2. A day in the life of a sawman – 28/04/2010



I arrive at the quarry just before 8am, stressed and frustrated by the slow traffic on the road. There is always a tractor on the approach to Helston. As I arrive in the quarry yard I can see that Peter has already started to look through some granite near the big saw. Tim and Ernie are still finishing their tea. There’s a quick bit of banter and then Tim begins to signify it’s time to get going. I know that I am to be left to my own devices on the saw today, Peter letting me get to grips with things.

It’s cool but bright this morning, and the chills of winter are feeling less intrusive at 8am in the morning. I go back into the crib hut and get my overalls on and head over to the little saw to check over the day’s sawing. There’s already a block on the table partly sawn, and I have to trudge through the blur of the night and the early rise to remember what needs to be done with this slab. It’s a five inch slab — quoins, yes quoins. These are a standard 215mm by 300mm. Imperial and metric seem to coexist very fluidly here, slab depths are nearly always given in inches, with the other axes given in millimetres. So I turn the table and begin setting up the saw, flicking through the dimensional dials for the 300mm-apart cuts, always with the extra 5mm for saw width. Four cuts at 305mm wide it is. Buttons are pressed, water is on, the blade ramps up its speed and off on auto. As I am waiting Tim comes in and gives me a cutting list for the next slab. We chat about Elliot and his determination to not sleep versus my own desperate need for it. He says that there are shoddies to do today, and my heart sinks, I hate shoddies, it always feels like the lowliest job, just beating and squaring the cropped off cuts from the saw. We do shoddies in the big shed.

The big shed is the biggest shed at the quarry, but it’s full of junk, and all we do is seem to make a mess in there. So, each time I set up the saw to do a series of cuts, off I go to dress some more shoddies. Just before crib, Ernie comes in to ridicule me. He loves to rub in the fact that I have all these skills as a sculptor, and that I am doing a doctorate, and I am stuck doing shoddies. Anyway, he says, “fuck the granite, me backbone’s touching me navel”, it’s time for crib.

Later on in the morning I am cutting an 8ft lintel, this is a precious piece of stone as it’s hard to get long lengths. Once it is sawn, I have to manoeuvre it out of the saw shed with the forklift, and as I am reversing, I snag it on a piece of stashed stone just outside the door, and it falls off the fork and smashes to the concrete ground. It breaks in two. Along with the loud thud of the 500kg lump making contact with the ground, the rising shock of breaking such a precious piece of stone has its own turbulence. Tim comes out of his office and across the yard. This is not good. Tim is remarkably calm, and he sighs at the sight of this sad testament to the already substantial set of man hours dedicated to this stone. Tim says don’t worry, in his slightly hang-dog manner, we’ve all done it. “We can use the two halves for something else. Always tell me if you break or chip something” says Tim, “I would rather know there is a fault, if you don’t tell me and I don’t see it until I sell it to a customer, it makes me look stupid. We all make mistakes, that’s fine, not telling me is no good”

In the afternoon it begins to cloud over. Then the wire on the big saw breaks, so Tim, Peter and I start the fiddly and dusty job of stripping it back and putting on a new wire. Peter has been working down the bottom of the quarry for most of the day, strange to have not had him speeding around like a whirlwind of numbers and grunts. Tim goes off to talk to a customer, and Ernie looks in on the progress of fixing the saw. “I can’t believe how many visitors we have each day, it’s constant!” says Peter. “It never used to be like that when I started, not even a few years ago, we’d get a few in a week, now its half a dozen, a dozen in a day!” replied Ernie.

I go back up to the little saw and set up another slab for quoins. It’s 4:30pm, starting to feel tired, but I have to go and do a few more shoddies. Tim and Peter come in to the big shed too, and we all set up with our banker and pile of waiting granite. The last half hour goes quickly, as its fun being with them and talking as we pitch our blocks square. I am getting better at hitting harder, it makes all the difference having that confidence to swing the lump of metal harder and faster. I still hit my hand, and it’s painful. I can’t stop and look at whatever chunk I have removed from my thumb knuckle. Beat through the pain. Ignore the spatters of blood on the stone on each impact. Ernie comes in and says he’s off, Peter goes with him and I say see you Monday. Thursday, Friday and the weekend to recover. Ernie says, “see you Monday, if I b’aint deed”. This translates as “if I’m not dead”. Tim and I work on for half an hour. I’m beat. He says that’s enough for today and we pack up the tools. We shut down the saws, padlock the various doors, chatting as we go.

In the car, and head home. I am exhausted, but I decide to go for a swim in the pool at Penzance Leisure Centre. It so cold in the changing rooms. I do this swim quite often after the quarry; although I’m tired, I love the feeling of slipping into the water and feeling it rush over my body. Swimming is like a release after the hefty forces of processing the granite that bruise my body without remorse.

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