What is your question?

I am entranced by Tuesday night’s documentary, Make Pots or Die, about the potter and author Edmund de Waal, in the BBC1 arts series, imagine, presented by Alan Yentob.

In a voiceover in the final minutes, Edmund de Waal gives a testament of his life.

How objects get handled, used and handed on is not just a mildly interesting question for me: it is my question. I have made many, many thousands of pots. I am very bad at names like ‘Mumble’ and ‘Fudge’, but I am good on pots. I can read how an edge creates tension or loses it. I can feel if it has been made at speed or with diligence – if it has warmth. I can see how it works with the objects that sit nearby, how it displaces a small part of the world around it.

Yentob, a consummate, unobtrusive interviewer then makes a comment that produces a further clarity of response from him:

YB: You started making pots when you were 5 years old and you’re now in your 50th year this week.
EdW: Thanks. Actually you’re the first person to actually put it in those terms. Yes.
YB: So you have been making pots for 45 years.
EdW: I have been making pots for 45 years. Yeah. And, I dunno, and I mean this year has been… one of the things about this year has been… working out that I can… working out in myself that… a confidence… to really just go for it… you know, just simply say, ‘This is what I do. This is what I do.’

I draw comfort from this. Here is a man whose work sells internationally for 5- and 6-figure sums; an author of an award-winning book. And yet, it is only now, as he approaches 50, that he has the confidence to know and say who he is and what he does. There’s hope for me!

In Culture and Value, Ludwig Wittgenstein wrote,

How small a thought it takes to fill a whole life!

“How objects get handled, used and handed on,” is Edmund de Waal’s small thought, the question that fills his whole life. He has been making pots since he was 5 years old and I imagine he can trace this small thought back that far, though he would not have been able to articulate it then. He just knew, in his whole body – “I can remember the experience of feeling this extraordinary thing… it’s alive… it moves… That was it: I knew I had to be a potter” – he had to make pots. This is what he does.

I think it is likely that each of us has a “small thought” that fills our lives, though mostly we are not conscious of it, or it has been forgotten until now, and has not yet been encouraged to unfold. Looking back we begin to discern a thread weaving though our days from our earliest glimmers of delight. It is a simple, small thought or question, around which everything that matters in our lives coheres.

What is your small thought – your question? What do you do?

[Listen to Edmund de Waal on Desert Island Discs.]

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