I tell lies all the time, mostly for my own entertainment. I will exaggerate the awfulness of the journey home,
I had to wait hours ’n’ hours for a train…
To tell the truth,
I will retell conversations in which I appear much wittier than I was in reality. If I’m honest,
if someone asks me a difficult question, I will make up an answer if I don’t know, and although I would always advise others to admit to not knowing, I will only do this myself if I can’t make something up fast enough. So if I ever tell you I don’t know the answer, either you’ve really flummoxed me or your question wasn’t interesting enough to spark a flight of fancy. Sorry to be blunt, but that’s candour for you. Actually
it’s quite alarming how often my made up answer turns out to be right. And if part way into my complex and entertaining invention I realise it can’t possibly be right, I will own up and say, To be honest with you
I’m making this up from whole cloth.
(Whole as opposed to what? Patchwork? Patchwork would be more appropriate really, but it does have a rather satisfying feel of cutting the cloth to suit oneself, and of starting from the never used before, pristine state of … imaginative ignorance.) Truth be told,
I tell very truthful lies; I reinvent the world how it ought to have been. Yes, the train was delayed for 4 minutes and disappeared off the board when it was due in a rather sinister fashion, but the snow wasn’t that deep.
Sometimes, I catch myself in mid embroider, and think,
Why are you doing that? You’ll get caught out eventually.
But then if I didn’t invent a different, more interesting world I wouldn’t be much of a writer.
I lead a blameless mundane life generally, perhaps I need the frisson of danger, and it doesn’t do any harm does it, little white lies embroidered all over my whole cloth? Perhaps it’s a sign of an over active imagination, or a mind with too little to occupy it, or a distraction technique… perhaps the truth is too horrible to contemplate.
And if I did tell the truth, if I was honest with you, would it make any difference, actually? I mean really, truly?
But then, you can’t be sure I’m telling the truth now, can you?
Sometimes talking to an expert isn’t enough, I have to try something out for myself. I started writing a novel about thirteenth century musicians and masons over ten years ago. I know what is going to happen in The Cold Time but I struggle with making it convincing. I’ve read a lot of books, I’ve learnt a new language, I’ve travelled (in total) for five weeks all round the area I’m writing about, so I now know the smells and sounds and I know some little surprising details that please me, but despite having spoken to a stone sculptor I don’t know how my main character Aymar thinks about his craft, how long it takes, which muscles it uses, what are the pleasures, what gets tedious. Until yesterday.
When you’ve been in a relationship for nearly thirty years buying presents can get a bit ‘ho-hum’ the book-CD-DVD-jumper is routine and rarely surprises except occasionally negatively; so, when buried in the arts news email I found a one day stone carving course, I printed off the details, placed it nonchalantly on A’s desk and said, ‘that would make a good Yule gift’.
So I now know that stone carving makes more dust than milling flour, and I understand why medieval masons worked outside in ‘lodges’. The dust gets up your nose, in your eyes and hair and you hands are coated in minutes. This changes several of the scenes I’ve already written, it changes how Aymar moves, what his habitual tics are, what he does first when he gets home, how people interact with him… I understand better which muscles he uses (I had some idea, but it’s different, even so) I understand the level of attention needed and how, when you concentrate on what you are doing, you don’t hear three other people’s hammers hitting their chisels, and the chisels the stone, even though your ears are ringing with it.
I hadn’t given much thought to what I was going to produce, or even if I would produce anything worth taking home, but it turns out that in a day it’s possible to produce something quite respectable, and certainly my fellow learners turned out some stunning work (I particularly liked a paw print caught in stone like a fossil). I’m quietly pleased with my carving, having produced what could be a corbel decoration in one of Aymar’s churches. I found it fascinating working out what to leave and what to take away, what angle to approach a curve, how hard to hit the chisel, how far up the haft of the hammer my hand needed to be.
I took along a reproduction of what I have always thought of as being an angel by the Master of Cabestany, an unknown but distinctive thirteenth century mason, who worked all over the border between Languedoc and what is now Spain. Looking at it closely while comparing my approximation to it, I noticed how the hands are gripping something rather aggressively and I found myself less convinced. the Master tended to carve elongated pointed faces with elongated sloping eyes and over large pointy ears- his angels could be aliens, or monsters, I think my reproduction may actually be a sphinx. It has a lop-sided but fascinating face and it was intriguing trying to replicate it. I ended up over-exaggerating the lopsided thinness, because my urge was to correct it and make it rounder, more even, and I resisted the temptation. What I have now is quite human from one side and very alien from the other, I’m thinking of it as a changeling.
