Drabble does ornament

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Screen at Winchester Cathedral. (Alamy)

I’m close to the end of Margaret Drabble’s The Ice Age. I posted a short while ago some passages on the attitudes of developers in postwar Britain (“Inside Drabble’s developer“). Now the father of her developer protagonist has died and he visits the cathedral where he grew up the son of its schoolmaster. He is walking down an aisle, contemplating the churchly ornamentation:

Anthony, pacing, reached the aisle which was lit from within, by a small light, to show the depth and richness of the carving. Roses and tendrils of stone curled, intricate, involuted, around a central boss. The underlying rose. Craftsmanship, genius. He paused, walked on, watching the changing patterns in the wall. Diamonds, trefoils, toothing, a display of invention, fantasy, fancy – dedicated to what end? Of what had these men thought, as they nagged and whittled and chiseled at the solid blocks? Of the glory of God? It seemed somehow unlikely. … He paused again, by a strange little row of knobs of stone. They reminded him of something, some familiar pattern. He stared at them, intently, wondering, his mind empty, except for the fear of thinking about his father. There stood the row of little round knobs, each round but four-sided, each tapering into a funny little peak, as though the stone were not stone but some more liquid substance. What did they remind him of? Nipples? No, something softer, more clay-like. He touched one, felt its soft point. And suddenly it came to him: of course. They were like little icing decorations, little peaks, squeezed through a forcing bag and a rosette, onto a cake, a birthday cake, and with the realization, a whole scene, long forgotten, came back whole into his memory. …

He is a boy again. No need to go on. I did remove a short passage within the paragraph that has Anthony wondering about the craftsmen’s wages and security. I wanted to maintain the flow of the description of ornament. As to what the craftsmen were thinking as they carved, might they not have been thinking about carving?

About David Brussat

This blog was begun in 2009 as a feature of the Providence Journal, where I was on the editorial board and wrote a weekly column of architecture criticism for three decades. Architecture Here and There fights the style wars for classical architecture and against modern architecture, no holds barred. History Press asked me to write and in August 2017 published my first book, "Lost Providence." I am now writing my second book. My freelance writing on architecture and other topics addresses issues of design and culture locally and globally. I am a member of the board of the New England chapter of the Institute of Classical Architecture & Art, which bestowed an Arthur Ross Award on me in 2002. I work from Providence, R.I., where I live with my wife Victoria, my son Billy and our cat Gato. If you would like to employ my writing and editing to improve your work, please email me at my consultancy, dbrussat@gmail.com, or call 401.351.0457. Testimonial: "Your work is so wonderful - you now enter my mind and write what I would have written." - Nikos Salingaros, mathematician at the University of Texas, architectural theorist and author of many books.
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5 Responses to Drabble does ornament

  1. Judith Dupre says:

    A great passage. Always productive to attempt to enter into the mind of the creator. Thanks, David!


  2. Wonderful. Exactly the sort of wonder and awe I felt the first time I entered a great church. The craftsman looked at the blank expanse of stone and thought ” why not a border here and a foil there? And while I’m at it…


    • Glad you enjoyed that, Ethan. Of course, I did too. But I feel a bit guilty cutting out part of the passage. I will type it in here:

      Of employment, employer, wages, security of tenure. It had been a long job, the building of Crawford Cathedral [a fictional cathedral, I gather]. Imperial House [Anthony’s development] had taken only two years. The craftsmen of Crawford had been secure for many decades in their work. Had they too asked for higher wages, boosted inflation by unreasonable demands? A historian would know.

      Kind of detracted from the flow, it seems to me, but any bit cut out risks the reader thinking you might have cut it out because it contradicted your main point in quoting the passage, so you can see that’s not so here.


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