Why don’t we wear things out any more?

There is something about the way things change over a long period of time that is immensely satisfying; particularly if you, or a loved one, bring about those changes.

I was in my early twenties when my Nana died and I wasn’t very interested when the family were sorting through her belongings. There was one item though that I recall with great nostalgia and I wish it was in my ‘junk room’ right now so that I might stumble on it from time to time. It wasn’t a valuable thing, or precious in the way that a piece of jewellery or an antique is and as far as I know, nobody thought to hang on to it. Despite its apparent worthless status though, I deeply regret that I’ll never get the chance to hold it in my hand and run my fingers around the memories that it held. The object in question was a large metal spoon. A dessert spoon to be precise which in itself wasn’t that special but what made this particular spoon unique was the way in which it had been altered over time. Nana used to use it to beat cake mixture in her favourite china mixing bowl. She always used that same spoon and bowl during the creation of what must have been thousands of cakes and she had managed to wear away a fair proportion of the spoon so that it had become oddly asymmetric in shape. A totally unique piece of cutlery that belonged to, and represented my Nana as intensely as any inanimate object could possibly do. We used to joke about the fact that we had actually eaten part of the spoon in her cakes.

Nana’s son, my Dad, was a joiner and amongst the tools that I inherited from him is a very special chisel. It also holds in its form the story of his working life and an attitude to things that has been sadly lost. He probably used that chisel for over fifty years, painstakingly sharpening it at the end of the working day before returning it to its protective canvas sheath. Little by little with each successive sharpening the blade of the chisel has been ground away until only a short stub remains. Unlike the steel that has been lost on the grinding wheel and the sharpening stone, the memories of his craftsmanship are firmly embedded in what remains of the blade. It is possible of course that he broke it at some point and I am getting over nostalgic about these things but even if he did break it, the fact that he re-ground and re-sharpened it so that it could be used again tells the same tale.

I think there is something very special about objects like the chisel and the spoon. They speak of a time when the things we owned held much more value and nothing was discarded unless it was well and truly worn out or broken beyond repair. It’s hard to pin point just when things changed; when it became normal to buy a new replacement for something long before it has reached the end of its useful life. My Dad taught me how to sharpen a saw. It’s a time-consuming and tedious process so I do understand why working builders might not want to do it but the first cut after the sharpening is satisfying like no other. Contractor’s saws are now sold in multi-packs because it is assumed that they will be used until blunt and then thrown in the skip to join everything else in the landfill site. Each saw has less value than the time it would take to re-sharpen it. It’s not just the fact that the things we buy now are not designed to last as long, or that their lovely wooden handles have been replaced with plastic ones. What we have lost is the unique relationship that can be fostered between a person and an object if they spend enough time in each other’s company. There is something really beautiful in the way in which the wooden handle of a spade changes to match the hand of the gardener that digs with it season after season. The patina and sheen of the wood reflects the callouses that it, in turn, created. Or the subtle change in the shape of a knife’s blade that has been sharpened a thousand times before carving the Sunday joint. The changing shape of the handle or the blade reflects the changing lives of those that use them in a way that words or photos could never do. They capture time. When I was working on the canals last year I pointed out to many people the deep grooves on the cornerstones of bridges that have been worn by the ropes as the horses pulled the barges through. Running your finger through those grooves is about as close as you can get to time travel.

Look out for those grooves

Look out for those grooves

It’s a shame that we don’t seem to wear things out anymore; we just get bored with them now and throw them away. It’s easy to justify it on the grounds that the thing didn’t cost much in the first place and a new one is so cheap it’s not worth the effort of maintaining or repairing it. It’s a shame because soon there won’t be any worn down handles to run our hands over while we contemplate the life of a previous owner no longer with us. So much less of what we use will get passed on. There will be less to make the bridge from one generation to another, fewer memories preserved forever in shapes. It’s ironic that you can’t buy these things; you have to make them from the things you buy and it takes years, maybe even a whole lifetime. I sometimes wonder how old my Nana would have had to get to wear away the rest of the spoon.

Thanks Dad

When my Dad died I wanted to stand up and say something about him at the funeral. Unfortunately I knew only too well that I wouldn’t be able to get through such a speech without dissolving into a blubbering wreck and spoiling it for everybody. In the end I wrote a short poem that tried to convey what he meant to me and what he would be leaving behind once his physical presence had gone. I still couldn’t read it out and had to give it to the priest to read on my behalf. I was thinking about him this morning and for some reason, sixteen years on I feel like sharing it, and him, again. This is what I wrote.

Hey Dad, me bike isn’t working,
I can’t get it into third gear,
“Well go and fetch me tools lad,
And bring your bike over here”.

