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Beauty and the Brick

Thursday, 26th June 2003, Page 2 of 2, West Yorkshire

'You two always seem happy!' says the man behind the counter in the post office.

'Well, you have to be!' replies Barbara.

I think that Barbara and I are something like Shrek and the donkey in the computer-animated fairy story: there's Shrek, the ogre, who just wants to be left alone in his dismal swamp (that's me) then there's the donkey (voiced by Eddie Murphy in the film) who's generally cheerful and optimistic, willing to see the best in people (yes, that's Barbara, it certainly isn't me!) and who takes an enthusiastic, innocent delight in such things as the patronisingly kitsch puppet show that greets them at the wicked Prince's castle; to which Shrek reacts with a blank look of long-suffering disdain.

You can see this in our attitude to our garden, which is very much a team effort: it expresses what we are as a couple (avid veg eaters, presumably) but also our individual characters.

One of Barbara's favourite features at the moment is a colourful pot of busy lizzies she's planted up which are blooming away for all they're worth on the patio. They're one of the things in the garden that I'm least likely to draw: I'm afraid they remind me of ladies' swimming costumes of the 1960s or those bathing caps studded with plastic flowers. This could be Shrek himself talking!

Yes: they're attractive, vibrant, 'heartwarming' but, no, I don't find them beautiful.

One of Barbara's least favourite features in the garden is this pile of bricks.

'Can't we get rid of them?'

'They might come in useful.'

Yes, I will get around to moving them; they've just ended up in the 'meadow area' at the end of the garden when I replaced them with treated timber as an edging for the veg beds.

You probably won't see the point unless you were to sit here on the bench and look at them with an innocent eye but I find there's a certain beauty in them. Yes, really.

They're a pleasure to draw as they're simple shapes - you couldn't get much simpler could you? - but because they're all battered, recycled bricks every one of them is slightly different. Each has its own character.

Kirkheaton Brick Works

In The Zen of Seeing Frederick Franck tells the story of the Zen disciple who goes to his master and says (and I'm paraphrasing here):

'I've read all the scriptures, I've gone through all the meditation exercises but I still don't get it - what is it all about?'

The master pauses for a while and says 'Come with me, I'll show you.'

He takes his pupil to a place where they're surrounded by wild grasses.

'Do you see it now?'


'Some of them are long, some of them are short!'


I think that's why I'm attracted to subjects like these bricks - they resonate with that zen-like quality. The sense of just being. Of the spirit that runs through nature.

If I start to explain it, it sounds like a romantic story, a pathetic fallacy; a bit too anthropomorphic, but I can see in these bricks, made of common clay (well, not so common - they're made from local clay that was laid down in tropical seas that spread over this area 300 million years ago, long before the time of the dinosaurs . . . but there I go telling stories, and that isn't the point).

They've been built up, knocked down, buried (we've dug them up in various parts of the garden), resurrected, found a new life and now they're together in this tottering pile, with their patinas of moss, mortar and misfiring.

Kirkheaton Brick Works

They're so much a picture of how I feel and of how I see our place in nature - well, much more so than those busy lizzies anyway!

Seeing nature this way doesn't make you a better person, it doesn't make the world a better place, it doesn't really make you any 'happier' as such but it does provide a kind of rumpled revelation: a kind of resolution.

Kirkheaton Brick Works

A little fly - or it might be a parasitic wasp - walks in perfect tiny circles at my feet as I write this. next page

Mrs Marigold's Jacket

I feel guilty about what I said about busy lizzies so here are couple of flowery quotes, to make up for it:

And bright as a seedsman's packet
With zinnias, candytufts chill,
Is Mrs. Marigold's jacket
As she gapes at the inn door still,

Edith Sitwell, Polka, Façade

Curiously enough, the only thing that went through the mind of the bowl of petunias as if fell was Oh no, not again. Many people have speculated that if we knew exactly why the bowl of petunias had thought that we would know a lot more about the nature of the universe than we do now.

Douglas Adams, The Hitch Hikers Guide to the Galaxy next page

Richard Bell