In an interview for Comment magazine, the philosopher/motorcycle mechanic Matthew Crawford points out how “the experience of seeing a direct effect of your actions in the world — agency — has become elusive for many people in the affluent West, despite our ever-expanding freedoms, maybe even because of them. Those who work in an office all day might find it hard to say exactly what the upshot of their actions has been at the end of the day. The chain of cause and effect can be a bit obscure. [Like how] our material possessions — our cars, our phones, our washing machines — have become opaque to us and unintelligible. Increasingly they are reliant on software that you can't see and they might be all sealed up. Your things don't invite your intervention; you can't tinker with them.
This encourages a kind of passivity and dependence. In that condition we are missing out on something that is really fundamental to being human, which is individual agency: being master of your own stuff.”
Crawford has discovered that if we want to overcome the anxieties of our distracted age, we’d do very well to knuckle down and learn a trade. Instead of the impulse to throw off the yoke of tradition and community, maybe there is a freedom to be found in immersing ourselves in communities with long experience in the material world. On that note, meet Guy Marsh, a conservator working on St Helen’s.
So Guy, you’ve been working as a Conservator on our beautiful St Helen’s since March, can you tell us a little about what’s been filling your days up to now?
One of the largest jobs so far has been the raking out of the old mortar and the removal of old stone. In some parts of the church both the stone and the mortar were crumbling. Altogether we removed over 300 bags of crumbling rubble from site!
Now the old stone had been removed, the holes left behind have been consolidated ready to receive the new stone. Some of the new stones have now been fitted with grouting behind to hold everything in place.
Getting the exact colour of the mortar has also taken some time as different sand and dust mixtures were made up and left to dry. It took a good few goes of different mixes before getting it just right but it’s details like this that mean the conservation is as good as it possibly can be.
It’s clear you have a real passion for what you do, how did you become a conservator?
I was over in Canada visiting a then girlfriend and was run over on a pedestrian crossing. I used the compensation from the accident to retrain. Originally I was a technical illustrator.
Why conservation in particular?
At the time I was doing historic education in schools, dressing up in period costumes etc. trying to install enthusiasm for history among school children. As well as a lifetime’s interest in history, I have always been fascinated by architecture; conservation combined my love of both.
You’ve worked on some amazing buildings, is there one particular job that stands out as a career highlight?
It would have to be working at the Lady Chapel of St Mary’s church, Abergavenny on a wonderful collection of marble, alabaster, sandstone and limestone monuments. Some were decorated beautifully with paint and gold, restoring these was a most satisfying job!
And what would you say has been the most enjoyable part of the working on St Helen’s so far?
Producing a mould and cast of decorative elements to be used as reference for recarving work. It’s wonderful to be able to restore this sort of detail.
What do you see as the significance of these buildings?
It’s about saving something of the past, keeping these buildings going for future generations.
What’s next for you at St Helen’s?
I will be continuing to fit new stone and grout in place, and lots and lots mortar repairs!
Where can you be found when you’re not restoring buildings?
I live in Devon and can generally be found out on my motorcycle or in my garden which I have redesigned to be a green tropical oasis.
Any life lessons from your work?
Don’t do it for too long! After 20 years of working as a conservator I’ve a bad back and sore knees!