Saturday, 3 December 2016

I'm at a party somewhere in Brazil

not the sit down one or the dancing one but the one where the waiters come round and serve you little things on trays so you feel like a giant when you eat them and it's all very civilised and I find myself in a group of people who are aching for acceptance and they're talking about scuba diving and one of them starts talking about a dive he did off the coast of Wherever and everyone nods like they all did the same dive and experienced the same earth shattering revelatory experience and they all nod so much that I think all of their heads are going to fall off and when he finishes I crack my best joke and say why do scuba divers alway fall into the water backwards and when I say the punchline a woman near to the group who's stood by herself laughs at the very moment she takes a sip of her wine and the spray goes everywhere and I mean everywhere all up the wall on some curtains on most of the people in the group and everyone goes quiet and turns to this woman and shoots a disapproving look at her as they dry their faces with their handkerchiefs and turn back but I can't turn back because I know who she is all I can do is smile because the woman responsible for giving most of my group a Prosecco shower is Elizabeth Bishop and she's just laughed at one of my jokes and the group are staring at me as I'm smiling at Elizabeth Bishop and they're expecting my little comedy act to continue but I can't do anything when this woman has just laughed at one of my jokes and I feel myself melting like I'm stood above one of her flames and the room has established a new centre of gravity and I've forgotten language altogether because I'm looking at Elizabeth Bishop and Elizabeth Bishop is looking at me and I want to thank her not just for laughing at that stupid joke but for everything so I remove myself from the group and half walk half float towards her hoping that the ability to talk sufficiently restores itself and my chest is fit to burst and I stop in front of her still lost in her smile a smile to end all smiles and before I say anything my alarm goes off and I have to get up for work.  

Thursday, 10 November 2016

Bus Stop II - Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

For all the second-hand excitement of The Burning Bus Saga, it was not the most interesting thing to happen during that very cold morning at the bus stop.  Within the curiousness of the situation, I got chatting to the young woman sat next to me who was also a prospective passenger of the troubled S3 to Oxford.  In our abundant Englishness, we exchanged a polite word about the weather.  Within the space of a minute, she told me that in this cold her left foot always gets much colder than her right one.  I considered this for a second with a nod and a thoughtful expression, but I couldn't relate. I didn't tell her this, but I have always had excellent circulation.   

In between short bursts of her Snapgramming her Instafriends on Tweetchat, the conversation moved onto hands.  No one here knows me, I thought.  I'm going to throw a pebble into The Lake of Surrealism just to see what happens.  
"Imagine if you were an alien," I said.  "And you came to inhabit a human's body.  How weird would it be to see hands for the first time."   
She considered this for a second and looked at hers.  She was unfazed.  "I have hands like my dad.  But smaller and without the hair."  

I took out T.H. White's The Sword in the Stone from my backpack that I'd bought while I was staying on the Dumfries House estate in East Ayrshire.  I'd found it in a charity bookcase in the local Tesco.  Any book is a bargain for £1, but this one has proved its weight in gold.  Some of the description is just sublime.  It's a 1984 paperback edition and rather unassuming in its well-read tattiness, but it's provided hours and hours of entertainment.  I urge you to read it if you haven't already.  

I read a page or two and then went back several pages to re-read a passage from the previous chapter.  Wart and Kay join Robin Hood and his gang of outlaws on a mission to rescue some locals who have been captured by the "Anthropophagi", a group of cannibalistic creatures whose arms and legs and heads don't follow conventional rules and look rather fearsome as a result.  The two young boys go with Robin Hood's band of Merry Men in a quest to save their friends.  The group's silent approach through dense forest is one of the most exhilarating passages of literature I've ever read so I decided to share my enthusiasm for it and read a passage to the young woman sat next to me.  I was careful to choose  aline that captured my imagination the most and this was what I read to her: 

"In the night mystery a hundred men breathed on every side of Wart, like the surge of our own blood which we can hear when we are writing or reading into the late and lonely hours.  They were in the dark and stilly womb of night."

"Imagine being so quiet that you can actually hear your own blood coursing through your veins.  I don't think I've ever been that quiet," I said.  And this was perhaps the last thing I said to her, because a moment later a friend of hers came to wait at the bus stop and he spoke of things rooted in The Here and Now and in accordance with established and accepted patterns of communication, rather than matters that would light a fire in the imagination - a fire, I hasten to add, that was perhaps not too dissimilar to the one that was at that moment engulfing our unseen bus. 

