Thursday, 12 November 2009

Back at school - a vignette

i wonder why it is that the two men i have had for design and woodwork in my life both had dark hair slicked back with brilliantine. as well as parodies for names – mr wood and mr beech. mr wood was large and without angles to his body, a barrel of a man with a melon of a face, although his nose was that of an eagle, and on it perched horn-rimmed glasses of considerable thickness. he had a strong north of england accent, which was a source of great merriment to a class of 9-10 year-old northwest londoners, and was easily annoyed. ‘don’t you mess with me, laddie!’ was one of his favourites. mr beech, on the other hand, was a diminutive, thin-lipped figure, only about five and a half feet tall. he had a huge workshop at the school all to himself and there he reigned supreme. he would weave in and out of the work benches, watching us trying with differing degrees of effectiveness to put into practice his beautiful drawings of dovetail or mortice and tenon joints (which we had to copy flawlessly before being let loose on the wood), slapping one hand with a two-foot length of plank held in his other. misbehaviour by anyone (which was frequent as mr beech had a pipsqueak of a voice) was countered by a swift belt to the rear with the plank. the year i clearly remember was when we were about 13 years old, not for any particular reason, but that was still before i learned that mr beech truly loved wood and helped me tool a lamp shaped like a vase, with large S-shaped handles that had to be sandpapered for hours (a ghastly creation that is on the sideboard on the very last photos i have of my father), and to design a meat-safe, with a strong, yes, mortice-and-tenon frame and sheets of asbestos, fastened with zinc nails that had a large head and a short body (like mr beech).
why think of mr wood or mr beech? well, during a couple of wild days, as a depression has swept up across denmark from the southwest, i have watched clouds be smudged and smeared across the sky by some almighty hand like rolls of grey-purplish putty, seen them scud or billow like steam from a boiling kettle, and even seen them swirl like oil on the surface of a moving river. and this is where mr wood comes in. for he showed us how, in a shallow tank of water, you could drop paint mixed with oil, let it float on the surface, make figures of eight in the water with a stick and watch the paint lengthen, twist, turn and form whorls and scrolls, with the small spots often remaining unscathed, gyrating round their own axis. ‘watch this, laddie,’ said mr wood, his bushy eyebrows arching above his horn-rimmed specs, and he carefully lay a large sheet of paper onto the surface before lifting it up from a corner with speed but care. and the paper had absorbed all the wonderful patterns on the water.
we used the paper to clothe cardboard covers, with a fabric margin that we punch holes in and threaded with what looked like coloured shoe-laces. inside we had perhaps ten pages of pure-white paper. on the outside, since we had not learnt the art of calligraphy but mr wood had, he would write our name and Class Three.
my father’s father was a bookbinder. he used such sheets on the inside covers of the works of dickens that he bound and that my father kept in the glass-doored bookcase in the dining room. whenever i see an old book, i open it and hope to see swirling colours. swirl, whirl, twirl, whorl – four wonderful words that conjure up fluid motion in a wonderful world.

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