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A few weeks back I was walking the dog in our field (not that it is our field, of course, any more than our road or our street is ours, and I am only qualifying it now in case the farmer who farms the field reads the Lady and come across this piece, and thinks: “Oh, Mr Kington thinks it’s his field, does he now!?”, although if the truth be known, he doesn’t own it either, he only rents it from someone else), so anyway, as I was walking the dog in someone else’s field, I got talking with two middle-aged women wearing the wrong shoes for the field, who were clearly visitors staying in the village hotel.

There is a footpath leading through this field which eventually leads to the next village, but usually I find people faltering after the first fifty yards and wondering whether to go on or not. The other week it was a middle-aged married Japanese couple. Before that it was a couple from up North. This time it was these two middle-aged women, who told me that they were staying at the hotel for a conference. A conference of commercial teachers.

“Commercial teachers?” I said. “What are they?”

“We teach the old business skills,” they said. “Like touch-typing and shorthand. But they are all dying out, I’m afraid. This is our last conference. We have decided to wind up the Society.”

Steady on, there! You’re going too fast! Who are we? What Society . . .?

It turned out that they were all members of the STBE, which I think stands for Society of Teachers of Business Education. It was a professional body set up 100 hundred years ago in the wake of the invention of Pitman’s shorthand, and the consequent need for hundreds of people to teach this new invention.

“Isaac Pitman was a local man,” they said, “so it seemed a good idea to have this final meeting near Bath. In fact we even had a greeting from Isaac Pitman himself, believe it or not!”

I didn’t feel disposed to believe it. But it turned out that in the Pitman archives at Bath University there is an ancient recording – on cylinder, I imagine – on which you can hear Isaac Pitman dictating a message. It had been cleaned up for the occasion, transferred to CD and played to them.

“He’s saying that he is very glad to be using this new technology to say how sorry he is not to be able to present at the meeting! Well, of course, what he thought was very new technology is now ancient, and the meeting he was referring to was something that took place one hundred years ago, but it was still a bit eerie hearing him saying how sorry he was not to be there!”

Apparently the STBE has been faltering recently, what with so much-in-house training going on, and the Internet, and other things, and there being no need for an overall body, the STBE had reluctantly decided three years ago to wind themselves up. They were 97 years old at the time, so, like a batsman stuck just before his century, they decided to plod on to 100 and then give up. In 2007. And I, quite by accident, had stumbled on their last centennial rites.

How many professional bodies, I wonder, have sighed like this and given up the ghost? When touch typing came in and replaced quill cutting, were there Societies of Penpushers which quietly started to disband, seeing the writing on the wall for copperplate? Was it the same for sedan chair carriers? For ostlers, town criers, alchemists, operatic castrati, barber-surgeons, and so on? All those professions are historic, of course, but there are some trades which really have vanished in our own lifetime, like station porters, lamplighters and shoeshine men. They must all have had their own professional bodies, which are now forgotten.

(Or perhaps not. I once read the Autobiography of a Victorian Railway Porter, in which the writer said that while working at Paddington, he was once asked by a passenger where to find his luggage, which had been sent in advance. In those days, all advance bags were put in one big area under the initial letter of the owner’s name. “What’s your name?” he said. “Lewis,” said the passenger. “Then go to L,“ said the porter, pointing. The angry passenger dragged him off to the station master and complained that he had been told to go to Hell. Complete confusion, then smiles all round. But I don’t remember the porters’ union being involved . . .)

That evening, I wandered up to the hotel and met a group of the retiring STBE members. They were quite a jolly bunch, few of them young and very few of them male. They didn’t think much of the standard of proof-reading and accuracy today. They were swapping stories of their favourite misprints.

“Do you remember the day after the Brighton bombing, when Mrs Thatcher said, ’This is a day I was not meant to see’, but she was actually quoted as saying . . . “ (Whatever it was, I couldn’t make out the difference between the two . . .) and they all shrieked with laughter.

“Do you remember all those girls all being killed in Ipswich? They interviewed the local editor about it on TV, and when I saw him, I said, ‘My God – I taught that lad shorthand! Hasn’t he gone middle-aged?”

“You’re a journalist. Have you got shorthand and typing?”

This to me. And no, I haven’t. I never went through the mill. Well, I wasn’t a proper journalist. I only ever wanted to write humorous stuff, and you don’t need commercial skills for that. So I never learnt it and I am therefore partly responsible, too, for the death of the STBE.

And ever since then, whenever I have thought of that last quiet conference (“It’s a wake, really,” they said) of those Business Teachers, I have thought of their ex-pupils and then of that melancholy John Betjeman poem, Business Girls, which starts:-

From the geyser ventilators
Autumn winds are blowing down
On a thousand business women
Having baths in Camden Town . . . .

And ends:-

Rest you there, poor unbelov'd ones,
Lap your loneliness in heat.
All too soon the tiny breakfast,
Trolley-bus and windy street!

Which brings us on to the vanished profession of trolley-bus drivers ... but some other time, perhaps.

The Lady
Thursday Apr 26 07

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© Caroline Kington