Hand me downs

Peter was a quiet-spoken man with a beguiling laugh. He was also the ‘father’ figure of the local allotment where his fruit and vegetables, neat paths and absence of weeds made him the envy of us all. Around twenty years ago he had retired from his work as an architect specialising in the restoration of old buildings. In October he died and sadness set in. At his funeral I learnt much about his family and professional life, and amongst the various stories told one in particular stood out. Apparently he would chuckle to himself when reminded of a carved gargoyle based on his physog placed under a balcony on a building in Cambridge that he had helped restore. There was no name, just his head with its fine hooter to be puzzled over for generations. And a fitting memorial it is too, as it so well reflects his modesty, popularity and sense of fun.

I imagine that one reason why this story appealed to me so much was because recently I found myself pondering over the whole idea of anonymous but tangible links over the generations. In most instances the bereaved, whether relatives, friends or colleagues, wish for there to be some named memorabilia for those who have died. Perhaps by such a creation they help the person to live on – witness the names and dedications on benches or headstones. But in my ponderings I was thinking more of links where the origins are unknown. Here the object is seen ‘backwards’, from the aspect of future generations.

The idea came to me when I was working in the garden building a wall and making frames for raised beds, with the help of artisan friends. It struck me that almost all of the tools we were using had been available in one form or another for well over two thousand years. Hammers, trowels, rulers, straightedges, wheelbarrows and even plumb lines were all part of the tool kit of the ancient Greeks. In using these tools we were part of a continuum that stretched back in an unbroken line throughout the intervening period. These tools, which have evolved with usage over the centuries, are true ‘hand-me-downs’ and somehow in using them I am in touch with those masons or carpenters of yesteryear. Clearly it is not the same as, say, finding an original hammer with the owner’s name on it but for me there is a real feeling of being in touch, being part of a chain, and it is profound.

These particular hand-me-downs were in the form of physical objects but I was soon reminded of one that was intellectual. It happened during a surreal moment as we were making the garden frames. These were to be rectangular, so for each bed we needed to fix four planks at right angles to one another. Jean-Yves, the carpenter, had forgotten to bring his setsquare, so by eye he positioned as best he could the ends of two planks of the frame at right angles. He then measured along each plank from the join and on one plank made a pencil mark at 30cm and on the second at 40cm. Finally he adjusted the two planks so that the marks were exactly 50cm apart. He looked round to see my bemused expression and with a big smile and some pride he explained that the planks must now be at right angles by virtue of the ancient rule of trigonometry that states that ‘the square on the hypotenuse of a right angle triangle is equal to the sum of the squares of the adjacent sides’. I immediately recalled Pythagoras’ rule from my schoolboy days.

With that thought, it was back to work, screwing the two planks securely in place. But there was no doubting that at that moment I felt in touch with our history, albeit in this case a theory.

It is becoming increasingly clear to me how important are physical or intellectual links with the past, and I imagine this feeling is ubiquitous. In keeping with this need, and for whatever reason, many people create named memorabilia for those to come. However, carrying a name is by no means essential. In fact, there is a mystical strength when the object is anonymous and ‘generic’. In my view just being aware of such links provides magic enough.

Photo:  York Minster gargoyle By SaraJB (Own work) [CC-BY-SA-3.0  or GFDL], via Wikimedia Commons

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