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…
Copyright Cherry Potts 2011