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.