Today, when I opened the Times, turning as so often to the obituaries, I was deeply saddened to read
of the death of Alan Caiger-Smith
Alan had been at Stowe School with my father and was a much loved family friend. When Dad turned 80, ten years ago, it was Alan he phoned. Alan was, I think, a defining, understatedly strong, calm and clear sighted presence in Dad's often troubled life.
I remember going to the Aldermaston Pottery for the first time and how charmed I was by it. A still point at the centre of the turning world, if that isn't too obvious a metaphor.
When I wrote my second novel, Invisible, I set part of the story in a fictional reimagining of the pottery, which had closed by that time, and named the local pub, The Caiger. Which I think Alan liked when he read the book. For Sarah, one of the two narrators, the world of the pottery represents all that is good, in contrast to her manipulative and destructive father.
I have a memory of Alan and his partner Charlotte coming to lunch five years ago. Although it was early autumn, the sun was Mediterranean and we sat and ate and drank and told old stories at the top of the garden.
Below is a review of Alan's book Pottery, People and Time
, which I wrote for the Oxford Times in 1995.
The photo above shows a favourite mug from the pottery - Alan's trademark Owl Mug. Although I have some more elaborate pieces - and the work of the pottery features in museum collections throughout the world - it is this simple mug that I treasure.
For the well-being of our society
Pottery, People and Time:
A Workshop in Action
Alan Caiger-Smith (Richard Dennis, £28)
In this splendidly enlightening and enlightened book Alan Caiger-Smith draws on more than 40 years' experience as a potter and as the founder of a world-famous collaborative workshop.
He explores particular aspects of the Aldermaston Pottery through a carefully structured - though never pedantically formal - sequence of essays (illustrated with photographs).
Academic, technical and philosophical chapters alternate with vivid character sketches and wonderful descriptions of the actual throwing, decorating and firing of tin-glaze and lustre.
There is, for example, an exhilaratingly searing evocation of a wood-firing, a process involving great stamina and skill. A thousand pieces are painstakingly packed into the kilns and, from 4 o'clock in the morning, the temperature is steadily raised throughout the day to the critical 1060
Alan Caiger-Smith has a gift for not only imparting information but inspiring through the communication of his enthusiasm for, and love of, his craft.
He is also very candid about all the things that go wrong. One of the most moving chapters, 'Waste', is about discovering that a firing has failed and several months' work has been lost. Through the power of his writing we experience the feelings of despair, the self-doubt, the gradual process of recovery and the summoning-up of the courage to start all over again.
The inclusion of both high and low points is entirely consistent with his holistic view of the potter's life. This was fundamental to the co-operative structure at Aldermaston and a central theme of this book.
What made that pottery remarkable in managerial terms was his decision to reject specialisation and teach each person proficiency in all the skills.
In doing so he put quality of life and the creative environment before maximisation of profit and relentless expansion. The pottery's work won international renown and, perhaps most importantly, some 36 of his potters went on to set up their own studio-workshops.
This book will certainly fascinate anyone already interested in pottery, including those brave enough to consider setting up a collaborative workshop, but its appeal will be much broader.
It is about people and the fulfilment they can be taught to derive from their jobs and how businesses might be run successfully on these principles in the future. It is about the importance of craftsmen and artists, and what they produce, to the well-being of society.
The Oxford Times, Friday, October 20 1995