It was quite a shock to answer the phone when travelling by train up to London and have a researcher from Countryfile on the other end of the phone. They were doing a feature on endangered crafts, linking to the Heritage Crafts Association/Radcliffe Red List of Endangered Crafts (see here) and were looking for someone from the Heritage Crafts Association to interview. I made some suggestions and also explained the challenges that heritage crafts face. I was rather surprised then when Maria, the researcher, said that she would like me to be the one they interviewed.
Apparently they have only two days for filming for each programme, and needed to be in Devon the next day, so, although I have been filmed in my workroom more than once, they decided that they should film in the workshop of Heritage Crafts Association member Sarah Goss, a wood carver, from Midhurst, Sussex. Taking my sloping board with me, a few props and a black cloth (always wise!) we arrived to find that my requirement for ‘a table and a chair’ was actually a rather rickety table, but we managed to stabilise it. The crew were, as they so often are, fantastic, and Polly the Director was very kind. Tom Heap, the interviewer, was an absolute gentleman, and so professional. I fluffed lots of times, but he didn’t once.
I hadn’t been told what questions they would ask, but had thought about possible answers. The first one was what crafts were extinct, and I told them the four which included gold beating, a craft close to my own heart because of the gold leaf I use in my own work and in the Illumination courses I run. I can’t now use English gold leaf because the market was flooded by cheap imports – and that’s at least 2,000 years of craft skills in the UK gone in the last few years.
I really did feel the weight of heritage crafts on my shoulders, and although everyone was very kind, the challenges of craft continuing into the future are more complicated than the short sound bites they really wanted. The fact that we are one of only 22 countries out of 194 in the world not signed up to the UNESCO Convention of Intangible Cultural Heritage was cut out, although I was allowed to mention the Convention itself. (Tangible Cultural Heritage are the things you can see like the buildings and objects; both are reasonably well looked after. Our Intangible Cultural Heritage are the things you can’t see which includes craft skills, and they are supported hardly at all, apart from what the Heritage Crafts Association tries to do.)
The other point that I wasn’t able to go into in detail is that there is little government funding available for apprenticeships because the funding follows qualifications and not training. Qualifications Agencies in the UK will not offer qualifications for niche subjects. In fact their minimum number of entries is 100 per year – in a number of heritage crafts that wouldn’t be the number even in 100 years – so no qualifications! Then for the 80% self-employed, 100% of the costs of training someone are born by the trainer, and, as I explained in the interview, if, over the course of a week the trainer spends a day a week passing on the skills (and it’s usually much more) they can’t make and their production goes down by 20% and that’s their profit margin; so they can’t even afford to pay themselves, let alone someone else!
And although I made the point, I couldn’t go into detail and it was somewhat overshadowed by the woman running a map company who came on after me. If a unique heritage building, the only one of its kind in the country was going to be knocked down to make way for a roundabout, or a wonderful meadow with the sole remaining species of a very rare flower was about to be tarmaced over for a car park, people would be up in arms and these could even reach the national news. Yet we are losing craft skills and they get barely a mention anywhere. The question also that we’re always being asked is ‘is this craft viable?’. But no-one asks if that unique building or that beautiful meadow is viable, and they, like heritage crafts, are all part of our rich cultural heritage.
Some thought that the interview and approach of the programme gave the impression that the Heritage Crafts Association were backward thinking and only interested in the past. This couldn’t be further from the truth! What we’re interested in is ensuring that craft skills get passed on into the future. I did say: Traditional crafts are part of our heritage, they exist in the present, and they should be in our future – but it didn’t make the cut.
They wanted to use my calligraphy so I prepared all the words and phrases they asked for, and also had lots of spare paper to write them out if they wanted to film me doing that, which they did. The item ended with ‘To be continued…’ so we hope that Counytryfile pick up the topic again in the future.
If you want to support heritage crafts then please do join the Heritage Crafts Association (here). Unlike contemporary crafts we receive no government funding so our members and those who donate are particularly valuable to us because without them we could not do what we do, and we need to do so much more.