On broken things

I’m writing again, the furious first-draft stage of a new novel when it feels as if I’m hacking a path through undergrowth, forcing a way through where there wasn’t one before. I see things differently in writing phases. I see patterns that weren’t there last time I looked, and my daily surroundings and the news seem to be shaping themselves around the new reality in my mind.

Two events made patterns for me today. I walked along the canal with my older son while my partner took the little one to football, which is how our Sunday mornings usually go, and though I can’t see the Grand Union towpath without remembering the years when the South West Coast Path was our daily fare, I’m developing a liking for the canal. I like the way something that was, in the nineteenth century, an eyesore and an insult to the English countryside, has begun to seem natural. I like the sense of the nation’s nerves or veins, because the Grand Union was built and used to move pretty much everything between London and Birmingham for over a hundred years. I’ve always liked footpaths that are going somewhere far away, even if I’m only following them for a few miles before I go home for lunch.

We came upon a group of volunteers dragging rubbish out of the canal, hurling grappling hooks and straining on ropes, gathering to see what would emerge. Distorted supermarket trolleys, mostly, stoved in and wrapped in malodourous black mud. A surprising number of children’s bicycles, some of whose paint was still red and sparkly. Best of all, a motorbike, with a leather jacket still wrapped around its handlebars and a tax disk from 2010 still in its holder. Must have been stolen, my son said, for joy-riding, but we couldn’t see why people would put bikes in the canal. Supermarket trolleys, I suppose, are hard to get rid of once they’ve served their purpose (what purpose?), though I would have thought it would be difficult to get one down to the towpath. We passed the work party and were soon out in what passes in the Midlands for countryside, where there are buds on the hedgerows now and green catkins on the willows. I thought about archaeologists’ interest in middens and rubbish heaps, how what we throw away says more about us than what we keep. I thought about the supermarket trolley in The Road, which has always seemed a heavy-handed piece of symbolism, and about the way we give children bicycles in memory of a time when they were allowed to go out and ride them. I thought that I would find it rather satisfying – though obviously reprehensible and probably criminal – to throw a motorbike into a canal.

Later, setting the table for lunch, my younger son dropped one of my favourite plates, a ‘second’ from the Leach Pottery in St Ives, where we used to call often when we lived in Cornwall. I’ve always liked potters’ ‘seconds’, because you can see the process of making in them. Where something wobbled, where someone was distracted, where the clay just didn’t behave, but on the other hand the glaze came out perfectly and the handle is exactly right. The plates were not completely flat and I liked them that way.

It was an accident. He cried. I took a deep breath, remembered the awfulness of breaking something, the worse awfulness of breaking something that matters to someone who loves you, told him it was all right and hugged him. I told him that potters would much rather people used lovely things and, after a few years, accidentally broke them, than shut them up in boxes and said they were too good for family meals. He was still crying, so I told him about the pot-shards that dominate every archaeological site I’ve ever seen or heard of, representing all those hundreds of generations of people breaking their pots and swearing or crying and feeling sad for a bit before going off to talk to the potter about another one. It doesn’t matter, I said – though it did, a bit – people have been breaking plates since they first made fire. Just think of them all.

It’s the broken things that make patterns. Integrity is a state, not a story.