A Tale Of Two Cities

Posted by MichaelA on May 16, 2007, 10:08:52 PM

For just about as long as I can remember, I've been fascinated by rocks. From an early age I spent our family holidays with my head down on the beach, rummaging through banks of pebbles, picking my way across the foreshore, filling up buckets with rubble, fortifying sand castles, and lugging lumps back home from the far flung coastlines of England, Scotland, even Wales.

Even now, on a daily basis, the stones that are used in buildings and statues catch my eye; I've stood outside banks and offices the length and breadth of these isles to admire a nice bit of Shap granite (that's the pink and black stuff), and then picture in my mind's eye that windswept high point where, up on the barren reaches of the M6 (1046ft above sea level), they blast it out of the increasingly ragged end of Cumbria.

Here in my adopted home of Edinburgh, rock has shaped the very layout and character of the city. In Holyrood Park the volcanic peak of Arthur’s Seat and the saw toothed edge of Samson’s Ribs dominate city views, whilst the basalt plug of the castle rock creates the natural defensive stronghold of Dun Edin, fortified from the dawn of time, now home to one of the dullest castles in the country. Running down the spine of the castle rock is the Royal Mile, the street of many names, tenemented blocks of rough hewn stone, the twelve storey skyscrapers of their time, toppling down the sides in a swirling mess of tiny closes, dank courtyards, hidden gardens, and beneath them another lost city with a tale of it’s own to tell. The street plan of the New Town is a testament to the Georgian city ideal, an escape from the squalor of the old town, beautiful symmetry and precision masonry set in stone for a new start in a new city. It’s a World Heritage Site, and the template for every other grid patterned city in the world. It’s a metaphor for how to live, and it's simply stunning.

James Hutton virtually invented geology in Edinburgh – he developed theories every bit as evolutionary as anything concocted by Charles Darwin. The very stones of this city tell their own tales. You can take architectural tours of the old and new towns, which are based upon the source quarries that supplied the likes of James Playfair and Robert Adam with the inspiration and material to create one of the finest cityscapes on this planet. The greatest minds of the eighteenth century Scottish Enlightenment earned the city the title of the Athens of the North through their vigorous philosophical debates; to the extent that Voltaire said that "we look to Scotland for all our ideas of civilisation". David Hume pondered the very human nature of man, and the city built upon its reputation as the spiritual successor to the Greek ideal.

In the wake of the Napoleonic Wars, Edinburgh even tried to build it’s own Parthenon, a National Monument, before it foundered for lack of cash and lack of public interest (a recurring theme in this city). Glasgow offered to pay for the shortfall, but the shame was too much to bear, and instead Edinburgh’s Disgrace sits on Calton Hill as a foolhardy reminder of both the folly of war, and, the cynic might say, the centuries old indifference to looking after the city.

Back in August, surrounded by these stories in stone, I committed to start a stone carving class. It didn't actually start until February, so really I just sent in my cheque, to pre-qualify, as it were. By the time January came around, I'd kind of got preoccupied with some other stuff. The evening class seemed like a bit of distraction, and when I went to the first class my suspicions were confirmed when I was presented with a lump of clay and told to create “something”.

I'm not in the least bit artistic, and at this point my interest and enthusiasm was in freefall. Then I had a little moment of inspiration, and settled upon the idea of carving a column. For reasons that are crystal clear in hindsight, I'd subconsciously chosen to make a Greek rather than a Roman column. That would allow me to use rulers and compasses - and all that other geometry stuff from the days of my maths 'O' level; stuff that I felt was within my capabilities. So I made a truly abysmal maquette of a Doric column, and then selected a chunky looking block of Portland sandstone to work on. In the absence of the aforementioned mathematical instruments I used the lid of an old paint pot to provide the diameter of the column, and then I began to chip away with my mallet and my pick.

