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“You should trust any man in his own art, provided he is skilled at it.”

Edward Coke (noted politician, lawyer and judge in the Elizabethan and Jacobean eras)



Every week, I join a queue – always a good sign that the wares on sale are up to scratch – on a patch of wasteland near our home while we await the arrival of Max the Fish in his van. His name is Max – that much I have gleaned from the identity painted on the side of his portable fish market – but Max the Fish is my label. Well, why not? We have Jones the Steam, Roger the Cabin Boy, Thomas the Tank Engine, Winnie the Pooh, Postman Pat, so Max the Fish did not seem so outrageous (though I rejected Captain Birdseye, on account of the fact his fish is frozen). Every week, Max the Fish drives down overnight from Chernobyl, I do beg your pardon, I mean Grimsby, with the day’s catch in his van and the length of the queue waiting for him in all weathers is testament to the freshness of his produce. He is a trawlerman by trade – “I’d go back on the boats tomorrow, but the missus won’t let me” – and is as hardy as you would expect. I’ve never seen him wear more than a tee shirt. Well, of course, he wears trousers, but you catch my drift, if you will pardon the nautical metaphor.


It is not his expertise as a fisherman that catches my eye but the swift and practised manner with which he fulfils the order of each of his customers. I watch in awe at his skill as he slices, skins, fillets, trims slabs of fish to our satisfaction before slinging the fish back into its iced tray. It’s what he does with the off-cuts that really fascinates me. There is a plastic container at the back of his van and almost without looking, in they go – and he never misses. His expertise with the knife is equally dextrous. “Have you ever cut yourself?” I asked. He grimaced. “Once,” he replied. It’s rather like being hit on the head by a bouncer. You make sure that it is once and once only. Then we have the spectacle of opening the plastic carrier bags. He rubs them together and hey presto! The endspart and you have a carrier bag. I’ve spent minutes trying to separate out a bin liner. The fish is weighed, placed in the bag, priced, payment accepted, and change given before you can say Davy Jones Locker. Anybody who has suffered at the hands of a hapless and sluggish bartender ought to hand out cards for The Max School of Rapid Service. All done with a cheerful smile and friendly banter.


Ever since an early age, I have been in wonderment of those who are good with their hands, who can create, shape, assemble, make, fix, mend…..anything that is complex and difficult yet is effected with effortless ease. There is no doubt in my mind why this is so. It is because there is not a single DIY bone in my body. Even to change a plug, I swiftly become all fingers and thumbs. In my mind there is nothing that frustrates me more than the innate hostility of inanimate objects and eventually I fling the plug aside and it remains unfixed. My kids have inherited this ineptitude and blame me for not teaching them. I in turn blame my father. He was hopeless if anything went wrong in the home. We can all remember a light switch in the breakfast room that hung by its wires for a good decade or more. This surprised me, because he spent all of the war in the 25th Dragoons (a tank regiment) fighting the Japanese in Burma. “But I didn’t drive the bally things,” he protested, “I didn’t service and mend them. I commanded them!” He was a headmaster and was, you understand, good at commanding. Thus, we were commanded to work hard at our studies to go to university but learning how to use a screwdriver was well down the list of priorities.


For my gap year, it was decided (I was commanded) that I should work for the LCC (London County Council). Not for me bungee-jumping in New Zealand, inter-railing throughout Europe or working in a bar in Goa; no, my job was to be a plasterer’s mate, tarting up old council houses. Of course, I was immediately sent to make the tea. Workmen seem to have an unquenchable thirst for tea. They even had a tea break before they started work. I once suggested in a Common Room meeting at Malvern College that we teachers would benefit from a coffee break immediately after morning Chapel and before Period 1, but the idea received short shrift. My job was to ‘knock up’ the plaster, that is, mixing the requisite amounts of sand, cement and water (as best I can remember, it was 1 part cement, 1 part water and 4 parts sand) until you had a gooey mess, just ripe to be ‘thrown’ at the wall. My boss would take his trowel and ‘lay it on thick’ in wide, sweeping movements. Speed seemed to be the key. It all looked so easy. “Can I have a go?” I asked. He grinned and handed me the trowel. Mimicking his movements, I slapped on the mixture as fast as I could and stood back to admire my handiwork. Ten to fifteen seconds later, the plaster slowly, inexorably, peeled itself off the wall to land in an ignominious mess on the floor. My plastering career was brought to a swift and merciful end.


