundred yards or so. Then the lane swung to the right. The deer burst through the hedge and onto the lane, coming face to face with me. It stopped dead, turned and went back through the hedge. I thought it had had enough of a fright, so I cycled on, still very excited at having been only a few yards from a deer.

And even more finally, a couple of days later, a stoat scuttled across the road in front of my bicycle wheel. At least, I think it was a stoat.

I don’t go looking for these encounters, they happen as I go about my day, but each one of them – even the mice – give me a lift. They remind me that despite our self-obsession, we are not the only species on the planet, and that all the stuff that goes on in my head may not, in the end, be all that important.

Watching Frank


IMG_2192So. I was watching Frank. An odd film, but one which addresses the question of inspiration (or may be creeps up on it then runs away).

Early on, the protagonist (I’m going to call him Bob as I can’t remember his name at the minute) is trying to write a song. Bob takes his – well, let’s call it inspiration for the moment – from the people he passes in the street, which leads to lyrical gems like this:

Lady in the red coat what you doing with that bag?
Lady in the blue coat do you know the lady in the red coat?

When he gets home he goes up to his room and attacks the keyboard, working away until a tune comes to fit those words. Then he stops as he recognises he is playing a Madness song.

So much for inspiration. Except that, later on, Frank – in his big paper mâché head – is challenged on the same question. He looks at the carpet for moment and sings a song about an upstanding tuft. Is it a great song? Not quite, but it is a step up from ‘Lady in the blue coat’.

That leaves the Bob, and the viewer, wondering what makes the difference? How does a carpet make for a better song than a person? Is it just that Frank is a better artist than Bob, that his creative juices flow thicker and richer, that he is somehow more in touch with his creative core? Some of that may be true, but it smacks of the romantics’ great artist explanation, which I am not going to buy into. My guess is that it is about observation and engagement: closer observation and deeper engagement result in better songs. Frank has studied the carpet, Bob has only glimpsed the lady in the red coat.

If I am right (and I’m utterly certain that I am) then there is hope for all of us to make better work by digging into the stimuli and sources we draw on. For some people that may mean deep internal journeys, for others it will involve rigorous looking and closer reading (I have written elsewhere about one technique for this). That will take effort, but, given the alternative is shallow or bombastic work, I for one am up for the graft.

Remember your local librarian

IMG_2163So. I suspect I was like many people in that I first heard of Umberto Eco because of The Name of the Rose, his palimpsestic mediaeval whodunit. I read and enjoyed that, and later Foucault’s Pendulum. Finally, last year, I read his brilliant little study guide How to Write a Thesis.

Now, it is many years since I wrote my own thesis (which was subsequently published and is available in a pirated PDF in less savoury parts of the inter webs – maybe one day I will digitise it myself), but Eco’s book reminded me of the workings of research in the 1980s. Back then there was no world wide web, email was something only the permanent academic staff had. To get a book you went to the library, filled out an interlibrary loan form (which was in duplicate and possibly triplicate), paid thirty pence and waited.

And waited.

And waited.

Eventually, weeks later, the book or article would arrive and you would find out if it was actually relevant to your studies. My experience may be slightly atypical, in that I needed journal articles from the-then-Jugoslavija, but still, for the arts student the library was vital in a way it is probably not today.

How to Write a Thesis shows Eco as an appreciator of libraries, and also librarians. I have nothing to add to his words:

You must overcome any shyness and have a conversation with the librarian, because he can offer you reliable advice that will save you much time. You must consider that the librarian (if not overworked or neurotic) is happy when he can demonstrate two things: the quality of his memory and erudition and the richness of his library, especially if it is small. The more isolated and disregarded the library, the more the librarian is consumed with sorrow for its underestimation. A person who asks for help makes the librarian happy. (How to write a thesis. pp56-7).

Welcome to the Vault

snake-s-door-knocker-1202994Over the years I’ve written an awful lot of words. The words themselves have been fine: the problems have usually occurred with the selection and arrangement of the words.

I’ve end up with fragments of stories, novels and plays; poems I almost like and some I hate less than others. I keep coming across some of these as I sort through old papers and files. A few pieces are downright disgusting and will never appear anywhere, but there are others I quite like despite the flaws. It is this last group I am going to put into the Vault: they will be available but not promoted or pushed. Available for anyone who wants to creak the door open and take a look at mildly misshapen things.

That’s enough sales patter. I’ve opened the Vault and put something in. It’s a jeux d’esprit, a trifle, a middle-earth bauble. Whether you read it is entirely up to you.

On abstaining

Far to the north of the Arctic Circle,

too far perhaps to fit into the world,

is a mountain,

several miles high and many leagues in circumference.

At the foot of the mountain lives a colony of crows.

Once in every tenth generation, a crow

flies to the summit of the mountain

and sharpens its beak on the rock,

wearing away a near-invisible fragment of stone.

When the crows have worn the mountain into the sea

the first day of Lent will have passed.

Trigger’s broom

Bike chain
So. On Monday I went out on my bike to clock up some miles. It didn’t go well as there was a regular clunking and thunking from the back wheel. Back home I took the back wheel off and found the rim had split. I took the bike to bike hospital to get it a new wheel and a service. The service resulted in a new wheel, new front chainrings, new rear cassette, new brake blocks, cables and gear cables. There wasn’t really much of the original bike left.

Now, as I have been reading a short introduction to pre-socratic philosophy (a gift from Santa to one of the children, who read it and thought I might be interested) I was thrown back to the old paradox of the Ship of Theseus. Briefly, the ancient Athenians preserved the ship in which Theseus returned to Athens after killing in Minotaur. As its timbers decayed they were replaced until, in the then present, none of the original timbers remained. The question is: is this still Theseus ship? The UK TV audience has also seen the same paradox in Only fools and horses where Trigger’s broom has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles.

I haven’t quite got to that stage yet, but if I rode the bike a bit longer and changed all the other pieces, until there was none of the original left, would it still be the same bike? The philosophers have had plenty of goes at this, but for my money, the answer you give depends on the question. I’m with Trigger, because the question is not, ‘is this the same broom’ but ‘is this Trigger’s broom’ to which the answer is ‘yes’.

And back in ancient Athens, if pirates had carried off the ship, what would they have reported to the (non-existent) police? Obviously: ‘someone has stolen the ship of Theseus’.

[Of course, any passing philosopher is more than welcome to point out the deep and egregious flaws in my reasoning.]