A view backstage at Beverley Minster

Oh, the terrible pain

Beverley Minster virger Neil Pickford is nursing a wound

I managed to hurt myself in the Minster last week. Oh, not in a huge way – although I’m sure it would have been taken as an excuse for a 13 week ‘sickie’ by some people I know – but it was enough to be uncomfortable. I’d pulled a muscle in my chest when I was helping a few people shift our 20,000 ton Steinway piano (I may be exaggerating the weight, but it feels as heavy as a battleship when you try to move it).
I ignored it when it first happened, had a quick cup of tea, and promptly forgot about it until I had to move something else that was quite heavy later in the day – a stack of chairs, probably, or something equally uninteresting. It twinged a bit more so I grumbled to myself and, as I was due to start my normal mid-week ‘weekend’ off, decided to treat it with a medicinal glass of red wine when I got home. I was so medicated by half past ten that I could hardly find my way to bed, much to the annoyance of my ever-tolerant wife (25 years of marriage last Tuesday, thanks for asking. No, I don’t know what she sees in me either, but people are strange, thank goodness).
Anyway, I felt strangely lethargic for some peculiar reason the next morning and decided to let my mind roam around for a while without me – let it get out of the ‘skullery’, so to speak … hahahaha (oh, please yourselves). When it came back it was in a thoughtful mood and, after a bit of prodding, vouchsafed its contemplations unto me.
So, for what they are worth, here they are:
“Isn’t it strange how we do things today, compared to the Good Old Days?”
“Oh yes?” I queried me. “What do you mean?”
“How we specialise in things. In the old days we didn’t and,” my brain went on, warming to its theme: “I wonder if we’ve actually changed things for the worse.”
It was obviously an issue that merited further investigation and so here, dear reader, is a quick precis of my findings:
Specialisation is a relatively modern phenomenon: as a young economics student I was taught that the increasing focus on individuals doing more and more limited jobs more and more frequently boosted productivity by a factor of ever-such-a-lot. The standard example of this was the Ford Model T where, because individuals just did one tiny, repetitive operation all day, they could build cars far faster. It got to the point where one new ‘Lizzie’ came off the production line every three minutes, as opposed to about three times a year as happened before.
This was parodied in the film ‘Modern Times’ where Charlie Chaplin’s character was supposed to spend his entire day tightening identical nuts on an unending stream of identical boards. He went mad.
Before the 20th century, however, things were very different. Then, for example, the master mason who designed Beverley Minster back in 1190 (a date currently subject to debate, but roughly right) would not have been someone who merely chiselled lumps of stone into strange and interesting shapes, no. They were (in no particular order) architects, mathematicians, quality controllers, quantity surveyors, employers who had the threat of starvation as a useful weapon in negotiating pay-scales, diplomats, engineers… and so on and so on.
But this general mix of skills wasn’t confined to the equivalent of white-collar workers, no sirree. Tradesmen or artisans were expected to be very versatile as well. Once you’d passed your apprenticeship you would know everything there was to know about the material, resource or substance that your master traded in – and I mean EVERYTHING.
Take, for example, the case of the Thorntons of York. These were craftsmen in wood – if you needed something done that required the use of tree by-products they were your people. It was Thorntons who carved the wild, almost over-powering decorations on the west end door and above the font: items which to the modern eye appear almost sickly in their complexity but which are fabulous examples of a wood-carver’s craft. Then they could also turn their hand to scaffolding.
It was the same Thorntons who, in 1716 erected the 90 foot tall triangular buttress that stopped one of our walls falling down and was subsequently used to push the wall upright again without collapsing and bringing the rest of the church crashing down with it. Their understanding of how wood worked, both as a reinforcing and a flexible material, was vital in what was one of the biggest civil engineering repairs in Yorkshire’s history. And they could also turn their hand to whittling away at small lumps of wood to make attractive decorations throughout the rest of the church.
Now that is what I call an interesting job.
I know the world divides into two types: those who like the predictable from day to day, edging their way towards retirement. Then there are those who, like me, love variety and will deal with retirement if and when we ever reach it. My brain concluded that being a virger suits me down to the ground – never two days alike – combining the practical and the artistic – just like in the 18th century.
And, as my brain also pointed out, I’m getting an 18th century wage to go with it.
That really hurt.

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