Pandemic, Really?

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I hesitate about writing this next essay, in case it looks big headed. But then I thought why deprive the hungry readership of good news?. Actually, I’d like to take credit for the forthcoming, but it’s all due to accident. 

Last night I was in uncommonly good fettle. And when I inspected the reason why, I put a lot of it down to a good order book: sales are going well. The time of year is good for stove makers: the onset of autumn stimulates the telephone to ring. The first hints of winter remind folk about keeping warm. Added to that, in this Covid time, people who might have been putting off home improvements at the start of lockdown have crept out from behind the sofa, and from the stasis of spring, when house improvements froze like everything else, we’re catching up. So, for once I’d say the financials are good. But there were other ingredients.

I don’t often listen to ‘Book at Bedtime’, and especially programmes about health and stuff. But last night a doctor was reading from her book (so that was 22nd September 2020, for reference … ‘cos I can’t mind her name!) … it was about how she became involved in palliative care. Having not been prepared for someone actually dying on her watch, all during her training, she made a hash of it. First time on her ward she tried to save  a lady, using CPR and the best she could manage. The lady was 95, and at the natural end of her life …. anyway, the doctor, after some adventures on the ward ended up specialising in palliative care. It was very moving. So that  was also an ingredient in my state of mind … that we have an obligation to do our best. To whom I’m not sure. But what do I have to offer? Self expression is all very well when you’re young and full of it, but the blood cools, and it’s best to acknowledge that. One has one’s dignity.

So what about the business? After all, I spend most of my working life making stoves. Is there anything that might be of benefit to others? .So at the risk of getting smug, here goes:

Despite being a small concern, even before going bust in 2010 (I banked too long with the tax man, thinking the down turn wouldn’t affect me … so it’s not all that smug), it’s never been more than a 10 man concern … now about 4 or 5, as far as I know we remain the only stove makers in Scotland. I would say that’s pretty poor. After all, we were once a proud nation of makers, and there’s nothing too tricky in a stove.  But maybe that’s partly a generational thing. I’ve quite a few elderly customers who long for nothing else than to describe their beloved Liston engine, or BSA motor bike. … maybe of a last generation who remember with pride about making stuff. Because, until the 50’s or 60’s, that’s what the country did. So loads of old fellas (mostly) had served their time learning the details of fabrication, how to measure, cut and drill. Harry, who would walk to the Whaup every Sunday afternoon with his spaniel by his side, who’d served his time at Lucas Engineering in Trafford Park, was put through college by the firm, and thence travelled the world fixing engines and stuff. He was shocked that I didn’t know about the paraffin and chalk test as a way of testing boilers … shook his head in disappointment; what was the world coming to when so-called welders didn’t even know about the paraffin and chalk test? 

So I only come across this lost world indirectly. But most folk wanting to make a living out of stoves these days would get them made in China, and set up a shop selling them. I presume that applies to most products. If you look at the small print, they’ll brag about their factory in the UK, but what they really mean is place of assembly. …  the actual making of them will take place in the Far East. And the only countries unsaddled by debt? Why, Germany, Japan, China … all the ones who make things; the US, followed loyally by the UK are spectacularly negative; we spend much much more than we make …. and that includes money.  How we persuade others to pay for our consumption can be answered by economists. The argument goes something like this: someone’s got to do the eating. … for God’s sake! 

We kid ourselves we’re wealthy, but most of that so-called wealth is built on debt. We’re good at spending. Financial products?? Garlic … bread?? Fortunes are made devising new ways to encourage consumption. Jeff Bezos, the richest man in the world is also the best at shifting stuff, anything, and making it so easy for us to buy. I admit, I too love easy buying, and almost feel like I’ve done a good day’s work if I’ve ‘saved’  lots of money buying stuff I don’t need.  

And another thing that I do loads of and  really hoped to avoid with this essay, is complaining. I was in the pub the other night and was surprised at how much of the conversation was made up of complaints … about the corona virus, and how our glorious government manages it (or fails to). The economic effects! Education! The planet … och, anything. So that’s two things that we do well, and lots of … spending and complaining. 

And being sick. Until the lockdown, I’d meet other musicians every other Sunday afternoon in a pub, and there we’d all complain about our various ailments, or else admire our expensive instruments. … oh, and occasionally play them. To be serious about making money, I’d suggest investing in drug companies and logistics (how we shift stuff about in order to speed consumption). After all, us oldies are very interested in these things, and we have all the money. I would occasionally ask Phil, who was once an industrial electrician, a question about his previous trade. “Ah yes” he’d say, absently stroking his hand-made mandola. A wistful look would come into his eye, and he’d try to remember. “That would be in the old days, before I got leucemia” . .. and he’d strum the old mandola, perhaps a wistful tune about the last cart horse.

