Monthly Archives: March 2016

One ring to rule, or not

I was a kid hopped up on Tolkien and Susan Cooper’s Dark is Rising sequence. I had a dream which was immense, epic, and embarrassingly derivative, in which I had to collect magical rings. One was a plain band of wood.

One looked like this:

Ring 1

I’ve thought about this ring, on and off, for thirty years. I’ve wondered about commissioning a silversmith to make it – that seemed slightly magical in itself, to bring something not just out of my imagination, but out of a weird semi-controlled part of my imagination, and make it tangible.

Then recently I discovered silver metal clay. This stuff feels like (super-expensive) blu-tack; when you fire it, it becomes solid silver.

So I made my own imaginary magical ring this weekend! See above photo.

Even though the main part of the process is basically (super-expensive) playdough, there are still gratifyingly alchemical moments. I fired it over a gas ring and it obligingly turned a Tolkienesque glowing rose, the indentations showing white against the glow. Then I dipped it in liver of sulphur and it went rich gold with oily rainbows.

RING Tolkien.jpgRING rainbows

I’ve bought myself rings to affirm significant things about myself, before. Here’s the one bought after a significant project, to say to myself: ‘I’m competent’. I lost it, replaced it, found the original and wore them both at once for a while (super-competent).

Ring 2

This latest ring is, I suppose, saying ‘I make things from my IMAGINATION’. Which is to say, a portable reminder to stop procrastinating and write more stuff.

But as I sintered and buffed it, ‘I MAKE THINGS’ came to seem like less of a claim. Everyone makes things from their imagination. I’m making rhubarb crumble, later today, and that’ll be me bringing into being something that wasn’t there before. Gaze upon the pudding I have wrought.

Possibly this is less about my ability to put things into the world, and more about the capacity of other people to colonise my imagination. After all, this isn’t just a thing from my imagination, nor even a thing from my dreams, but a thing from my shamelessly plagiarised dream. It’s the tyre-tracks of Tolkien and Cooper parking themselves in my subconscious.

The reverse of that: a couple of people have had dreams ‘set’ in worlds I’ve written. That was not something I ever planned for, and was a bloody brilliant feeling.

So maybe this ring is a symbol not of the amazingness of making things, but a recognition that things are the only way for stuff to pass from mind to mind. A constant loop of imagination > physical object > back into someone else’s imagination again. We communicate through things! That’s kind of obvious, and not strikingly profound, but the ring’s really shiny.

I’ll wear it for a bit and see if I become impossibly powerful or monstrously corrupt.


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More great libraries, their downfalls

(Previously at-risk libraries.)

Two more historical libraries have crossed my path, both of which had a dismal time in the 16th century.

On a trip to Ghent, I was told about the downfall of the Dominican library. In the Iconoclastic Fury of 1556, 30,000 handwritten books were chucked out of the windows of the monastery, into the river Leie.


These windows

My tour guide said that it was possible to cross the river at that time without getting your feet wet. Imagine the vellum crumpling under the soles of your bare feet. You’re really sad, obviously, but you’ll never get to do anything like this again, so you’re tucking up your trouser legs and walking gingerly across…

Here’s a bit of the library which still remains in that excellent building:


Also, the tour guide also said that now they have very intelligent fish, so I don’t totally trust her.

I also went to an excellent exhibition (in London) about John Dee. I really like Dee, I’ve written fiction on Dee, and yet somehow I’d forgotten that:

  • He had a library of 3,000 books and 1,000 manuscripts, in his specially extended house at Mortlake
  • He left them in the care of his brother-in-law while he travelled Europe
  • When he came back, he no longer had a library of 3,000 books etc.

His bro-in-law either flogged the books, or took backhanders to let a bunch of pseudo-chums, ex-pupils and randos into the Dee library to help themselves. Dee said he ‘unduely sold it presently upon my departure, or caused it to be carried away’. Dee clawed back a few books from friends, but most were gone.

A moment’s silence for Dee, allegedly the model for Prospero, having his life’s accumulated texts spirited away.

UEL Prospero tiles

Prospero-quoting tiles at the University of East London

Two other facts I learned about Dee, from the same excellent exhibition:

  1. Dee tried to persuade Elizabeth I to start a kind of British Library, drawing back together the texts scattered when Henry dissolved the monasteries. Hurrah! (She declined.)
  2. Dee was the first to use (in print) the phrase ‘British Empire’, or as he had it, Brytish Impire. Damn! He advocated for Britain to use the Pacific as a source of wealth to establish global dominance, and overtake the Spanish. (Elizabeth I was more keen on this idea.)

It’s a facile comparison, but I do keep picturing the polymath colonialist wizard:

  • banging on about how great it is to barge into someone else’s country and take their mineral reserves/anything else not tied down
  • coming home and finding that his priceless library’s been nicked.

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