Having a daughter at home and in need of money during the first two weeks of January I had my office redecorated, a long overdue project. Now it has ochre walls and black-painted floorboards to match the furniture I’ve accumulated over the years. With a large sisal mat and some good natural wood shelving from IKEA, it’s very smart, although I say so myself.
It’s taken me another two weeks to put it all back together again, seizing the opportunity to discard as much as I could along the way. Last into place, today, were three objects which for different reasons have stuck firm to me. Now they’re ranged along the top of the bookshelves, peering down on me as I write.
The first is Chicken Soup. He’s a metalwork dragon, bursting out of a catering-sized can which is labeled on the front ‘Genetically modified chicken soup’, and on the back ‘Ingredients: Hieronymous Borscht, St George’s Mushrooms, All the E-Numbers’. His head and front claws have gashed their way through the lid of the can, his ribbed wings have exploded from the sides, and his spear-tipped tail curls up over his back from a rent in the base. He has a long snout, nostrils flared for fire-breathing, and a look in his eye of pure glee at the thought of the havoc he’s going to wreak.
Chicken Soup was made by my first wife’s former boyfriend, a remarkable character called Bob Rowberry, who lives in a van in a wood in Herefordshire and makes sculptures and mobiles from scrap metal, chiefly tin cans and fence wire. Bob is a fine craftsman and a great raconteur. His stories begin with his birth during the Blitz and progress through days of petty crime and the London music scene, to Afghanistan and a flourishing clothing import business in the Sixties and Seventies, to the fairs and music festivals where he makes his living today. He’s resourceful as only someone who lives alone in nature can be, and his knowledge of his surroundings is encyclopaedic. There’s much of Bob in Chicken Soup, which is probably why I like him so much, poised as he is to defy everyone and everything, dealing mischief and chaos along the way.
The second object is a set of brass postal scales, of the sort that sat on hall tables during my childhood. They’re mounted on a polished wooden plinth, ornamented with brass, and the weights nest in a pyramid above the fulcrum, the top, smallest one missing, alas. The rates of postage are etched into the larger of the two balancing trays: 1 oz for 1d, up to 12 oz for 4d. Alongside there’s a lower rate for books, starting at a ha’penny for two ounces, up to thruppence for four – which reminds me that there used to be a separate tariff for printed matter, although I can’t remember why. Whatever the reason, etching the rates in brass suggests an era when no one was expecting the price of a letter to go up in the foreseeable future. I like them for that, and also because they’re a relic of a time when care and craftsmanship could be devoted to something as functional as a set of scales. I like them too because I was born under the sign of Libra.
The last is a tiger. He comes from Malaysia or Indonesia and he’s made of some heavy oriental wood, perhaps even teak. He’s the size of a large loaf of bread. His stripes are scored symmetrically into his sides. Like Chicken Soup’s, his tail curls up over his back, and he wears an expression of almost Buddha-like serenity. I imagine him digesting a particularly tasty jungle pig. He was a present from Sarah who knows I have always been fascinated by tigers since being read a children’s book where two tigers treed a little Indian boy, then chased one another round the base of the tree so fast that they melted into ghee – such stupidity belying the fact that Panthera tigris is the wiliest, not to mention mightiest and noblest of all the Felidae.
As I arranged them, this morning, tiptoeing to reach the top of the bookshelves, it struck me for the first time that they’re more than just favourite objects; they are in fact tutelary spirits. Chicken Soup is my guardian, and he also stands for my imagination – the place where dragons can truly dwell; perhaps he is even the guardian of my imagination. The scales are there for the balance I seek in life, not simply my own personal equilibrium but the even-handedness I strive for in my dealings with the world around me. And the tiger is there for courage, such as mine is; the wish one day to be a true, strong, fearless spirit.
Dragon, scales and tiger. They’re there to protect me by keeping me up to the mark. Who looks after you in the place where you work?