THE mechanic who's been fixing my cars for as long as I've had cars, and who can coax life from an engine that seems as dead as a rock star, and who is forever suggesting I have my cambelt done while knowing that I believe the cambelt to be a fiction invented by mechanics to fleece me of my money, reckons he's got about 10 years of mechanicing left.
After that there won't be a living to be had from it, he says, and he'll have to find some other way of feeding his family.
And the moment he told me that, just as you would have done, I thought of Evelyn Waugh. Specifically I thought of the opening sentence of Chapter 2 of his novel Scoop. "'Change and decay in all around I see,' sang Uncle Theodore."
If you haven't read Evelyn Waugh, I envy you the discovery that awaits. Such felicities of language, such cruel truth and such lovely stabbing jokes. Could you ask for more in this world? (Yes, you could, of course. But you won't get it.)
I'd guess the mechanic's in his mid-40s. Which would mean that 25 years or so ago he peered down the various roads that stretched into the future and Mechanics Boulevard caught his eye. It seemed to stretch to the horizon and beyond. One had only to look at how many cars there were on the roads, and a million more being born every day, and every one of them needing its grommets greased and its cambelt done, to realise that here was a lifetime of work guaranteed.
But 25 years later cars have become sealed units driven by computers. Their illnesses can be diagnosed only by a machine to which they have to be plugged in. The practical expertise of a mechanic has been superseded by a silicon chip. And it's a proprietary silicon chip, which means a car made by XL Corp of Shandong can be fixed only by an XL dealership.
So the friendly old-style mechanic who we thought would last forever will soon be gone. "'Change and decay in all around I see,' sang Uncle Theodore."
The words are from a hymn:
"Swift to its close ebbs out life's little day;
"Earth's joys grow dim, its glories pass away;
"Change and decay in all around I see,
"O thou who changest not, abide with me."
When we're born we enter a world that seems fixed. The land of childhood is the world as it was meant to be. But then we grow older and things change and it is inevitable that we conflate the world's change with our own and see it as decay.
The mechanic won't be the first profession to disappear. When my father was a boy every village had a smith. I am old enough to remember stokers on steam trains and a rag and bone man with a horse and cart. I played cricket with both a coalman and a milkman. I worked briefly in an outfit with a typing pool. All long gone. And in their place, professions that did not exist when I was a kid and that it's tempting to despise - computer programmers and health and safety officers.
Change unnerves us. At every moment a new generation is springing into being for whom the debased modern world is the fixed arcadia of childhood. Their ways are not our ways and their batteries are fully charged while ours are running down. So we begin to glimpse the end of the world and that's never been a popular view, for smiths or rag and bone men or mechanics.
Some consolation would be nice. The hymn writer finds it in 'thou who changest not', the divine embodiment of permanence.
It's been a popular delusion in every human society. But in the secular west it's gone the way of steam trains and typing pools.
For consolation we have only the enduring verities of art. Scoop hasn't changed since I first read it at the age of 18 or so.
I think I might take it from the shelves now and spend the evening marvelling once again at the felicities of language, the cruel truth and the lovely stabbing jokes. Could you ask for more in this world? (Yes, you could, of course. But you won't get it.)