Restoring an Old Car
Michel Barnier reminded me of a story about Britain and Germany
“That’s what they’re trying to do with Brexit,” Barnier apparently told his team during one of the pauses in Theresa May’s apparently ridiculous negotiations, “take an old car and restore it.”
Once upon a time, for a short while, I was a guest worker at a metalworks in Germany. From the early hours until three in the afternoon, I made girders and other bits you use to build houses and roofs, wearing a cloth cap to control my embarrassingly long hair and watched over by two endlessly patient guys, one of whom was called Egon, and the other I can only remember as Baloo from the Jungle Book, because he was a big man with a big laugh and worker’s muscle hidden by a properly formidable stomach. They were enormously kind to me and I was a prat. (I tried not to be, but I was only technically a grown-up. What do you want from me? I’m still occasionally a prat today, and if you think you aren’t, let me cordially invite you to take a pew and consider your life choices.)
There were three standout events in the time I spent there, apart from the inevitable “that moment when Nick nearly sat in the industrial metal press” and “that other moment when Nick rested a recently-cut bit of metal on his belt buckle and set his pants on fire”. The first was when Egon and Baloo decided to change a roll of metal without a forklift. Our raw materials came on a roll like packing tape, and sat in a dispenser exactly like one of those you get on your office desk, but about the size of a horse. The metal spooled out through a series of wheels and was bent into shape and then cut with a circular saw to the desired length. When the roll ran out, you had a reusable iron core about fifty centimetres in diameter and fifteen deep, which you lifted out and replaced with a new roll. Everyone used a forklift for both halves of this operation, but Egon and Baloo wanted to make a point to the gym-bodied younger guys, so one day they just teamed up and lifted the old core out and put it away while the forklift came in with the new metal. A crowd of men with junior Schwarzenegger bodies watched in absolute horrified silence, and went away to reconsider the meaning of the word “strength”.
The second was when they knew I was leaving, and they sat me down to point out that they had both been children in Germany under Hitler. I’m not sure what they wanted me to understand from that. Perhaps they were confessing to some sort of toddler sin like waving a Swastika flag at a parade, or maybe they were trying to get me to grasp a little more of the complexity of modern Germany and its ghosts, or tell my fellow Brits to stop bringing up the Nazis at every football match with a German team. Most likely, I think they didn’t know exactly either, but it was important, and they did it, and I heard, and I still think about it.
The third was the story of the machines. The factory boss walked me around the hall and told me that the machines were due to be replaced soon. They were from the 60s, he said, and they weren’t going to be competitive much longer.
“I tell you what, though,” he said. “I went to the factory of my British competitor last year, and they have machines from 1890. It’s astonishing. The expertise to keep those things running, to compete with the ones we have from seventy years later… it’s brilliant. But also, you understand, it’s completely tragic.”
“Why?” I said.
“Because it’s a waste. Imagine what those engineers and those workers could do with the new machines. They are keeping that old plant running and doing the impossible with it, but in two years we will have all new gear and our productivity will rise beyond what they can keep up with. They love that machinery and they are proud of it, and of the skill they use to work it. They’re right. But love doesn’t change the numbers and it won’t let them keep their jobs. If I could afford it I would buy them out, but I can’t. No one can afford it. That’s the point.”