Friday, November 23, 2012

The Unkindest Cut

There is a town which used to be known for the making of a particular kind of knife. It had a high quality steel blade which folded neatly into the bone handle. It bore the name of the town where it originated. 

Recently I read that the name of the knife, which is also that of the town, was bought by a businessman, and was now applied to an entirely different product range made in the Far East and imported. The locals are up in arms: if someone owns the name of their town, then where do they live? They can’t (or don’t want to) put it on their addresses, as it’s a trade name. They’d be advertising. They can’t make their own knives under their own traditional marque, because they don’t own it anymore, so their name is now associated with what they consider an inferior product. 

Niort in the Deux Sèvres was famous for the production of slippers. Now, you can’t possibly understand the relationship a French person has with their slippers. These aren’t just things you slip on inside the house to ease or warm your feet at the end of the long working day in clogs or wellies, or to preserve the parquet from your stilettos. A good pair of slippers is to be cherished, lived in, worn in public. One elderly chap drove one of the original silver 2CV vans to the supermarket at Vouillé every week, dressed in his best corduroys (even in summer) and his navy jumper and his beret, and on his feet would be his traditional slippers. He was a happy man from the ground up. Well, you know yourself: unhappy feet can really spoil your day. 

But times change. Even the most traditional item can be made cheaper elsewhere, so a couple of years ago the last slipper-maker in the Deux Sèvres closed down. People check out the ones on the market stalls, and tut over them, and complain about the materials and how they only last five minutes, whereas their old pair did faithful service for ten years and more. 

Back then, people didn’t earn much. They knew the value of what they bought, and expected things to outlive them (which is a mean feat in France, as I’ve mentioned before). A man bought a knife, and could hand it on to his son: the maker might never sell another to that particular family. A chap could go to his grave in his slippers, stepping comfortably shod into the hereafter. 

Now people earn more money than their parents ever dreamed of (well, I don’t: I’m a writer. I didn’t think up the story of a Boy Wizard in time, and am therefore broke); but as the man from the former knife-making town said, young people say they haven’t the money to plant a few leeks in the garden, whilst texting on their mobile phones and cranking up the volume on their mini-music devices. 

There’s no point in making things that last. Why go to the bother of having your old knife sharpened, and its spring replaced, when you can buy a new one for half the cost? Why keep your slippers in pristine condition when you can just chuck them in the bin when they look a bit grubby and pop back to get another pair? 

So the traditional industries close down, and people haven’t got any money, and they have to buy the cheap imports because they can’t afford anything else.  Someone’s been asset-stripping, and thrown out the bit of the product they don’t need – the people behind the name. We can have anything we want, dirt cheap: but at what cost? Ask a Frenchman with a blunt knife and sore feet. 

©lms 2012

1 comment:

  1. I have a favourite knife that my OH would love to get rid of. "It doesn't sharpen properly" he claims, "The steel loses its temper in time." He's wrong, and it won't be the steel losing its temper if he says it again! As we get older we value things that last - after all, if they are expendable, what about us?