But where’s the good news?. We all know there’s a happy ending. Even the News manages to end on a happy note. Today was the charming story of a village community’s wifi being knocked out by an old TV set. Actually, a wee thought experiment might suggests there’s something in this: I remember my father, a devout catholic, suggesting heaven might be doing something we enjoyed AND NEVER GETTING BORED! He really had to emphasise that last bit, because the imagination couldn’t cope otherwise. The beginning of Luc Besson’s sci-fi film “… and a Thousand Planets” has a planet of beautiful beings living in paradise … most humans wouldn’t have lasted long; too happy by half. I’m trying to get my head round quantum theory at the moment, and find myself strangely cheered by the thought of there always being some old grouch in the room refuting the ‘Grand Unified Theory’ that explains everything (and why it will be forever outwith our grasp)… except to the old grouch’s satisfaction. Like the speed of light, we’ll never actually get there while alive. The best music has a bit of blues amid the flutes.

The blues is all around us these days, and I wish to cast my paltry business in a more cheerful light. So here goes: 

We actually make things. Yes, here in the UK. And not just for the luxury market, though I dare say there might be a bit of craft-love involved. But we pride ourselves on being able to get a stove designed and built, fitted and fired, in the same time and for the same price that a retailer might. Ok, so a different equation  from the standard: no advertising costs (the customer has to find us), and the actual time and cost to make each stove might be longer and dearer (we don’t benefit from economies of scale for example, or automation), but on the other hand, you don’t have to pay for all the usual advertising and invisible retail costs.  It’s actually quite easy to sing the praises of small scale making: we have a principle of one man per stove; it’s just sort of evolved like that. It’s more satisfying for the maker, and personal responsibility counts for the customer too … you try a bit harder if your name is on something … as it often actually might be … we had one welder who would put wee cartoons on the underneath of his stoves … I especially liked the one showing an empty butcher’s, with the slogan ‘Andy’s eaten all the pies in the shop’.  Andy is well built.

Working on a small scale is good for R&D as well … we can design, make and test fire a stove in a week. Most outfits have to be more cautious … you can’t take too many risks when a drawing office, pattern makers, platers, advertisers, retailers etc all have to be considered. So we made the decision early on just to stick with steel (as far as possible) … all you need is oxy-propane to cut the metal, a MIG machine to weld it up, and a grinder to dress it off … oh, and a bit of glass and a drop of paint! … and a fair degree of skill. Actually less tools than a joiner or a mechanic might use.  I’m a big fan of ‘shopfloor design’ … literally, a bit a french chalk on the workshop floor.

I made my first stove just to replace a knackered one we had while staying in a caravan, working on an old mill cottage; I copied a Jotul No 6 (I think it was called). A friend saw it and asked me to do one for her, and so on … a bit of re-shaping and time; thirty eight years on I’m still at it, and I hope it’ll keep going after me. I sometimes reckon the process itself might be worth repeating. I notice James Dyson still keeps his workshop going in Oxfordshire(?); at least the R&D benefits from working in a small hands-on way. Humans take a lot of beating when it come to invention.

Yes, the internet is a great help. You put up a website, and folk find it. So you don’t have to shout. As long as transport links keep improving, you don’t really need shops either. I’d  say, tough titty on the city … I’m all for competition too, so if the shop keepers care to re-train and start making stuff, so what? Just make it well, that’s all. Or no one will want it. Is this happening already? Maybe it is; this Covid affair is changing the way we’re having to work … is that bad? 

I was the benefit of grant aid during the first lock down, and I’m happy to testify to the benefit of state aid; no one was ordering to begin with (a lot better now), and for a couple of months we had no orders. But you keep occupied. During that time I made 3 proto-types (one still down at BSRIA being tested); went out and did a bit of landscape painting; started writing essays … ok, uneven quality, and time will tell how well spent it’s been. So, despite a bit of guilt about favoured treatment to business, it’s been a pleasant change, and my only complaint might be on behalf of others. 

A friend was recently advocating universal pay … why not? Do we really need carrots and sticks to encourage us?  One of the heart warming things to see was the support for the health workers, shelf stackers, garbage collectors, fire fighters …. the folk we found we really needed. Pay them properly! It’s terrible to see the forest fires and floods, loss of species … all the planetary issues that we depend on. Why not address these as well? … make the world as we really want it to be. Humans, plenty of them, maybe too many according to some, but who would really recommend wholesale slaughter to solve that problem? Do we really want to live on a planet where a government acquiesces to towing refugees out into the Mediterranean at night, to abandon them to drowning?.Anyway, according to demographers our population, certainly in the wealthy North is actually crashing, and we need folk … my own business is testament to the worth of a human being … clever fuckers, I’d say.