This piece has been written today at the request of a member of our local amenities society, who is most kindly putting the sundial on our house forward for a prize for the best recent embellishment of the town of Buckingham.
At the beginning of 2008 I started looking forward to a milestone birthday – my seventy fifth – which would fall on the eighth day of August. I began to think of ways that this event could be suitably celebrated.
The number eight is a lucky one in China because the word eight sounds similar to the word which means "prosper" or "wealth", and therefore the date 08.08.08 would be a particularly auspicious one in that country. After arranging that my birthday be marked by the opening ceremony of the Beijing Olympics, I tried to think of an equivalent event at a parish pump level.
Our house comprises a couple of old two-story cottages with a third floor probably added shortly after the canal arrived in Buckingham in the early nineteenth century and with a Georgian façade put in front to give the once-humble building a suitable aura of gravitas. Above the front door and between the two windows on each of the upper floors were a couple of niches, doubtless put there to resemble the blocking-up of windows done on more stately houses to avoid the eighteenth century Window Tax. The lower of these, I thought, would be just the place for a sundial.
I began the search – online of course – for a suitable builder. I found a handful of craftsmen who seemed to offer good work and good value, but I was deterred by the fact that I would have had to do the measuring of the alignment of the façade and the determination of latitude. I felt that, if a mistake were made, it would be better to have somebody else than myself to blame.
My search increasingly centred on one David Harber, particularly because of the excellence of his website: for me, as a one-time website developer, this was an important factor. His list of commissions was impressive, too: Oxbridge colleges, stately homes and international corporate HQs featured prominently on the site. Obviously expensive, but probably worth it, I thought.
My initial contact with David's company confirmed the likely expense but also reassured me about quality and service. The latter included Latin motto translation, provided by a retired bishop, the Right Reverend Stephen Verney, who lived near David's workshop. On the strength of his reputation as a classicist, the bishop – as he then was not – was enticed into the SOE during the war and spirited into Crete, where he formed a partisan unit whose success led him to being awarded the military MBE after the war. David would exchange a bottle of fine claret for devising or revising a suitable Latin motto for a sundial.
I wanted a motto to do with the house, which stands at the foot of Bristle Hill. I thought of the words in the funerary mass, Lux eterna luceat …, "Let light eternal shine …", and transformed this into "Let the sun always shine" (Semper luceat sol …), ending (or beginning) with "upon 7 Bristle Hill". This was the tricky bit. I looked up "bristle" and got saeta, so I submitted to the bishop Super collem saetae ("of the bristle") septem … I got back Super septem (before, not after, the street name) collem saetigerum ("bristle-bearing").
Happily, we were about to set off on a trip to Naples and I believed that I could find the correct position of the number seven during a visit to Pompeii. Alas, the citizens of that town didn't apparently use numbers at all for addresses: this was a new-fangled Greek idea, which might be all very well in Alexandria, but really wouldn't do for us Romans in Campania. Therefore, on the basis that the modern Italian method of putting the number after and not before the street name was probably based on some form of Roman precedent, I defied the bishop and did likewise.
On the matter of "Bristle", however, the bishop was supported by an American foster great-nephew of my wife who had just won a classical scholarship in his second year at his Oxford college. This forming of adjectives from nouns by adding "-bearing" in cases such as this was, apparently, common and was based on imported Greek practice.
So we arrived at a reasonable Latin motto, but I felt that, because the good burghers of Buckingham would not be able to understand it since the Royal Latin School had stopped teaching the language some while ago, a translation should be included in small print at the bottom. Here I used the desire to produce a rhyming couplet my excuse to render semper ("always") as "still" (=continuing until this time), thus enabling "Upon Seven Bristle Hill // Let the sun shine still".
The reason why I chose the typeface Trajan for the wording on the dial, and what I did about the absence of small caps in that font, will be obvious to typographers and need not be said. To non-typographers the matter is unimportant and can therefore be left unsaid.
The day for installation finally arrived. David attended in person with his team. Afterwards, chatting, he told me of a recent unveiling at which his young daughter had been selected to offer a bouquet to the Queen. The little girl approached Her Majesty and said "You're not a queen: you're a granny!" "You're quite right, my dear," said our sovereign lady, "I am a granny – but I'm also a queen."
I asked David whether he has customers or clients: I enjoy teasing tradesmen who try to pass themselves off as professionals by talking about their clients rather than customers. David side-stepped this trap adroitly. "I have patrons", he replied.
We all looked up admiringly at the sundial before it was draped to await the official unveiling. "It looks great", I said, "but it really shows up the empty niche above it. Any suggestions?" He thought and then said "I could build you a weather cock on the chimney which would link through gears to a pointer on a compass rose in the niche. This birthday you're tracking the sun: the next big one, track the wind!"
Roll on my eightieth: only some eight hundred and eighty eight days to go!