The train ride from Gatwick to London has little to interest most tourists until red double-deckers glide over Chelsea Bridge. But the band of French visitors on my train were enchanted by Clapham Junction. “Look at those roofs!” they cried. “Look at those bricks!” And the lowly, sooty Victorian terraces of sw11 suddenly glowed in a kinder light.
Bricks are easy to overlook in London, so numerous that they can become mere texture or colour in the streets, like tarmac. When Gustav Doré, another French visitor, made engravings of the city in the 19th century, bricks were as glowering and elemental as rain or fog. A cartoon from that time showed London’s spread northwards as an army of laden hods under great storm-clouds of bricks, preparing to fall on the pleasant fields of Islington and Finchley.
Bricks are uniform even when hand-made: the ratio of width to length, headers laid sideways to stretchers laid longways, is near enough one to two, with variance for mortar. Yet each of those flying cartoon bricks was also an individual, carrying the stamp of its maker neatly at the centre, as its ancestors did in ancient China or Rome. There the makers were poor men, often slaves, who nonetheless marked their creations, just as the God of Genesis apparently left his breath-mark on Adam, father of multitudes, moulded from the dust of the earth.
Even factory bricks are stamped with the character of their particular piece of ground. Many stay as doggedly local as cheese or beer, wearing patina instead of flavour. On building sites in small towns in India brickmakers labour beside the fields that have supplied them, bricks and ground both drying to the same colour under the sun, with the same identifying smell.
An old brick wall may contain several such identities. Near the British Museum in London, the sides of some late-Georgian buildings boast red, black, grey and yellow bricks in no order, as if they have grown organically – London stock with new patchings and old soot. In the front wall of my cousins’ house in Kent sit bricks weathered to pale red, some coined with gold lichen and some dove-grey, where an ancient Albertine rose has straggled and been taken down. Other bricks have faded to the pink of the rose itself.
This house also shows the short cuts the bricklayers took: best slabs for the front elevation, lower-grade for the sides where the apprentices worked; clever use of half-bond and quarter-bond to let the walls flex on marshy ground, but careless use of short “snapped” headers that have now made internal and external walls bulge away from each other. Brick buildings always evoke for me the shadow-communities that worked on them: each brick, the width of the stretched span from thumb to index finger, summoning up the hands that laid them.
Poets rarely talk of bricks; they, and the Bible, prefer the heft of stones. Stones need no mortar to build aqueducts and temples. Their hue can be stately and their scale large. Bricks used for churches or castles can seem garish and surprising, like a brash chord in a quiet piece. But with their humble repeating rhythm, they are surely more like the musical lines people hum as they work.•