Home & Shop Companion #0086
letter from a small corner of far away
Dear Lynn, dear Everyone,
It seems a long time since I last sat down to tap out the latest happenings from here. In the intervening weeks, the season has moved on, the onions which I pulled up a couple of weeks back are now drying in the greenhouse or on the floor of the open fronted stable, and the more delicate garden plants are starting to die back. But it is still warm, today it is 65 degrees [18 c] and it has been around this temperature most of September.
August by contrast, was relatively cool and damp, so it was only at the very end of the month that the combines were out harvesting small grains, when the grain finally got dry enough to minimise the need to put it through a dryer. Having grown up in a household where harvest was the most crucial part of the year and having spent years actively involved in harvesting, it still seems strange to view it only from the outside. There is little grain grown near here, but on my daily hour and a quarter car journey to the violin making course I attended in the south of the county three weeks ago, I got to see a bit of it, and my, is it quick and perfunctory, with the size of combines, tractors, trailers and balers used today. One morning, however, once past the biggest of the arable fields and nearing my destination, I stopped the car to take these pictures as the mist started to burn away, typical scenes of south Shropshire, but in the field where the sheep were grazing the real story was more pleasing than the superficial view, and invisible if I had not stopped the car – a healthy stand of clover mixed amongst the grass, still a rarity round here, I’m afraid. Another day when Liz needed the car, I took the train instead. It went a slightly different route, and in one out-of-the-way place there was a small vegetable garden in full production, fenced off in a small field, backing onto woodland where three little open sheds, probably only six feet tall and each with a double pitched roof, were neatly stacked with firewood. Seeing things from behind, the small and homemade, the cared-for, experimental and alternative, is one of the pleasures of traveling by train. It’s a part of life we tend to forget when traveling the high roads, past the big trucks and combines, speeding from now to tomorrow, oblivious of the little things, much of the world remaining invisible unless we choose to look.
I was particular conscious of detail and choosing routes into the future one day towards the end of the violin making course. Although described as a course, it was set up more like a gathering, the first of its kind run by the British Violin Makers Association, with ten violin makers working in one room and five bow makers in another. To prime the pump, four of us were asked to make an instrument together, because the organiser knew from having seen us working together that the open discussions and our fluency and flexibility with the process would set the right tone for sharing and learning. And that was how it turned out – animated, light-hearted, serious, stimulating, invigorating, but thoroughly exhausting.
Although there were no teachers as such, there was still a lot of learning going on, not least between the four of us working on the joint violin, because this time we decided to use as many authentic 18th century methods as we could, whether founded upon evidence or surmised from our knowledge of tools, techniques, and the old instruments themselves. This was something I experimented with last year, reverse engineering the process in the manner of experimental archaeology, but working with the others, as they tried out and developed my experimental ideas, added another dimension, as they contributed their observations and experience, inspiring further ideas and discussion. In many ways the process was like learning how to work with old horse drawn mowers and turners and ploughs, by experiment, conversation, thought and observation.
One reason the week was so refreshing was because when I started out as an instrument maker, no one told anyone anything, it was all secrets. But the biggest secret was that very few people knew much at all, they weren’t protecting the craft or their knowledge, but their position and insecurities, the craft having become debased and near moribund due to the lack of practitioners, misplaced nineteenth century attitudes and the snobbishness of a self-appointed elite. In the intervening years, however, the situation has changed out of all recognition as those of us active in the craft have worked, experimented and researched, gradually and effectively pulling ourselves up by our collective boot laces.
After waxing lyrical about the current instrument making scene, I can’t avoid contrasting that healthy state of affairs with the world of heavy horses in Britain [indeed they are not even called draught horses very often, and work horses even less frequently] which is much like the violin maker’s situation of forty years ago. It is a sad place to be, as the show fraternity and the smart riding sector increasingly impose their dogmatic and often damaging expectations. With the generations who genuinely worked their horses in the past no longer with us, there are not enough voices advocating the horse as a working animal, or even plain practical horse sense, and simply not enough of us doing enough work to keep our boots from falling off. The initial interest is there perhaps, but only last weekend my daughter reported on her visit to one of our country’s fine old gardens where they had horses extracting timber for a day. Her critical synopsis went like this, ‘they were way too tall, they wouldn’t stand still, they were not under control and were cantering with a log attached.’ At this juncture it would be easy for me to sink into ‘grumpy old man mode,’ but I won’t do that because I am sure you get the picture, and anyway, I still remember my early days with horses and my early attempts at instrument making and how hard and complex it all was, despite having a reasonable woodworking ability for the one, and farming experience to inform the other. But still, when I think about logs and inadequately trained horses, especially in a public setting, my heart despairs, but I also question how it is that those of us who have a solid background and knowledge have isolated ourselves so much, whether through geography or attitude, so that those new to the job do not know what is possible and what can be expected.
But getting back to the violin course, we were lucky to have two people fresh out of college and one who is still a student. In a quiet moment, the student, feeling somewhat overwhelmed, voiced her concern at how she should move forward, perhaps doubting her abilities and not knowing how she would fit into that world. But to me, she was doing just fine, and I told her so, for three simple reasons – because she paid close attention, – she was enthusiastic, and – was conscientious in her efforts. At her stage of life, that is all that anyone can expect, whether in farming, logging, violin making or anything else worth doing. But equally, although those three qualities are the maximum a student or pupil can contribute, really, they are also the minimum. Come to think of it, that is also what any student should expect from a teacher; indeed, if we want to attain some level of success and relaxation in our own activities, it is also what we need to find in ourselves, because if we are doing it right, we are all learners, improvers and teachers, all at the same time.
William Castle is a violin maker, farmer & SFJ contributor who lives in Shropshire, England.