Nice (If You Can Get It) – Revue

Nice (If You Can Get It) was a revue directed by Margaret Ford in the early 1980s, centred on various aspects of work, for which I wrote most of the original music. Most of the songs I wrote subsequently appeared on the cassette album Sheer Bravado. The poem/recitation ‘Waste’ was published in my collection Suite In Four Flats (And A Maisonette). The two poems that start this set were never intended for the revue, but seemed a good fit for the topic, so here they are.

Most of the songs were recorded at Centre Sound Studios in 1983. Unfortunately, the master tapes were badly degraded – as often happens with some tape brands of that era – and while baking (don’t ask…) did enable the recovery of the tracks, the sound is not perfect. So I may re-record them at some point.

First of all, these are a couple of poems, of a sort, that were written around the same time, but not specifically for the revue (and weren’t included in the show). They’re included here because apart from reflecting my own observations drawn from being a woodworker at that time, they have a direct bearing to the increasing devaluation of physical skills as described in the song that follows, and to the relationship between the old hands and the neophytes that informs the song Long Stand that finished the show.

Ballad of a Carpenter

I’ve just spent
six solid weeks
building this staircase
without even a lad
to hold the nails

and I don’t
want to see anyone
walking all over it…

Apprentice Song

Fetch the rolls: make the tea: grab the end of that
And sand it till your fingers bleed, if you think you’ve planed it flat.

Call yourself apprentice? Lad, I’d be ashamed,
If I knew as little, to be known by such a name.

Never mind the splinters: In a year or two
You’ll have quite forgotten that they ever bothered you.

Hands as hard as English oak, muscle, skin and guile:
That’s what makes a craftsman, but not you, for a while

 Cut yourself, you silly sod? Take care, if you please,
And don’t bleed on the timber: do you think it grows on trees?

Call yourself a craftsman? No, lad, never you.
Though if you try your damnedest, one day you might scrape through

So you’ve got your piece of paper? I hope I’ve taught you well,
And I won’t deny you’re willing: no doubt time will tell.

Call yourself a craftsman? That’s as may well be…
Another year, or five, or ten, and then perhaps we’ll see…

Hands of the Craftsman

Minutes ago as God measures time
Something manlike emerged from primordial slime:
Ever since, Mother Nature has been on the run
From a hand with four fingers and opposable thumb.
That hand learned to grip, then it learned to shape
Flint into a weapon, then a tool to shape,
To build and to kill, and around then it learned
To strike sparks to bring fire and lighten man’s world.

The hands of the craftsman have moulded our world
From the first stone axe to the first steam drill
To the harvester, laser, and silicon chip,
But the hands of the craftsman are losing their grip.

The years roll on swift with the birth of the wheel:
Man learned to work bronze, then iron and steel:
The bow drill, the pole lathe, the compass, the lock;
The lens, the sextant, the lantern, the clock,
Castings and mouldings, extrusions and pressings,
The bandsaw, the dropforge, the milling machine.
The tools and the skills have changed through the centuries,
The crafts and the knowledge, but seldom the dreams.

The builder could turn his hand to most trades:
Masonry, joinery, plumbing and all.
The engineer trained on a score of machines:
Now it’s often just one – he’s in luck if it’s more.
Modularization’s the name of the game:
It means that they put you on just one machine,
One or two operations on just the one part –
It’s efficient, but de-skilling’s what it means.

One day we’re skilled men, the next, operators,
The next, no-one knows if we’ll be there at all.
The art passes into the programmer’s hands:
Tomorrow, machines will service themselves…
The glazier, the bellfounder, printers and knappers,
Dyers and weavers, some are already lost:
Prefabrication will see out the tiler
As the thatcher before him learned to his cost.