I’d pedal away with me mates,
Having carefully watched what he’d done,
Another small part of his knowledge
Passed quietly from father to son.

All through our childhood, the lessons went on,
Showing us just what to do,
From mending a bike, to making a kite,
With scissors and paper and glue.

As I grew older, he taught me much more,
The subjects were never the same,
Now it was woodwork, and how to use tools,
A hammer, a chisel, a plane.

And so I left home, with skills of my own,
To get me through every day life,
The seasons came round, and I settled down,
With two boys and a wonderful wife.

I thought Dad had finished, the lessons all done,
So it came as a little surprise,
To find when I met with a problem,
He was there in my head to advise.

The lessons were different, not practical things,
Like tipping a new snooker cue,
But patience and wisdom, honesty, truth,
And knowing the right thing to do.

To love and to care, to listen and share,
To know when to guide, when to steer,
These are the things that you teach me now Dad,
And it’s wonderful having you near.

So keep looking on Dad, as I try to do right,
And when you think that I’m making a mess,
Say, “Excuse me son, would you like some advice?”,
And I promise I’ll always say yes.

Thanks Dad

Happy families

I’m the fat one on the left

Budgie breeder, just for Dane

Somebody commented on here the other day that they liked the randomness of my posts since I stopped writing about cycling. Well this one is for you Dane.

I used to breed budgerigars. It was a long time ago now and I have no idea what brought it back to my mind during this morning’s walk. I certainly didn’t see any exotic bird life and I didn’t make it as far as the recently opened pet shop in the village but something brought back the cut and thrust of the budgie breeding world so I thought I would write about it.

I think I was about fourteen at the time that we went to visit my Dad’s brother, Uncle Ted, in Dalton. When you are fourteen visits to relatives aren’t at the top of your bucket list so I was probably being a sulky teenager on the long journey from St. Anne’s all around the expansive Morecambe Bay and without the aid of the M6 to provide any excitement. I suspect I spent the whole journey dreaming of Claire Boon, the most beautiful creature ever to grace the top deck of a number eleven bus but that’s a story for another day.

We already had a budgie in our house. He was called Peter and his party trick was to pick up coins from the mantel piece and drop them onto the hearth because he seemed to like the noise they made. It was an amusing trick but it didn’t require a great deal of intellect and indeed, he didn’t have any. He once spent a good hour transferring about three pounds worth of small change from the dining table to the carpeted floor of the lounge completed baffled by the absence of his favourite jingle. He could barely hold his head up by the end of the exercise but he was nothing if not persistent. And endlessly optimistic. I thought it was cool to own a budgie, well, probably not cool back then, more likely neat or ace. Yes I think it was ace, but when I got to my Uncle’s house he took things to another level.

This is not Peter

This is not Peter

In his back garden he had not one, but dozens, maybe even hundreds of budgerigars in aviaries. They were all the colours of the rainbow (apart from orange, red and purple) and they fascinated me as they flew around their enclosures and jostled with each other on perches, sometimes fighting and sometimes flirting. I was allowed to go into one of the aviaries and even given a bird to hold and shown newly laid eggs and hatchlings. I was hooked.

Over the next few weeks I pestered and pestered to be allowed to become a budgie breeder and in the end, no doubt for the sake of a bit of peace, I was given the green light. My Dad was a joiner and it didn’t take him long to knock up the necessary accommodation for a pair of besotted blues and I was in business. I was genuinely enthusiastic and tended their every need before and after school until one happy day they produced a family. It probably taught me more about biology than Mr. Hodges ever did and I exhausted the local library’s budgie section in my thirst for knowledge. Before long we required an aviary too and what had been my Dad’s sanctuary, his shed, became a feather infested smelly den requiring endless cleaning and constant attention as the breeding program went exponential.

That’s when I lost interest and left it all to my Dad. I think, by then, I had mustered up the courage to actually speak to Clair Boon and really there was just no competition I’m afraid. To be fair to my Dad he really got stuck into it and even won a few prizes at local shows. I have always felt really guilty about the way I got him into breeding budgies at the expense of his beloved shed while I moved on to breeding ambitions of another kind. Not complaining about it was probably as clear a declaration of fatherly love as you could ever imagine.

The whole episode in my life is all terribly vague now. It’s like a kind of Eton Mess of memories involving seeds, feathers, eggs and poo, and, if I’m really honest, probably knickers and bra straps as well. I did learn a few things though and they have stuck with me all my life. I can tell a male and female budgerigar apart without lifting up any skirts or dropping any trousers and I still remember the difference between a Lutino and an Albino. I also learnt what it feels like to get dumped by the most gorgeous girl that ever rode the number eleven bus and then realise that you have lost your budgies into the bargain.

Spot the difference

Spot the difference