We’ve got plenty of Greek columns up here in Auld Reekie - possibly more than the Greeks since Elgin and his chums swept the place clean. I photographed a few examples around the West End of the city where I work, and I got onto Google and started doing some research. It became immediately clear that I had over reached myself - you're supposed to measure out the base, then multiply the diameter by two and a half times the height, or something, and there's all sorts of other sacred geometry (maybe) and tapering and stuff relating to the dimensions that I'd totally overlooked. Right, I thought, I'll make an abstract shape instead, that way if it's a disaster, only I will know that it's a disaster; and furthermore I can call it Modern Art (check out my capitals). After all, I'd been to the Barbara Hepworth museum in Cornwall last year, and frankly it all looked like a bit of a doddle. The following week my heavily accented Chilean tutor convinced me that I should persevere with the Greek job; or at least I think he did; he could have been asking for spares to the Chelsea game.

I'd made a conscious decision; that I was not just sculpting stone for the purpose of art in itself, but that this was masonry; carving the stone for the purpose of architectural effect - visual and structural. It's been an interesting process that has provided a few philosophical moments over the last few weeks. If you’re making anything, you need a process to get to your goal. I had the raw material, some second hand tools, a bit of advice from a guy with a heavy accent, some enthusiasm of my own, and very little else.

My piece of rock has a few faults in it, but hey, I've got a few of my own, so we'll not quibble. Some sections are a bit flaky, so if you chisel too deeply you can lose the shape very quickly. Other parts are much tougher, surprisingly resistant to anything other than a heavy hammer blow. When you get a piece like this it can prove difficult to work with - hit it too hard and you lose too much material in one go, insufficient force will allow the rock to dictate the shape of the area around it, and either way the overall focus gets lost. Conversely, there are some really weak sections, where the components are barely bound together; where a misplaced chisel can dig deeply into the stone and cause significant damage. In other places there are deep-seated faults that simply have to become integral to the finished piece. These flaws are part of the appeal, partly shaped by the character of the rock, then partially misshaped by the failings of the mason. They can add character to the piece if they're handled sensitively. Within the body of the stone there is an approximation of what you want to achieve. The mason can only attempt to release something as close to his vision as his talents and the stone allows.

These are things I’ve been thinking about as I’ve chipped away week after week to try to successfully create my finished piece. And whilst I was chipping away at it, I was thinking about Athens. What I’ve mainly been thinking about Athens was that we wouldn’t be able to get to Athens, in much the same way that I had no expectation of being capable of sculpting a Doric column from a raw piece of stone. And yet as I chipped away at the stone, Rafa chipped away at Barcelona and PSV, and then carved his way past Chelsea. Suddenly, Rafa had his piece of Athens, and I’ve got mine. Well, nearly.

He’s a craftsman, that Mr. Benitez. Whilst there is some degree of artistry at work, Rafa’s true talent is on working wonders with the material at his disposal, just as a great mason can work wonders with great stone. The experience can be repetitive, but it's incredibly absorbing; hours can pass by in utter concentration, marking a plan on the material, moving backward and forward around the rock, rotating it to get a god look at it, seeing how the effect of carving one section impacts on the rest of it. Constantly reappraising how the component sections are working with each other, whether one line is too far forward, deciding whether one area needs to be shored up, where to work at a weakness, how to exploit a strength, whether to bring on Robbie for the last five minutes if we’re winning…that sort of thing.

Now I’m heading south to the original Athens. Several thousand Reds are coming up the hill to the Acropolis, check out some Parthenian columns, and marvel at the city that gave birth to modern civilisation. But mainly, I’m going for the match. I think I’ve got some understanding of the task that faces Rafa Benitez, and I don’t doubt that he can do this – the vision, the finest material (some of it is big and extremely hard), the sharpest, hardest tools, the determination and the talent.

Aristotle said that ‘happiness depends upon ourselves’ but for tens of thousands of Reds, happiness depends upon Rafa Benitez and the red men he puts on the field.

MichaelA. May 2007

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