I’ve called this piece ‘Origin Story’ but in truth I have no idea where or how it originated. It exists as a single sheet of typed (on a typewriter, of course) A4 nestled in amongst papers given to me years ago by Jan’s agent, David Higham Associates. But it seems so quintessentially Jan – as craftsperson, philosopher, polymath, citizen, writer, of course; a kind of mission statement, if you like – and I can see these thoughts and sentiments imbued in so many of Jan’s characters.
‘I am. I was. Remember me.’
Jan, we do.
Literacy is the closest that most of us will ever get to telepathy, the exchange of ideas between those who do not meet. This exchange transpires over distance and time. We know the thoughts of the earliest writers. But the urge to communicate predates writing. Perhaps the first mark made by man was a message to himself: ‘I was here. This is the way home,’ but the moment it was made, published, it became a message to anyone else who saw it. ‘X was here. Now I can find him.’ For good or ill, Y became aware of X, of his existence.
At the most primitive level graffiti makes this declaration, ‘I exist’; the felt-tip scribble on a wall, the spray-painted tag on a railway siding; ‘I am my name. I exist.’ The Roman workmen who took time off from building Hadrian’s Wall to cut their names in a quarry face, began a tradition maintained by the local lads 1,900 years later.
Words, Justus hic scripsit, Kilroy was here, Kyle 4 Lauren, leave little leeway in the matter of interpretation; the fascination of the symbol is the implicit challenge to interpret it. The Pictish cup and ring marks of North Britain defy understanding. They are cut into hard rock, not doodled with a sharp point. They were made to endure, the meaning entrusted to the stone. Man has always known that stone outlives him; no one has seen a stone born.
Through centuries, millennia, this trust in stone to convey meaning has been outlasted by the medium. We can make an educated guess at what Justus and Severus were doing on that precipitous Cumbrian hillside, but we share their alphabet. We do not know what the Picts were saying; being prehistoric they were, by definition, preliterate.
Cups and rings are little, intimate thought-bytes. Generally speaking, the larger the message, the less intelligible it has become. Perhaps it was a seaman, newly landed at Gloucester, who cut a mermaid into the south porch of Churchdown church, but who cut, and why, the world’s largest graffiti outside South America into the chalk of Southern England? The Uffington White Horse which, contrary to popular belief is not best seen from the air, the Long Man of Wilmington. ‘He carries two poles,’ cries one enthusiast. ‘He is Colman, surveyor of ley lines.’
The communications system of mediaeval stonemasons has accreted such speculation that an entire global culture of secrecy has evolved from it, but it is no more sinister than the potter’s mark on his synthetic stone, the printer’s colophon, the publisher’s logo. We have no entered an age where incomprehension is becoming preferable to understanding as a more creative form of thought. Science and Enlightenment have not brought us content and joy. The message of symbolic marks tells us something but we do not know what it is and many do not really want to know, preferring the comfort not of ignorance but of unfettered speculation. One fact remains beyond dispute; they were made by human hand, entrusted to the messenger, stone. ‘I am’ becomes ‘I was. Remember me.’