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April 02nd 2017 print

Bill Martin

A Tinkerer’s Cuss on Our Disposable Age

Before recycling became a sign of environmental virtue, not to mention a local bylaw whose defiance can incur a hefty fine, it was a necessity. There is comfort in old and familiar things, just as there is a unique satisfaction to be drawn from the application of the handyman's skills

handymanThere was a segment on a recent Lateline dealing with the ridiculously fast pace of clothing items being discarded and replaced. Charities are apparently hard pressed to deal with the volume of donations they receive, at least half of which end up as rags. It wasn’t the economics or environmental aspect of the issue that hit home with me — even though those issues are eminently worthy of consideration — but the seemingly complete lack of sentimentality that was overwhelmingly obvious while various guests of appropriate expertise discussed the topic.

What happened to the notion of becoming fond of certain pieces of clothing, or any other personal items, feeling comfortable and content using them over and over again?

Yes, I certainly am of very conservative disposition in a very literal meaning of the adjective, meaning that I am rather keen to preserve everyday items whenever possible in preference of discarding them. There are some distinct reasons for that disposition. Firstly, I am an old man in my late 70s. Second, I happen to delight in mending and fixing things, often for the sheer pleasure of it, and tend to do pretty well in indulging that habit, frequently getting annoyed when items of relatively recent origin are so designed that they are impossible to disassemble without destroying them. Third, and this would have an awful lot to do with the previous point, I grew up in post WW2 Europe, where fixing and mending things was an essential part of life; indeed, of survival.

Rapid, frivolous replacement of possessions was a wholly unknown concept. Circumstances dictated that even the most humble object had to have every last bit of usefulness squeezed out of it before reluctantly giving up on it. Pieces of string were saved, so we’re paper bags. Glass jars were highly valued, especially the ones with lids. Clothing of all descriptions was patched and mended ad infinitum; they were taken apart and remade to suit an alternate purpose, perhaps to fit a growing child. Likewise, footwear was repaired for as long as it was possible to do so.

Complete motor vehicle engines were rebuilt in small, simple, relatively primitive workshops, necessary parts were fashioned as required. Perhaps the most sophisticated process I witnessed was the making of piston rings, turned on a very basic lathe to an extremely demanding tolerance, cut open as required and expertly tempered.

One of the less complex items I well remember were cigarette lighters built into spent shells of firearms. Gas lighters were not yet invented, so these were of the cotton-soaked-with-petrol variety. The shell housed the cotton and the mechanism with the flint and spark wheel were built into the narrow end, covered by a snap-on cap in the shape of the original projectile, completing the appearance of intact ammunition. Every bit of that mechanism was fashioned by skilled individuals in little workshops. The rifle-shell lighters, were for the pocket but larger shells were also utilised as table centrepieces and polished to a gleaming sheen.

Combat helmets, which were in plentiful supply, were put to a variety of uses, including water containers for poultry and other small livestock, steadied by being partially sunk into the ground. Their most imaginative use saw them attached to long handles for scooping mortar into buckets for bricklayers. There were no rotating concrete mixers back than, not that I ever saw anyway.

Motor vehicles, including motorbikes, were few and far between in those days, so bicycles were a most significant mode of transport. Every household had to have at least one serviceable bicycle. They were not merely for personal transport but also for moving freight, albeit on a relatively small scale. Laying a sack of potatoes or a bag of grain on the saddle and the handlebar and walking alongside it was a common sight. Strong, fit men even rode the bike with a heavy load across their shoulders. I, myself, brought home fresh, still warm milk every evening from the producer’s barn, the can dangling from one hand while I steered with the other. Likewise with drinking water from the artesian well every couple of days, or so.

Buying new bicycles was out of the question; indeed, I doubt they were even available immediately after the war, with so many factories in ruins or waiting to be converted back from arms manufacturing. The way to acquire a bike was to gather up the bits and pieces from here and there, then weld and bolt them together. Enterprising people with the necessary skills and connections did that as their livelihood.

My father, a bookbinder, was a skilled handyman, especially in woodwork. He made a billycart for me and my brother with a steerable front axle and grated sides, modelled after the horse drawn farming carts, and using only the simplest of hand tools. Oh, and the timber did not come from a timberyard, (a what yard?) but was cut out of pieces of firewood. He also made a pair of sandals for my mother, also from firewood. The soles were slabs of wood, shaped to accommodate the contours of the sole, cut across in the right spot at the right angle, then rejoined with leather to allow it to flex as she walked. The straps were thin strips of cardboard covered and reinforced with red bookbinding vinyl. My mother was complimented on her pretty sandals and asked where she bought them.

