Tuesday, 27 July 2010

Depends How You Look at It

The old fellows in the British Library Reading Room and their memories of Karl Marx, (mentioned in yesterday's post), reminded me of a visit I made many years ago to James Lock & Co. I was supposed to be researching the old crafts-based businesses of London and, as Locks had been established as a hatters no later than 1676, it seemed a pretty good place to start.

I was taken round the joint by an elderly man who had spent his entire adult life in Locks' employ. He showed me various objects that looked like instruments of torture but were in fact designed to ensure each customer's hat would be a perfect fit. He pointed out what he considered to be especially fine examples of each hat style, and he demonstrated how a genuine panama really can be rolled up like a silk scarf and fitted through a wedding ring. He also informed me that panama hat makers have the highest rate of suicide of any profession in the world and that they have to weave their hats underwater. It was at least two decades afterwards that I realised this did not entail taking a huge gulp of air and plunging underwater themselves, frantically weaving for a minute or two and then rushing up to the surface just before their lungs exploded. That did seem a way of life that could lead to urgent thoughts of self-harm.

But what made me think of that visit in the context of the old library guys was the way that for both the men in the British Library and the man at Locks, their perspective had been influenced by their profession. For the British Library people, Marx was just a fellow who made them lug down heavy books. For the man at Locks, the world was just an arena for hats. His judgements on all manner of things were entirely headgear-related. 'Do you go to the cinema', he suddenly demanded, for instance. 'Sometimes,' I told him. He gazed dreamily into the distance. 'Did you see Death in Venice?' 'Yes,' I said. 'Wonderful hats,' he observed, wistfully, 'the best hats I've ever seen in the cinema - probably the best hats you're ever likely to see.'


  1. Some knitters are like that - when they see a movie or a TV drama all they can talk about is the knitted garments on view. The various series of Miss Marple and Poirot stories are particularly fine if you have this obssession - almost all the characters wear hand-knitted vests or cardigans in charming vintage styles.

  2. M-H: Talking of cardigans, I liked the comment of a former Labor adviser in the paper today (an article about what Julia Gillard wears) about Kim Beazley and how they'd get him really smart suits and as soon as they turned their backs he'd have snuck a cardigan on underneath

  3. haha... love that comment about Beazley.

    (I thought dentists and air traffic controllers were the most suicide prone professions....

  4. Nurse, that also probably depends on how you look at it. Hungarians seem curiously proud of being the most suicide prone nationality