A section of the wooden front gate has fallen off and now lies on the ground inside the fence. I’ve tried twice to nail it back without success. I am not handy; in fact I’m unhandy, and things I try to fix usually end up worse than before. When my youngest daughter’s partner next visits I’ll hand him the hammer and nails.
I learned my lack of practical ability very early. My father could do anything in the carpentry, plumbing, cementing, bricklaying line. Wisely, he left wiring alone but when it came to motor mechanics he was in his element. We had a very old Vauxhall and only his ability to service and fix it kept it operational.
He attempted to enlist me, his elder son, in his endless round of adjustments to our house and garden. The quarter-acre block featured many garden beds of mostly English flowers – my mother, the gardener, was an Anglophile. And nothing would do but that the garden beds and the plots of lawn should have cement edges.
This required the cutting of sections of timber for formwork and pegging them into place. And filling them with hand-mixed cement, which was then trowelled smooth. I failed in my attempts at all three of these manoeuvres: I couldn’t cut the timber straight or lay it straight and I couldn’t get the proportions right for the cement. Give him a sheet of flat iron, a trickling hose, a bag of cement and a heap of sand and my father would have the cement in place and trowelled perfectly smooth in no time. Not me.
My father’s shed was a lovingly converted car crate. He had a huge toolbox filled with every imaginable contrivance. The lids of jars were attached to the underside of a long shelf and the jars of nails of different lengths screwed up into place. He spent hours in the shed. His power tools, perfectly maintained, were his pride and joy. For me it was a place to keep my bike and to hang a punching bag while I dreamed of being welterweight champion of the world.
For the first two years at secondary school we were obliged to do ‘sloyd’, a Scandinavian term for woodwork I have not heard spoken or written since. It was a torture to me. The initial model we were set to make was a string winder: a simple piece of wood with parallel ellipses at each end. I couldn’t get the ellipses parallel. The next model was a saltbox, the back, sides and base to be attached by dovetail joints. I failed time and time again to cut the joints appropriately and eventually the teacher allowed me to nail it up square and it ended about half the size of the others’ efforts.
The course was divided into two parts – theoretical and practical. On the theoretical side – kinds of trees, the history of tools and carpentry, notable examples of the craft, I was near perfect. On the practical side, hopeless. The teacher came up with a strategy. I would cut the timber as requested by the others and for this be given enough marks to ensure a pass at the exam. I got 48 out of 50 for the theory and 2 per cent for the practical got me a pass.
When it came to cars I could change a wheel and that was about all. Oddly, I did acquire one practical skill. When we lived in Gippsland a friend enlisted me to help him repair the many shattered windows in an old house. He showed me how remove the broken glass and the decayed putty, put the new glass in place, fix it with specially designed nails and apply new putty. For some unknown reason this appealed to me and over the years I found a few opportunities to demonstrate this skill (balls through windows, etc) and enjoyed the unaccustomed praise.
It may be a fluke or have a deeper meaning, but all three of my daughters’ partners are accomplished handymen.