Tuesday 7 December 2010

Working Stone

Have a nice holiday. That’s what people say to me as I leave England for our place in Spain. I try to explain that I am not going on holiday. They smile and say - enjoy your holiday. After all that’s what Spain is for isn’t it? Holidays. Though why anyone would come to Spain, certainly the Spain that we know, for a holiday in the winter beats me. Rather than holidays we think of electric blankets, portable gas heaters, wood fires to be lit, fed and cleaned; and my wife misses central heating in the way that I miss real ale.
Nowadays I spend nearly all of my time with stones. I carry them about, I hit them with hammers and chisels, I cut them with a diamond wheel, I split them and I talk to them. Yes, I confess, I do talk to them. And they talk to me!

The stone in our area is a form of sandstone. It can vary in colour between straw-yellow through orange to red. When exposed to the atmosphere it very gradually blackens and greys like an ageing person. All of the older houses are made from stones that vary in size from a cricket ball to a boulder. Some of the stones, especially the corners, are worked to provide a flat, scored surface; but the bulk of the stone presents a naturally occurring ‘face’ to the beholder. Traditionally the stone walls of houses and farm buildings were bedded in clay, a cheap natural material now replaced by mortar. Some time ago the stone of most homes was covered with a soft mortar probably to prevent the drafts that developed as stones moved and clay cracked. Later the mortar-covered walls were painted a violent blue for disinfecting reasons or looks or both. Picasso lived in our area for a while and some claim that visit as the beginning of his blue period. Nowadays much of the blue paint and mortar has been removed exposing the old stone which has been cleaned, chipped out and pointed in modern mortar. The restored houses look really good, but I would prefer the unpointed walls of the many casitas and animal shelters that blend so well into the arid countryside.

So I bought one! A casita that is. It sits in what the Spanish call a huerto (think of a large allotment garden in terraces with irrigation channels passing through it). Traditionally people who worked the huerto lived in the stone casitas during the growing and harvest seasons as did the animals, implements, tools, etc. This was sometimes called stone camping and has mostly been superseded by the availability of motor vehicles. We intend to return to the earlier way of life.

Our casita was quite small but had two floors, the one above for the bats and below for the rats. It was not inhabitable. So I’m making it bigger and cleaner and will one day install solar electricity and a water system, even a shower and some form of toilet. But first I have to make it bigger. The existing walls are traditional clay and stone and are a half meter thick. I am copying them, though I am filling the space between the inner and outer wall with mortar not clay. Hiss, hiss say the traditionalists. But they are wrong, mortar is better, they just didn’t have any in the old days.

The rate of my building is so slow that increases in height are only detectable by monthly photographs – like those films of flowers growing, but slower. I spend most of my time wandering between my many piles looking for the right stone for the current space. The job is similar to doing a mammoth jigsaw where none of the pieces quite fit and there is no picture to copy. I have names for the sort of stone that I am looking for: flat-bottomed sloper, angled dipper, etc. The stones want me to place them in the wall. They shout, “Take me, take me”, but until I find a suitable candidate for a trial I reject them with comments such as “too fat, too round”. Those that I carry (or roll for the larger ones) to the wall for an audition are often rejected; they then lie near the wall hoping for a second chance. Some are cheats. They pretend to be near fits then, when I work them with the hammer and chisel; they display hidden faults and break asunder. These are punished. I use them as fillers in the interspace where I put the mortar: they will never see the light of day again.
Locals think that I am mad and perhaps you do too. They admire the work and sympathise with the slow progress by saying “poca a poca”, but in their minds they wonder why I don’t use concrete blocks like everyone else.

Just what has all this to do with a blog attached to a bookshop (www.robsbookshop.com)? Well, almost every day I make notes about the work on the casita and the huerto so one day there will be a book – or a set of stone tablets. Don’t hold your breath.