On occasions when I sit quietly, with a pipe in my workshop, I’m transported back to childhood and my granddad’s shed; the aroma of fresh sawdust, and Old Holborn Tobacco, mingled with the green of the garden. He was my earliest memory of working with wood, and that now seems a lifetime away.
Now I’m trying to learn the old skills, teaching myself, and working at some of the old crafts. I love the old tools, what they were used for and how they were used. I like the product, the utility, and the way that things we now see as crafts were actually trades and a way of life. I grew up around some of these things, as their use way becoming less common while mass production and disposability became the be-all and end-all.
While my interest was sparked as a very young child, it was as a teenager that this was fuelled by, of all things, television. I was captivated by a man called Jack Hargreaves, a pipe smoking champion of the Old England I was losing. He wrote books and made an amazing TV series called, “Out Of Town” – my favourite episode being about Ernie Sims, a Rake Maker, and WW1 veteran. But all were wonderful. He would talk, show tools and objects, explain them and speak gently about life. If you have time, there is an episode here:
It is really quite wonderful, as was another series called, “Hands,” about Irish crafts, but, as they once were, trades and skills – these transported me back to the Ireland of my very early years and a world I saw slipping away from me. My favourite is the episode about John Surlis and his Leitrim Chair. There is more wisdom in the first 5-10 minutes than in a decade of any other TV “reality” you can waste your time watching. The episode is here:
This is a thing of staggering simplicity and beauty.
Both these programs, and the men behind them, have informed and inspired my life – they made the vagaries of youth bearable, and transported me. Now, in my adult life, I’m finally getting to take a step back, slow down and try to live as we should live – I still have to do the daily grind, but otherwise I’m stepping back – and, through the joys of the Internet, and flea markets, I’m finding and saving these old tools and learning to use them – letting them live by using them to create.
In the Ernie Sims program he used a fantastic rake makers rounding plan to smooth and straighten an ash pole – for 30 years I was looking for one, then when I did find one I was staggered at how beautiful the tool was, sublimely made, an object of art in itself; made to outlast the owner, and his successor – still sharp and perfect after over 100 years of use and hibernation.
The satisfaction of using these old tools is amazing – the way they enable you to really get close to the wood, to understand and work with it, rather then fighting it and bending it to your will – you work to its strengths and accentuate its beauty.
When thinking about old tools (and old pipes) the old cliche pop’s into my head: “They don’t make ’em like that anymore.” The silliness of it all appeals to me. I used to think it was something that only old fogies used to say, just to be obstreperous, but, now, as I approach foggidom, I appreciate the wisdom of it.
On a final note I don’t think there has ever been finer TV programming, before or since.