V.S. Pritchett, perhaps the best-read critic of the last century, left school at fifteen to work in the London leather trade. Some of the most interesting pages in the first volume of his memoirs, A Cab at the Door (1968), recount his apprenticeship in tanning (and bring to mind Philip Roth’s account of glovemaking in American Pastoral). Pritchett says, “I was happier in my hours in the leather trade than I was at home,” and continues:
“When I grew up and read Defoe’s Complete English Tradesman I knew the pleasure he felt in the knowledge of a trade, its persons and its way. If I knew nothing else, at the end of four years I was proud of my knowledge of leather. It was a gratifying knowledge. During the last war I had to spend some time in shipyards on the Tyne and on the Clyde and the passionate interest in a craft came back to me; and although I was then an established writer, I half wished I had spent my life in an industry. The sight of skill and of traditional expertness is irresistible to me.”
I share the sentiment. The closest I came to learning a trade was being a newspaper reporter. I still feel nostalgia for the process of putting out a daily newspaper, the enormous collaborative effort that once involved practitioners of so many trades. Of course, that was how I learned to write, to elicit information, to craft a story, to meet a daily deadline – the skills I still exercise every day.