Two centuries since Dickens was born: and Maddie and I have met the surly third employee at Joe Gargery’s forge tonight.
We have been reading Dickens’ Great Expectations, night by night, watching small Pip grow and the recipe for his social confusion being set down on the page by this master-storyteller.
Lately the clearly crazed Miss Havisham has paid off Joe handsomely and packed Pip off for his apprenticeship. And suddenly the employees at the Forge have become as real as if they were our own work colleagues, so vividly are they painted. That third member of the team is the fly in the ointment of an otherwise good team.
Dolge Orlick. A great hulking bully of a man:you may have met similar. “He was a broad-shouldered loose-limbed swarthy fellow of great strength, never in a hurry..he always slouched, locomotively, with his eyes on the ground; and when accosted or otherwise required to raise them, he looked up in a half-resentful, half-puzzled way….”
Orlick, says Dickens, is a journeyman.
In England, according to Brewer’s Dictionary of Phrase and Fable,a journeyman was one who had finished their apprenticeship, a craftsman who was paid by the day. The word comes from the old French for a day: journee.
This was a middle state: one who had completed training but not yet running their own business. One can see, then, why Dolge Orlick was concerned about the young fourteen year old Pip. For here was potential competition for the ownership of the forge when Joe was gone: Orlick’s career path was irrevocably muddied, and he showed his displeasure plainly.
The other incarnation of the journeyman is a world away from the great bully of the forge.
Guardian journalist Stephanie Boucher chose the same county as Dickens, and the same profession, to begin her article. The scene for the modern-day Great Expectations was Littlebourne, Kent, on a bleak winter’s day similar to that on which Pip stood by a gravestone tracing the particulars of his deceased parents.
The blacksmith was Julian Coode.
He had an assistant: the forge was quiet and they were discussing how to tackle a set of iron railings which had been commissioned.
And then the door flew open to reveal an extraordinary figure. Boucher relates: “A young man stepped inside wearing a top hat, long black jacket, a white shirt under black corduroy dungarees with large mother-of-pearl buttons, a long twisted cane and a single earring from which hung a tiny key.”
He was a modern-day journeyman, a Swiss-German blacksmith named Sebastian Reichlin. In Germany and France, it is the tradition that those who have finished apprenticeships in the crafts would go journeying to find the great masters and turn up unannounced, to learn from the best.
The business started with the building of the great cathedrals across Europe in mediaeval times. And in parts of Europe it has continued to the present day. In 2006 German had six societies for journeymen, France three. The largest of the French societies, l’Association Ouvrière des Compagnons du Devoir, helped 8,000 young journeymen in 2004 alone.
That original – if fictional – Kent blacksmith, Joe Gargery, would have taken in the strangely attired journeyman through the kindness of his heart. And so it was with Coode. He picked up the phone immediately, and called his wife at home. There was scant room: the family had four children.
Yet his wife was requested to make up a bed on the living room floor.
It is comforting to know that this ancient, collegiate hospitality still exists: that some of us humans still have the wisdom to seek out those who are exceptional in their field, and the humility to learn from them.
And it raises questions for us all in our fields: for are we not all on a journey to create something beautiful?Somewhere out there, there is a master for our craft. Charles Dickens is one of mine.
We can choose whether or not to consult them.
It entails not settling for what we know, but having the humility to admit that life is a learning journey, and that we still have much to learn.
Whatever fills our lives, those who hold the keys to the craft we have chosen are out there.
And there may come a time when we ourselves put on the long dark coat of the journeymen, on a quest for a kind of grail.