Wynn Wheldon

A master craftsman of the anecdote

A review of Alex Monroe's Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things. Punk, procrastination and ping pong: this jeweller's autobiography is full of gems

A master craftsman of the anecdote
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Two Turtle Doves: A Memoir of Making Things

Alex Monroe

Bloomsbury, pp. 222, £

One of the many charms of this book is its sheer unexpectedness, which makes it hard to review, for to reveal the brilliancies too fully would spoil their effect. My copy is splattered with exclamation marks. For example, on page 65 the author is working on a piece of delicate silver jewellery that will become the ‘Two Turtle Doves’ of the title while singing along to ‘Hersham Boys’ by Sham 69, a punk band of the 1970s associated with skinhead violence. Exclamation mark. Two pages later, and years earlier, he is playing ping pong with Benjamin Britten. Two exclamation marks.

As intricately patterned as filigreed silver butterfly wings, the narrative weaves between memories of childhood (past tense) and the making of jewellery (present tense), interspersed again with tales and reflections of the near present (a bit of both). All is of a piece, however, each story providing the inspiration for each new collection of jewellery. This is a highly-wrought achievement.

The book has no genre, describing itself as a ‘Memoir of Making Things’. Those expecting a polite, perhaps even genteel stroll through a high-end world of necklaces, earrings, lockets and so forth will be taken aback. It’s a miracle that Alex Monroe ever lived long enough to be anything at all, let alone a memoirist: by the age of 14 he has fallen from the top of a barn while shooting ‘adults’ with a self-fashioned crossbow, seriously electrocuted himself developing photographs, and blown himself up making a gun.

He also makes bicycles and go-karts and clothes and tools and 50-pence pieces to put into the cigarette machine in the village of Woolverstone in Suffolk on the river Orwell. Monroe had an unusual childhood, and that is putting it mildly. His parents couldn’t remember when his birthday was, so it was celebrated at the same time as his brother’s. He thrived in the kind of absolute freedom impossible to imagine now. His parents were poor — the big family occasionally supped off a single large home-grown cauliflower ‘with a thin parsley sauce’ — but educated. The family home, the Old Parsonage, an enormous place with four staircases, was in a state of continuous ramshackledom. Monroe would ‘often come upon a bat or two’ sleeping in his bedroom.

After art college in nearby Ipswich the author leaves for London and finds the place ‘electric’, apart, that is, from the world of jewellery. At his college he rebels against the arid intellectual prejudices of his lecturers, who have ‘little interest in aesthetics’. The Bond Street jewellers are ‘bound to tradition and stuffy values’. His art school clique are only interested in ‘unwearable objects with pages of unreadable text by their side’. Otherwise there is Ratners. Monroe decides to change all this. I understand that he has succeeded.

Two Turtle Doves is a good deal more than a memoir. It is difficult to think of a text that better describes the way in which lived experience is translated by high craftsmanship into art. And Monroe is an artist, a Cellini of the miniature. He has a ‘compulsion to turn a feeling into an object’. Then he wants to sell it. Of the V&A he writes that ‘it has worked to bridge the very gaps I hate — between high art and low commerce, gallery and high street, exclusivity and fashion’.

The stories that inspire this art are enchanting. Monroe appears to live in a world fashioned entirely by anecdote, and he relates one after another in prose that has the informality, verve and good humour of a first class letter-writer: ‘First things first: some serious procrastination.’ The text is punctuated with occasional homely photographs and reproductions from the artist’s sketchbooks. Oh, and it is also a very good book about Suffolk.

I imagine the sales of Two Turtle Doves will not be enormous, but I also imagine its being rediscovered with delight in some dusty bookcase a century hence and hailed as a classic.

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