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.