I was going to use the first bit of that quotation:
“Finality is death. Perfection is finality.”
but I thought it was a bit depressing.
It comes from, ‘The Crock of Gold’, written in 1912 by Irish poet, novelist and short-story writer, James Stephens. I admit, I don’t know his work at all. I found it in a dictionary of quotations when looking for something to express my views on perfection.
Nothing really did.
I could have said, perfection is dull. Or, perfection is unattainable. Or, perfection is worth pursuing as long as you know you won’t get there. But I wanted something – perfect.
I was thinking about this recently when we went to visit a potter in north Wales.
We like pots. We have some fine examples of what is known as ‘studio pottery’. And lots of handmade plates and bowls, cups and saucers, jugs and mugs – vast quantities of mugs.
We’re mugs for mugs.
Some of my favourite pots, though, are ones that tried but failed.
Or did they? Is it all a bit subjective, this perfection thing?
Long ago (the 1990s) and far away – 300 miles down south, in Devon – we went to visit another potter, David Leach.
He was suffering from an affliction that, mercifully for him, was not permanent.
He had no feeling in his hands.
David Leach, son of that grand old man of British Studio Pottery, Bernard Leach, was then nearer to his ninetieth year than his eightieth. A lovely, unassuming, quiet man. At least, in our brief encounter he was – he might’ve been suppressing a rage that only surfaced at parties, but I doubt it.
He showed us his big, plain potter’s hands. Showed us his pale palms. His blunt, solid, digits and thumbs. Unable to feel the clay forming shapes beneath them.
Plainly unhappy and struggling to come to terms with it, he was hoping it would become better, one day. Worrying about the outcome an operation might have.
We looked at his pots and fell in love with a bowl with a celadon glaze – a beautiful, pale jade green (created by firing with a glaze containing iron).
Of course we bought it, at an ‘ouch’ of a price. David Leach’s work was by then commanding very high prices.
We felt like we’d bought a bit of the man himself. A deeply personal diary entry, written in a celadon bowl.
A piece that spoke of the man nearing his ninetieth year, whose expertise was oh-so-close to perfection, but betrayed by his own body. His oh-so-experienced hands.
Later, we received an invitation in the post to a viewing in a gallery in London – but we couldn’t go.
And now Mr Leach is himself long gone.
Oldrich Asenbryl, however, remains. In north Wales. Which is where we went to see him just the other day.
In 1968 Oldrich came to Britain from Czechoslovakia.
1968. The year of the Prague Spring – and the Russian invasion that quashed it.
One of the effects of the liberalisation early in that year was more freedom for people to travel.
People like Oldrich.
He was here when the Russians marched in – and has been here ever since.
For two years he worked in Aldermaston pottery (under well-known potter Alan Caiger-Smith), then set up on his own in Wiltshire before moving, in 1973, to Wales.
So far so good.
But then, in 1993, calamity.
A stroke deprived him of movement in his left arm.
His affliction is, barring miracles, permanent. He’s 72 now. Still a potter, with one fully-functioning arm.
Just imagine it.
Throwing a great slab of clay, plonking it on the wheel and bringing it up to create a thing of use or beauty. Or, preferably, both, fully satisfying William Morris:
‘Have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful, or believe to be beautiful.’
How could anyone make beautiful, useful pots with only one working arm?
It’s a mystery.
When we arrive he’s sitting in a deck chair in the rare north Wales sunshine.
I notice that the sign, ‘Parking for Czechs only’ is gone from the window. But don’t know what that absence portends.
The man’s struggle to rise has us worried, but not for long. Deck chairs are notoriously difficult to escape, even with two working arms.
Soon he’s on top form. Quipping . Relating stories. Telling us to look around then stopping us by telling another story. Like a dentist asking you questions mid-filling. Remembering us – well, remembering the man, but mis-remembering me.
I tell myself he’s confusing me with a rich woman, from a famous family, who used to buy his seconds. Though she also used to be a ballet dancer, so it’s rather unlikely.
Outside, we admire the bright new paint job. Inside the lighter, airier displays.
Then he points to the cuttings on the wall. The pictures of the aftermath of the fire. The fire that could have killed him had he and his grandchildren not been out for the night.
The fire that destroyed all his stock – except for his ‘insurance policies’ in a separate building.
Will he make more pots. I ask?
A grimace is his reply. He hasn’t worked for ages.
Is this the end, I wonder? (To myself.)
Then he shrugs.
Seems the kiln’s broken, has been for months. He’s in a queue. It’s a rare thing, the skill needed to mend his kiln.
I shouldn’t be surprised at this man.
This man who puts his faith in God. Who decorates his shop with handwritten extracts from the Bible.
Who despite a stroke can make beautiful, wonky pots with his one good arm.
This man perseveres. Or as ‘The Dude’ – The Big Lebowski – might say, abides.
Even if he’s ‘humbled’, as his handwritten sign proclaims.
Or, ‘humbeled’, actually.
Which proves perfection’s unnecessary.
We know exactly what he means.