"The most important tool of all – the eye, which once sharpened never blunts."
Andrew Ziminski discovered while still at school that he was fascinated by "the material aspects of the past, the tangible remnants". He became a stonemason, specifically a fixer mason, who mends and conserves existing works, and he has for the past thirty years worked on buildings and monuments from the Neolithic to the Industrial Revolution and all points in between. In this book, subtitled "A History of Building Britain", he describes working on sarsen stones at Avebury, buildings in Bath, both in Roman and Georgian times, various cathedrals and small churches, bridges and canals.
He is fascinating on the technicalities of his craft (and the book has a glossary of the technical terms, which will come in useful when you find you've forgotten what a volute is; it's a scroll at the top of a column) but he is continually seeing beyond the how to the why: not just how the building was constructed but to what end, how did it fit into its landscape and time. One of his minor eccentricities is to travel to jobs by canoe when he can, because it enables him to see how the original stone was transported, and he also often beds down in a sleeping bag at the workplace, a practice that brings him into contact with some interesting strata of society and at one point provides a poignant historical parallel. Working on a Devizes church, he worries about the effect the local down-and-outs have on the monuments in the churchyard:
"With their giros cashed they would get their act together and have a grand cook-up. […] My admiration of their resilience and ingenuity turned to unease when I noticed the searing heat of their tin tray barbecues focused on the ledger slab of a Georgian box tomb. […] In St Mary's graveyard on the other side of town, a stone table easily mistaken for a box tomb leans at an alarming angle. It is in fact a mediaeval alms table for the distribution of dole – bread and ale to the needy. One of the side panels had fallen and contained a reminder that these people were perhaps the authentic residents of the place. The space inside had been used as a bin and stuffed with dozens of plastic cider bottles. […] I reflected that these unfortunates had the same tales to tell, ruined by circumstance and by austerity".
It is characteristic that he does not get indignant about this (mis)use of what he spends his life conserving, as he does about a ham-fisted piece of restoration in the Royal Crescent, Bath.
"Some time after we had repaired the volutes, a youth was let loose with a bucket of wet mortar. Go and see this work that was signed off by some administrator – it will have its photo taken by every one of the millions of visitors who come here every year. I wonder how many will puzzle over why the finely cut joints, so thin that a cigarette paper would not fit between them, had been smeared to a width of three inches over the interface between every stone. It is as though a chimpanzee had been let loose on Audrey Hepburn's face with a lipstick, in the dark."
Ziminski is that eternally absorbing creature, a man who knows a particular craft inside out and can communicate his enthusiasm for it. It helps that he is also a lively and engaging writer. He is, by the by, the son of one of those Polish gentlemen who came over to fight World War 2 and then stayed to work. He is also steeped in the history of these islands, which he does so much to conserve, and about which he is infinitely more knowledgeable than any racist ignoramus. I found his book both entertaining and informing, aided by helpful maps and rather beautiful line-drawing illustrations.