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How one man made art out of nothingness

AT AROUND HALF past eight on a warm late-summer morning, Rory McCormack trudges across the shingle of Brighton beach. He is a short, solid figure in baggy clothes and walking boots, with a duffel bag on his shoulder. Everything about him is weathered, tanned and worn, but livened with an air of independence. His greying brown hair blows round his face, which is as weathered as a fisherman’s would be. And a fisherman he is, the last still working from the beach in a city that long since gave itself over to pleasure rather than fish. But to folk in Brighton—few of whom have ever seen him—he is the Pebble Sculpture man.

He is making for his compound, a rusty wire-mesh enclosure perhaps 25 metres square, crammed with what seem to be lively stalagmites but are, in fact, tall statues made of stones. On the way he pauses to pick a pebble up. It is something almost everyone does instinctively, drawn by their contours, their colour, or the way they catch the light. But some people do it obsessively, with purpose, in quantity, and he is one. As he says, it’s very hard to stop looking.

Pebbles, as opposed to stones, have certain qualities. They are smoothed by wind or water, and mostly of a size that fits the hollow of the palm of a hand. There are plenty here—614,600,600, pub-quizzers say—graded as the beach descends. The largest, those offering the best grip to the waves, are flung above the high-tide line; the smallest congregate and chorus at the edge of the sand. A shingle beach is a transient thing, edged continually sideways by longshore drift that follows the wind. Each pebble is also a work in progress, from commanding cliff to silt, being to nothingness.

Most beach pebbles, like this specimen, are the size of a new potato. Rory appraises it carefully, then discards it. At the wire gate, barred with several windings of heavily rusted chains, he pauses again to kick away the accumulated shingle that stops it opening. The fascination of pebbles is balanced by the nuisance of them. He loves them and hates them and, either way, they fill his life.

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He opens the gate only as far as is needed to grab a spade. Then he walks back across the shingle to the ridge that marks the drop to the tideline, and starts furiously digging. The ridge, like others along the beach, has been thrown up by exceptional tides and storms; the bigger the storm, the higher the ridge, and the deeper the load of stones that can bury wrecks, foundations of houses or the stumps of ancient forests. The space between each ridge marks an interval of time. It is history itself that Rory is digging through. A passing cyclist watches him in awe. But what he is also doing is restoring the slipway from his compound to the sea, to get his boat out. Covid-19 stopped him fishing, but for a couple of months now he has presumed he can go.

His family came down to Brighton in the 1960s; he took up fishing and got a concrete standing for his boat on the beach. Gradually all the other fishermen died or departed, but he stayed, with his flotsam of gear expanding round him. And, surrounded by pebbles as he was, he began to give them his consideration—or, as he usually puts it, play around with them.

Arranging nothingness

Not many would bother. A shingle beach appears to have no features at all, and to sustain nothing living. The “Observer’s Book of Sea and Seashore” dismisses these beaches as “the nearest approach to a desert our islands can show”. Rory disagrees with that. It may be nothingness but, as he puts it, “Nothingness can be rearranged.” It can grow things, for a start. Just outside his fence there are sizeable clumps of sea-kale and silver ragwort. (Blanched sea-kale stems, according to Richard Mabey, doyen of foraging, are very good with sauce hollandaise.) Inside he has a vegetable bed with more kale, sea-beet and horseradish. He admits that he has cheated here, importing some topsoil from municipal flower-beds to help. But he didn’t have to, for the long taproots of these plants can reach three feet or more through the shingle to fresh water. And a mulch of seaweed, as much as you can get, will do instead of soil. There are places right out on the Kemp Town shingle, the deepest part of Brighton beach, where dandelions grow. He knows some spots, towards Hove, where there are wild tomatoes. The desert can flower.

Is it good for anything else? At first, he thought he might build a house. He had done dry-stone walling for a spell. Primitive coal, full of sulphur, stinking as it burns, is sometimes brought in on the tide; he could mix coal-ash, sand and chalk together to make mortar. Most of the pebbles are rugged, durable nodules of flint washed out of the local chalk cliffs. But they are still too slippery and smooth for house-building. Plenty were incorporated, with other rubbishy ingredients, into the speculative Regency builds that became the grand terraces of Kemp Town; this blend, called “bungaroosh”, was so unstable that much of Brighton, it is said, could be demolished with a well-aimed hose.