The paviour, the saddler, the cooper, the wheelwright,
Fitters and grinders and turners and smiths,
We all take our turn in the pattern of process
And one by one, we’re taking our leave…

At the time I wrote this, I was, myself, a wood machinist. (Which is how one of my thumbs came to be half an inch shorter than the other…) And no, I wouldn’t have called myself a craftsman: a tradesman maybe. By 1986 I was in the first stages of becoming an IT professional. I guess I proved my own point to some extent. In fact at this point I’m not sure I’d trust myself with a screwdriver or a Stanley knife.

David Harley: vocals, acoustic guitars

Updraught (Harley)

A song that wasn’t used as it wasn’t really in keeping with the other material. I haven’t thought about it since, but when I found it lurking among my juvenilia, found that not only could I more or less remember the tune, but that I actually quite like it. (Needs more practice, though, before I do a ‘proper’ version.) Minor changes to the lyric which no-one will notice but me… 

I’m through with the world and those city screams
I’ll take to the air with a cargo of dreams
All of my life I’ve been tied to the ground
Now I’m spreading my wings to take to the clouds

Flying away
Flying away

No more will I lay aching bones on cold earth
Reaching out for the sun now I know what I’m worth
No more shuffling around, feet nailed to the ground
My skysails are set and I’m outward bound

Flying away
Flying away

At one with the winds I’ll take to the sky
No longer afraid of the sun in my eyes
I’ll rise with the lark and see the world so clear
But it’s your world, not mine, and my world is here

Flying away
Flying away

Words and music by David Harley © 1983. Vocal, guitars and mandolin by DH.

There were a couple of other songs that weren’t used, and I don’t seem to have the words any more, but I don’t think the world has lost all that much by their disappearance into a black hole. There was also a sketch that wasn’t used for fear of upsetting unionists. Not that I’m at all anti-union, having been a member of several, but that’s why I found some of their self-protective procedures amusing. I still have that sketch: maybe I’ll revisit it at some point, since I’m decades past caring about overemphatic role-demarcation posturing. 


School was the first test,
first through the gate
with an apple for Miss:
mustn’t be late

for the nursery school rat race,
the maze of jigsaws,
struggling with Book III
when the rest were on Book IV.

New satchel and cap
for Secondary School.
New classmates and teachers,
stricter rules

“Get on with your algebra.
Don’t play the fool.
Get some diplomas to paper your room
or you’ll finish your life at the end of a broom.”

Turn off that TV:
get on with your homework.
It’s time for bed
and you’ve all that to do…”

“Please, mum, I’ll never finish it now.
Can’t you ring in tomorrow and say I’ve got flu?”

“How do you think
you’ll get through your exams?
Where will you end up?
I can’t understand
why you can’t knuckle down
like anyone else:
don’t you want to make something
of yourself?”

“Is this really the job you want to do?
It’s not that we’re unimpressed with you
and your three CSEs
but we think you’d be overqualified here.”

“Do you have a degree?
No? Oh dear….”

“We only take school-leavers at sixteen.”

“You seem bright enough, but so young:
well, I mean,
we want people who’ve seen a bit of the world.”

“Sorry, we really wanted a girl…”

Still, things picked up at the next interview:

“Good morning, young man:
how do you do?
I see you did quite well at school.
Not quite enough diplomas to paper a room.
Still, I’m sure you’ll do well here:
here’s your broom.”

I got on well enough there,
at least for a time:
I was sure I’d make maintenance chief
by and by,
till the Time and Motion people came round
and by and by the news filtered down…

“You’ve done pretty well here:
don’t think that it’s you.
You’re neat, and punctual,
and willing, it’s true.
It’s just that Top Management have the idea
that we don’t really need full time maintenance here.
There are agencies now, with skilled men and machines
to come in twice a week and keep the place clean.
We’re sure you’ll do well:
you’re hard-working enough
and we wish you success
at finding a job.”

A nod’s as good as a wink
to the most willing blind horse:
in time I found a place
on a government-sponsored course
in Advanced Machine Minding:
the machine being King
the future must belong
to the man who serves the machine.

