Entry 27: Paddy Went Home Today- In Australia, those men, who enter apprenticeships to become plumbers, electricians, carpenters, mechanics and a host of other trades that construct the protective carapaces in which we exist are designated “tradies” and they have an honoured place in the pantheon of occupations in this land that was dismissively labelled a bricklayer’s paradise in the 1960s when so many found a place in the sun and started to build a new life for themselves and their families.
Even in the early 70s when I first arrived on these shores, the shortage of skilled labour ensured that anyone with a modicum of skill in any trade could walk out of one job in the morning and have another job that afternoon. Advertising reflected this by, for instance, contrasting the pasty-faced white-collar workers glumly eating a business lunch in a restaurant with young, bronzed, muscled builders happily eating a meat pie outside in the cabin of their Ute. This image has persisted over the decades, even though their golden age has passed and the new economy has its own young guns slinging code and establishing start-ups which are worth millions within a year.
There are lots of paeans to those inhabiting the upper-crust of society- Kings and Queens and the like, and also to those inhabiting the base of the human pie- the peasantry and the proletariat. This entry, though, deals with those who inhabit that special place that will not see them loaded onto tumbrils on the way to the greedy guillotine or consigned to be factory-and-cannon fodder.
But we can’t comfortably categorise them as petit bourgeois either. Soren Kierkegaard wrote, “the petty bourgeois is spiritless…devoid of imagination… he lives within a certain orbit of trivial experiences as to how things come about, what is possible, what usually happens… this is the way the petty bourgeois has lost himself and God This scornful depiction owes more to the prejudices of the philosophical Dane’s affluent middle-class upbringing than any thoroughgoing analysis.
It seems to me that human progress has been accomplished by men and women looking at how things come about, what is possible and what usually happens. From pre-historic times, the work and innovation of stone-masons, carpenters, tool-makers, and metalworkers have added to the utility and aesthetics of human existence. From classical times, the ingenuity of plumbers, ship-builders, aqueduct engineers and road-makers has ensured the spread of civilisation.
Modern times owes much of its definition to electricity on demand and, now, the sparkie joins the ranks tradespeople who keep our lives on its comfortable track. Think of the last time your toilet was blocked, or there was a power outage, or the ceiling leaked or if this happened at once- as it might in the aftermath of a storm. Then, you, too, would be singing paeans those who would fix the problems.
Paean is such a strange word- it means enthusiastic praise and derives from a hymn to Apollo, who was physician to the gods. I am reminded of a relatively obscure incident from the Cold War where this word was used in an interesting way. In 1968, the USS Pueblo, an American Naval spy ship, was captured after being fired upon by North Korean navy ships killing fireman Duane Hodges and wounding a third of the contingent. 82 officers and crew were imprisoned and tortured physically and mentally for 11 months.
As part of the conditions for release the captain and officers had to sign an admission of guilt. The captain gamed his tormentors, using the word paean to do so. Skip Schumacher, interviewed for the BBC program Witness in 2012, recalls with humour and pride their final act of resistance as the men walked to freedom across the “bridge of no return” at Panmunjom. “Blasted on the loud speakers for all to hear came the booming voice of Commander Bucher wishing to pee on the North Korean navy and most of all pee on Premier Kim ll-sung!”
The crew members, too, were defiant as demonstrated by, on one occasion a group of eight sailors were photographed by the North Koreans to show how well the crew was being treated. In the photograph every sailor held up his middle finger – a lewd gesture that was not recognised by their captors. “We told them the finger was a Hawaiian good luck sign so they thought that was wonderful,” Lt Schumacher remembers.
So, then, what follows is a song of praise- a paean, to the tradies who work long hours for little in the way of glory. I heard about the protagonist of the song when the members of the folk band I was playing in were talking about big drinkers we had encountered during our working lives. Paddy is based on a sheet-metal worker from inner Sydney, during the boom times of the mid-70s.