Sunday, 18 April 2021

Roadside oracle


Remember when, just before the start of the first lockdown when everybody was rushing around buying paint before the shops closed so they could redecorate during the unspecified term of house arrest they were just about to be sentenced to? 

And remember when some stressed person dropped a whole can of gloss white on the road and left a dead-end trail to their car when limping away in shame and embarrassment?

And remember my prediction that the brilliant white stain would last as long as the pandemic in this country?

Well, it is gradually fading as predicted.

We're off to the bluebell woods now.

Saturday, 17 April 2021

I blame King Solomon


I am amazed at how many of you want to see more of the pineapple carving process. I have been really looking forward to the weekend, when I have the excuse to get away from it for a couple of days.

On many occasions when my workshop was in the middle of town, a besuited office-worker would enter the dusty shop and watch me for a moment, then express his desire to have a job as simple and satisfying as how he perceived mine to be. It was always a 'he'. Women are far more practical and find romance in much more sensible choices of career, although I have known a few disturbed female stonemasons.

My response was always to ask them to imagine what it would be like to spend all day, every day, covered in dust and hitting a lump of stone over and over again in zero temperatures. None of them would believe me that I truly envied them of their jobs in the Winter, or my prediction that they would not last one hour if they walked out of their office and into my workshop to begin a new life and an eight hour shift. A couple of them even asked if I took on apprentices.

If anyone now asks me how to go about training to be a stonemason with aspirations toward more intricate carving, I tell them to seek employment with a conservation company. If you begin life as a simple mason, that is how it usually ends, after about 40 years of gruelling and unwinnable battles against the most unforgiving enemy that you are ever likely to encounter in the natural world. 

I think I have already told you about the one exception to the case, but I will tell you again because he refreshed my faith in humanity with his totally realistic and unromantic attitude.

He was an American tourist who turned up at the doorstep of my workshop one day, standing there and quietly watching me as I hammered away at a block of stone. Eventually, during a lull in the hammering, he came a little closer and I braced myself for the usual outpouring of admiration and respect for this ancient and arcane craft, kept alive by European heroes like me for thousands of years.

Instead, he said, "My GOD. That must be so BORING! How do you stand it, day after day?"

Friday, 16 April 2021

The True Cross


I am gradually whittling it away. What began as 8.5 cwt is now a mere quarter of a ton.


With things that go through a cylindrical stage,  you have to find the centre - on both sides - otherwise the finished article ends up what we in the profession call 'wonky'. The outer circle marks the widest that the leaves of the pineapple protrude, and the inner one is the only flat bit of the whole thing.

Look at the compasses/dividers. They are Georgian and still in regular use. I have and use many tools which are over 250 years old. Nothing much changes in the world of stone (aside from power tools), which is one reason why there is more mystique attached to the business than carpenters can dream of. 

Also there is a perceived permanence to stone going back thousands of years, whereas all that remains of Woodhenge is a row of holes.

How many pieces of the True Cross exist,  I wonder?

Wednesday, 14 April 2021

All will be well


Well blow me. Only the other day I was explaining frigbobs to you and now I am using one for the first time in about 20 years. I am saving myself a few hundred quid by chopping this 8cwt block into a 2.5 one to make a pineapple gate finial. My words of the previous blog - bragging about being able to saw continuously for over an hour - came back to haunt me as I stopped for a breather every three or four minutes, but I must not be too hard on myself. I am not as young as I used to be and out of practice.

So Denmark has banned the use of the Oxford vaccine for fears of blood clots in young women.

Some years ago they banned Marmite too, for fears that it contains too many vitamins, untested in the quantities that Marmite lists on the jar.

Because Marmite is a by-product of the British beer-brewing industry, and because the British brewing industry has been out of action for about a year, there is a nationwide shortage of Marmite here at the moment. I tried to buy some the other day, but even Waitrose had none.

Soon we will have Marmite again, and soon there will be more Astra Zeneca vaccine on the market when Denmark refuses to take it. All will be well.

Tuesday, 13 April 2021

An easy mistake to make?


