I was introduced to old George, a Cotswold mason. He is in his seventies but still at it. When I met him he was engaged in the almost lost art of dry-walling, pulling down some ramshackle old walls and converting their materials into smooth solid ramparts. He was a little man, with a dusty puckered face and an immense upper lip so that he looked like a wise old monkey; and he had spent all his long life among stones. There were bits of stone all over him. He handled the stones about him, some of which he showed to us, at once easily and lovingly, as women handle their babies. He was like a being that had been created out of stone, a quarry gnome. He was a pious man, this old George, and when he was not talking about stone and walls, he talked in a very quiet though evangelical strain about his religious beliefs, which were old and simple. Being a real craftsman, knowing that he could do something better than you or I could do it, he obviously enjoyed his work which was not so much toil exchanged for so many shillings but the full expression of himself, his sign that he was Old George the mason and still at it. Bad walls, not of his building, were coming down, and good walls were going up. The stones in them fitted squarely and smoothly and were a delight to the eye and a great contentment to the mind, so weary of shoddy and rubbish. I have never done anything in my life so thoroughly and truly as that old mason did his building. If I could write this book, or any other book, as well as he can build walls, honest dry walls, I should be the proudest and happiest man alive. Old George has always been a mason, and his father and grandfather were masons before him; they were all masons, these Georges; they built the whole Cotswolds: men of their hands, men with a trade, craftsmen. I do not know for what pittances they worked, or how narrow and frugal their lives must have been, but I do know that they were not unhappy men; they knew what they could do and they were allowed to do it; they were not taught algebra and chemistry and then flung into a world that did not even want their casual labour; they were not robbed of all the dignity and sweetness of real work; they did not find themselves lost and hopeless in a world that neither they nor anyone else could understand; they did not feel themselves to be tiny cogs in a vast machine that was running down; they had a good trade in their fingers, solid work to do, and when it was done — and there it was, with no mistake about it, ready to outlast whole dynasties – they could take their wages and go home and be content. I am glad I met old George and saw him at work. And if ever we do build Jerusalem in this green and pleasant land, I hope he will be there, doing the dry-walling.
J. B. Priestly
Note – I heard about this book via David Bowie.