Thursday, 14 April 2011

Clerkenwell crafts - nostalgia and melancholy

A really nice glimpse into a world of craftsmanship in Clerkenwell  today over at one of my favourite blogs.

My first job 'in the print' was in Clerkenwell. When I describe it to people now I am conscious that it sounds like something from the 1500's - in fact it was only the late '80s. I was  a production junior in pre press - having done a short course at the then London College of Printing - it was a backdoor route into the trade and the possession of that precious union card at a time when four year appenticeships were the norm and graduates virtually unheard of.

The first couple of years I spent in a small trade house was a fantastic education. My duties were general dogs-bodying around the studio and no small part of this was being a runner dropping off and collecting work around the small concentrated area of tenement-style buildings behind the Clerkenwell Road . These buildings were a warren of small businesses often with only half a dozen guys occupying  a single room and  engaged in  some very specific operation in the spectrum of arcane crafts that made up the 'print'. We were a lithographic planning/plate-making house - and that was all we did - so  a typical project would require me to scuttle back and forth from  the scanning house around the corner, the cromalin company next door, the wet proofers in the basement and the typesetters at the end of the street.

Thinking about it now I have no idea of how costs were recorded or even who was working for who - the client / supplier relationship would oscillate between different projects - often several times a day. It wasn't really clear either who was the management - most of the businesses were owned by one or two working managers who themselves were hands-on or 'on the bench'. Everybody seemed to have worked with - or for - everyone else at some point. And everyone of course was in 'the union'. In fact the union acted as part HR department and part recruitment agency - the officials were usually of the same generation as the working owners and they colluded in  placing their old mates in the best jobs. This was the age of the 'green list' and 'white card' when vacancies in other houses were only advertised by the union, from which you had to get a permission slip in order to go for an interview - to be presented to the Father Of Chapel before you spoke to  a prospective employer.

I'm almost getting dewy-eyed as I type all this - but of course the reality was a far cry from some sort of workers-controlled halcyon age. The system was rife was nepotism and corruption and a self-perpetuated  clique that kept out outsiders - particularly women and minorities - and a culture of bullying apprentices / juniors was almost institutionalised. But for centuries it created a layer of affluent skilled workers who took immense pride in what they did and didn't take too much shit from anyone. I feel privileged to have been a small part of that world for the last decade of its existence. By the mid '90s Thatcher, Murdoch and the Apple Mac had effectively killed it off. Some of us are still going having reinvented ourselves several times over in a digital age and shrouded ourselves in the bullshit of the 'creative industries'.

I suppose we are still a privileged little world - as working environments go it is probably better than most and a damn site better than the service industries and soulless white-collar jobs that nowadays  are the norm. But I can't helping thinking that nearly all those things that first drew me to it are now a part of history. And whilst there might be a whole lot of  renewal currently going on in  Clerkenwell, I did notice the other week  that the workshop where my first company was is now a gastro-bar packed with media-lovies...

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