Old-school arts and crafts resurrected

By Alan Perrott

Alan Perrott meets three Aucklanders bringing back old-school crafts.

Tara Williams says confidence is all about presenting energy and how you hold yourself. Photo / Natalie Slade
Tara Williams says confidence is all about presenting energy and how you hold yourself. Photo / Natalie Slade

Maybe they're called "the old ways" because only the aged can remember when they mattered?

Whatever the reason, there have always been jobs that have fallen by into the twilight zone of retro. You don't get many chariot drivers these days, which is definitely a shame, but they probably saw the writing on the temple wall when proper saddles began appearing.

But who are the chariot drivers of today and why do they think their particular occupation deserves to linger a while longer?

Canvas approached a few contenders to find out.

CUT-THROAT SHAVING

Joe Clibbettt makes boys into men with the edge of his blade, just as his dad and granddad did before him.

"I was 16 when [Dad] first took me through it - the hot flannels, the lathering, all that ... he worked in a supermarket, but he was a proper gentleman.

He reminds me of people like Steve McQueen and Dean Martin, a cool, collected sort of customer."

Until then, the whole business had been a ritual of mystery.

Every Sunday, Martin Clibbett would head upstairs with his Elvis CDs and lock himself in the bathroom of their Bristol home for an hour.

No one wants to be disturbed when he's holding a cut-throat shaver to his own throat.
"He'd get the music going then give himself two shaves, followed by the cold water, moisturiser and aftershave ... every week without fail."

His son knew it was time to take the closest of shaves when he was given a badger brush for Christmas.

Apparently badger hair is the best for applying shaving cream.

"I just fell in love with it from the start. It's romantic, it's old-school, it's cowboy, it's gangster," says Clibbett. "I mean, getting one is like going into a bar for the first time. Once you've had your first cut-throat shave, you're a man."

So, when as a 19-year-old, he found himself working as a barber in Bath, it only seemed natural for a manly shave for men to be added to his range of skills.

All he needed was a course to add an actual qualification to his enthusiasm.

The problem then, was that the demand for shaves isn't what it used to be and while he did find a class, he turned up to find he had only one classmate. At least it suggested he wasn't going to have much competition.

It's hard to imagine who was the more nervous when Clibbett finally wielded his blade on someone else.

"But I know I was," he says, "because I was proper nervous. He was a fat bloke, Dean from Ladbrooks, which usually makes it easier because the face is really rounded, but I still cut him a few times."

Despite the blood, Dean from Ladbrooks became his first regular customer.

Blood also became something of an early motivator for Clibbett as well.

During a trip to New York he toured the Rockefeller Centre to visit its famous barbershop.

The story goes that it was a favourite of the old Mafia dons and was one of the rare places where they would remove their guns. This put the staff in line for danger money as well as the line of fire. Every so often hitmen would drop by, killing everyone including the poor chap with the clippers. The owners would paint over the blood, hire new barbers and reopen for business.

"That's well cool," says Clibbett, "so, if after all that it was still good enough for gangsters and cowboys, then I think everyone should do it."

Not that the 24-year-old is expecting life to be that exciting now that he's settled in Auckland.

After finding only one cut-throat shaver in town, he sent his CV around town and eventually found a new home at Room 104 in the inner city.

"I've done 20 or 30 shaves since starting here. A few guys have been a little apprehensive at first but for me, the whole point of it is to settle back and enjoy yourself for an hour. It's a mental time-out with an edge, because there's nothing more exhilarating than lying back with someone holding a cut-throat to your neck."

DEPORTMENT

While her mates were off doing gym or playing netball, Tara Williams' idea of a good time was walking around with a book on her head.

Her mother ran Vanity Walk, a modelling and finishing school of sorts in Dunedin, which specialised in teaching posture, grooming and decorum to the best and brightest southern belles.

"There was a lot of dancing as well," says Williams, "ballet and things like that, so I just kept going along because I enjoyed it. It wasn't like it was being hammered into us at home, it just sort of became my hobby. But I guess we did grow up with it around us without even realising it, so we were all used to walking in heels and all that sort of thing well before we were teenagers."

She certainly believes those six years of deportment training set her up for life.

So despite many considering such notions straight-laced and old-fashioned, she has been teaching the same lessons to full classes ever since she set up an Auckland Vanity Walk in 2001.

And they all start by placing a book on their heads ... the trick is in taking it off and walking like it's still there, much like when Williams stands you against a wall and shows you how to move away without a hint of a lurch.

