Talking pots

A few years ago I wrote the story below. Since then I’ve started making pots again but apart from that I think it still works. I hope you like it.

It’s close to 50 years since I decided I wanted to make pots for a living and 30 since my CV was muddled by references to teaching and writing or working the wood yards and building sites but that first ambition never quite died. I still walk the ceramics galleries of museums, wondering about the balance of a jug or the traces left by the hands of a maker.

Ten thousand years dead or just starting out, it’s an ancient craft knowledge that links potters across time and continents. Making pots will change you. Not in any hippy, mystical sense, either. Wedging clay for years on end will make your bones denser. Dig up the skeleton of someone who has spent a lifetime working a kick wheel and there will be wear on one knee. Repeated actions with your hands will change them as surely as violinists’ are changed by what they do with theirs, day after day. It’s how you learn a craft. Doing something again and again until the actions are embedded in your muscle memory and with that comes other knowledge, in this case the ability to read a pot, to understand what it’s telling you about how it was made and used, even if later generations turned it into an ornament or a garden urn.

Deprived of their original function and purpose it’s hard not to think that those museum pots are not even pots any longer, just objects to be studied or admired for the delight and delectation of the kinds of people who get some kind of scopophilic pleasure from such things. Nonetheless, those pots still have stories to tell and they’re easy to find, if you only look.

Anyway, a few years ago, my job meant that my colleagues and I took a group of people to a handling session at the British Museum. Come lunch, when we had held, examined and discussed a variety of the museum’s less valuable objects, little bands of us went off to look at different galleries. One elderly Greek woman wanted to look at pots from her homeland, so I was delegated to go with her. By chance or design, I can’t remember which, we bypassed the black wares and headed for the first period terracottas. Well over 3000 year old and frequently half as tall as me, all were seriously beautiful and decorated with the simplest of geometric patterns. For my money, they’re amongst the best things ever made in the history of this or any other universe.

Now, for me there is something awkward about looking at pots with people who aren’t either potters or good friends. I’m never quite sure what to say. How much will my enthusiasms or responses be boring or embarrassing to my companion? Not knowing what’s appropriate I try to say as little as possible. So, on this occasion, we did our rounds of the exhibits, occasionally making polite comments to each other until in one case I saw a small, undecorated, cone shaped, pot. Its height was roughly the distance from the tip of my index finger to my knuckle and the distance across the base was a little less. It was thick at the bottom and thin at the top and it’s best claim to being `pot’ was that it was fired clay with a hole in it which meant it could hold water.

I recognised it. That was my first pot. Not exactly that one. I’m no reincarnation of a long dead Greek potter. Although, if you ask, I’d rather that than some of the other alternatives on offer. It’s simply that it was the spit of my first pot. It was a child’s pot. It’s what you do when, eight or even younger, you’re confronted by a lump of spinning, wet, clay for the first time. If you’re lucky – and that child was one of the lucky ones, as was I – the nice potter will show you how to centre, how to sponge the water out of the cavity, how to trim and cut the pot away from the wheel head, lift it off and place it on a board to dry so that it can be fired with the rest of the production. Sometime later that pot would have been handed back to the child, fired and finished. Something to be kept and treasured as the first step on the way to mastery of a new and valuable skill.

I have friends and teachers who have their work in museums but no one I ever met expected that the first time they touched clay it would finish up in one of the world’s great cultural institutions 3000 years down the line. But that’s not the point. What I really liked about that pot was that it didn’t take huge flights of fancy to know that it told the story of a happy child, a kind person (unkind people do not waste clay or time with children or unnecessarily use up space in their kiln) and an ordinary human experience. I have used kick wheels, as did the makers of the amphoras that mostly filled the rest of that gallery’s space and I’m still an effective production thrower. My body carries the same muscle memories as did the men and women who made those objects. I think about that in the long nights when I can’t sleep. Then I remember that their world and their market and their lives were unimaginably different to mine. Not so that little pot’s child maker. Happy children have always been the same and 3000 years apart I guarantee he or she and I, we knew the same happiness and at the risk of going all hippy on you, if that’s not mystical I don’t know what is. As for the woman I was with, I tried to tell her some of this stuff, but I think she thought I was odd and asked if we could go back for part 2 of the handling session. Which we did and I made another mental note not to talk about pots to strangers.