Thursday, 1 March 2012

Recollections of Inspiration: A Tribute to Tony Blackman

We all have people who have been influential in the way we’ve developed.  This is especially true of writers—or perhaps it’s just more obvious.  A budding writer who grows up reading a particular author will generally attempt to imitate their idol’s style, at least in the beginning.  This post is a tribute to a man who was a great influence on my life and my writing.  His name was Tony Blackman, and he was an archaeologist from Cornwall in the UK, whom I met when I was thirteen years of age …

In July 2000, my family travelled to the UK to visit my Dad’s parents and brother in Wales, and his sister in Cornwall.  While looking for things to keep my brother, my sister, and me entertained, my parents happened to notice an advert for a hands-on history day at a farm on the Bodmin moor.  So, they packed me and my two younger siblings into our rental car, and off we went. 

The dirt road was so rutted that all three of us kids soon became horribly car sick, and Mom and Dad repeatedly checked the map against the directions in the advert.  We were close to giving up and turning around when, at last, we came over a rise, and there it was: a recreated Bronze Age village, consisting of two thatched round houses, a loom, a flint-napping area and a potter’s stone. 

Seeing my white cane, the organizer of the event (Tony) hurried over.  He said “I’ve got a group of blind Germans coming on Wednesday; can I practice with your daughter?” and that was that.  I was allowed to touch the thatch, clay pottery, a deerskin tunic with bone toggles, and a 2000 year old arrow head.  I was taught to make pinch-pots, crouching on a cold stone slab (I still have the resulting pot tucked away in a cupboard, safely wrapped in tissue paper), and sat for a while watching the flint knapper make arrow heads (I still have the two he gave me).  Finally, just before we left, Tony took me aside and sat down with me on the remains of an original round house.  All that was left was a foot-high stone wall, with a gap where the door would have been. 

There, he spoke of the family that had lived in that place—of the mother who had worn her hip and shoulder bones smooth with years of grinding grain, of the children, helping gather food and tend animals, and the father, going out to hunt.  They led a normal life; there was nothing special about them, but the way in which Tony spoke brought me nearly to tears.  We exchanged email addresses and have been in touch ever since. 

I returned to the UK in my early twenties with my dad, and we arranged to meet up with Tony.  He met us in town and drove up onto the moor with Dad riding shotgun and me in the backseat with his bearded collie, Harry.  While Dad played fetch with the dog, Tony showed me a number of interesting sites.  Usually, he began with “hop up on this mound,” or “Let’s walk the length of this ridge.”  Those remarks would usually be followed by, “That’s a Bronze Age burial mound.” or “That’s a stone-age long barrow.”  From there, we returned to the site of the recreated village, where he taught me to use a Bronze Age quern (a device used for grinding grain) and to mint coins in the Celtic style.  He gave me a number of reproductions that his friend had made, which are now on display beside the arrowheads.  We climbed to King Arthur’s bed—a man-shaped depression in a stone at the top of a pile of rocks—and looked out toward Fox Tor, seven miles away.  There, we sat, and he told me the story of a great battle fought in the fog.  Wounded and frightened, King Arthur fled, following a fox to a safe place high up on a pile of rocks.  There, exhausted, he slept until morning.  When he woke, the fog was gone, and the fox with it.  Arthur had sunk into the stone, which had hidden him from his enemies, and Merlin sat by, waiting for his king to arise.  Together they continued safely on their way. 

The day was nearly over, but there was still so much to see.  Tony remarked that you always have to leave something undone, because it gives you a reason to come back.

CMG, Tony, and dogs at St Neot
I did go back, during the Easter break of 2010.  In the UK, where I was studying, Easter holidays are three weeks long.  I spent one day with Tony and his wife, and our dogs (his, Harry, and mine, Andy).  We visited stone crosses, a quoit, the holy well at St. Neot’s, and a nearby castle.  We also stopped in at the Church of St. Neot, where medieval stained glass still adorns the windows.  Tony insisted I had to touch it, since I wasn’t able to see it, and removed the rope barrier with a reassuring “I know the pastor …”  It was a wonderful day, and the last I spent with him.
On Friday, 17 February, 2012, Tony Blackman passed away peacefully at home. 

When I was thirteen, he inspired in me a love of the past—of the people who lived and died and the details of their existence.  As an adult, he fostered my love of learning.  He has been behind me in every literary and scholarly step I took, and I want to thank him for that, and let his family know just how much he means to me.  “Ancient Roots,” a short story that is pending publication in The Lamp is dedicated to his memory, since he was the inspiration for the character of Gwydion. 

Inspiration comes from many places, but I often wonder if I would have become interested in storytelling or in history if it was not for Tony.  It is people like him who make the present a past that’s worth remembering.
CMG and Tony at Trethevy Quoit

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