Wednesday, 7 March 2012
Set in Stone: Linda Newbery
It may seem odd to do your research some while after finishing the book - in this case, five years after publication. But everything is useful to a writer, and I’m sure that somehow or other I’ll make use of the stone-carving I did last summer.
It’s not that I did no research at all for SET IN STONE. I talked to stone-carvers, handled stone, studied the work of Eric Gill, learned about Jurassic limestone. But last May several things fell into place and I found myself chip-chip-chipping away.
Shortly after SET IN STONE was published, I met a local stonecarver, Bernard Johnson, who was exhibiting during Artweeks in Oxford. I loved his work, and could see at once that he was influenced by Eric Gill. I’d decided that if my publisher gave me a commission to write LOB, I would find a stone-carver to make me a Green Man for my garden, and was hoping to find someone suitable; as soon as I saw Bernard’s work, the search was over. He made me a calm and wise Green Man, in Portland stone, which is now in my garden.
During Artweeks (three weeks of open studios throughout Oxfordshire), Bernard offered the chance to have a go at carving, and this was too good to miss. His studio, The Pig Sty, is an outbuilding of a farm near Chipping Norton. With another student, I began work on what started out as a two-day project – I wanted to make a stylised owl in relief. Bernard gave me a plaque of Bath stone, introduced me to the tools and showed me how to get started.
I loved it. At first it seemed impossible; I drew my owl in pencil on the surface, and was hesitant about even touching the stone with the chisel. Then Bernard showed me how to whack chunks off, and how to make cuts to preserve the bits I wanted. By the end of that day I'd roughly cut an owl shape, and was covered with dust. My clothes were whitened, my hair was full of dust, I had no doubt breathed in lots of it, and every cup of tea or coffee we drank was laced with dust. Jurassic dust. Occasionally a fragment of shell or fossil would fly out of my piece of stone – from a creature that had been crawling around maybe a hundred and fifty million years ago. It’s hard to get your head round that.
I kept thinking of a phrase I had given my stone-carver, Gideon Waring: “To handle stone is to handle the stuff of life and death, and of time and change, and the mysteries of the Earth itself; there is something humbling and moving and immensely satisfying in it.” Now I was doing it myself – very clumsily, but handling the tools just as an apprentice might have done five or six hundred years ago, or a thousand. Bernard was cutting letters inside the pig sty, the other student and I were chipping away at our pieces, swifts were screaming overhead – we could have been in a medieval stone-yard, using the traditional tools and techniques.
My owl was nowhere near finished, so I went back to work on it for several more days over the summer. I gained in confidence; the tools began to feel comfortable in my hand. I loved the fact that you can’t rush stone-carving; it takes as long as it takes. At the end of each day I took a photograph of my piece, because sometimes it seemed that I’d made no progress at all. But I could work happily for hours on end. It felt very different from writing, on which I can concentrate only for limited periods; with the carving I didn’t want to stop, apart from short breaks when my neck or hands ached. Whereas I’m all-too easily distracted from writing by emails and phone calls, with the carving I felt that everything else could wait.
Often we listened to music while we worked – Bernard has quite a selection, including his own “Pig Sty Mix”, which ranges from Ladysmith Black Mambazo to Madness, with Russ Conway and other surprises in between. We had makeshift lunches, each of us contributing something: salad from our gardens, strawberries, or soup cooked on Bernard’s little stove. Happy days!
My last visit was in September, after which I had to leave off for the winter in order to meet my writing deadlines. My piece isn’t finished, although it definitely resembles an owl. I’ve got lots more to learn. In fact, I don’t want to finish it, and when I do I shall be looking for a new project, if Bernard is willing to go on teaching me. Cutting letters, perhaps. It’s made me look at letters cut in stone with a new appreciation. Having watched Bernard at work I have seen the precision of valley-cutting and the immense care that goes into the placing of letters – it’s not like setting a typeface on a computer. Bernard gives careful consideration to the spaces between letters and how they relate.
Once, when I wondered if I’d ever finish, Bernard said, “Well, it’s slow work on resistant material.” Ah, yes. Quite a lot like writing, after all.
To see more of Bernard and his work, visit his website: www.bernardjohnson.co.uk