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David Bouchier: The Tinkerer

old stuff junk
Image by Gerhard Bogner from Pixabay

One of my daily walks took me past an old barn. The door was usually open, summer and winter, and there was a workbench inside where an elderly gentleman in overalls was working with hand tools rather than power tools. This in itself was wonderfully old- fashioned, and I always wondered what he was doing there, busy every day. I should have walked up to the barn and asked, but I was embarrassed to do it because he seemed so absorbed in his task, and I left it too late. One day he was gone, and the barn stood empty, or so I thought.

Whoever took on the job of clearing out that barn had a mammoth task. One day a trailer load of stuff appeared outside, then another, then another. It was like a conjuring trick, you would never believe that a small barn could hold so much stuff. I call it “stuff” because there is no other adequate word for it. It consisted of everything that could, did or might have been found in a suburban home for the past 50 years or so, from furniture to perambulators to radios and home appliances, all damaged or simply obsolete.

So the mystery man in the barn had been what we used to call a tinkerer – someone who loved fixing things or adapting them to a new purpose. Now we might call him a recycler. This useful activity had been familiar to me from childhood. My father and uncles all collected broken objects with the intention of fixing them up one day. Sometimes they even got around to doing it. That generation never threw anything away that could conceivably be useful. “We could do something with that,” they would say. Their wives were not always happy with the resulting clutter, which might include whole car engines and hundreds of almost-empty pots of paint. But in a time of postwar shortages, almost anything might come in useful.

I inherited a little of this virtuous habit. My own garage is a veritable graveyard of good intentions – non-functioning water pumps, broken garden tools and any number of vintage typewriters. If ever I get the urge to go into the garage and fix things, I will have plenty of material to work on.

But my tinkering days are over, partly because of laziness but mainly because modern industry produces almost nothing that can be tinkered with. Electronic appliances always carry the warning: No serviceable parts inside, and most domestic objects are factory made in such an intricate way that you can’t even take them apart, still less put them together again. If the deer knock down part our back fence I can’t repair it because it is made of prefabricated plastic. Even the clock is a mystery. If it stops we have to get a new one. My father could fix clocks, and radio sets.

The genius who invented the throwaway society saved us a great deal of time. But now the oceans are full of plastic, the landfills are full of perfectly usable junk, and whole generations are unable to fix anything, so consumption is multiplied by constant replacement, which obviously is the whole idea.

The old gentleman I saw working in his barn may have been the last of his kind, although I suspect that more could be found out in the wilds of New England – finding new uses for old wagon wheels and wind-up record players. If the great industrial machine ever stops, and we run out of plastic and microchips, we will have need of men like this. They are, or will be, truly the survivalists of the modern age.

Copyright: David Bouchier


David began as a print journalist in London and taught at a British university for almost 20 years. He joined WSHU as a weekly commentator in 1992, becoming host of Sunday Matinee in 1996.