There can be no doubt that all the above contributed heavily to the formation of my clinging attitude towards everyday items. Perhaps I am far too attached to my old possessions, clothing, handyman tools and other household utensils, and to my very modest home of almost 45 years, where my children grew up.

I tend to pity those who cannot, or will not enjoy the pleasures of an old, familiar jumper, a pair of worn, comfy slippers and drinking coffee out of a favourite mug that familiarity has made to feel so right in the hand, with only one or two tiny chips at the edges where your lips don’t touch it, anyway. Such humble indulgences on a daily basis amply compensate for the occasional trauma of having to part with some prized possession.

Comments [7]

  1. Bwana Neusi says:

    Today’s throw away society is geared to have everything replaced with increasing frequency. Itms that would last for twenty to thirty years now last five years (if you are lucky).

    A case in point was our fridge which had lasted twenty five years and was still in excellent condition except for the compressor which was becoming increasingly noisy and running for extended periods.
    Enquiries revealed that it would cost more to have the compressor replaced than to buy a new fridge. The fridge mechanic lamented that we would be lucky to get ten years out of the new fridge.
    The same now applies to television sets, where every year a newer more sophisticated flat screen TV is rolled out. Sadly our first LED digital TV lasted less than five years, where the old analog unit had served us well for well over a decade.
    Just beware the day when they decide that us older beings have reached our use by date and need to be discarded to make way for the new generation.

  2. Jody says:

    Are you sure you’re not just a hoarder!:-)

    When we owned a huge intensive agricultural business (2 adjoining chicken farms) we were told we were environmental vandals. Odours would leave our farm boundaries (despite my telling them not to venture too far afield – or so I told the EPA!!) and dust and noise were against the law. We did all we could to mitigate the effects for the local community just 400m away. Never mind that we were there first – those rules no longer applied. So, we planted 1,700 trees which were watered and tended with great care and expense. Our management attracted the positive attention of the Council and we sold the farm in tip top condition. There wasn’t a thing out of place.

    Imagine my surprise, then, when I moved into “town” to find the real environmental vandals – including, but not limited to:

    1. Noisy exhausts on speeding vehicles;
    2. Incessant barking from animals; faeces in public places;
    3. Wood-burning fires;
    4. Loud lawn maintenance equipment;
    5. Boom boxes and loud stereo systems;
    6. Disposable items such as washing machines, dryers, fridges, dishwashers, toasters…you name it…creating an ever-increasing pile at the local council tip;
    7. Homes which ran pool pumps, air-conditioners and electricity around the clock.

    Our ‘sin’ was that we were ‘making money’ but compared to our city counterparts we were not vandals or anywhere near that. Nowadays I look upon that time of utter bullying from the Council, EPA and other assorted entities for exactly what it was and I’m now happy to continue our great environmental work by moderating use of all electricity and gas and driving a car which has no exhaust pipes but emits water vapour!!

  3. Hugh says:

    “Ending is better than mending. The more stitches, the less riches.”
    Aldous Huxley, 1932

  4. Peter says:

    A nice story well told Bill. I have tended not to hang onto things. I’ve moved too many times. But I am fond of a Zegna double-breasted suit which I bought 25 years ago. it’s in very good condition and I’m waiting for it to come back into fashion.

  5. Keith Kennelly says:

    Bill

    Recently I found a very valuable man. An electronic technician. Tong is a 63 year old Vietnamese bloke who came here as a refugee after a period in a reeducation camp. He had recently started his own business and asked me for advice. We chatted over coffee in his workshop. I was buying 2nd hand washing machines for a boarding house.

    He was truely a self taught expert and had thousands of $ worth of electronic gadgetry which could tell him what was needed to get electronic machinery working again .

    He’s doing a fabulous business with recycling and apparently it’s just too expensive to repair the electronics so people throw things away.

    He had a shed full of 2nd hand appliances and electrical goods he’d got for next to nothing and could sell for a handsome profit.

    I asked if he’d consider a business doing repairs. He laughed and asked why he’d put himself out if business for such a hard job that paid too little.

    We are now firm friends and he’ll repair most things except, dishwashers, that I need repairing, for a coffee and a chat.

    You’d love the bloke, as much as I.

  6. milto1 says:

    So good Bill. Imagine my thrill at being able to repair my 4wd fuel gauge sender unit with a champagne cork! The full unit would have cost $120 (you can’t buy just the plastic float which had filled up with diesel by some strange morphortic process). Luckily I keep a few corks handy and with a little bending the replacement was in place (Australian champagne of course). Still going fine months later!