There is a postscript to my time at the LCC. Word soon spread that there was a ‘stood’ on site, one who could read and write. Thereafter, I was deputed to fill in all the workers’ time sheets. Some of my best creative writing was done between those innumerable tea breaks.


I remember standing transfixed one morning in the fish market in Sydney watching a Chinese man splitting oysters. It looked a tricky business. And a chilly one too. The oysters were in buckets of ice. He was wrapped up against the cold, wearing a beanie and woollen gloves with the fingers cut off. First, he cleaned each oyster of loose grit and barnacles. Then, with the flat side up, he inserted his knife, sliding it around the lip, and then prised the shell open with his other hand. Once he had opened it up, again with his knife he detached any muscle and any further grit and added it to the growing pile of lunch time delicacies. It might be entertaining to open and prepare a dozen oysters for your guests but to slit hundreds and hundreds, swiftly and without mishap, when your hands must be freezing cold, was a task that was worthy of my admiration.


Have you ever attempted to back a trailer or a caravan into a tight space? I have, whilst caravanning in Europe with the family and whenever I found myself with no way out but to reverse, the results were laughably catastrophic. It is an exceedingly difficult manoeuvre, involving turning the steering wheel in the opposite direction to that which you expect and all your inclinations demand. That is why I observe the drivers of articulated lorries, those great beasts of the road, with silent applause when they bring traffic to a halt in order to reverse up a drive or into a narrow gap in a factory forecourt. No pressure then, with the world and his dog watching, to say nothing of impatient motorists irritated by the hold-up. Looking simultaneously, it would seem, into threemirrors, to the right and to the left and above, with the accompanying… well, I would like to call it a jingle, but in truth it is more like a Martian, intoning “Vehicle Reversing, Vehicle Reversing”, the driver performs his pirouette with his steel truck weighing 44 tonnes. Truckers? A breed apart.


Kes. The film adapted from the novel A Kestrel for a Knave. Most of us have seen it, chronicling the adventures of a boy, bullied at school, who adopts a fledgling kestrel and trains it in the art of falconry. I have watched it numerous times; it was a set book in the GCSE syllabus. There is a memorable scene when the PE teacher, imagining himself as Bobby Charlton, runs through the puny defence of the small boys in his charge, barging then aside, knocking them over, to score in an empty net (the goalie had sensibly jumped out of his way), to win the FA Cup for Manchester United. But it is not the footballing exploits of the swaggering PE teacher that concern me here, it is the training and the flying of a bird of prey.


I once watched a performance by a girl who explained and demonstrated how it is done. Perched on her leather-encased arm was a magnificent bird, not an eagle, but a large hawk, I think. Motionless, it fixed us with an unblinking, imperious, rather disdainful stare. After her introductory remarks, the girl gave the hawk lift-off. Away it soared, until it was no more than a distant speck in the sky. There’s no way that bird’s coming home, I thought to myself. Then the girl whirled around the leash with the bait attached and the bird swooped, seemingly out of nowhere, with a loud whooshing sound, to land on the trainer’s outstretched arm. A strong arm, I would guess, because the hawk stooped and banked at considerable speed. It was quite simply a magnificent, stirring spectacle. But consider the hours and hours of painstaking practice to reach such a joyous coupling of human being and bird of prey.


My point, I guess, is to underline that hoary old chestnut of a proverb, ‘If a thing is worth doing, it is worth doing well.’ Except some people are better at doing it than others. Nonetheless, I would imagine that none of the characters I have delineated would have realised that I saw something in them that was special. They would probably shrug and say something along the lines, ‘Well, it’s my job. It’s what I do.’ As ever, Shakespeare put it better than most:

“Things done well and with a care, exempt themselves from fear” (Henry VIII)

They did things with care, without fear, and it was a joy to witness.

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