Tuesday, April 28, 2009

Leo Schofield and the acquisition of knowledge

During 30 years of trade you flog off a lot of second-hand furniture and this might explain why, last Thursday night, a large passel of Canberra’s chattel hoarders clogged up Collie Street Fyshwick for the official opening of Fox Antiques. That and the fact there was free booze.

The other attraction was that Fox owners, Barry and Charlie, had roped in Leo Schofield for a bit of a prose to properly wet the head of the cathedral-like space. Admittedly, ‘roped in’ is too strong a term, public speaking is like oxygen to Schofield, a beaming happy Buddha figure with eyes hooded and lips gently upturned by the ghost of a permanent smile, suggesting he’s spent more time grinning than grimacing. And to give the boy from Brewarrina his due the trajectory of his career makes for some interesting anecdotes.

In a way*, his career parallels this country’s stumbling progress over the past 70 or so years. Starting off as a bush kid, then a move to the city (above a beef and ham shop), even at that early stage hankering for something different, more cosmopolitan. Leaves school (uni’s only for the well to do), works retail then advertising, just as it’s just hitting its stride, all the while buffing up his appreciation of the good stuff, whether it be antiques, art, opera or food. Next journalism, columns about food and arts, reviews (a description of a lobster scored him a footnote in journalism text books), National Trust renovations rescues on a grand scale, go-to culture vulture (Melbourne International Festival of the Arts) and more recently broadcaster and explainer to a new generation of arty acolytes.

In his customary uniform of Italian-restaurant-tablecloth-red-check shirt and dark, double breasted sportscoat, Schofield took the crowd back to mid-fifties Sydney where, as a 19-year-old, he whiled away his lunch hours in antiques stores. Too skint to buy much of anything, young Leo stocked up on information, learning how to read silver marks and decode the stock-in-trade antiques that a certain clock fancier mate of his described as "dead people's furniture".**

It was just a casual remark - setting the scene for stories involving Queen Anne sconces, Tarzan’s Grip and the storage properties of sailcloth but it got me thinking. Schofield had started learning specialized skills by forming personal relationships with those long dead dealers, something that is no longer strictly necessary thanks to the internet.

In fact, the whole process of acquiring knowledge and transferring information has changed irresistibly and along with it, the value of that information. Something North American newspapers are learning the hard way.

Putting aside the esoteric world of reading silver marks (try here or here) this can be applied to virtually anything from financial advice to butterflying a chicken.

Not so long ago if you didn’t know how to butterfly a chicken you had a number of options (apart from wishing your apple-cheeked old grandmother had passed on the skill). You could ask a friend, try and find a magazine that covered it, buy a book or, time and interest permitting, go to a class. Now you go to Google, type in how to butterfly a chicken and choose which youtube clip to watch.

I’m no Clay Shirky but it does seem to me that most of the old ways in which knowledge was communicated, and more importantly the economics that underpinned those processes, has taken a slide. What replaces them, and whether it will generate equally entertaining anecdotes, remains to be seen.

*Admittedly in a highly tenuous way beloved of hack blog writers casting around for a link
**Paul Keating for those under 25

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