Can’t shut up

Self-isolation wouldn’t be a bad way of summing up what’s gone on here at the workshop over the past ten years. There have been some visitors, sure, but the general long-exposure representation of life at 1 Cleve Workshops is one of one person, two at best, sitting in hunched fashion in a dark, cramped recess just below the beams of its low-pitched roof.

What’s happening now, though, is quite different. There’s self-isolation and there’s self-isolation — and this very real, very serious version, imposed this past month across the country, is a stark realisation of how footloose and fancy-free existence was within these sturdy three-and-three-quarter walls just over a month but yet a very different time ago.

But work goes on — just not much at the workshop. The workshop, indeed, now seems far, far away: accessible only via a hazard, barrier, and guilt-strewn and arguably non-essential outdoor activity: a memory of the belle époque of four weeks ago when people were free to saunter towards and then down a reluctantly gentrified alleyway-cum-boulevard in a corner of East London, navigating an unwelcoming, partially closed, rusty metal gate, and then another, smaller one, and then over the creaking threshold of the workshop, to observe with all the time and freedom in the world the wares on display, talk about them, try them on, and give little thought to the inadvertent exchange of airborne spittle along the way. This is to say nothing of wheeling freely all week from supplier to supplier to supplier, all inspiration and invigoration, to work at very close quarters with people from all walks of life, all ages and cultures, without so much as a second thought for the effect doing so might have tomorrow on the well-being of them or their families.

The workshop, here, which is one of the few places of business in the United Kingdom to look exactly the same during a government-sanctioned national lockdown as it does during the peak of commerce.

Momentum is precious for a small business, and easy to misplace. Doing little parts of little tasks, every day — deciding on the best collar for a new jacket, shaving a fraction from the pocket of a shirt, flicking through cloth books, putting into motion a new order of tweed, checking in on the production of some trousers, inspecting a new sample development, tidying piles and sifting through rails of determinedly murky clothes, photographing a new coat, writing words to fill a blank webpage, gently breaking to a customer the truth about his actual waist-size — and monkey-barring at speed between them, is one of the ways a business like this one can keep on keeping on, and, bumblebee-like, defy the laws of physics so as not to crash down by paying them too much mind.

Lockdown is bad for momentum. Really the antithesis of it. Now, then, the challenge at hand is to keep those wings aflutter. Easier in some ways, this, than in others: a pattern-cutter can happily work from his or her desk at home; less so a machinist or cutter or commercial-grade weaving engineer. It thus means doing everything in a different order, in a different way, and to a different schedule, and hoping all the while that the outcome, eventually, isn’t so different, at least not adversely, from the never-known what-might-have-beens. It might work out the same, or better, or worse. But when all this is over, the luxury of being able to do it — “that ancient, inalienable right of the free-born people of the United Kingdom to go the factory,” as the Prime Minister almost said last month — for one more day, let alone one more decade, will be appreciated immeasurably more, for sure.