Two Journeymen: A Gruff Nod To Dickens

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.

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36 thoughts on “Two Journeymen: A Gruff Nod To Dickens

    1. I felt just the same for years, Sidey. It has only been the last few years that I looked back at him and realised how amazing some of his writing is. Reading him to Maddie has been brilliant, too…he has a fabulous sense of humour…

  1. Cut my teeth on Dickens, using my teenage pocket money to subscribe to a set of his full works. Great Expectations was my first and I’ve just re-read it. Amazing how contemporary some of the characters remain – and what a great allegory is the picture of the journeyman you’ve offered. I’m going to sow that seed in my brain and see what emerges!

  2. How marvellous to learn that there are still journeymen!

    Did you watch the recent adaptation? I loved it; I thought it was the best version I’d seen yet.

    BTW, do you know I’m now required to type my details before this comment will post?

  3. Yes, we all are on a journey, some learn as they go and some just sort of pass through with no impact. I hope that I keep on learning, not only facts and figures, but, more about people and friendships. In the end, it’s all about the relationships we have with others.

    1. I know, Lou: and here we all are, fortunate enough to be part of a great interconnected cybercivilisation where we can learn from each other and the masters alike. It’s a brave new world.

  4. We do hear of journeymen here, which would, of course, be an offspring of the concept from your neck of the woods. I’ve never quite known what journeyman meant, Kate. Thank you.

    I really admire how you read to your children and are introducing them to great fiction. You have given them many gifts in their young lives, but, the love of good books is among the best.

    Well done.

  5. I agree with every drop of this, Kate, and especially the reading of Dickens together. Much like hearing Shakespeare performed transforms the language, Dickens aloud unlocks the humor and wit and darkness.

    Something about sharing the words forces you into them, breathes life and dimension to the page, doesn’t it?

    1. It does, Cameron. You are so right.

      Aloud is how I hear all writing, even when I am reading silently; and being a musician my soul longs to read words and hear them resounding just the way they should. It’s how our language began, and writing was just the means to record the wonders of the spoken word.

  6. Like you, I love to read stories out loud. It draws them out to savor the details and nuances of the story. (And, I get to do voices. Ha.)

    May we all find the human teachers who will hone our skills.

  7. I didn’t realise from what you said that today is Dickens’s 200th birthday!

    That really provides a great analogy.

    As for dearest Charles, I loved all the romantic ones read avidly as a (too-young, so it would be thought) child, and then had him ruined for me by having to study Pickwick Papers for senior school years. I hated that book with a passion. One day I should try it again, if I dare.

    These days, sadly, few writers seem inclined to recommend Dickens as a model. His descriptions are too detailed, his pace is too leisurely, and his sentences and paragraphs too long. Sez they.

    1. Sorry my comments led you on a merry dance today, Col, and thanks for persevering.

      I know: and yet read, and what perfection he has: tiny thumbnail sketches, half-finished oils: we are drawn from one great artwork to another, from scene to scene, marvelling at how one man can know so very much about life.

  8. Ah, I’ve known my share of journeymen… but I like your way of looking at the word – there’s a couple of poets I’d dearly love to apprentice myself to… 🙂

  9. My goodness…I’m awash with memories of my mother standing at the front of grades one to nine in our one-room schoolhouse. She’s reading Great Expectations and acting out the parts of each character. Three of us, her children, strive for invisibility, but our faces are too red.

    Happy birthday to a master!

  10. I so agree, Kate. We must learn from the masters. I used to fear that if I read too much of this or that, I’d end up being a mina bird. Thankfully, this isn’t true, for all artists are blessed with a ‘true’ voice. A wonderful post for the 200th! ~

  11. I posted a bit about Dickens today, too, Kate, but not with the flourish you provide! I just wanted to be sure my American counterparts gave him his due! There was hardly a mention, and had I not just been to the Huntington Library I would never have known it was his bicentennial! That really took me by surprise, as I find him so familiar I wouldn’t have guessed. I can’t imagine getting older and not continuing on the journeyman’s path. It would be a very dismal prospect. You shared this all so beautifully! Debra

  12. Brussel Sprouts need Cheese Sauce…like Dickens needed some one to personify coined titles like…”Scrooge” whom we all, 150 years later readily recognize as an Evil tightwadded butt head…
    What’s your Dickensian name?.. Ad a great grandparent’s first name to the name, or street name of your first school…
    Which, mine makes NO sense…as it would either be … Grandpa Whiteoak…or,.. Papa, Highway 87 South… But, Brussel Sprouts need only butter….although I personally add a few spicier components….like, Paprika, Red Pepper, Garlic and onion.
    And what about that Pecksniff character? Back before I knew the Lord, I would probably have called those type people…Peckersniffs…

    No, wait, I think I called someone that last week…
    Forgive me Lord…just …go ahead and feed me to them starving pygmies over in New Guinea or some where…I repent…but, I deserve the punishment…

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