Thursday, September 1, 2011

Vanished Trades

I might have done this before, but perhaps I only thought about it.

The world changes, and the tasks it requires of its workers change as well. If you have no training in anything but a single basic skill, and that skill becomes redundant, you have a serious problem. Or a small business with narrow margins and no flexibility where demand just stops as custom or technology changes. There are, in theory, solutions to this problem. You can retrain for something else, you can do wholly unskilled work, you can retire early, or you can find some quirk to keep people coming when the original need has gone, but none of them solve the essential problem. You are no longer needed.

In England as a child, I remember a knife-grinder coming by from time to time. My grandmother had the coal delivered in sacks by a large man with a small lorry. The ice-cream van came past every weekend and was there at every gathering where therer might be children. Some local brewers still used horse-drawn drays to take barrels to the pubs, because that’s what they’d always done. I can just remember a rag-and-bone man on a cart (I think it's a real memory, it's hard to be sure). Those trades are mostly gone now. Shoeshine boys, who I never saw back then- they had already disappeared- are back at work at railway stations and in busy streets, but now they charge a lot of money and buy a permit for their pitch from the council. The demand is manufactured, I suspect, from a kind of romantic nostalgia that has become briefly fashionable, and will soon die out again.

Here in Spain there are relicts, or relics, of these and other trades, old men who are no longer needed, and cannot adapt. Some struggle along as best they can, others still search for the odd customer who will pity them, others sit miserably on benches in the square, the tools of their trade beside them, staring uncomprehendingly at a world that they have long ceased to be part of. They are a specific type, from a specific generation, too old to be anything but what they are. They may have no pension because they were never brought within a system that didn’t exist when they began working.

Many have spent their lives on the road. The knife-grinders went from village to village playing a tune on a whistle so that everyone knew they were there. There are two left in the town where I live. One is used as an errand boy by the stallholders at the market. In the old days the butchers and fishmongers were his biggest customers, but knives have changed. Those who remember him from the old days help him along. Another one still rides his old moped around the streets, hoping for a customer. He wouldn’t know what else to do. They both look hopeless. (I’m not romanticizing this, or trivializing it. I know them both, and they share a look of desperate misery, as though their lives have been taken from them. They interacted with the world through their trade, and now they have no way of belonging.)

I haven’t seen the old shoeshine boy for a long time. He used to sleep on a stone bench in the square during the day. He can’t have shined a shoe in many years, and I doubt he ever will again.

Mrs Hickory remembers the hawkers and pedlars who used to go around the villages, and would come to the farm, with packs in which they had an amazing number of things. Later they had vans, but people stopped buying that way. There is still a carpet-fitter and upholsterer who goes from place to place in an old van with his tools and his samples, and a recording played through a megaphone over and over again telling you who he is and inviting you to get your carpet relayed.

It isn’t just the street traders. Aging barbers who learnt as teenage apprentices, or during military service, wait in tiny, sawdust covered shops for the customers who are prepared to accept what little they can offer. We all go to unisex stylists these days, even those of us with no interest in our hair and ever less hair to care about. The stylist can’t shave you, but we shave ourselves now, even when going to weddings, and the only skill the old barbers have to themselves is not needed.

Cobblers survive in dusty shops smelling of grease, by mending old suitcases and handbags, and putting thicker soles on commercial shoes that have worn thin. I still know one who can make shoes himself, but business is so poor he can no longer afford to maintain his machinery, and most of the work is done in a factory that he contracts out to. This raises the price even more, and so almost nobody asks him for shoes any more. He sells shoe polish and accessories, does the odd repair, and is waiting until he can no longer work, and has to stay at home all day, or join the old men in the square.

Some are happier than others, but what they have in common is that that they chose their trade badly, and were gradually pushed aside. It doesn’t matter if they had savings, or if social security looks after them well. Their role, their sense of their place among us, is gone.

On the other hand, entire industries die, and skilled labourers who never expected to have to learn to do anything else can find it hard to recover. My personal thoughts on Arthur Scargill and the economic insanity of paying people to do unproductive work notwithstanding, when a whole area depends largely on one trade, and the world turns and that trade is no more, whole towns must feel like that shoeshine boy.

I sometimes wonder what happened to Thomas Hardy’s reddleman. A specialist trade if ever there was one. Did it die before he did?


Brett Hetherington said...

I enjoyed reading this blog you crafted. (And a book too is of course a physical thing that needs to be written and made, as Orwell pointed out.)

When I lived in England for a couple of years there were a few different kinds of what you called "hawkers and pedlars" who came the house door and even a fish too. I always bought one or two things from them because I liked the old-fashioned nature of what they were doing, despite the fact that their wares were relatively expensive.

I think it's difficult to overstate the importance of work to a healthy self-identity, as you have suggested. I also think too many people (especially men) allow themselves to be wholly defined by their job and become mentally ill when they lose it, as you also suggested.

Two days ago I started a new full-time teaching job at an international school (after 6 months of being unemployed.) I was looking forward to it but after only these two days I already have some distinctly mixed feelings about it.

Work is variously both a pleasure and a pain for our species.

CIngram said...

In the 70's and early 80's I can remember brush salesmen, window cleaners, 'the fish', a fizzy drinks lorry, that sort of regular door-to-door stuff, but not actual 'hawkers and pedlars'.

Like you I teach (a lot), translate/interpret (quite a bit), write (textbooks, occasionally) and I train speakers sometimes. I'm lucky enough to enjoy nearly all of what I do, but I don't define myself by it, nor would I miss it if I had the resources to give it up.

The phychological satisfaction of finishing your day's/week's/year's work and knowing you've done it well can be very important, but yes, it's easy to take it too far. It's just the way we are.

Good luck with the new job. Teaching in a school can be very hard work (I did it for seven years) and there always seems to be one more plate to juggle, but it can also be very satisfying. A lot depends on the approach of the school, the attitude of the 'junta de dirección' and the staff and parents in general.

Brett Hetherington said...

Thanks for the good wishes. I am going to need them as I am learning a lot of new things about poor/odd/bewildering Spanish workplace practices that are being practised by some mainly very nice people to work with (so far.)

The students arrive next week so the job really begins then. The timetable is brutal and that's not even considering the wheelbarrow loads of marking that are to come. I enjoy the kids usually but I hate the paperwork overall.

I'd like a gig that was more like yours with that variety you seem to have in the different types of work you do. Maybe oneday...

Tell me please, what textbooks do you write?

CIngram said...

Yes, it is hard work. My 'gig' is partly the result of choice, as I also prefer it to being in a school. In a school you work hard but you have stability and a regular wage. While I'm still relatively young and have the energy to go looking for clients and commissions I'll do what I'm doing, but the downside is you can earn a lot one month and not so much the next.

Yet another thing I did for years, although not just at the moment, was run the English section of an Academy that trains teachers for the 'oposiciones' to teach in schools. I was commissioned by a publisher (CEP) to produce a series of texts structuring the content of the 'temario de oposiciones' and explainning how to learn it and present it in the exam. Later I wrote a guide to producing a didctic programme to satisfy the requirements of the LOE and assorted national and local legislation (yes, it's as much fun as it sounds).

There's talk of producing texts for the 'módulos' of the new FP, but it's not really my thing, and the company's none to buoyant anyway so I'll probably pass on that one.

Yes, there's a lot of variety, which is fun, and I'm mostly my own boss. While there's work in all those areas, I'll keep doing it this way.

Good luck!