And the training centre bosses
were very good to me:
they found a job for me to go to
with free overalls and tea
and when the work’s a little slow
well, they’ve given me this broom
so I can make my contribution
where machines refuse to go…

The soldier dies behind his gun
defending his homeland:
John Henry died beating the machine,
his hammer in his hand.
But I’ll tell you this for free:
I’ll burn this factory through and through
Before I let myself go under
Still pushing this damn’ broom…

This was loosely based on an idea by Brian Radstone and was performed by Brian and other members of the cast. Subsequently published in Suite in Four Flats (and a Maisonette), 1985. Copyright David Harley, 1982.

Long Stand

IIRC, this song was used for the finale, with each member of the cast coming onstage and standing quite still and silent, one by one (though it might have been Hands Of The Craftsman we finished with).  A few years ago my wife and I were watching a TV programme about Sting’s ‘The Last Ship Sails’ project. When they played a track called (I think) ‘Sky Hooks & Tartan Paint’, she said “That’s your song!” It wasn’t of course, but the first verse did have a startling resemblance to the first verse of ‘Long Stand’, both starting off with the ‘hazing‘ of a lad on his first day at work, though mine went on to make a more overtly political point.  But I got there first, folks, in fact about 30 years earlier. 🙂 I’m sure Sting has quite enough ideas of his own not to need to rip off obscure songwriters, but as it’s one of the few songs of mine that other singers have asked for, I suppose it’s possible that he heard it and picked up on some of the phrasing by osmosis at some point. It doesn’t worry me: I quite liked his song.  

Long Stand  (Words and Music by David Harley)
All rights reserved

The day I started work, the foreman said to me,
“I’ve another job for you when you’ve finished brewing tea:
Go down to the stores and when you find old Stan,
Tell him Harry sent you for a long stand.”

I got a long stand all right: I stood an hour or more,
Till Stan got tired of the joke and sent me back to the shop floor.
Well I didn’t think it funny, but I laughed and held my peace,
Even when they sent me back for a tin of elbow grease.

Still I did my bit, till I was pensioned off in ’69
From apprentice to foreman, all down the production line.
Many’s the lad I’ve sent myself when things were getting dull
For a can of striped paint or a pound of rubber nails.

But the joke they’re playing now, I just don’t think it’s fair:
Even when you get your ticket, the work just isn’t there.
The safest job in England is handing out the dole:
For every man that gets a job they turn away a hundred more.

For now the work is scarce, again, the queues are building up.
The streets are full of lads and lasses looking out for jobs;
But when you’ve just left school, you hardly stand a chance
They’re sending every lad in England for a long stand.

They say that if you’ve got the gumption you can do just as you please.
They say you’ll do all right with a bit of elbow grease;
But with a hundred out for every job, it’s few that stand a chance
They’re sending every lad in England for a long stand
They’re sending every lass in England for a long, long stand

David Harley: Vocal, acoustic guitar

Back in the days when Britain had industries, it was customary for the older blokes to send apprentices to fetch curious items such as a can of striped paint or some rubber nails. The lucky lad who was sent for a long stand was liable to be left standing at the counter for a half an hour or longer while the storeman went off for a cup of tea and a chuckle. In fact, when I was running the Goods Inward department for a company in Manchester, someone was actually sent to me to ask for a long stand, but I didn’t really want to play that particular game. 

The guitar was tuned to DADGAD, to give it a folksy Martin Carthy/Nic Jones feel. But it still sounds more like David Harley to me… 

I once had exchange of snailmail – it was before my internet days) – with the former Labour MP Joe Ashton, who mentioned the sport of apprentice-hazing in his column for one of the tabloids, describing some similar japes and a particularly vigorous retaliation involving tacks and doggy-do.  I bet you don’t get that kind of hazing in merchant banks and call centres. In the US, a similar indulgence in fools’ errands is called a ‘snipe hunt‘, an activity particularly associated with summer camps.