By this time next week I have to have written a very short piece about an object in the British Galleries at the V&A. It’s another project organised by the indefatigable ideas wallahs at 26, the national organisation that champions a more inspiring use of language at work (so named for the alphabet, the DNA of language).
26 Treasures is a collaboration with the V&A and it’s designed to explore new, perhaps more creative and less literal, avenues of interpretation. Like all 26 projects it pairs writers with subjects, in this case items in the collection; and like all such projects it involves a constraint, which this time is an inversion of 26 itself – 62 words.
These constraints are a useful device. They concentrate the mind and the vocabulary wonderfully; very often they end up forcing the words into some kind of poetic form; and they make for short, sharp writing projects that seem manageable to even the busiest writers.
Yesterday I went to the V&A to look at my object. It’s a rather unusual document case, made in London in 1682, to hold the royal patent granted by Charles II to the first Earl of Abingdon. What makes it unusual, though, is not so much the contents as the shape. An ordinary vellum scroll would need a long thin box, but this one happens to be attached to a royal seal the size of a large saucer, so halfway down the thin, almost metre-long box is a large-saucer-shaped bulge.
The starting point for almost everything I write is the emergence of a voice of some sort. I need to hear the words being spoken by someone. In this case, standing before the glass case in the gallery, I hardly had time to wonder whether it would be the owner, the maker or the object itself before I heard this: ‘Oh no! Not another bleedin’ patent box. These things are an absolute bastard to make.’ It’s true, it must have been a hideously awkward thing to construct, all the nice easy rectilinear proportions sabotaged by the circular excrescence.
Whoever the maker was – and history doesn’t relate – I don’t imagine him sharing much in the earl’s delight at his own recent ennoblement. That said, there would surely still have been a craftsman’s satisfaction in completing such a solemn, if strange-looking, object with its fine covering of tooled Moroccan leather, hand-blocked paper lining and shiny brass lock. The story continues to unfold. More next week…