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Review: We are the Engineers! by Christopher Harvie

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they-taughtlowres.jpgReview: "We are the Engineers!" by Christopher Harvie

We Are The Engineers!  They Taught Us Skills For Life 

by Margaret Bennett :

Ochtertyre: Grace Note Publications, 2015, 197 pp, 

with many illustrations, pb, £12,99, ISBN 978-1-907676-66-6.

Margaret Bennett is one of the great authorities on, as well as performers of, Scotland’s folk music. But her family background was in the ‘new itinerant’ community of engineering, whose bard, Ewan McColl, provides its title. Kirkcaldy was where my own caravan was pitched as SNP list MSP 2007-11, very recently, over thirty years after the firm of Melville-Brodie Ltd. of Pathhead closed. Two of its veterans, Dougie Reid and Willie Black, had meanwhile been collecting photographs, news stories. Along with Dr Bennett, who recorded them and wrote the book, they deserve a warm tribute for this absorbing paperback which mixes critical analysis with respect for the emotional and rational responses of those involved.

Melville-Brodie closed down in circumstances of some obscurity, suggesting an international fraud; not long afterwards, most of industrial Kirkcaldy was cleared, leaving a trim parkland stretching away from its slick modern station, with elegant if rather dilapidated Victorian buildings irrupting from the greenery. Before, there had been a spectacular townscape – with canyon-like streets and deep gullies dividing factories – which lasted as late as the 1970s: the linoleum-works of Barry Ostlere or Nairn and Company. One lino factory, originally Nairn, now Nairn-Forbo, survives, but for Dr Bennett’s collaborators, witnesses and interviewees these vanished buildings seem to have an almost tangible reality, a common heritage to the now very old former apprentices, an explanation of why their town and country still look to them the way they did. The pride, wit and also the possibility remain, as in that McColl song, but also a sense of divided life: ‘See they trees! That’s where aa the hooses used to be,’ as another local Homer, Dr Keith Armstrong, recorded of modern Geordieland.

Dr Bennett roots her narrative in a sharp analysis of Adam Smith. Yes, the marvellous Pin Factory did exist locally (I had once thought it pure myth). Yes, it was known to Smith but, intriguingly, it was not very successful, ultimately losing out to specialism in canvas and then floor cloth, linoleum’s ancestors. And lino itself has proved to have unique germicidal properties, holding the line against MRSA.

The centre of the book is fired up by the experience of apprenticeship in one of the cluster of engineering firms which supplied the complex one-off machines for the floor-covering works. Something that tends to be underestimated is that mid-twentieth century Scottish society could often be a sort of interior, occupational diaspora focused on specific foreign-oriented trades. The experience of learning their Art und Weise was a complex and demanding one: thole it and you could survive anywhere. ‘The dance of the apprentices’ could meet the comparison with Wagner’s Meistersinger that the Glasgow novelist Edward Gaitens made. Indeed, school teaching in the Lang Toun had helped forge Wagner’s near-exact contemporary Thomas Carlyle.

The apprentices photographed in the 1960s have gentle, open, witty faces, something borne out by the memoirs of the Upper Clyde generation, or John Byrne’s Slab Boys. The rise of the real Tartan Noir, a society of professional trickery, seems to have shut this openness of manner down, more or less at the time that Scots manufacturing finally imploded in the noughties.

In fact, it was the people recruited from this circumspect polity, who often transferred as production engineers to the oilfields or the banking and capital-investment of the Chinese and Asiatic Russian ‘growth zones’, that enabled cheap production and dodgy finance to undermine the last significant survivals of Scottish manufacturing and depart to wealth and privilege. Gordon Brown, who provides a brief foreword, became from 1990 the powerful instrument of shifting production to newly-industrialising-countries with little regard to social or environmental outcomes there or back here. Footloose capital accelerated the industrial cycle, making traditional collective high/low points unmemorable.

Kirkcaldy’s big call-centre CMT employed 500 when I was an MSP (a worker in the so-called ‘knowledge-industries’ cost £3000 – a tenth of a skilled engineer – to ‘train’). No-one is there now. And who will remember it with a fraction of the affection of those who were schooled at Melville-Brodie?

July 2015

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