I think that any police officer who confuses a taser with a handgun - even in the heat of the moment - needs urgent medical assessment. Tasers are made of bright yellow plastic and worn in a special holster on one side of the body. Handguns are made of heavy, black metal and produce quite a loud bang when you pull the trigger.

That's all I am saying.

Saturday, 10 April 2021

The last drop


I pulled this old bottle out of the room which is sometimes called 'the office', sometimes 'the box room', sometimes 'the spare room', depending on the state it is in. 'Box room' is a polite way of describing its state right now. I have been intending to clear it out for quite a while, but since the charity shops have been closed for a year and I have not had the heart to bin treasures like this, 'box room' it remains until further notice.

The last person who drank out of it has been dead for quite a while. I was wondering how much of a while and decided that this is a 19th century bottle. Usually one might roughly guess at the age by describing it safely as 'mid nineteenth century', but after I photographed it just now it told me its exact age to the year. When I loaded the photo onto the computer it gave itself the title of IMG 1859. So there we have it. Either the last user communicated from beyond the grave, or the flask itself told me.

When I look at this type of bottle, I am transported back to the sunlit meadow from where the man in the straw hat forsook his deposit and threw it into the nearby river, having drained the last drop of pop the glass amphora would ever hold.

In the intervening years it grew patches of iridescence as the water - aided by the soda flux - began the long process of turning the silica back to the earth from where it came. Soda glass containing soda water. It takes a long time - maybe a little longer than nuclear waste does when it is trapped in glass, or maybe not. Time will tell.

I miss rubbish dumps. I miss the medieval ones - haunted by Red Kites - without the city walls. I miss the ones of my childhood, haunted by the Crows and Gulls which inherited them from the Kites. I reluctantly admit that there are too many of us producing too much uninteresting but dangerous rubbish to have open tips now, but there were always treasures to find in amongst the detritus if you were a child, rich with time to spend on a long, hot Summer day.

Thursday, 8 April 2021

The long haul


Before we begin, let me point you in this direction:
If I was in a position to award prizes, she would get at least one. I would buy the book, but I don't think I can afford the new tariffs. 

To give you a well-deserved break from lime, I have some tales of a Gerard Hoffnung nature attached to this church in Banwell, Somerset.

You see how untrustworthy I am? I have already told a lie just to draw you in, because this is the church tower I almost destroyed by badly water-proofing a bag of quick lime at its top.

The main job was to restore and conserve the four gargoyles on each corner which serve as water spouts in rainstorms. There was one single lift of cantilevered scaffold right at the top, over 100 feet up. If you did not have a good head for heights, looking through the gaps in the boards could be quite disconcerting, and if you did not have a good pair of lungs, climbing the narrow stone steps to the top could be quite time consuming. I sprinted up in those days.

One evening, a colleague and I were surveying the great vista of this part of Somerset before going home, when he said, "You can smell that bonfire over there from even this distance. It must be two miles away."

I looked down to see a pile of hessian sacking on the wooden boards which was issuing a thick plume of white smoke. The quick lime had become damp and ignited the cloth, which was just about to burst into flame.

You cannot pour water onto quick lime to douse a fire. It just makes the fire worse. The only thing we could do was to rip away the burning hessian and throw it down to the car park, 100 feet below. Luckily, the car park was empty at the time, which was just as well because we also had to throw a bucket-full of hot, damp lime down as well.

This story was going to be about having to haul a block of stone weighing about 250 pounds up to the top of the tower. We did not have an electric crane, but we did have a 150 foot-long rope and a single pulley wheel. To use two pulley wheels would have given the gearing needed for one person to haul it up, but our rope wasn't long enough so two of us stood amongst the gravestones and psyched ourselves up for what was going to be an epic feat of strength and endurance.

Hand over hand it slowly rose, and when it was within 10 feet of the top, we both had a laughing fit.

We could not pull for laughing and we could not stop laughing. We were rapidly losing strength and it was the realisation of the dire consequences of letting go the rope that was making us laugh. It was extreme hysteria.

What happened next? With super-human self-control we stopped laughing and hauled it the last 10 feet.

Then we lay - exhausted - on the grass amongst the grave stones for about five minutes.