Wednesday, 9 November 2016

Bus Stop - Chipping Norton, Oxfordshire

I had some frightful luck with the bus yesterday.  I wanted to make as good an impression as I could with Bernard, the gentleman who'd very kindly taken me on as his stone letter carving apprentice.  I had pushed the Prince's Foundation for this placement and I'm glad I did.  I feel very honoured to be here.  To be around and learn from someone who works in a most noble and skilled craft is a source of energy that I will carry with me for a very long time.  

I got to the bus stop for 8:00am.  I wanted to get a head start on drawing my L's and E's before Bernard arrived.  I wanted more practice, wanted to feel the good drug of progress in my veins and the skill in my hands. I wanted to feel the fullest weight of its expression.  I wanted to be the one who takes the panorama of the kingdom of language that exists within it.  What are you saying, Tom?  Does that even mean anything?  Take a breathe.  Keep it simple.  Okay: so in short, I wanted to live in a single letter for an extra hour.   But I had to get there first. 

Ten or fifteen minutes or so after the bus was due to arrive, we were told by a passerby that it had broken down and had italicised its state of brokendownness by filling with smoke, and that its Emergence From Wherever was left in considerable doubt.  In spite of this woman's plummeting faith in public transport and a token disgruntlement of a situation that didn't transcend the borders of the inconvenience it caused her, she may have been secretly thankful of her escape, though as she walked out of the scene I fear I may now never know.  So the unseen bus I had intended to board was now decidedly still, and if these accounts were to be believed, and there was no reason why they shouldn't have been, the fated bus would maintain a similar degree of stillness for a while.  

So we waited.  I thought about it for a while.  Even in this technologically advanced age in which we are free to broadcast a picture of our dinner to everyone we've ever met, the only thing anyone can really do in this particular bus-smoking situation is get off as soon as possible and walk.  Even for the posh sort - and there are a lot here - it must be a stretch even for them to complain to a driver with a smoking bus as the backdrop.  Subsequent passersby provided important eyewitness accounts of the advancing seriousness post-evacuation.  "Fire," one woman said as she passed.  "The bus is on fire.  It was smoking but now it's on fire."  I responded in the only way this Englishman knows how.  "Gosh," I said.   


Tuesday, 4 October 2016

The Goose Hoose

The Goose Hoose came together like a dream. The build was expected to take around ten weeks, but we had it wrapped up in five. It was a quick turnaround time by anyone’s standards, not least by a set of apprentices, some of which had no prior experience in stone masonry. Under a different set of circumstances, the build might have taken us longer, but the combination of certain things made it feel as if we were working within a slipstream. First and foremost, the guidance from Daryl, our building tutor and my BFF, was outstanding. He's been a force for good as the captain of Team Stone and is a real credit to Dumfries House. His knowledge and efficiency sometimes made my head spin. Secondly, there was a really nice set of dynamics within the team, which created a cohesive, positive atmosphere right from the off. Everybody mucked in, everybody did their bit, and at the end of it, we all sat on the roof with a glass of Prosecco and toasted to a job well done. 

We toasted to what had passed. An enormous amount of stone had been measured, cut, squared and shaped in extraordinary plumes of sandstone dust within the banker shop. And when that stone had been worked - be it quoin, jamb, voussoir, string course, coping or crow step - it was taken on the short journey to site where it waited patiently for the softness of a lime mortar bed in The Goose Hoose. A small sea of mortar had been mixed and poured into wheelbarrows and buckets ready to be scooped out by hungry trowels. Stones were bedded and sometimes re-bedded, lines were run, levels were leveled, hammers swung, stones teased, tapped and tempted into plumb, square and level. Noses were crinkled, heads were scratched, hmms were hummed. We laughed, we sang, I told stupid jokes. Then Prince Charles came along and gave a nod of approval. 

Monday, 15 August 2016

Day 1 and an Ode to Departed Friends

And so it begins. The live build. There were 27 of us during the summer school and that has now reduced to 11. I loved every single one of my summer school friends, and I actually found myself becoming closer to them in the three weeks that we were together than I did during my three years of stonemasonry training at Bath College. Leaving the office and retraining as a stonemason was a great decision on my part, even if I do say so myself, but the summer school was something else. It was a series of magnificent flashes of colour, setting itself aside from every other experience I’ve had up to this point. It was so unique and went by in such a blur that I was afraid that it might have been part of some elaborate hoax, a drug-induced coma or worse: a dream. When Christian and I got back to Dumfries House on Saturday evening after two weeks off, we were glad to find that everything we had remembered was still here. Gradually, as our newest friends began to arrive over the course of the weekend, the dream steadily restored itself to reality. These people were real, and it was also a relief to find that they shared a similar fondness for those who have now returned to their normal lives. The people I’d written about had not been imagined. They were were real and so the strength I gained from getting to know them was real. Future posts will be more focused on the live build, but this post is an ode to them.

