the fifty pence piece

I know fifty pence pieces have seven sides, not five, but I still wonder if most people’s first reaction on looking at this new piece, ‘Pentad’, which has just gone into the new mini-quad outside Newcastle University’s Robinson Library, will be to compare it with that characterful coin. I came up with the text and the rudiments of the design, which was rationalised, realised, and much clarified by Colin Hagan, who then liaised with both the University’s Estates through the wonderfully-enabling Ross Henderson, and the manufacturer.

It’s set inside a little rounded seating area, with a smooth granite frame and wooden slatted benching, and is in two parts, the first being a text-based section with five lines of verse spiralling ‘in’ to a centre point (or rather the font size being reduced as they approach the middle):

The text is designed to be approached from pretty much any direction, and read from that point round. The image above is an opportunistic mobile phone snap, so not very lisible. What it says (set normally, and as best as I can remember) is

barely written here
how feet learn by degrees
the trial of trails, world’s route
a whorl, a fingerprint
poised on the dawning page

There was a long delay before Xmas while the metal (which I fondly believe to be bronze, though Colin was angling for Corten steel) cooled and shrank and ripened in colour to the rich rusty hue you see before you only slightly enhanced by iPhoto. This makes it sound like a sun-dried tomato, but it did seem to require a long, lingering maturation process, only reaching the final patina of perfection as the snow began to fall and the ice began to grip, rendering the stone slabs inaccessible for a further two months.

The second, smaller piece was Colin’s brilliant idea:

This sits about six feet away across the circle, pointing at a flat edge of the main piece as though indicating one possible starting point, and acting as a kind of tailpiece, as though on a kite, albeit a 40mm thick metal kite. It orients the whole piece, enabling it to manifest some sort of presence in the shadow of the library entrance.

Another, more accidental, impact this piece has is acoustic — as with the large Corten circle created at Darlington to form the centrepiece of the Westpark project — if you speak while standing in the centre of this more modest circle, just in front of the main piece, your voice takes on a resonant, almost gong-like echo.

I’ll try to augment this posting with some contextualising shots of the setting, which might help to make sense of the idea. ‘Pentad,’ as I think it’s called is just beside Linda France and Bridget Jones’ ‘Palindrome’ piece which is sited on Hadrian Bridge, on route to the LIT text gallery, projected against the wall of Percy Building. Gradually, gradually, a text-based art is beginning to play a role in punctuating and perhaps even uniting the NU campus. Welcome, as Linda’s website says, to the Palindrome. Admittance only 50p.

About Bill Herbert

Poet and pseudo-scholar W.N. Herbert was born in Dundee in 1961, educated there and at Oxford, where he completed his DPhil thesis on Scottish poet Hugh MacDiarmid, and now lives and works in Newcastle. He is Professor of Poetry and Creative Writing at Newcastle University, and his books are published by, among others, northern publisher Bloodaxe Books. He is also the Dundee Makar, or city laureate.
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