When, many years ago, not long before the miners' strike, I learned my engineering it was at the hands of an astonishingly capable group of Yorkshiremen. My tutors had generally one thing in common; that they had all worked for the National Coal Board as mining, mechanical or electrical engineers. Their huge capability and quiet confidence meant that nothing was beyond them, absolutely nothing, - and this is hard to describe.
My teams these days in London follow a somewhat rigid and formulaic process in which each and every construction solution is prescribed and the design process is akin to bolting bits together from a variety of codes of practice and standard details. They never stray beyond the comfort of the standard and the proven. As a consequence, the whole tends to lack both simplicity and elegance as disparate elements are stuck together. It's safe, and low risk, and therefore cheap. But how differently those men from Yorkshire would have approached things.
One man was tasked with moving a massive dragline excavator about three miles. It had never been done before. The wisdom was that it would have to be disassembled and rebuilt, or scrapped and a new one built, both processes likely to take two years. He came up with a different answer; it would walk to its new home under its own power. For sure, a hill had to be flattened, several roads diverted, a new road built and the excavator converted to run from an 11,000 volt cable plugged into a nearby line of national grid pylons, but it could all be done in a year. And off it went, taking little 30" steps on its massive hydraulic feet.
This approach extended right through the engineering specialisms; in every garage and garden shed men were creating, innovating, welding and cutting, making where the South would buy. In Barnsley and Rochdale a twelve year-old could re-engine an old car and not be far off cutting new planetary gears for the transmission, and men who worked with 3.3kV TPN power networks at work saw nothing unusual in teaching their children how to install a 230v spur themselves. At dusk over Barnsley, the actinic crackle of arc welding light would twinkle from a thousand sheds. Alright, I exaggerate slightly. But not much. You had to live there to see what I mean - compared to the South of England, the difference was astonishing. Every man was a Fred Dibnah.
I'm lucky enough to have absorbed enough of this capability to have placed my problem solving skills at a premium here in London, but oh what we've lost as a nation if we've lost the capability of the men of the North like these. The pride of the North was well earned, and served Britain well. As this government is starting to realise that manufacturing exports, not consuming Chinese goods, is the answer to a strong and healthy economy I really hope that we haven't lost in a generation that which took a century to establish.