Encyclopaedia Ball goes to Glasgow

On a grey day in July 2022, my family and I loaded a solid paper ball, weighing 16.5kg and with a girth of 115cm, onto an old pushchair and boarded an LNER train heading north from York. It fitted surprisingly well underneath the train table and behaved itself there, not getting many strange looks. Encyclopaedia Ball is my project to convert an entire set of 1950s Encyclopaedia Britannicas into a solid papier mache ball, page by page, A to Z (see my earlier post). A tradition has grown up of celebrating each new letter of the alphabet reached, involving things (usually food) and people beginning with that letter. When the ball reached ‘G’, my wife suggested the idea of taking it on a trip to Glasgow, and so I reached out to Glasgow artist duo Gardner and Gardner to see if they would like to be involved. I thought maybe we could roll the ball in Glasgow with the Gardners. It was the first time the ball had been on a jaunt like this and the first time I’d rolled it, except round the garden to see the flowers when it was covered with colour plates of flowers from the article on flowers. On that occasion, it had got covered in sap.

The following day, also grey and threatening drizzle, we pushed the ball in the pushchair up the steep hill to Glasgow School of Art, where I studied in the late 1990s. I noted with sadness that the carved stone head of Beethoven was missing from the old piano store building on Renfrew Street and that the building looked more derelict than it did when I lived in Glasgow. I’d envisaged photographing the ball beneath the massive august ball of Beethoven’s head and now wished I could think of a way of placing my ball instead on Beethoven’s still extant shoulders. The art school was also a ruin, of course, the famous Charles Rennie Mackintosh building having been gutted twice by fire during the past decade. It was sad to see nothing more than a scaffolding sarcophagus holding up a fragile shell which you could barely see. It reminded me of the sarcophagus they built round the burnt out reactor at Chernobyl. The site of the art school was utterly cheerless (we were outside of term time, so the other school buildings were deserted as well). 

Nevertheless, we met the Gardners and our other friends beside the Vic bar and the whole group of us started the roll. It was somewhat terrifying to pose for photos with the ball in the middle of Scott Street – a street so steep that releasing the ball down it would have caused catastrophe down on Sauchiehall Street below. Peter Gardner and I did most of the rolling, with help from others. I had planned a route for us to roll the ball, but hadn’t given any thought at all to how to actually roll it. Did it need to be rolled by hand, which meant bending over all the way? That quickly got tiring and we defaulted to kicking it. Neither of us were football players. Once up the slope of Scott Street and onto the level or gentle downward slope of Hill Street it was more of a matter of shepherding it with our feet. The ball got bits of gravel embedded in it and became pock-marked, but didn’t start to disintegrate, as I’d feared. We avoided urine as best we could. 

The ball admired the view at the end of Hill Street over Charing Cross, Park Circus and the M8 motorway. The slope and steps down from Garnethill to Charing Cross were negotiated (by us) backwards. Here the ball needed restraint and guidance, rather than encouragement. It cracked fallen cherry stones audibly as it rolled over them. I wondered if the drop from one step to the next would be enough to crack the paving slabs, but sadly it wasn’t. The ball made a solid thud, thud, thud. Peter and I were cautious in not allowing the ball to gain momentum – reviewing the footage it looks like we are treating it as something delicate, like teaching a child to walk. I was just scared of it rolling loose and taking somebody off their feet or bouncing onto the motorway slip road and caving in the bonnet of someone’s car. In the footage we seem overly cautious, like anxious parents. 

Over the Charing Cross footbridge. Here the children with us had to be kept sustained by gingerbread men that I bought for our picnic and we nearly picked some American tourists up in our wake; if only they’d had more time. We got some good photos of the ball with traffic on the M8. The level pavement of Woodside Place was home stretch and even my son had a go. The ball was still in good nick and I was disappointed that it wasn’t dirtier. I think that rolling the ball with Peter gave focus to our walk and conversation. Each of us had a job to do keeping it from rolling off on our side and it required concentration and team work. Someone else made sure that we didn’t get run over by a silver van when we crossed Elderslie Street. The gentle slope and wide open spaces of the park allowed us to relax and I let the ball roll on ahead down the path between weedy herbaceous borders, greatly upsetting a leashed Rottweiler dog. 

We picnicked near the elaborate fountain, no longer functional, which commemorates the Lord Provost who established Glasgow’s first permanent supply of fresh water. Enid Blyton style, I’m obliged to list what we partook of: gammon (aka ham); guacamole, gorgonzola, gouda, gruyere, goat’s cheese, grapes, grapefruit juice, guava juice, goji berry juice, fruit gums, gherkin (cucumber), gingerbread men, garlic crackers, gooseberry jam (which we forgot to eat), Gujarati mix, giraffe bread (aka tiger bread), Greek yoghurt. Mariuca, one of our friends, made a paper collage on the ball which included fragments of what later turned out to be a valuable edition of The Hobbit. Thus ended the Rolling of the Ball. Later in the day we posed the ball between the paws of one of the great carved lions in George Square and accidentally left our suitcase nearby, only retrieving it, miraculously and with much stress, from Glasgow City Centre Police Station, unexploded, with minutes to go before our train home. The ball was tired but (I think) happy after its day out, and slept like a dog under the train table.

The Ball between the paws of the lion in George Square.

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