The British Workman

by Victoria Madden

I was sitting at my desk one morning, when a noise made me look up. A large pantechnicon had pulled up outside the un-occupied house next door, the name and details of a removals company professionally decorating its side. I pointed it out to my companion, who remarked that they must be taking the furniture away at last. ‘Just wait’, I said, and recounted the story of my own experience moving house, when I’d relocated with work and the firm had paid. ‘It’s absolutely marvellous how efficient these people are, they’ll be in and out in a jiffy; have that house completely cleared in no time.’

We waited.

After about fifteen minutes I went and made myself a coffee, feeling that I wasn’t going to be missing much. A little van that had accompanied the pantechnicon, buzzed off around the corner and after a short while came back again. Perhaps he’d been sent out for buns.

Time went by. Just after we’d given up all hope of any entertainment and moved on to other things, a middle-aged man in an anorak, who looked rather like a trainspotter, got out of the cab and shambled off. Another man got out of the other side, slightly more briskly, and presumably joined him. A few desultory, clunking sounds came through the party wall, at long, irregular intervals. My companion hoped the neighbours weren’t paying the removal men by the hour.

It got me thinking about The British Workman and why he has such a bad press. In my own experiences, what has struck me the most is the almost pathological reluctance, universally displayed, to commit themselves to any sort of definite statement, particularly one relating to times or schedules, and the injured air assumed when asked to do so.

It reminded me of a documentary I once saw about a couple who had bought a flat-pack house from Germany. The German contractors turned up at the crack of dawn in a huge van, with every single item organized in its own little section. They had even, if I remember rightly, brought their own beer for after the job.

The British contractor had only to come from about fifty miles up the road. He was several hours late. The Germans, all straining at the leash to get on, stood around looking unimpressed. The house-buying couple were sinking with mortification in a very understated English way. Eventually the presenter managed to get hold of the chap and he turned up, saying, in rather a sulky manner, that he had got lost and couldn’t find the site. The Germans, who had managed to find it perfectly well from their factory in another country, looked even more unimpressed while radiating the efficiency of their national stereotype.

There was also the documentary about the transfer of the Shinkansen train to England: a gift from Japan to the National Railway Museum in York. (You have got to go there if you can. You don’t have to be madly into trains, it’s still brilliant.) At the Japanese end there was a crowd and speeches and the press and cheering. I’m not sure there wasn’t even a brass band. The gleaming train was lowered down by crane on to a ship, orchestrated by officials in white gloves with whistles. The whole thing was perfectly, beautifully done.

By contrast, at the British end, two or three workmen in tatty, high-vis waistcoats and an anxious looking Museum officer tried to back the Shinkasen through the Museum doorway after hours, with shouts of ‘right a bit! left a bit! Whoa, whoa, WHOA! Hold on! Hold it!! HOLD IT!!’ in increasingly panic-stricken tones. After a while, one of the workmen, who had been standing there watching the proceedings, announced with gloomy satisfaction that it wasn’t going to fit. The Museum officer, fully conscious of the honour being done to them by the Japanese railway company, sweated buckets. They got it through in the end but I think paint scraping was involved. It did not make us look good.

Whatever happened to the British Workman? Is he a dying species or did he never actually exist? There are people out there who know what they’re doing; the trouble seems to be finding them. Googling a problem of my own once, I came across a similar query posted by a frantic householder, bogged down with the inadequacies of her builders. A workman who had responded intelligently and authoritatively was being innundated by offers of work by others on the forum, practically begging him to name his own price if he would please come and work for them.

I seem to recall correspondence about dilatory workmen during the building of Hardwick Hall, in the days of the first Elizabeth, so it’s obviously nothing new. What is new, though, is the disappearance of the apprenticeships and guilds that maintained high standards. Successive governments have dragged their heels over the regulation of the building trades; and to the computer-fixated generations, a manual job is no longer a craft in which to take pride, but a dirty word. I find it ironic that it was New Labour that accomplished this: its emphasis on higher education, at the expense of traditional craft skills, has pushed those without degrees further out of the job market and vastly expanded the once tiny lumpen-proletariat.

About half past three in the afternoon things livened up next door. Perhaps they’d arranged to meet their friends in the pub at five. Purposeful, sustained thuds could be heard at last and men’s voices; it actually sounded as though a removal was in progress. At quarter to five I noticed that the pantechnicon doors had been closed and just before five they drove off.