Sunday, 24 October 2010

Jude the Obscure?

Suzanne mentioned (in a care-free, heedless sort of way) that she wouldn't mind hearing some more about stone-carving, so you can blame her for this post.

You know me, I don't mess about by getting down to the heart of the matter if opportunities to fly off at random tangents present themselves, so this is an overview of the whole business which you could only get from someone in the business, and - even then - very few of us would be willing to expose ourselves in such an unguarded way. But you also know that I love exposing myself, so all right then, here are some insights which will forever change your attitude to those who work with stone, and how you deal with them in the future - assuming you are unfortunate enough to have to ever have deal with them at all.

If there is one word which encapsulates the entire world inhabited by stone workers, it is 'conflict'. It all started when some rich geezer called King Soloman decided he was going to have the biggest temple for miles around, and it was to be made from stone, so it would last at least as long that other rich geezer's, whose name I have forgotten, and whose temple now lies in picturesque ruins in a desert with no name, forgotten or otherwise. (Oh, I've just remembered his name - it was 'Osimandius').

There is conflict between the very material and the mason, and it is a battle which has to be won by the mason, otherwise he starves. There is conflict between the architect and the mason, and this enmity has become embedded in the tradition over centuries. There is conflict between individual masons, and there is conflict between individual groups of masons, even though the custom of charity toward, and cooperation with itinerant and outlandish, journeymen masons has been mandatory for at least 2000 years. But - above all - there is conflict within the very soul and psyche of each and every mason, without exception, and this is a battle he fights with the demons in himself. It is very important to remember this, when you are trying to reason with the morose bloke who has come round to your house to build a garden wall, or install a mullion window, or even just do a bit of re-pointing of the joints.

I have never yet met a mason (and I challenge you to find one for me) who is not suffering from marital problems, social problems, alcohol problems, drug problems or money problems, though I have met many who are suffering from all five at the same time - each one exacerbating the other.

I have spent many years trying to fathom out why this should always be the case, but I have never quite got to the bottom of it. A young mason will set out on his career as an apprentice, and - every night for about 2 years - will bore the shit out of his older and more experienced mates in the pub, by talking about stone. The more he drinks, the more he wants to talk about stone, and the more he talks about stone, the more he pisses off his older work mates until - being unable to take any more of it - they tell him to shut the fuck up, and he begins drinking in silence. Before he knows where he is, he has an alcohol dependency problem, if not the early onset of full-blown alcoholism.

After a while, mere alcohol is not enough, so he supplements his intake of relatively harmless weed with more powerful analgesics - cocaine, if he can afford it, or worse, if he dare. After a year or so of this, other parts of his life start to fall apart, for all the reasons mentioned above. If he finds himself unable to pull himself out of this nose-dive within about 5 years or so, then he pays the ultimate price of losing his job, so is reduced to boring people about how he used to talk about stone, before his wife left him, taking the children with her. There being no reason to go back to an empty house (if he still has one) he will spend all night in the pub.

One reason for all this excess is that stone is an extremely painful substance to work with. After a while, you do not notice the pain, but it is still there, nevertheless. It is heavy, so back problems are common, and flattened or spatulated fingers are often to be seen adorning the hands of the more clumsy mason. I am lucky to have got away with a few lumps on my right hand, caused by repetitive stress from a mallet, and a curious bone growth on the middle joint of my little finger on my left hand, caused by about 30 years of inadvertently punching stone with it when the chisel slips on the rough surface. Bear in mind that this is no ordinary punch - it has the weight of a 3 pound mallet behind it, swung with all the force of a strong right arm. Although I am tall, much of my height is in my legs, so my spinal column is relative short, which has saved me from crippling back pain caused by lifting countless blocks of stone which weigh more than I do. A cubic foot of Bath stone weighs 140 pounds - and that is when it is dry, which it hardly ever is in Britain. It is also one of the lighter of the stones. I used to (foolishly) carry up to 280 pounds up a ladder.

A long lost cousin called me up a couple of years ago, and asked me to give advice to his teenage daughter, who wanted to become a stone mason. I told her all the above over about half an hour or so, and she decided that masonry was not the job for her.

That's one less competitor I have to get paranoid about.


  1. My friend's daughter is dating a stone mason....maybe I will pass her your blog to read.

    Are you a member of the Freemason Society Tom? I purchased a wodden mirror once with some carving on the top. It is the compass and the square and I didn't know what it was at first. People see it and ask who is a member. I wonder why they would carve it on a mirror. It isn't a beautiful symbol.

  2. So, you'd recommend this as a career choice to a school leaver, would you?

    At least now I know why I drink so much.

  3. So paranoia is in the mix as well- crickey!Conflict I think often comes hand in hand with creativity.

    Thank you Tom, for further insight into your profession, are there any positives?
    The stone work that you have posted pictures of is incredibly beautiful, does this make up for all the hard labour in any way?
    I think it's because it's such a physical occupation that I have so much respect and interest in what you do. I can't get my head around how such exquisite detail can be chipped away and emerge from such an unforgiving material.

    I am forever looking up at old buildings, looking at the details in the stone work.

    I once shadowed an artist who carved bricks, but even then it was the clay she carved into and then this was glazed and fired. So it still wasn't a hard surface she was working on.

  4. Awwh. Nearly married one. Thank goodness for magnificent posts like this one. Just saved me in the nick of time from being a wild carefree fisherwoman married to the alcoholic land-bound malcontent - there goes the genetic neigbourhood...
    Mine own stonemason was the piscean jealous sort. I've met the others in bars ... I know exactly who you are talking about Tom, even in the Antipodes. Great post, sorry about the prejudice.
    Really, really good writing.

  5. OK, I painted the blackest picture possible, but - at the heart of it - it is all true to one degree or another. I have witnessed the worst possible outcome (mentioned above) caused by a depressed mason losing the battle with stone, many times.

    Although I come from a long line of London Freemasons, Raz, I am not one. My father was.

    Suzanne - Stone carving is the only profession that I can think of (and yes, sculptors ARE professionals) that the old joke about 'bashing your head against a wall - it's nice when you stop' is literally true. If you are successful, it's just another battle won. The thing about carving (as opposed to modeling) is that you only take material away - you cannot put it back on again. For this reason, you know what the thing is going to look like before you start. In fact you HAVE to know before you start. There should be no surprises.

    Sorry I ruined your engagement, Sarah T. Still, plenty more fish in the sea, eh?

  6. P.S. - They offered me lots of money to go to Australia about 25 years ago, to teach the locals how to carve stone, but I didn't do it. So you can't blame me for all those malcontents hanging around bars there now.

  7. What a tortured lot you are Tom. Sounds a bit like 'can't live with it, can't live without it' though. Did you ever consider doing anything else?

  8. I'm still considering doing something else, J.

  9. Tom reading this post reduced me to silence, not in the wrong sort of way, but it just did.

  10. Sounds fun! Where do I get a starter kit?

  11. How long did the silence last for, Molly?

    Starter kit for what, Amy? Drugs and booze, or stone carving? The former are lighter to post (in one way).

  12. Tom, have you posted 'Another Stone Story'? I've had a few posts from others go astray from the sidebar on my blog lately. Just checking.

  13. Yes, Sarah, but it was too maudlin and boring, so I deleted it this morning. X