Skills left behind in the wake of progress

IN THE WAKE of all progress, great or small, must inevitably come the little disasters which are the charges we must pay for moving out of obscurity and antiquity.

IN THE WAKE of all progress, great or small, must inevitably come the little disasters which are the charges we must pay for moving out of obscurity and antiquity.

A price must be paid for everything. We pay for the fine day with sunburn and for the wet one with head colds but it is not the actual payment I mourn. Rather it is the arts and crafts and skills we lose along the way.

There was in my youth in our street a small man of temperate habits and self-effacing personality. Outwardly he looked like any other nonentity.

He worked as a grocer’s clerk and failed after a lifetime to set up a business of his own. Yet he was not a failure and for all his shyness he was an artist whose talents were always in demand.

He excelled all others at cutting the tails off pups. Now there are two schools of thought in respect of dogs’ tails. One side holds that it is cruel to cut the tails off and the other side maintains that if a dog is to have an even break in life a shorn tail is the sine qua non of survival.

I subscribe to the latter view on the grounds that one often has to be cruel to be kind.

This man I mention was so expert at cutting the tails from the pups that the little creatures felt no pain.

Now there is nobody left in the street who can take the tail off a dog and owners of pups have to travel long, hazardous journeys to the house of people who would not think twice about stealing or kidnapping a pup. So you see what progress can do.

Once upon a time every alley lane and street maintained its own tail cutter at no expense to either the dog owner or the ratepayer. But indeed the character of a street needs more fibre than just a tail cutter and it is true to say that if one is prepared to look closely enough one will find a great profusion of talents.

Perhaps the greatest artist in the street was a man who worked for many years in a butcher’s shop somewhere in New York.

Inevitably he retired and having retired upon a modest pension he set sail for home and the environs that once shipped him to America.

What then was this man’s art? He was the rarest of all geniuses, a parcel maker. Yes, a parcel maker and there is many a woman reading this who will agree with what I say.

At Christmas, he was in great demand. He could so wrap a turkey for the post that the bird was better dressed than the postmaster himself.

All he wanted was enough brown paper and enough twine. Then give him any object from a box of chocolates to a gallon of whiskey and give him room. There was never any charge for his work except a word of thanks or praise. At this his eyes would moisten and he would say “Virtue is its own reward”.

I don’t know who it was who wrote the lines: “On his head as on a hill, Virtue built her citadel.”

Whoever it was, however, would not have begrudged them to this simple wrapper of parcels.

Of him an old lady said, she was a grateful client by the way, “I’d sooner him parcel me for the next world than any other.”

This was high praise indeed, as high as one could get. His response to this was, “Every man to his trade,” proof positive indeed that all great artists are humble fellows at heart.

These men I have mentioned, this tail cutter and this parcel maker were not unique. They were to be found wherever a street of houses grew round a town.

There were others, too, men who could make catapults from the goulouges of saplings, men who could pump and lace footballs with a skill that was truly abnormal.

Each man had his own chosen art and if there were some men who could turn their hand to anything they were merely jack of all trades, masters of none.

I’ve lost track of all the others but one man I remember who could cut toenails and corns leaves a lasting impression. I have no doubt he is in heaven. He has to be if the prayers of corn-afflicted women are heard.