Thursday, 11 December 2008

Just one little word....

Flicking through New Scientist the other day, my eye was caught by a striking full-page advertisement featuring a black tulip. This was not the sought after flower that led to the tulip madness in the 1630s - an economic bubble that was as disastrous as the current house price or contemporary art bubbles of today. This tulip was black because of its coating of engine oil, and the headline was a call to ‘Join the people who will develop a non-polluting fuel.’

The ad was placed by the Institution of Engineering and Technology (previously known as the Institution of Electrical Engineers) in its campaign to attract more members who want to make significant positive differences to the world.

This is a cheery and positive message as this year’s rather subdued festive season gets under way. Then I heard a faint rattle of the ghost of Christmas Past, as I recalled an incident at a corporate drinks party last December. Upstairs, downstairs and on the stairs - people everywhere chatting animatedly, exchanging business cards, backslapping and greeting. Yes, give or take the odd no-show, the Christmas do was going well. Cranberry juice cocktails were proving as popular as the wine, boding well for a lower level of departing boisterousness than previous years.

The Chairman’s wife, successful in her own right, charming and stylish, was engaged in animated conversation when a departing guest interrupted the chat to bid her farewell. With a refreshing disregard for current political correctness, he complimented her warmly on her striking, jewel coloured silk jacket. But then he ruined the entire uplifting and charming effect with, "But I am only an engineer, so what do I know?"

Only an engineer? Only an engineer? What is going on in universities, colleges and the industry, that instils in engineers a sense of self-deprecation that makes Uriah Heep look positively cocky? For years, civil engineers in particular have bemoaned their lack of profile, the perennial complaint that they are seen by most people as a washing machine repairer or car mechanic. Mind you, both of these occupations can be greatly appreciated, particularly when the kitchen floor is awash or the engine doesn’t start as you set off to the airport.

Perhaps that is the key. How often do people need a civil engineer? Civil engineering expertise is not a distress purchase like other professional services such as law, accountancy or medicine - when faced with a court summons, tax return or broken leg (tick appropriate box).

Mind you, there have been occasions when I have been very happy to see a civil engineer and pay the bill too. Like the time when I had just bought a house in 24 hours – yes, it is possible – and then spotted two cracks running 30ft (10 metres in new money) from gable to ground on the flank wall of the newly acquired property. An hour later and the civil engineer was there, squinting into the sun and then pronouncing that there was no major problem. These were simply thermal cracks from coal fires over the past 150 years and could be sorted out with stitching and pointing.

That word 'only' applied to the problem, not the person delivering a professional solution to it.

Postcript: for those of you who are looking for a last minute Christmas present for a plant lover, I recommend Anna Pavord's beautiful book The Tulip.

Monday, 8 December 2008

Valiant women: notes from an orange grove

I am writing this entry in Mallorca, our first visit since our honeymoon 40 years ago. We are staying in a garden house in orange and lemon groves in Soller, a little mediaeval town in the Tremuntana Mountains in the northwest of the island. The diary of local events reveals that every year in May the town has a festival to celebrate Ses Valentes Dones (the Valiant Women). Back in 1561, two sisters refused to run and hide when pirates invaded the island, instead attacking and killing several of the men who broke into their home and contributing significantly to Soller’s victory over the marauders.

This story of the strength and determination that women find at times of war reminded me of the speech I had given just a few days before, at a Women in Property lunch at Raymond Blanc’s beautiful restaurant La Maison aux Quat’ Saisons near Oxford. (make link to site and report). In Visibility, Entrepreneurship and Success, I recounted the little known but extraordinary tale of the women who built London’s Waterloo Bridge during the Second World War. Construction historian Dr Chris Wall discovered that, although riverboat pilots refer to ‘The Ladies Bridge’ on leisure trips on the Thames, the story had been written out of the official archives.

Her investigations resulted in a fascinating documentary film which revealed that despite 70% of the workforce being women, their contribution was not acknowledged. When Waterloo Bridge was opened in 1945, the dignitary doing the honours was Lord Mandelson’s grandfather Herbert Morrison, then Deputy Prime Minister. His words were "The men who built Waterloo are fortunate men. They know that, although their names may be forgotten, their work will be a pride and use to London for many generations to come."

So why did so few people know then, let alone remember now? The son of one of the men who worked on the project with main contractor Peter Lind recalled his father’s comment that the women didn’t look like women, because they wore all-in-one overalls, with their hair tied up in scarves or hats. Tight security around the site also kept onlookers at a considerable distance. So the women were simply invisible.

The film The Ladies' Bridge includes interviews with some of the women welders and builders recalling their experiences - and their deep frustration at having to give up their work when the men returned from war to reclaim their jobs. "But it showed me what I could do," said one doughty nonagenarian, "My husband found that I was an independent woman when he got back from the front."

As Harriet Rubin, in her book Princessa: Machiavelli for Women, says "When the rules are broken, or in shambles, women succeed. War favours the dangerous woman."

So if a small town like Soller in Mallorca has acknowledged its two Valiant Women every year for nearly five centuries, why don’t we organise a celebration every year to acknowledge the invisible and valiant women in construction? After all, there were 25,000 of them in the building trades in 1941, representing 3% compared with a mere 1% today, so they could do with some recognition. Perhaps a walk of constructive women, past and present, from every discipline, from both side of the River Thames, and meeting in the middle of Waterloo Bridge for balloons, bubbly and fireworks?