Saturday, 2 October 2010

Jewellery Quarter Times Past

Went to the Jewellery Quarter Museum in Brum this afternoon, thanks to London Midland's broken down trains stopping us get to the Black Country Museum in time to make a visit there worthwhile (a couple of hours or so wouldn't be enough). We were lucky to get on a guided tour, after being told these were fully booked, because a group hadn't turned up.
I've been round the mothballed factory, left in the 1980s by the ageing sibling owners who couldn't keep it going.
My father was a regular customer of the Jewellery Quarter up to the 1970s when he retired. Back then, it served the retail trade by providing the stock which High Street shops such as his sold to the public. Rings, necklaces, watches in particular, a long-standing part of Birmingham's trade and industrial heritage, and still alive today, if much reduced in terms of actual factories such as the Smith and Pepper works which forms the Museum.
In the office areas you can see the old dockets and spikes of bills, accounts books, electric fires with their cables like twisted ropes and two-pin plugs of an era I remember and electrocuted myself on (not seriously) once at home.
Last time I came here I thought of my father's jewellery store, with similar boxes and books behind the scenes, accounts he struggled to keep, managed by a patient accountant, or that was the story that got passed on as I remember it. An electric shaver connected to a light-socket in the ceiling. Times weren't easy and there wasn't the cash for a refurb.
So I've come to some memories all the same. They didn't seem there when I was in the museum this afternoon. Nothing seemed to come back, just a sense of this place being a link to a my own past, my family's past, my Dad in particular of course. But the memories had taken a step further away.
Perhaps that'll change later, when later not middle years, if I get that far, concertina what happened then into the present.
I heard my Dad's voice again some years ago on an old recording we had, I think on his reel-to-reel tape machine, state of the art in its day. It was unsettling hearing his voice, I don't think I felt comfortable, maybe it didn't seem right either.
I did think, going round the factory, of how hard people had worked there. How hard, then, my father worked building up his trade: maybe not quite the physical work of Albert [?] dropping the press onto the gold to stamp patterns into the metal, for years on end till he went deaf: and not quite with the dangers of Annie [?] who lost the sight of one eye when the revolving band turning a wheel snapped and hit.
But he worked hard, my father, year after year from before World War II as a tobacconist, then after - his sister had kept the shop going - as he went into the Jewellery trade.
Long hours, accounts, an accident my Mum told me about, hitting his head on the pavement as he pulled down the shop blinds (though again, I'd have to check with my Mum for the details, her memories are memories, and sharp, not half-forgotten second-hand accounts): which may have caused the blackouts he suffered and even the final strokes. Building up trade with the customers, employing a repairer till throwaways and disposables meant that a new watch was cheaper than a repair.
And he never liked the LCD watches that foreran the digitals that are standard-issue today!
Visiting the Jewellery Quarter, seeing the shops the line the streets near the Museum, selling the rings, necklaces, watches and crafted designs to the public now that my father and others sold to the public then, this did seem like the past but alive.
The Museum's great. We had an enthusiastic young guide who entertained and informed and demonstrated some tools too. Fascinating, and even free thanks to one Gordon Brown's enforcing of free museum entry in a previous government.
Museum website link.
But it was seeing the shops, watching the assistant or owner in one, where my wife bought a new chain for a pendant I'd bought here, as he took the key to a glass showcase and opened the metal lock throught the two panes: the same kind of actions, the same kind of merchandise, craftwork, offered by a seller who knows about what he is selling, knows how to sell the right goods for the customer; this was closer to the past: or the past had moved into today, or maybe had never gone.
I hope I can do him some credit. For my part, I sold books for a while, not jewellery, and try now to help students and academics make more of what a library has to offer them.
We all come from somewhere: and I'm glad I can still see some of that today, even though my Dad's been dead now for 27 years, maybe longer than the excellent guide in the Museum has been alive. I'm glad what he did is alive.

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