December 30, 2015 § 6 Comments
This Christmas, I was hoping to receive a copy of The White Road by Edmund de Waal. I had been told when it was first published that perhaps I should hold off buying a copy. In the meantime, I came across a couple of reviews, which gave it qualified praise. They put me off slightly, it has to be said, so I put the wish to one side. It didn’t arrive in my stocking nor from under the tree but I was excited to receive The Wrench, and all was good. Opening a present late on the Christmas day, from my partner’s parents, did reveal a copy of The White Road, and I was extremely grateful.
I haven’t put it down since.
I have no idea whether it would appeal to a reader who had no interest in clay or material or process – the general reader. I somehow doubt it, to be honest. It is a very particular book about the discovery of porcelain. I am finding it fascinating, exciting, gripping. It is shedding light on an area I knew little about. But, as always with these things, I suppose, what I am finding most engaging are the passages about pottery itself, making, de Waal’s own making. And the words that penetrate deepest are those resonant of struggle.
“This answers my question of how you make a living when things go so wrong, so often. You work even harder. You make more, and then you make some more.”
“So many thousands and thousands of pots that haven’t worked, each saggar that cracks needing to be made again, each stack of tea bowls that warp another few hours of effort to bank, another part of a day lost.”
This is the life of a workshop. And it’s an odd, counter-cultural place to embed oneself. It is confrontational. It is attritional. It is demanding. It requires resilience. But from where do we acquire resilience? In the middle of the twenty-first century’s second decade, resilience is a precious commodity. There is little encouragement towards tenacity. There are no jobs for life; we flit here and there across social media; wikipedia has all the answers. What do we do when it starts getting hard? How do we stick at it?
In our pick-and-mix culture there are so many things we can choose from. Suck it and see; discard, move on; try another. We live horizontal lives, skimming the surface, bobbing about in the shallows. To get good at something, though – not passably good, not acceptable, but really, really good – one needs to live a vertical life, with depth, persistence, determination.
In this light, there is something assuaging reading de Waal’s book. Resilience doesn’t come from situating oneself in one’s own age but by embracing the arc of ceramic history. Each bowl made stretches back a thousand years and is held by every potter. There is great strength, and comfort, in these linked hands.