Giles MacDonald Lettering
01295 277554

Porpoise – a stainless steel tablet

A collaboration with the writer Martin Lee 
for the exhibition 26 Words: exploring the DNA of language

“My number one wish is to swim with porpoises.” Ever heard that? Me neither. Do you look out for ‘porpoise friendly tuna’? Course you don’t. Enough. We’re not putting up with it any longer. We’re drawing a line in the sand. Pod it, action is called for.

Too long we’ve let those bloody dolphins steal the limelight, assuming you humans would tire of superficial aquarium tricks. But we’ve been fools. You paddle in the shallows. Fine. We will be poor no longer. We’re poised.  History is the history of revolutions, and the next one will be ours.

“I should say at this point that my big idea is based on porpoises being a poor relation to the more charismatic dolphins, to the point where they are more or less invisible in popular culture.”

Martin Lee


I don’t really know anything about porpoises – or dolphins. I remember seeing Cretan or Minoan wall paintings with porpoises – or dolphins – leaping above the waves – so far that’s all I can think of.

It’s great working with Martin. He knows exactly what he’s doing. I like his take for a gruff and grouchy individual. The big question for me is: how do the grumbles of an anonymous porpoise end up carved or etched into a material? I mean, it’s not like porpoises can write or anything: how do we make that leap?

In the museum there are some fantastic clay tablets: pillows of clay stamped side-to-side with cuneiform text, five thousand year-old lists of sheep and grain yields. I can’t read them but I love the texture, the pattern of the glyphs pressed into the clay one after another. Other texts are categorised as ‘lexical’, ‘administrative’, ‘royal and monumental’. Texts carved in stone, chased in metal, pressed into clay or scratched into wax tablets:  inscriptions stored in the record office of an empire or sent out to the frontiers and set-up to say what’s what.

The ambitions and lists of administrators and rulers. Then it hits me: they’re just like the grouch of our porpoise. I mean, each inscription a record of intention with the inevitability of frustration. Even the ‘administrative lists’ point to a desire to stay in control and keep on top of things. Vanity of vanities: all is vanity, as someone once said.

So this is it: a stainless steel tablet, made in a workshop on the Essex coastal marshes; not shiny, more kitchen sink stainless, dull and scuffed, the letters planted widely, and with it a rubbing made with wax, the record of a record.



Giles Macdonald

Giles MacDonald designs and makes lettering for memorials and buildings; for inscriptions to commemorate events; for plaques, tablets, headstones and public art.

If you’d like to discuss a possible lettering project we’d love to hear from you. Email the workshop on or call 01295 277554