At the time I am writing about, it was the political fashion to make a great deal of meaning from the carvings that cover the churches and abbeys and cathedrals. The Cathars had been crushed by the ‘Crusaders’ from the north, and the west front of the abbey church at St Giles in particular was intended as a message to a subjugated people. I’m not sure anyone told the masons that was what they were meant to be doing or if they did the masons just shrugged and got on with what they wanted to portray- as a result it is full of jokes.
So thanks to A for a first class present! My next gift request is a Rebec, and some lessons in how to play it, so that I can get a feel for that…
Sometimes I hate living in London, and sometimes I love it.
In January rain it can feel as though it has turned its back and doesn’t want to know you, but it doesn’t take much to find a way through the cracks and into its secrets.
We walked, A & I and three friends from Charing Cross to Cannon Street, a station-to-station walk; not what we intended and more circuitous than the map might suggest. the original plan had been to walk round Bloomsbury, but the rain (torrential) meant that we skipped from cover to cover. Starting off in Embankment gardens with cups of coffee to give the rain a chance to clear (ha ha ha ha ha…) we stopped to chat with tree surgeon cutting into slabs that were still too big really, the remains of an enormous London Plane, which had been threatening the glazed roof of the tube station. Plane trees are a wonderful light coral colour inside, which blazed in comparison to the dark sky. Rain was dripping off my nose at this point, and I was regretting the new raincoat I sent back to Cotton Traders because it wasn’t big enough. Casting astonished glances at the memorial to Arthur Sullivan which has a… Nymph?… splayed across it naked from the hips up as though she’s drugged up on something quite intoxicating (not his music, I would think!) Then up the terrace on the river side of Somerset house where they were setting up a dome thing which it turns out is housing an ice concert where all the instruments are carved out of ice. Through Somerset House and to the courtyard where kids were skating aided by penguin things, then onto the strand.
Still looking for cover we stopped to glance at the museum in the back of Twinings Tea shop, which was a delight for anyone interested in the history of advertising and packaging ( that would be me).
We then dived into Lloyds Bank law courts branch to admire the Edwardian tiled vestibule (rather like Leighton house, heavily influenced by Moroccan architecture, but with a heavy overlay of the steam age somehow). The main banking area has tiled panels of what seem to be characters from Shakespeare and carved wooden owls. Lengthy discussion of the planning permission required to convert the heavy wooden doors (almost certainly listed) to open automatically. Very clever. Back onto the Strand and right into the Temple and to Temple church, which was almost completely destroyed in the Blitz, but carefully restored. I came here first when I was ten and spent a happy summer with my Gran visiting every church in London, (for the architecture and history, rather than any spiritual motives). I remembered the roundness and the knightly effigies, and nothing else, and to be honest roundness and effigies is still what it has to offer. The knights writhe as though trying to get up, but held back by the weight of their armour.
Helpful lady in the church suggested our next haven from the rain should be Prince Henry’s room, over the gate onto Fleet Street. Unfortunately it has been closed to the public for three years, said the man in Wildey’s Legal bookshop next door where they had what he described as a ‘flock’ of knitted stuffed owls in the guise of lawyers and judges perched on the stairs. This is something I have noticed about bookshops- the more serious and specialised the more given to flights of fancy.
Up Chancery Lane and detouring through Lincoln’s Inn and Staple Inn away from the traffic and back to Chancery Lane and onto Holborn where I remembered being in a building for a meeting which had another steam-tiled vestibule. A quick glance round and I identified the old Prudential Building at Holborn bars, now a De Vere Conference centre. We sauntered in to admire the completely tiled stairway and pillars. Kind lady on reception who is obviously used to blow-ins gawping at her tiling provided us with a sheaf of paper that explained the history of the building and escorted us downstairs to admire the safe which is like something out of Metropolis, a stunning bit of engineering and polished to within an inch of its life.
Still raining. Back out onto Holborn and across the Viaduct, which has more statuary that is strictly necessary for such a small stretch of road (but I love the serious lions) and round the corner into Ely Place and St Ethelreda’s church. This is another place I visited with my Gran, and I think we can have only been in the crypt for some reason, because right up until we went in today, I remembered it as being essentially underground. This feeling of being underground. It was this church, and of course St Ethelburga’s among others that led me to write All Hallows, that and feeling that T.S. Eliot had got it wrong about London’s ghosts being on the move in The Wasteland.
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Finally, a cup of hot soup and the train home.
Doing this walk made me think a lot about my Gran, and reminded me of that long summer of hot pavements and cool dark interiors, reading monuments to women dead in childbirth, and learning the history of London from its buildings.
the taste of greengages straight from the bag
still reminds me of Fleet Street in the rain
Grandmother’s Footsteps copyright Cherry Potts
Sometimes, I really hate living in London, and sometimes I really love it.