|The Temple Bell - image from the Royal Literary Fund|
The essayist Chris Arthur has made a short film on the creative potential of talismans, reflecting on the inspiration he takes from objects he's gathered around him. Chris is surely one of our finest writers in his genre. Two years ago I reviewed his Words of the Grey Wind on this blog and was delighted when he stumbled across it, replying with a comment and later corresponding more fully.
In the film, Chris tells the story a of a temple bell he bought from a junk shop and has since returned to its monastery in Japan. His study, he explains, is littered with other serendipitous finds: a Thai statuette, a vulture's egg, the fossilised ear of whale... many of which I recognised from their 'appearing' in his books. The returning of the bell is typical of the passage his essays take, following branches that twist and fork ever finer, but always connected to their root.
It's as if his talismans are each seed to a tree.
And just as saplings take nourishment from soil and sun, his essays do something similar, bridging from the present to the past, feeding on the couplings and coincidences that shape so much of our lives. He describes his talismans as portals into the mazes of connection, meaning and memory which fascinate him. The dictionary's definition of 'lucky charm' is more succinct but no less fortuitous or temporal in its quality.
On the subject of which, I'm slightly awed by the beauty of the objects we see on his desk. Each seems so perfect: aesthetically pleasing, steeped in possibility; as attractively tactile as they are cerebrally intriguing. His elegant selection brings to mind the diary of a former colleague who had almost calligraphic handwriting, and whose order and precision I wanted so much to copy - but somehow never could. My own study, like my notebooks, is more jumble sale than museum; I spend hours tidying its detritus into drawers.
But I have my talismans of sorts: clay models made by my children; a kitsch Loch Ness monster; a set of scissors from a Christmas stocking ... On this blog I've written often about my collections too; outside my study is a wall of beautiful raku pots, opposite sits a cabinet of silkmoths. Although now I think about it, none of these items is in my sight when I write.
Does that matter? I think not - for we must each find our way.
And that notion of finding seems important in this context. The idea that we can map a defined route for our words - or indeed for our lives - is surely an illusion, and were we to try, it would most likely lead to a dead - or dreary - end. Better that we trust our instincts, following the twists of fate and fortune that shape all that's around us: the people we meet, the walks we discover; the luck that's washed up by the tide.
Which diverts me - as if by apposite example - to a day in my childhood, when we found a lost cargo of beeswax on the sands. My mother carved a piece into a horse's head, like the knight from a chess set. I wish I had that model now - what a talisman it would be; what mazes of memory and connection might it weave? We made candles too I recall, and they spattered when aflame, my father angering at the mess we'd made.. playing with fire...
Perhaps not all Talismans are lucky.
Nor it seems to me are they the same as mementoes. In his book, The Wild Places, Robert Mcfarlane describes a number of his journeys, returning after each with a feather, a stone... some object to remind him of his travels. I have similar keepsakes too, and photographs and sketches and flowers pressed into notebooks... But these souvenirs look back not forward; they are more prompts to memory than paths to destinations unknown,
Which is what Chris's essays do so well. Like Chestnuts (from On the Shoreline of Knowledge) which tells the story - or rather stories - that followed from his finding of a conker-like seedpod (actually a sea heart Entada gigas) in the pocket of his late mother's coat. From this talismanic prompt, he takes us on the most intricate and beautiful of journeys, crossing continents, spanning generations - weaving intricate thought threads that layer memory with time, place and possibility.
It is breathtakingly good.
The surprise and uncertainty in the patterns of life is a signature theme of Arthur's writing. So too is the interconnection between us all, all things, and all-time - concerns that seem especially apposite at present. When the first lockdown began I bought three volumes of his essays. Reading them has helped me through this doldrums of a year, reminding me 'this too will pass,' even when that future seemed an all too distant prospect.
Watching the Temple Bell this week was a shot in the arm - and a sort of talisman by proxy, reminding me always to find ways of looking anew. Today we walked a cobbled road that follows a holloway down the hills near my home - I've never set foot there before. How old was it we wondered: was it constructed for the canal? Turns out it was built by the Romans - a passage of 2,000 years - what legion of tales might that tell?
The opening of Chestnuts can be read on Chris's website