"In the end, it's all about giving you confidence in yourself and it's amazing the difference it makes to people when you change their posture. But it's not about modelling or walking a catwalk. Forget what we see on Top Model, it's about understanding how you are presenting yourself, because it doesn't matter what you're doing, you are always presenting an energy."

To illustrate, she walks across her Mt Eden studio like, well, a normal person - plod, plod, plod. Then she turns and walks back like, well, someone with mana to burn. It's all in the set of her shoulders, the way her head floats and the footsteps that track along an invisible beam.

The transformation is quite something really, and she reckons it gets people on the front foot in interviews without having to say a word.

Which is why she is getting interest from corporates such as Air New Zealand - she conducts seminars for all their cabin staff - along with the odd bride who wants a little va-voom in her aisle walk.

Some people seem to have it naturally and Williams points to locals such as Tamati Coffey, Dan Carter, Bernice Mene and Alison Mau as great examples of people who seem to live in an invisible spotlight. She also trained successful international models like Katie Braatvedt and Peter Nolet. Now in his 50s, Nolet claims he has never been outwalked on a runway anywhere.

Of late Williams has begun teaching several vaguely familiar faces. Some old classmates from Dunedin have moved north as well and they are now sending their daughters along for a lesson in the old ways. "Obviously that's always a great thing to see, but I think it also shows how these lessons stick with you. Why wouldn't you want your children to learn that as well?"

So, you can imagine the restraint she exercises when she sees anyone slouching. As the Bee Gees sang, you tell a lot from how someone walks, but the law frowns on her urges to give them a good shake. "You can't help but notice these things. Look at Barack Obama, he has such amazing posture and presentation that he can't help but stand out. I see deportment as a path to confidence and, as my mother says, 'with confidence you can achieve anything'."

HANDWRITING

Pens may not have power over swords for much longer, says Janet De Witt.

In a recent visit to a primary school, she found only nine pupils in a class of 25 could hold a pencil properly.

"I think it's a tide you're not going to stop," she says.

Now many of you are probably shrugging your shoulders: "so what?" Kids are still taught enough so they can scribble the occasional, legible answer in their exams. Everything else can be done with a keyboard or touch-screen.

I'll even go out on a limb and say that the vast majority of you reading this haven't handwritten a letter in years. I haven't and why would I, when there are so many options that don't require licking stamps and finding a mailbox?

However, change almost always carries unexpected consequences along for the ride. Much like the ban on smoking in bars meant a lot of people had to increase their personal hygiene.

In this case, De Witt sees consequences everywhere.

It's in the way kids slouch down the street, how bank tellers write and how the most developed muscle in a teen's body is powering their texting thumbs.

De Witt has been teaching since 1974 but jumped over into educational kinesiology in 1993. It's a job that basically looks at how movement can assist or inhibit learning, with a particular emphasis on handwriting.

Her services are used by several schools as well as parents worried that their precious offspring won't meet the national standards for six-year-olds.

And they are often right.

De Witt is finding more and more children have little or no ability when it comes to fine motor control, that's the delicate fingertip stuff that allows us to hold a pen properly. To compensate, they employ all manner of exotic grips that not only lead to chicken scratchings but are also painful.

Maybe children today don't fool around enough with play-dough or nuts and bolts to develop digital finesse?

"I don't think the implications of these things have been thought through at all," she says.

And there's more at stake than a rise in club hands.

Writing stimulates the brain and when that happens, a young mind begins wiring itself up for bigger things.

Beginner's level printing is mostly left-brained, the area where right-handers deal with language, grammar and such. But when children move on to linked-up or cursive writing, their brains light up like Christmas trees. Linked-up words apparently work like Chinese pictograms, they form patterns and involve an element of creativity.

Then there are posture issues. Old-school writers sit upright and still, so that movement is isolated to the hands. Sloppy writers wriggle, cup their head in their hand and hunch over. Add in a few knuckles scraping along the ground and you can imagine where De Witt is heading with this.

Computer-savvy kids might be able to re-program your Freeview machine but a few standard screws may still be loose up top.

She sees it while she's driving. By watching a teenager's posture as they walk is a sign of how their grey matter is - or isn't - wired up.

"These are real development issues," she says. "I don't think we'll see the end of handwriting in my lifetime, but it is certainly being de-emphasised and I don't think younger teachers see it as important as others who have been teaching for a while. Without it, who's going to write the message in the sand if you're marooned on an island?"

- NZ Herald

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