Tuesday, 5 May 2009

Lucky stones

Four hundred and some years after the Reformation, the religious function of icons and relics is a distant and slightly queasy memory in England. The Tudors swept the whole paraphernalia of folksy religiosity into a bin labelled "Papist Nonsense", the lid of which was banged down firmly by the business-minded puritans of the Revolution (and then sat on by the puritanically-minded businessmen of the Industrial Revolution). The kissing of bones is now about as un-English as you can get, though some (like Ted Hughes) have alleged that we have been mourning the loss of Merry Old England ever since. Possibly; certainly, a few more public holidays would not go amiss.

Relics of the personal life are still sought after by some, however. Locks of Nelson's hair are popular, for some bizarre reason, and no visit to a stately home is complete without admiring the glass-topped cabinet of random curiosities (a shrivelled orange possessed but not eaten by Florence Nightingale sticks in my mind). Encounters with manuscripts can be seductive ("Behold the actual ink from the actual pen on the actual paper touched by yer actual Shakespeare!"): archivists have to be on the lookout for historians of impeccable credentials who might succumb to a sudden urge to get physical with a piece of vellum.

Personally, I have formed strong iconic bonds with certain bits of rock. Fossils, especially. The glaciers that ground across England came through the high chalk valley where I grew up, and dislodged flinty treasures into the soil. I made a collection, mainly sea urchins (known locally as shepherd's crowns and fairy loaves) and shells, particularly those gnarly ashtrays called Devil's toenails. One day, walking through the copse behind our house, I kicked a stone and it rolled over to reveal a fossil cockle shell, half revealed and half concealed. It was a text-book example: literally so, as it was precisely like the illustration in my book of fossils. I had rolled the dice and come up with two sixes, the sort of luck you can take for granted when you're nine years old. I still have it, forty five years later, though I no longer take any sort of luck for granted.

My father had a stone, too. It's a quartzite pebble, about the size and weight of a billiard ball, mottled with rusty reds and livid (blueish!) veins. It lived in our sideboard drawer, and always reminded me of the backs of his hands, in which slate-blue stone chippings were still milkily embedded from a war-time motorbike tumble in Egypt. The pebble was a war souvenir, too. One day in 1941, he had an encounter driving a lone truck as a Despatch Rider in the Western Desert. Here it is as he told it:
A few days later I was approaching a slope which was the only way up an escarpment which rose sheer from the desert, a few burnt-out vehicles scattered around should have warned me to keep a sharp look-out, but as I got close to the slope a Gerry fighter-plane buzzed me. I went into the Drill, hand brake on, ignition off and a running jump out and as much space as possible between me and the truck. The plane returned a few times and gave a few short bursts, but did no damage. I was tucked into the corner of the escarpment and as he came by I got off some shots with my revolver, till it was empty, he came back again and I was so angry that I picked up a stone to throw, but he turned and banked away and disappeared. For some reason I must have tucked the stone into my pocket, and later decided to keep it, which I have to this day. Much later I wondered how a polished stone shaped rather like a small hen's egg came to be in an area where everything was very hard and like slate (very difficult to dig through in a hurry, there were a few inches of sand on the surface, but underneath was a layer of hard packed shale, sometimes a pick would just rebound off it!). Near to this spot I found two graves with crosses and British steel helmets, they were two Hussars, I assume from a tank unit. The graves were well made and had large stones round the edges, with a note in German on each cross, so I assume that the Germans had carried out the burial.
I don't think anyone would have characterised my Dad's post-war life as lucky, though he was easy-going enough (and perhaps wise enough) to disagree. I doubt the stone acted as anything but a reminder. Which is why it was pretty much the only object I had to make absolutely sure that I rescued from his few residual belongings when he died last year.

The caption on the back of this photo, in my father's writing, reads "Convoy, Pyramids in back, That's me waving". I have always found this a picture of pure exhilaration: when I was small, I could imagine that my Dad could see me, and was waving to me. Somehow, knowing so much more now about the truth and the magic of photography, I can believe that again.


Mauro Thon Giudici said...

thanks for the comment on my blog. I left a quick reply today.

But to the the point. There is an interesting connection between relics and kitchen gardens (not sure that is the right term for the first picture). My father, a blue collar, used to collect everything, plastic to metal, he thought one day could be of any use. A lot of those, hard to call them proper relics, got their use in the garden in a creative but oddly looking way.

It seems that we share an interest for busy gardens. I


Anonymous said...

Well dressing still goes on in Northumberland, and the celtic fringe have their clootie wells. Banging pennies into trees for luck isn't as widespread as it once was, but I've come across it in Yorkshire and Hants.

One phenomenon I have photographed here in Sweden is the 'nappträd': a tree on which children hang all their dummies (pacifiers for US readers) when the decide to give them up. The combination of a public ceremony and getting them out of the house discourages backsliding. The visual effect can be somewhat disturbing, especially on a dank misty winter's day when the dummies are the only colour in sight.

I collect pebbles. Can't stop myself. Living and holidaying in areas rich in moraines helps, but anything pretty will do.


Mike C. said...

I'd like to see those "nappträd" pictures, Struan. It's something I, too, am fascinated by (again!). We once encountered a little copse behind a church in Northern Spain which was hung with wax-moulded effigies of various body parts, lit by flickering candles. It was before I discovered photography, so I only have the (unsettling) memory, like something encountered in a dream.

Something which has started here in Britain in recent years is the creation of little roadside shrines to road accident fatalities, and also the deposited of flowers and gifts (by complete strangers) outside the homes or schools of children killed by abuse or news-worthy accident. Perhaps Ted Hughes was right...

C. said...


I am doing research for an article about lucky stones that will go into a textbook for English-as-a-second-language students in Taiwan. Lo, and behold, here you are with your wonderfully worded quips about your life. I have been intrigued reading them, and I love the picture of your dad waving. I've been reading a lot about my dad who was in the CBI during WWII, and I have photos of him that I also hold dear. His were mostly taken on the Burma Road.

I will use some of my thoughts about finding a stone that has a fossil in it and stones that are precious because they belonged to a loving parent in my article. So, in a way, some of your spirit and others who have had similar experiences will be sealed in time.

I wish I could see your photo exhibition in Austria. Are you there with them now? Maybe one day I will travel, but till then I am in central Florida writing by the open windows on a very warm night while a very loud train zooms by and tries to lure my attention to it.

Cheers, and good luck with or without lucky stones. :-)