My father, David Bloor, was the last to run our family's artificial flower making business, W.F. Johnson. His early memories of Johnson's were from the 1930s, when the firm was based at Amhurst Road, Hackney, in a large town house with a workshop built onto the back. He recalled his uncle in the cutting-out room, lit only by the guttering of a naked gas flame, using an ox-hide mallet to hammer out the leaf and petal shapes. When he'd cut out a sufficient quantity he'd gather them into his apron and carry them out to the making-up tables, where other workers sat putting leaves, petals and sprays together.
When my dad ran the business, in premises in Wood Green and later in Bounds Green, he made it more of a one-man, self-employed affair. He had his retired parents working with him for a while, and then us, his children, on Saturday mornings, veining away for extra pocket money. As an adult I worked with him for a couple of years, but never more than part-time. The firm couldn't really afford it. W.F. Johnson's only survived through to the very end of the twentieth century by staying small and specialist. But it couldn't last forever.
I sometimes wonder if I should have tried to keep the business going when my dad retired. But the orders had tailed off by then. The production of floral props for the stage, which had become the mainstay of the business, had been on the wane since the 1980s, when funding cuts forced many theatres to close down. We did some work with the fashion industry, but it was never a particularly good fit for Johnson's. It seems unlikely I would have made a success of running the family firm. And so it ended.
It has stayed with me, of course, as anything you grow up with will tend to do. Its routines, its rituals, its repetitions. The texture of stiffened lawn cotton. The feel of the hand tools – all of nineteenth century vintage, obsolete before I was even born - age-smoothed wood and black iron. The smell of crepe paper and PVA, of thick, cream-coloured felt and Bostick. Dust mote particles of fire-proofing and dried green dye, floating on the air. The frantic sizzle when Dad spat on one of the flat irons heating on the gas stove to see if it was hot enough to use. The burbling of the transistor radio in the background. Cuppa-soups and Boil-in-the-Bag lunches. Endless cups of tea and chocolate digestives. The grinding, bass rumble of the cutting-out machine. The sleepy indolence of summer afternoons spent hunched over the veining press. The aching chill of the workshop in wintertime. All this has stayed with me and is with me still.
I've been trying to write a play set in a flower maker's workshop since around 2009. One of my first attempts was called The Mouth, the Hammer and the Biscuit Tin. It wasn't any good, but I still rather like the title. The current version is called, more simply, The Flower Maker's Tale. The script has gone through numerous rewrites, some of them amounting to a complete restart, and the setting has shifted from the 1950s, to the 1920s until finally settling on the last weeks of peace before the outbreak of war in 1914. But the name at least seems to have stuck. In its present incarnation, the play is a single-hander, a one-woman show. It deals with, among other things, a police siege, suffragette bombers, a gun-wielding anarchist's girlfriend and Sylvia Pankhurst's hat. We plan to give it its first performance in the summer. Details to follow on Near Run Thing Facebook page etc.
For more about W.F. Johnson's, the artificial flower makers, see this previous post, or use the "history" tag.