Of gin, stockings and making what we need.
Posted on March 23, 2020
Workers at Ballito. 1944. Image: St Albans Museum
As an act of social responsibility, I’ll try to keep this as jolly as I can. Given that there’s little to add to the criticism that’s attaching itself, entirely correctly, to the government’s make-do-and-mend approach to this disaster, I’ll look for positives. I’ll start with hand sanitiser.
I need to be honest. Prior to the last few weeks, hand sanitiser had not played a part in my life. I’ll go a little further. I had always thought that people who used it on any sort of regular basis – oooh, my keyboard may be infected; help, I’ve just been too close to other people – were just a touch precious. But, yes, I get it now – keep your hands clean. And I’ll admit it: I have taken the small bottle that I kept in a rudimentary first-aid walking kit (plasters, antiseptic ointment) and slipped it in my pocket when I go out. I’m not sure that’s made me a better person.
Having made a few non-panic purchases at my local market this weekend, I was conscious of the minimal physical interactions that had taken place. Time to gel! As I sneaked the bottle from my pocket, I actually found myself glancing furtively around me, as if at a cashpoint in dangerous territory. Even two days after the event, I have to ask myself what I was concerned about. Was I worried about being mugged for a half-full 30 ml bottle of stinky raw alcohol? Was this the depths to which we’d sunk? Has gel become the new gold?
Probably not, but in a riff on the old story of turning base metal into something more precious, a whole bunch of enterprises have turned their skills and resources into producing this new must-have product. Independent brewers and distillers are using the denatured alcohol (no, me neither) used in their processes to produce tons of the stuff. The beer company BrewDog is making it for free; the gin distillery owned by former Australian cricketer, Shane Warne, has converted production and is donating the gel to hospitals. Many other companies are following this altruistic lead, although I suspect that a few, Givenchy, Guerlin, Dior – and apologies if I’m wrong on this – may still be keeping an eye on the balance sheets.
There’s a wider point here, and I’ll use a couple of examples close to my heart to make it.
I was bought up close to the factory that made some of the most famous motorcycles in the world – BSA or, in full, Birmingham Small Arms. BSA’s production units switched constantly between the manufacture of guns, its original purpose in the mid-19th century, and bicycles. In time it developed the motorcycles for which the company gained international renown. During the second world war, the military need for both rifles and motorbikes was at its peak and BSA in Small Heath went into seven-day week production. As a consequence, it was the target for many enemy air-raids, but the buildings largely survived and motorcycles became the focus when the war ended.
Just around the corner from where I live is a site that used to house the Ballito factory. Prior to the second world war it made hosiery or, more precisely, in its old-fashioned self-description, ladies’ stockings. When war started, the machinery designed to make lingerie was converted to produce ammunition and was operated by the same staff (pictured above). Close by, a makeshift nursery was hastily erected (it’s still there in the form of a crumbling, but wonderful, community centre) and a hostel for the workers was built opposite the site. After the war Ballito resumed its core business before the site was sold for one of the early Co-Op supermarkets.
From gin and beer to hand sanitiser. From guns to motorbikes. From stockings to shells. The lesson couldn’t be plainer. As a society, we have the knowledge and expertise to make almost anything we want. What’s more, we can adapt that knowledge, at the drop of a hat, to make the things we really need whenever circumstances change.
I know I vowed to be as jolly as possible, but there’ no escaping the grimness of these times. Yet there will be a future and this is as good a time as any to start thinking about the lessons to be learnt from what is happening to us. There is a centuries’ old biblical notion about turning swords into ploughshares – using our technological knowledge for the good of mankind, not its destruction. Such talk has, in recent decades, largely been dismissed as the fanciful nonsense of air-headed dreamers. I think we now know that it would be idiotic to be so dismissive: we really do have to use our know-how for the common good. We’re being given a sight of the unacceptable alternative.
OK. I’m off to wash my hands this instant.