A pebble house, then, was not a good idea. Even his pebble sculptures seemed unfeasible at first, just an insecure mound of stones. But once he had cracked the flints open with a hammer, to get a flat face with more angular edges, he could build an outside frame and pack it with pebbles into big, durable shapes. He began about eight years ago, in a bad winter, by making a simple workbench to clean his fish on. Then he thought he might make it prettier with pebbles of different sorts. And so the enterprise has gone on, and on.

His compound is now crammed as tightly as it can be with sculptures of every size and shape. Monumental figures of flint and brick pebbles alternate with smaller, friskier humanoids who dance among them. He has to turn sideways in places, ducking under a heavily decorated arch and along a pathway of flints inlaid with medallions of seagulls. Flint is naturally the dominant theme, ranging through black, blue and grey; red brick comes next; but then everything is picked out with the other hues the beach has to offer. Shingle seems merely brown from a distance, or at best an array of pointillist browns and greys. But Rory knows where to get pure yellows, purples, greens (and, for whites, the ubiquitous stone-like shells of slipper-limpets). He has found mysterious chunks of pink marble, stones with crystal in them, and a greenish flint that looks like obsidian. Anything you want, he says, is just sitting there waiting.

In Victorian times collectors combed this beach, looking for—and finding—amethyst, chalcedony, carnelian, jasper and onyx. A national craze began as they broke these semi-precious stones open with small hammers, polished them and put them in cabinets to display. The Bible of pebble-picking, Clarence Ellis’s “The Pebbles on the Beach” of 1954, was reissued in 2018 as if, with the growth of green consciousness, the pastime might be fashionable again. But Ellis already expected to find nothing of great interest left in Brighton. The Crystal Shop in the city’s North Laine, round which the smell of joss-sticks lingers thick, sells azurite from Morocco and amethyst from Brazil, but advertises nothing local. When local pebbles find their way to the city’s boutiques they have been strangely denatured, painted with flowers and birds, or mounted in a collage as the bodies of dogs and cats. Rory has no time for this “jewellery”. He likes them as they are.

Besides, his inspiration is quite different. It is ancient civilisations, figures from the distant past: figures, in other words, as ancient as the pebbles are. Most of his statues are modelled on figurines from the Bronze Age, sometimes from the Stone Age, and scaled up. To these he has added gods and goddesses from pre-Classical Greece, with excursions into the Incas, the Sumerians and the Egyptians. He never learned any of this at school, which he left at 16 to fish; but between his trips to get bass, mackerel or spider crabs he has read deeply in these subjects. His towering Pan-pipe player, ten feet tall, is a Cycladic figure of the Bronze Age. The Venus of Willendorf looms along the path, her ample backside supported by a bone-chewing dog. A Cycladic harpist plays by the fence, and beside his rickety shed a Sumerian goddess cradles her child. From the midst of the figures a stone seagull peers out, a portrait of a persistent friend. He is wearing the double crown of Horus, the Egyptian falcon-god.

For Rory these close-packed gods seem alive. If he deviates just a bit in his copying of their forms, they lose their power. Seen by the light of a full moon, especially, he finds “an air of mystique” about them. He is not inclined to get much more philosophical than that. The idea that a pebble with a hole through it represents the Buddhist idea of sunyata, the emptiness from which anything may come, earns only a grunt. He would not keep a pebble on his desk, as some folk do, to represent stillness or silence or the near-infinite compression of vast time. For him a pebble has to have a practical, if artistic, use. But he likes the thought that in cave-tombs collections of pebbles that look like faces, horses or hearts are often buried with the dead, because that is how modern humans sort them, too.

Now, however, he has work to do before the beach gets fuller. In an average year as many as 11m people pour onto it. The shingle does not put them off. Many, indeed, prefer it to sand: less intrusive, and (though painful to feet) quickly moulding to the form of a reclining body. People spend hours on it, losing things more easily than they lose them on sand, leaving treasure for the detectorists who swing slowly over in the mornings. What they leave behind—spoons, earrings, rope, broken toys—works its way into Rory’s statues, too. As the trippers sit and chat, their hands instinctively find pebbles, caress them, knead them, and ultimately throw them—as if the only use of pebbles is to hit a target, and occasionally to fell giants.

