Tuesday, January 02, 2007

And farewell watermen and lightermen?

I've just read this story in the Guardian (the paper version, where it's accompanied by a super picture of a man holding an enormous rope) and it made me rather sad. You don't have to be an expert on the Thames to regret the passing of centuries of history and tradition. Or to be touched by the poetry of the very words watermen and lightermen, so redolent, perhaps, precisely because of the way they connect the present with the past.

But, apparently, no more. The five year apprenticeship which qualifies a man as a Thames waterman has been superseded by a national qualification taking only half the time and not specific to the Thames.

Most of the concerns expressed in the article are about the implications for safety, and this is a real, if obvious, issue. But even if there were no safety implications, the story still represents another example of the willing sacrifice of in-depth knowledge and expertise to efficiency and cost savings; the idea that once safety has been addressed, and a minimal service provided, anything else is an unwarranted extravagance. Such an attitude can be seen everywhere from (now unmanned) locks to shops; as 'jobs for life' have gone, so have lifetimes worth of knowledge and experience, freely given, to be replaced by an army of cheap and interchangeable jacks-of-all-trades who cannot answer the simplest query without referring to the staff handbook or instruction manual; a process explicitly endorsed by the government.

It matters not whether the culprit in this particular case be the EU or the British government; the whole thing is symptomatic of a culture which sentimentally venerates the past once it's safely out of the way, but fails to appreciate things at the moment they're slipping away, and to catch them as they fall. This isn't only a contemporary phenomenon, but perhaps an eternal and universal one; look, for example, how Rolt, like everyone else in the 1940s, excoriates and dismisses the Victoriana which now puts thousands on the price of a house.

The article closes with a quote from a current lighterman, referring to the traditions of the job, which will be my motto for the year: We know it doesn't matter in this day and age but it should matter.

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