Watching Channel 4’s Escape to the Chateau, there is a constant sense of amazement at the multiplicity of skills demonstrated by Dick and Angel Strawbridge, there seems no task of a tradesman or an artisan that is beyond them, and they crown every practical task with an extraordinary creativity. To be so able would have been to command profound respect in the community in which I grew up. An abiding memory of childhood is being told of a man from our community who had gone to university, something rare in such times, but did not know how to repair a puncture in a bicycle tyre. The Strawbridges combine genius with intensely practical application.
In our community, book learning was considered to be of little value unless it translated directly into vocational skills, such as those of the vet or the doctor. Speculative subjects, anything not rooted in the reality of daily experiences, were not thought worth the time or the expense. Those most valued were those with the skills of tradesmen, to be a builder, or a carpenter, or an electrician, or a plumber, was to be someone who commanded the respect of their peers.
Re-reading a letter from Canada written in 1909, recalled how it was the practical workers who established the town that came to dot the maps of the western provinces:
You have done a very wise thing in learning the engineering business. A good trade beats anything, especially out in this western country or western States. I was down in Seattle at Alaska Yukon Pacific fair and really the bricklayers were receiving seven dollars a day or equivalent to 29 shillings English money. Don’t you think it is pretty big money, but then again they’ve very big expenses as it will cost them $1 dollar per diem board, but a trade is the thing in this country. It is one of the worst countries a clerical man could possibly come to, as it is over run with clerks of all descriptions: farmers and farm help is the cry and if a man is not prepared to do manual labour, it is better to stop out of the country altogether.
In the current times of austerity and economic uncertainty, it is the tradesman who is in demand. To be able to offer a vocational skill is to be someone respected and welcomed. Utilitarianism is the order of the day. To be like the clerks seeking work in western Canada a century ago is to have skills for which there is little reward.