MAGPIE TALE: February Is Brick Literacy Month
While Dan Brown and The Di Vinci Code may have put masonry into a global and somewhat dubious spotlight, brick literacy in the industrialized world is frighteningly low. But first, let's be clear. We are not talking about the secret ceremonies and mumbo jumbo of Masonry but the plain old masonry of bricks and mortar. And what do you know about masonry and, more important, Brick Culture that goes back to the dawn of a civilization? This level of ignorance in the world of iPads and social networks shows the severe cultural imbalance afoot. Granted, a Xhosa peasant might not know how to write his name or count past twelve, but he can make a brick from mere dust, straw and scarce water that could endure for generations. How many Sorbonne or Exeter graduates can do that?
When and how did the "civilized" world so disastrously lose its way? Clearly bricks are still very much a part of our daily lives, but most of our youth graduate virtually brick illiterate despite humanity's rich brick cultural heritage and enormous body of brick literature and history. We know that the first bricks date back to at least 7500 B.C. in Tigris, and just a few years later in Xi'an, China, the first poems written were not about nature or love but bricks, the man-made discovery that even then they knew would last for generations. Important as the discovery of fire or the wheel (which were both fleeting inventions) may have been, it was the brick that first inspired humans to write about their own creations. The Song Dynasty's Yingzao Fashi 營造法式; 'Treatise on Architectural Methods' or 'State Building Standards' ) might be dismissed as a mere technical manual, but it was clear that the spiritual and poetic natures of bricks were central to this seminal Asian work.
The Vatican is mostly known for being ensconced in marble and frescos, but here too the sacred nature of bricks was praised in La struttura del mattone di fronte al dio (The edifice of the brick in the face of God). The true author of this 12th Century work remains unknown, but it remains a crucial work in Christian architectural theory and poetry.
Until then, most of the revered architectural structures centered on Greek Ionic, Doric and Corinthian arches and corbels that the Vatican came to see as being too rooted in Zeus and pagan rites, and the brick came to be seen as the forth leg of the Trinity.
Though rarely recognized, Dickens, Trollope and Hardy incorporated subtle references to bricks in their work. As the Industrial Revolution swept Europe, there was something so reassuring about bricks as a calming contrast to factories, locomotives and the early wirelesses. Many scholarly treatises to the brick were written during this era in which it was argued that bricks were more quintessentially British than tea. "While our Oolongs and Earl Grays may be savored over pastries and civilized chatter, they were plucked from the barbaric lands of China and India while the humble brick walls of our gardens come from the earth of the Empire's Dover and Manchester," wrote Lord Philbin Braughton-Johns IV.
Though Walt Whitman may be thought of today as the great, epic American poet of the 19th Century, few realize that his books paled in comparison to sales of the works of Cornelia Weston- Barrington Northrupp, often called the "Bard of the Brick". While "Leaves of Grass" was considered too fleshly and raw for American schools of the late 19th and early 20th Century, her epic "Ode to a Brick" was in more U.S. classrooms than any of the works of Plato or Rumi well into the 1930s.
Feminist literary critics have always been conflicted about Weston-Barrington Northrupp's work. While they applauded a woman having such prominence in an era ruled by male authors, there was little debate over the simple fact: her verses were utter crap. A sample from "Ode to a Brick Wall":
Oh magnificent masonry/
Thine providence so providential/
Thine symmetry so symmetrical/
I, a mere article of Godly-made clay,/
Shudder before thee/
While man-made, thou art of/
Such elegant strength/
That I am like Lot's wife staring back/
With tears that the cattle shall lick with delight
From the late teens to early 1930s, Lillian Lushmore was the sweetheart of British operetta and music hall, performing Gilbert and Sullivan and the more sedate American Ragtime numbers from the Isle of Wight to Glasgow. Her creamy complexion, virginal reputation and light auburn hair delighted her audiences.
As the worldwide depression set in and her years of heavy drinking and a love child reputed to be sired by a member of the House of Lords took their toll, her style and repertoire changed. She began singing increasingly bawdy tunes and wore tighter costumes that exposed her ample bosom and gained her the reputation as the "lass who is built like a brick outhouse and has a potty mouth".
She went from singing "Sally of Our Alley" to her signature tune of the World War II years on to her enduring career that lasted until her death in 1967, "If You've Got the Mortar, I've Got a Busty Stack of Bricks". Banned by the prim BBC, it still managed to be the best selling 78 of 1946 through 1948 in the U.K., Jamaica, New Zealand and (for reasons never fully understood) Nagaland.
In the 1970s the Antwerp-based power pop group BRIQUE gained the reputation of being the "Belgian ABBA", a moniker they resented and that really wasn't fair to their unique sound and quirky vibe.
Virtually all of their concept albums were masonry themed. In 1972, they caught onto the hoopla surrounding "China mania" after the Nixon-Mao convergence in Beijing with the release of their four disc LP La Grande Muraille de Chine (The Great Wall of China). Its runaway hit single "Mao-Mao-Mao" with its simple, repetitive lyric sung with a cat-like whine took Europe, Japan and South America by storm but only charted at #387 on the U.S. album chart where they just couldn't bump Carole King or Grand Funk Railroad.
Their 1974 follow up Mur de Jéricho (The Wall of Jericho) garnered respectable reviews but modest sales and after two more releases with dismal sales and scathing reviews, they disbanded in 1978. In 1980, three of the original members regrouped as a trio named The Cobblestones that put out two folky English language LPs that were respected in certain circles, but many had trouble understanding their interpretations of Dylan lyrics a la "zee ahnsur mah freend ees blawink in zeee weehnd, zee ahnsur ees blawink in zee weehnd."
Little brick-related artistry could be found on the academic or popular fronts from the late 1970s onward. Some blame it on Reagan, others on the internet. Exactly what went wrong is still unknown, but simplistic as the three little pigs may have been, they knew that even the fiercest internet firewall would do them no good were the big bad wolf to huff and puff at their front door. When in doubt, always trust the brick over the latest software in vogue.