The following is excerpted from “Honest Labour: The Charles H. Hayward Years,” a collection of essays from The Woodworker magazine while the legendary Charles H. Hayward was editor (1936-1966). The columns are like nothing we’ve ever read in a woodworking magazine. They are filled with poetry, historical characters and observations on nature. And yet they all speak to our work at the bench, providing us a place and a reason to exist in modern society.
Standing at the threshold of a new year is at any time a solemnising experience. Even when we mark its coming with convivial celebrations, there is always, lurking somewhere in one’s mind a persistent: “Quo vadis?”—whither are you going? But it is rare indeed for a year to come to us so shrouded in mystery as 1940. There was a time—already remote—when one could comfortably forecast within a little what the new year would bring, not only in one’s own immediate circle, but in the larger affairs of the world outside. True we were always subject to the chances and changes inseparable from the fact of man’s mortality, there was always the possibility of something incalculable occurring to upset our plans, but after all there still remained the ordinary kind of changes, however unwelcome. And there was always an even chance that in any one year they would pass us by.
But now we are face to face with the extraordinary. What 1940 will bring forth is beyond the power of any of us to guess. We are launched upon a war which has opened so strangely that it is impossible to predict what lines it will follow, to what extent during the coming year each individual will be involved, or even what countries will be involved. And just as at the theatre there is always a hush, a thrill of expectancy as the curtain begins to rise, so there must, I think, be something of this feeling in all of us as we stand on the brink of the unknown.
One prophecy which it is fairly safe to make is that this war will eventually produce considerable changes in various aspects of national life, notably in building and architecture. The building of the future will conceivably be governed by the possibilities of aerial attack, and if air raids during the present war should develop to any great extent, then the changes in building and town planning might well be of a radical kind. We are already getting accustomed to the idea of each house in a vulnerable area becoming, at least theoretically, a fortress, with something in the nature of an air raid shelter, sandbag protection or a gas-proof room to safeguard the lives of its inhabitants. I say theoretically because anyone who has faced the problem of turning a modern house, with its large area of window space, its general flimsiness of construction, into anything remotely resembling a fortress is only too well aware of the difficulties. Essentially the modern house is built for peace, a pleasant, cheerful place which lets in all the sunlight and air possible, with no regard to the distinctly unpleasant possibilities of aerial warfare.
Not that the house of the future need be any less cheerful. That is a virtue in modern building and decoration which I hope we shall not easily part with. But it may be very much sounder. Building may become the tradesman’s craft again rather than a piece-work job to be slung together anyhow. There are sure to be structural changes based on war experience, and definite provision for air raid shelter. The very materials of which our houses are made will also have to pass the test of war, and it is conceivable that there will be changes in these, so that windows, for instance, may be of non-splinter glass or a glass substitute. It will be interesting to see whether erection of large blocks of flats, which has of late years met a definite modern demand, will continue. I very much doubt it. Aerial menace is quite definitely a factor which every builder and architect of the future will have to take into consideration, and will, I think, be the governing principle of housing fashion, possibly controlled by legislation. One thing at least we can reckon on, and that is that we are living in one of those dynamic periods in the world’s history productive of radical change.
How will it affect furniture? It takes an age of democratic peace and plenty to produce gimcrackery. Will furniture, like houses, revert to a more substantial form? We know, all too well, the type that could never survive anywhere within sound of a falling bomb. Having been blown together in the first instance, it would take so very, very little to blow it apart. It seems to me that we may live to see a definite revival of craftsmanship in furniture making, because strength and soundness of construction, which have been the least of our demands in the latter years of this industrial civilisation, will have acquired a new importance. Or rather, one would say, their old importance. For the scanty furnishings of a Norman house and the later and more luxuriant Tudor house had to be able to bear rough treatment and the weight of armoured men. Modern furniture may have to bear a different sort of rough treatment—and an even more intolerable strain. The saying that “an Englishman’s home is his castle” is threatening to become quite literally true. But whereas in olden times the castle dweller lived on the first floor because he was more at the mercy of his enemies at the ground level, to-day he chooses his ground floor—and strengthens his basement—as being his safest place.
Whatever changes may follow in the wake of war we may be reasonably sure of this, that beauty as well as utility will evolve. Man has an immortal spirit which is never satisfied for long with the purely material, especially in anything that concerns his home. The old Norman keep, with its nine-foot walls, had a dignity, a grandeur that still speaks to us across the ages of his unquenchable instinct for beauty. And we, with our modern house consciousness, are not likely to let this go. The English home of to-day, gradually evolved from primitive mud and wattle beginnings, may be—and probably is—standing on the threshold of still another change. But all the old craving to beautify our surroundings which was born with us will at least remain with us still.
10 thoughts on “‘The Curtain Rises’”
The things that kept our Grandparents awake at night were much much greater than ours for sure.
If you’re looking for something to keep you awake at night: the world still has currently 1600 nuclear missiles armed and aimed, ready to go. Each warhead is many, many times more powerful that those antiques they dropped on Japan. You could also worry about the Balkanization of the US and the possibility of their missiles falling into the hands of a government closely aligned with Q-cultists and white nationalist doomsday preppers. The general rise in Fascist sentiment and militant religiosity around the world is worth worrying about too,…and there’s that possibility of massive human migration as we head towards a major global extinction event.
This was exciting to read. Woodworking in Britain, after the Nazi invasion of Poland and the British declaration of war, but before the fall of France and Battle of Britain. It’s just utterly fascinating.
All throughout reading this, all I could think of was the 2nd house I bought as a young adult, a new construction home in southern New Jersey, built in 2000. I was totally aware of the shortcomings in construction — the cheap, engineered joists on display in the basement, the other shortcuts made throughout so that the builders could stamp out these crappy Mini-McMansions en masse in the great building boom at the turn of the millennium. And then to think — how that crappy home would have protected my family in 2001-2002 when our government advised us to run out and buy rolls of plastic and duct tape, you know, because, “in case of a chemical attack.” Indeed.
AMEN SISTER AMEN
While I fervently believe that Mr. Hayward’s predictions would have made for wise direction, it is interesting to see that the world (in fabrication, construction, etc.) went in almost the complete opposite direction. Maybe the conclusion was that nothing built by human hands could survive such destruction, so may as well make it as cheap and replaceable as possible.
This is a great book. It is one of my favorites from you guys.
Here to assist, not to troll, but the title of the book in the link “The Charles H. Hawyard Years” has a misspelling.
Was this (the war, not the article) what influenced the generation of architects and town planners that that gave us the “gift” of concrete brutalist buildings?
Sadly, the article reminds me of many of “the world has forever changed” predictions that pundits issued after 9/11 – that of course were never fulfilled. Don’t know whether it is a sign of humanity’s resilience or stupidity, that we forget those “lessons” from horror and go back to our typical carpe diem lifestyles soon thereafter.
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