Sunday, July 26, 2020

Great Bardfield, Essex

The carpenter...and Mr Pepper

My other personal favourite from Edward Bawden’s illustrations for Life in an English Country Village is the carpenter. Watching my father carefully mark out the edge of a door to fit a lock (and the corresponding strike plate on the jamb), then cut the required holes, deep for the lock itself and shallow for the plate, made me wonder how he’d got such skills, how he could achieve the necessary precision with such ease. He’d had various jobs in his life, from farm worker to supervisor in a factory, none of which required carpentry skills, and I knew that the tiny village school he attended would have had no facilities for teaching him the basics of woodwork. How then, did he wield a mallet and chisel so expertly? How did he even know where to start?

At first, when I asked him, he just said that it was years of trial and error – trying things, getting them wrong, then trying and getting a little better, and so on. Fail again, fail better, as Samuel Beckett had it. But at the end of his life, when reminiscences flowed more freely, he mentioned his boyhood fascination for what the village carpenter did in his workshop. Walking home from school, he and a friend used to peer surreptitiously through the open door of the carpenter’s shop. Eventually, someone saw them gawping, thought they were creating a nuisance, and shooed them away. The carpenter – who I seem to remember was called Mr Pepper – looked up. ‘No. Let them stay,’ he said. ‘They can watch. As long as they don’t touch anything.’

And so, every day for a while, my father stopped at the door of Mr Pepper’s and watched the craftsman at work. He was never allowed to try anything himself – those tools were too sharp and dangerous, and also too valuable to spoil – but he looked, and remembered. And occasionally, when things were quiet in the workshop, Mr Pepper would explain what he was doing. When, a little older, my Dad was working and could buy one or two tools of his own, he had a flying start, and the process of private mistake-making and trying again began.

They say there’s really only one way to acquire a practical skill – by doing it. And up to a point, that’s right. But there is more than one way of learning. You can also pick up a lot by watching someone who is really good at what they do. I think of that when I look at Bawden’s carpenter at work, with his glue on the heat, his saws, augurs, planes, mallet, and hammer within reach, his endless little boxes (every available size of wood screw?) stacked on the shelf, his spartan shop, which has what looks like a corrugated iron roof and wooden walls. It doesn’t look big, but there will be a yard out there where he can work too, and inside, the windows throw enough light on to the benches.

I sometimes think that I didn’t learn much from my father, whose work skills ran to an ability to grasp practical problems, learn manual skills, and manage people. Where did the gene that enabled that hand and eye coordination go, for a start? Vanished into air, into thin air. The carpenter’s skills are not the kind of abilities I put to use as a writer, perhaps. But I was taught that you can learn by looking. And I try to do that every day.

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