My grandson Sam has asked for my help preparing a speech for his English homework. To be honest, I am thinking that I am more of a hindrance than a help…
The trouble is, I just get far too interested in his homework and find myself heading off in different directions, none of them likely to find their way into his five minute exploration of how jobs have either disappeared
or evolved into something completely different over the years. Fascinating, don’t you agree?
I was never so taken up with my own homework, in those distant
days when I was Sam’s age. I recall, with something approaching distress, the Tyranny of the Homework Diary. Did you have one of those when you were at school? Mine was a small notebook in which every task set for home study was carefully written, together
with the date of issue and the date by which it had to be handed in. At particularly stressful times, outstanding assignments might take up two or three pages of the Homework Diary - just reading them through was enough to induce mild (or not so mild) panic.
The only good thing about the Homework Diary was the feeling of elation when I was able to cross through an entry to signify “job done!” The worst thing was that for every entry crossed through, another two would inevitably appear below it. That’s
what I mean by Tyranny.
Talking to Sam about his homework was so much more fun. If only I could have stuck to the point, I’m sure I could have been helpful.
I shouldn’t have kept straying off into pastures new. Take, for example, our discussion about lamp-lighters - those helpful fellas who toured the streets in Victorian times, bringing light to the darkness by lighting the lamps as dusk fell. Off I went,
Googling the words of Robert Louis Stevenson’s poem about Learie the Lamplighter and then insisting on reading the verses over the phone to my listening grandson. After which I had to tell him the story of how I bought a book of Robert Louis Stevenson’s
poetry (including the Learie Story) for my little Sister when she came out of hospital after a long stay during which I wasn’t allowed to see her. Except for the one occasion when my dear Dad lifted me up to the window of her hospital ward so that I
could at least see and wave at her. You see what I mean? This was a completely unnecessary diversion and not the least bit helpful as potential material for The Speech.
We then moved onto Town Criers - Sam had gathered some interesting facts and figures about the decline in numbers of these once-all-important announcers of the news since their hey-day (such a very appropriate word, given their role, don’t you
agree?) Off I went at a tangent, telling him about my friend Bob who, after a year as Worthing’s First Citizen, exchanged his Mayoral robes for a splendid Town Crier’s outfit, so becoming the first person on the invite list for every local charity
event. “I’ll send you a photograph of him in his robes!” I promised. Poor Sam was far too kind to point out that, interesting (or not) though this might be, it wouldn’t help him fill those important five minutes on the evolution of
once everyday occupations.
Long after we finished our phone call, I was still thinking about my own ancestors and their occupations of old. My great, great grandmother
was a “widow’s cope maker” in Victorian times but there isn’t much call for so-called “widow’s weeds” these days. My great grandfather was a brush finisher - I always wondered why he described himself thus, rather
than as a common or garden brush-maker till I learnt that the finishing of brushes was the most skilled part of his trade. Mr B would understand - he will always tell you that he was a “compositor” not a printer even though for most of us they
would be one and the same. His job is a prime example of an occupation which has evolved over the years from the days when every letter, in every word, in every sentence, paragraph and page of a newspaper was individually set. Today a computer does the job.
Mr B retrained three times as his job evolved over time. I remember him once describing his job, after he moved on from dealing in metal type to be a paste-up artist, making
up the newspaper pages by pasting sections of typed paper into place. “We do that at play-group,” the Middle of the Darling Daughters told him, seriously, “We call it stickings…”
It’s evolution, Jim (or even, Sam) - but not as we know it…