Monday, August 10, 2015

`Traditional Expertness'

The heat-index in Houston was 110° F. on the day I chose to spend my lunch sitting on a bench, eating my sandwich and watching the tree-service men trim the oaks that line the road in front of my building. Their manner was military and methodical. They begin with pole pruners and, for thicker branches, pole saws. Soon the road, sidewalk and border were littered with branches, leaves, flakes of lichen and ball moss. They removed the refuse with rakes and by hand, and disposed of it in the wood chipper. No motion was wasted. When they finished, the road, normally densely canopied and tunnel-like with branches, was brightly lit and airy again, reducing the indoor sensation the outdoors sometimes possesses with changes of light. Watching the men at work was deeply satisfying. I like tidiness but I also love to watch a process worked out to its conclusion. And I admire skill honed by experience. These guys knew precisely what they were doing, and did it with stylish efficiency. 

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.

1 comment:

Dick Cornflour said...

For many years, I've said that contemporary fiction suffers greatly from a lack of attention to work, and a lack of respect for work. And I don't mean silly screeds about the sufferings of the oppressed. But I rarely mention it anymore, because most people look at me as if I were insane. A few gently begin to tell me -- in terms fit for a child -- what literature is really about. After all that, I hope that you can imagine that I read your piece today with some pleasure. Also, while I understand that books are the focus of your blog, I'd appreciate it if you wrote a little more often as if you were still a reporter. Maybe once a month or so, just for a change of pace? Thanks again.