Sunday, 14 August 2016

Day 0 and the Raleigh Wildtrack

I knew I needed a mountain bike for the live build, but I’d left buying one until the last minute. It wasn’t through want of trying – I’d visited half a dozen bike shops in the area over the past few weeks in search of a suitable one, but there was one problem: my taste for mountain bikes was still firmly rooted in 2000. The turn of the century heralded the beginning of a passion for bicycles that is still firmly with me. So I preferred the retro style that I grew up with. The new style was too flashy for my taste and the tubing was far too thick. At the age of 14, my school friends and I would cycle through Upton St Leonards, up a very steep hill called Portway to Painswick Beacon. It took an hour or two to cycle right to the top, but it was worth it. It was in this area that I found a freedom in cycling down its wooded trails. You can’t beat the exhilaration of cycling fast down a hill and I wanted to capture some of that excitement while I was at Dumfries House. I visited the Gloucestershire Bike Project, a local charity that restores and sells donated bicycles. They had plenty of great bikes, but not one that quite suited my needs: I was looking for a mountain bike that was simple, sturdy and had a retro feel to it. And it couldn’t be flashy. I didn’t want to attract any unwanted attention. As I left their warehouse, I saw a blue Raleigh Wildtrack that was bound for sale on the Internet. It was perfect. And only £95 – a quarter of what I was looking to pay. I don’t think I would ever fall in love with something so cheap. I bought it there and then. The only thing I had to change were the tyres. The ones that it had were brand new, but they were too knobbly for my liking, so I bought some ones that were good all-rounders for road and trail riding. I’ve already been to the local Tesco on it and I’m still in love. My love of bicycles has been thoroughly renewed. And what better to do it than through a charity.

Wednesday, 10 August 2016


On the very first morning of the summer school, Corinne was complaining of stiffness. She’d taken part in the Vitality British 10K run in London the day before and in doing so helped to raise over £2000 for charity. My cousin had also entered the race and it was also one that he went on to win. I told Corinne about it and she was suitably impressed, but I don’t think it’s something I told you. 

Skip forwards a week and a half to Dumfries House. I discover that you’re a regular runner. Some mornings I saw you as you set out on your morning jog, other mornings I saw you when you get back. I’m not a 100-mile a week man like my cousin, but I do run. I like running. I like the intensity of it. I like it for the freedom it affords and for its accessibility. I like the freedom of knowing that I can go anywhere I like and I can go immediately. It doesn’t require a membership or expensive equipment. I don’t necessarily need to travel anywhere to do it or have to rely on anyone when I get there. It’s dead cheap and no one can let you down. 

You told me about your achievements as a high school and college rower and how you used to train for four hours a day as you competed at national level. It’s no wonder you like to run. You know the freedom of being out on the water and you sought a similar kind of freedom here. 

My mind now shifts to films with running scenes: Shame, Juno, Forrest Gump, any Rocky film. Al Pacino does a lot of running in his films. Carlito’s Way in particular. He has a wonderfully cinematic run, but he never runs for sport. At least not when he’s acting. He’s either chasing or being chased. 

Towards the end of the third week of the summer school, I told you why I liked running. I said I liked how it speeds up the mind and allows me to have two or three days’ worth of thoughts within the space of 30 to 45 minutes. So if I go out for a run on a Thursday morning, I will have so many thoughts and ideas during that period that it will feel like Saturday afternoon by the time I get back. But it’ll still be Thursday morning and I’ll still have that time available to do whatever I have to. Things tend to make more sense when you run. The same can be said for walking. It’s a way of letting your legs do the thinking and a way of clearing your head. It’s an act of meditation, a way to relax. 

On your last morning run at Dumfries House, you came back triumphant and overwhelmed with joy. After almost two weeks of effort and many unsuccessful attempts to achieve the seemingly impossible, you did it. All your hard work had paid off. For you, running may well be about the things I described. You may do it for freedom or relaxation, a way of thinking more or thinking less, or a way of clearing your head. But if any of these are your reasons for running, they were all secondary reasons while you were running around the country lanes of the estate. All that really mattered is that you had accomplished your primary objective.  And you had done it.  You had finally managed to stroke a cow.