I’ve often commented how when I was in my teens my interests were very wide ranging. I dabbled in electronics, I had a microscope and a chemistry set. This last was supplied with all sorts of interesting extras from the chemistry department of a college where my father lectured applied mathematics. I painted, drew, made sculptures and carved. I loved biology and spent hours collecting and identifying wriggly items from a local stream and elsewhere. I dissected the poor unfortunates the family cat dropped on the patio, kept caterpillars and watched that transformation, started an abiding interest in mycology because that’s what my mother studied on her teacher-training course.
Writing was something I started when I was about 15 – aping the stuff in those lovely luridly covered books by the likes of E C Tubb, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Clarke, Asimov, Van Vogt, Blish and many besides. This continued while I entered the world of work (Engineering). By my mid-twenties I realised I wouldn’t be building a laser weapon or space drive and that I was a Jack-of-all-trades and master of none, so concentrated on writing because all my other interests were relevant.
However, despite concentrating on writing and necessarily having less time to ‘play’ because I was working for a living, all those interests never went away. They transformed. I made wine and beer, jarred preserves, restored old motorbikes, enjoyed growing stuff. I still want to know what things are in the environment, how they tick. I read a lot of science. And I repair stuff and make things.
In the latter years, with more time on my hands, the repairing stuff became a bit of a thing. If something is broken I simply cannot just throw it away – I have to take it apart to see how it works and if possible make it work again. Financially this makes no sense at all because my time would be better spent writing another book or short story, but I can’t leave it alone. Often I’m successful, more often I’m not – usually saving various parts of what I’ve disassembled because, well, they might be useful for repairing something else.
My chair addiction started on the island of Crete. The Greek kafenion chair is a pretty simple hand-made thing: carved and doweling struts , square-section legs and back etc. It’s not glued together but held together by the basket-weave seat and tautening wires running between the legs. My wife and I saw a couple of them, busted and lying in a dump while out walking. I picked them up and took them home. Out of the two I fashioned one good chair. Next was a kafenion table from the same dump, at which point Caroline walked a number of paces ahead of me laughing and pretending she didn’t know me. Like the chair I realised that the only way to do a good job was complete disassembly, removal of all the screws, nails and glue of botched previous repairs, and proper reassembly. Next came repairs for friends – usually disassembly followed by reassembly with glue and the application of sash clamps.
I found a broken bamboo chair – I spotted it at the side of the road while driving down to a beach. On the return journey it sat in the passenger seat of the car, safely held in place with the seatbelt. Caroline and my parents-in-law consigned to the back. Since I was on Crete I was able to find bamboo to replace the broken parts and I then used flattened broom twigs for the binding. Another chair I repaired and then, while talking to a friend discovered he was an upholsterer in a previous life, which was handy. The one after that was an ancient thing that had been shattered, but our wood glues are very good so I stuck it back together, carved new parts for it, then did some upholstering myself with ersatz white leather, a carefully carved surround of thin wood and fancy metal studs. A friend wanted this chair repaired as a gift for his girlfriend. Since things hadn’t gone so well in that relationship he then aimed to use it for fuel for his stove, at which point I rescued it.
After that was a wobbly Victorian chair for my old editor. That was a kind of time travel as I took it apart – the layers of upholstery, the years upon years of repairs, the hundreds of nails, studs and staples. Reassembly again involved sash clamps and reupholstering and, of course, as with all the previous items, filler, sanding, wood stain and varnish.
It’s strange how you fall into things. I now have a collection of broken chairs sitting on Crete waiting for my attention, and I will no-doubt much enjoy repairing them. But of course the ones I keep I continue enjoying because, in the end, those belongings you lavish love and attention upon, and which have their own quirky story, are the best ones to own.