February 10, 2011

On Loyalty and Unassuming Pride, Part I

I watched a film today that I found posted by Will at A Suitable Wardrobe. It was made under the auspices of Esquire, and I only wish everything perpetrated by that particular rag paid such sober reverence to quality and tradition. If you have a spare hour, go and have a look. There are some very ordinary, salt of the earth, old-fashioned working people interviewed in this film; or at least, they seem ordinary, but they are not. In fact, they are stunningly exceptional.

Time was when the best working people spent years honing a skill, a craft, a vocation. The finest artisans did things that their brethren could not do, and they were rightly revered. They built the backbone of an empire, literally, with their bare hands. Forget machines. Forget steam. What drove British preëminence was a mind to quality. It was superiority in skill, in combination with the finest resources. As with so many ironies of history, the world these men built was to be inhabited by men who found no further use for them. The machine – the engine of mass production – was the death knell of empire. The zenith of imperial production was also the possibility for colonial competition. Any man, after all, can turn on a machine. Not everyman can make one.

How refreshing, therefore, to see a number of people who have spent years at their craft, loyally serving companies that had their origin in headier days. They are the last of their breed, but you can almost see the sense of pride running through their veins. Pride is not something I would typically advocate, save where it is magnanimous and absolutely justified. These people make the finest things of their type anywhere. They cannot themselves afford to own the things they make, but they are proud to see them being worn by others. Watch the tweed maker fill up when he sees his cloth transformed into a bespoke jacket, on the back of a Savile Row man. The social distance traversed in this extraordinary meeting is really something to behold. The pride is precious.

The loyalty of these people is bound up with their pride. They work for men who give them jobs for life, on the understanding that the standard set is high. Note how few young people you see in this film. We have lost hold of what it means, what it meant, to work for somebody, for something, that you believed to be important. Much greater than the pursuit of chasing pound notes was once the pursuit of position. Among working-class people, a skilled position within an esteemed manufactory was to be blessed with the best that could be hoped for: the respect of one’s peers, one’s employer, one’s family. To own a skill was a much greater asset than mere wealth. To ply that skill for the man who first employed you, and to do so for all your working days, was a matter of honour. One can read of it in books; it is a rarity to witness.

So, where do your loyalties lie, and does what you own mean anything? Without skills, and without allegiances, we run the risk of being frivolous, even to ourselves.

3 comments:

  1. I spent the better part of an hour after a lecture this morning (Friday) with a young lady, (probably less than 1/2 my age) chatting about national pride in relation to future tense applications in this developed nation I reside in west of "the pond" from you, and how pride of work and being is disappearing from and in many of the young people (even in my own generation) through an overall lack of education in history, and an utter disregard to know, or care, in what they consume as purchasers of "Stuff".
    I used examples of attire (mine) vs. hers, and asked how many items that she wore she knew of in where they were made. I told her of the places mine were. I then talked about the industrial age and of craftspeople, and the pride in manufacturing they had. In being able to work for, and in, one’s own "village" (nation/home city/state), and how many people that had no potential via the higher education paths (college and graduate school) were phenomenal at craft manufacturing/art, and that the concept of once being able to have or be in an apprenticeship, is gone.
    We (I feel sir) are as nations, doomed: The writing is on the wall, and it is not in legible script but in a texting "language" as writing, and poor communication skills as “spoken” word. I spent a good 1/2-hour with a young man, new to the United States, from Nepal that speaks beautiful English, on how confused he when talking with other high school students by their over use of the term "like" with almost every other spoken word.
    To answer your question, Many of my “owned” items are old, many well worn, and all beautiful, with many as cast-offs from ignorant people looking for the best new "thing", completely disregarding style, and craftsmanship, and art, for flash.
    Case in point: as I type this, I am listening to the first Roxy Music album, on beautiful vinyl, and it sounds absolutely deeply realistically wonderful!
    Great post. Keep up the reflections on the past as not to many do anymore…(someone on this planet has to do it!).

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  2. My dear Scale Worm,
    Thank you for your comment. Permit me to assure you that you have arrived in the right place. It's a pleasure to have you on board. We may strive for our own nation - an amorphous one certainly - of people who know how to cherish, how to speak and write, and how to be generous in spirit.
    VB

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  3. VB - Thanks for reading my recent entry of British craftsmanship and drawing a connection to your own piece on loyalty and pride. Indeed, I think one cannot have the former without the latter.

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