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Constructive thoughts

It's a while since I've mixed sand and cement, though now, with this new home of ours to turn upside down -- fireplaces to pull out and reconstruct, old stairs that lead nowhere to demolish, new ones to put together, pitch pine floors to sand and seal, walls to break through with entrances, will surfaces to patch up and scrape down and paint over, baths and taps and sinks and basins and kitchen units and wires and boilers lying about all over the place ready for (professional installation), I plunged headlong into that stimulating world of building materials, that world of good, sound, basic, raw things -- at least, that's what I say in my euphoria.

I was thinking, a couple of days ago as I sat waiting for a man to return from his lunch break and sell us some secondhand, dressed sandstone for the sides and top of the new fireplace, how very much at home I felt in a builder's yard. I wonder if this is because "home" has, by reversal, been at times very much likem a builder's yard? I have, anyway, had a long affection (aware that there are those who will think this eccentric) for all tose jumbled heaps of bricks, gravel and grit of different textures and hues, stacks of red-clay drainpipes, plastic sacks sitting everywhere like complacent and paunchy toby jugs, chimney pots lined up like soldiers, scaffolding and timber in every conceivable dimension: the list is endless, the haphazardness glorious. There is something natural about all these things, though most are man-made or shaped by man. They're for building -- one of our most primitively basic activities -- and the essence of building has changed little over the centuries. There is really no way in which these items can be titivated and prettified to make them more attractive to buyers, and what would be the point?

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A window display of putty and chimney flues and universal joints would seem, on Fifth Avenue, New York, or Princes Street, Edinburgh, about as unlikely as a cow in the Tuileries Gardens. But walk only a few streets away from the Scottish capital's shopping centre and you will come across what is, to my sensibility, the most marvellous shop window. It's on a bending hill descending to the Grass Market; the window is a brushmaker's. His goods are on show, but with a nonchalance that moments to genius. Brushes you never dreamed of are all crammed into the available space, in this bristle-house, this veritable hedgehoggery, crammed into the available space, in this bristle-house, this veritable hedgehoggery, this porcupinery. And then, as if this show of wares (it is emphatically not a "display") were not enough, string and twine in large balls are thrown in for good measure, along with a number of large parcels wrapped up in brown paper with numbers on them. What these last contain is entirely a secret, which doubles the curiosity.

This brush shop is my idea of a shop. It sells a particular, specialist item , and it lets its prospective customers see this item in all its multiple variety without glossy persuasion, without flattering lights and art school brilliance. Brushes are basic, the raw material and tools of the cleaning up process . . .

. . . Which (don't ask quite how) brings me back to sand-and-cement. It's fun to be back on this mucky game again. What in the world could be more satisfying than the puddling of the dry into the wet, the turning and chopping of the amalgam until it reaches justm the right consistency, followed by the employment of this marvellous substance to construct and build up?

I suppose it's all literally childish, like making sand castles on the beach, but adulthood steals too many delights we don't willingly relinquish. And this one serves a useful purpose -- or is that just my excuse?

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