Marking time, stone by stone

Rory sometimes thinks even less of them. They make a rotten beach to fish from, wearing out the bottom of his boat and obstructing its passage. He thinks ruefully of tractors, even oxen, that do the job on other shores. Much of his dogged digging today seems to have gone for naught; his slipway is almost obliterated already by the ever-shifting stones. But there is a shapely, appreciable dip in the ridge. So, fetching from a rusty biscuit box the key to a separate section of his compound, he hauls his boat out.

It is battered, but a beauty: an aluminium rowing boat with a brown hull and a bright blue, red and yellow trim, big enough for one man only or two at a squeeze. Inside, it’s a bit of a mess of gear and needs a bail-out. But outside he has painted it with scenes from Greek history and mythology, black figures on red, just as they appear on ancient vases. Again he found his references in books, especially Jane Ellen Harrison’s “Prolegomena to Greek Religion” (1908), which he picked up second-hand in Hove. The siege of Troy is his principal theme. The hull dances with warriors in crested helmets, hunters, Harpies with their bird-bodies and women’s heads, wrestlers and lovers. On the starboard side Priam’s daughter is sacrificed to the flames; snake-haired Medusa glares from the prow, and on the stern is the motto “IEXYE” (Be Strong): the prayer, he says, of an early Christian martyr as he was thrown to the lions. He goes back now to fetch a great weight of ropes and five-foot lengths of plastic pipe, and walks off towards the sea. The burden unspools: an extra slipway, joined with ropes, to make a boat-path across the shingle. Again comes the sense of the nuisance of all those pebbles, the inhospitable place. The ropes tangle; painstakingly he unknots them. Then, when all is straight, he walks down the line applying grease to every pipe, to make the journey smoother. Only then will the shingle let him pass.

Like his erstwhile colleagues, he could go off to the marina at the eastern end of town, to a berth by a quay in a maze of modern apartments. It doesn’t appeal. The fishing boats seem to be barely tolerated there, crammed in the farthest corner where their pungent, shabby presence will not offend the bronzed weekenders on their yachts. The nets are spread neatly, the crab-pots stacked, the ropes properly coiled. His compound, by contrast, celebrates serendipity and sprawl; and he can find anything if he needs to.

Besides, he needs to stay close to guard it. After 15 years of the wire enclosure standing, with perhaps 2,500 beach patrols passing nonchalantly by, the City Council in 2015 ordered him to take it down, because it had been built without consent. As for the sculptures inside it, those too had to be cleared away as a hazard to health and safety. Then things went quiet, and he clung on. Because he is on the static section of the beach, above the high-tide line, he is gloomily aware that he is perching on a big bit of real estate which the council, at any point, might sell. But he hopes, because it is “very unpredictable”, that it will forget about him.

After all, the shingle causes far bigger headaches. Every year, obedient to the west-east drag of the English Channel, thousands of tonnes of it are worn away from Shoreham Port, six miles west along the coast, and deposited at Kemp Town, at the eastern extremity of the beach by the Western Breakwater. For decades every spring and autumn have seen the ceremony of “recycling and bypassing”, when—at a cost of around £1m a year—about 10,000 cubic metres of pebbles are scooped from the east and dumped in the west. For around two weeks, loaded lorries drive past Rory’s compound and rattle, emptied, back again. Since Shoreham’s beach is steadily eroding, and Kemp Town’s increasing, there is no reason why this Sisyphean task should ever end; unless either the sea, or the shingle, simply rises to overwhelm everything.

The boat is by the shore. Its prow is in the waves, and he is knocking away with an oar the last pebbles that obstruct it. It will be the only rowing boat among the trawlers, about a mile out, which have already started fishing. But he is in no rush.

He heaves the nets in, then the fish-boxes, then the oars. Next he pulls on waterproof trousers and an orange life-jacket. Then he loops the prow-rope round his shoulders and, like a human ox, pulls the boat farther into the sea. A final push or two from the stern, and he can jump in and start rowing.

His route takes him across the tide, which is unusually flowing east-west today; but the surface is completely calm. He pulls strongly, the boat’s only motor, and is soon almost lost to view. A small boat, small as a pebble, in the huge blue sea.

This article appeared in the Christmas Specials section of the print edition under the headline "A universe of stones"

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Author: | Post link: https://www.economist.com/christmas-specials/2020/12/19/how-one-man-made-art-out-of-nothingness
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