Monday, 11 October 2010

The Pride of the North

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.


Anonymous said...

Not Anon, am Lysistrata.

Wonderful article. You are absolutely right. I used to know men who could, collectively, have designed and built an entire train, and its track, from scratch. And welded washing line poles back together, for the price of a smile, to help a struggling young wife (me).
Lost skills, lost generations. *sigh*

Anonymous said...

Very true. But with H&S and litigation the top priorities, cobbling proven bits together means you'll never be open to being sued.

Yes, I can wire, plumb, service a (simple) car, build a wall, line a loft, install a Velux. But my father is a time-served northern plumber and these things are simple, needing nothing more than a logical approach. Many of course are not permitted now, simply because of H&S. You need to have a certificate, having passed a written exam. Kind of missing the point really.

How did we get to the point where men can say proudly that they can't even put up a shelf and be thought adequate?

Weekend Yachtsman said...

We've been here before; at bottom you are anathematising those twin curses of our age, Elf 'n Safety and credentialism.

I am not sure there's a way back; so much damage to be undone, so much of it deeply embedded in our culture and - especially - our education system.

It would take a couple of generations to achieve, even if we could start now with a clear plan and great determination.

But despair is a sin.

Woodsy42 said...

Yesterday in the cyclist's agony column of the Sunday Times some chap was agonising whether his bike needed to go 'into the shop' to have a bearing serviced.
By the age of 12 I could strip my bike down to the last ball bearing and rebuild it, it wasn't an unusual skill, it's what people did! I too can fix the car, mend the house, do plumbing and wiring.
But I grew up in Essex so I don't think the problem is geographical, it's educational.

Chris said...

Wasn't this talked about in "Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintainence"? There's an old and pernicious mindset, especially prevalant in the Anglopshere, that considers working with one's hands declasse.

One of my regrets is that I never learned a trade. It would be handy in this job market...

Budgie said...

"I really hope that we haven't lost in a generation that which took a century to establish."

We have. And both Labour and Tories were told, and ignored it.

However the biggest single factor is the exchange rates. I know that someone in India (and I assume in China) can live a similar lifestyle to me on one fifth of the (exchange rate equivalent) income.

It is the grossly out of kilter exchange rates that make Chinese and Indian goods so (apparently) cheap. Our industries cannot compete with this, and so have closed.

William Gruff said...

There was no lack of engineering talent, imagination, initiative or enthusiasm in the South, and no lack of engineers either, as my father and a couple of my uncles would be only too pleased to point out to you Raedwald. What we had, and from my experience as a southerner in the north (where my accent still occasionally excites hostility) still have, is a more flexible attitude to work and a less belligerent attitude to authority, and outsiders. Having made itself uncompetitive, the North now lives on Southern wealth, and has done for some time.

Bill Quango MP said...

Had a talk with someone who was saying that giant airships are the 'new idea' for moving massive structures like power plants.

Instead of building a road, flattening a hill - just wait for the perfect weather, lift up the item and float along to the destination.
And the airship would be reusable.

Chuckles said...

The difference between someone who is an engineer, and someone who has studied engineering?

As Jerry Pournelle has oft times pointed out, dark ages fall when we collectively no longer remember how to do something, or even that we were once able to do it.