Zen And The Magic Of Tools



A regular feature in which novelist and short story writer PS Brooks explores his and man's relationship with tools, the earliest manifestation of the conjunction of an expanding human brain and a relatively underdeveloped body. Some of our cousins in the animal kingdom can run or swim faster, jump higher or lift heavier weights, but with tools - and their offspring, machines - we can exceed all of their capabilities through the power of transformation.

I was a weird kid. By the time I hit the age of eleven or twelve, my birthday and christmas-present lists consisted mainly of hand-tools. And not just any tool. By hanging around in my local hardware store and forming a rather odd tutelage relationship with its owner, I knew exactly what kind I wanted, the brand-names and the models of the best in each category.

In accordance with the prevailing snobbery, I tried to avoid the 'Stanley' brand – possessing then as now the most comprehensive and popular range. With the exception of the brilliantly simple eponymous knife, their products were the Fords of toolmaking, workaday and serviceable, but just not imbued with the required aura of quality. For mechanical jobs, I wanted the best of Sheffield and Sweden: King Dick spanners, Britool sockets and wrenches, Bahco adjustables and Neills or Eclipse for screwdrivers, pliers and hacksaws.

The impetus for this was my graduation from a clunky Rudge junior bike, with its old-fashioned adult-style handlebars, rod brakes and chain guard, into the twilight zone that awaited the lightweight racing bike. And you had to be thirteen or fourteen for one of those.

And so my friends and I appropriated this territory for ourselves, largely without parental involvement, by acquiring old second-hand bikes from jumble-sales or newsagents' ads. They were numerous and cheap, enough to be able to choose the advanced specifications necessary for the construction of a wondrous go-anywhere track bike, later known as a mountain bike.

These specs were: bolt-on handlebars (as opposed to the braised lug variety, which couldn't be removed) imperative; Sturmey-Archer hub gears also imperative, 4-speed preferred; steel-sprung leather saddle optional but highly desirable.

If you had all those in place, what you then had to do was strip the thing down to all its component parts. The frame would be cleaned with petrol, brush and rag, and hung on the washing line for a grey undercoat of the gloriously named Brushing Belco cellulose paint, followed by your chosen colour, or two. Meanwhile the remaining pieces were degreased, the chromium parts polished, bearings and chain re-greased or re-oiled.

The handlebars were replaced by cowhorns, the chain-guard discarded. Mudguards too, or else they were cut back to a third of their original size. Those that could afford it replaced the tyres with new off-road knobblies. If you were lucky, and found an old moped on the local scrap heap, its front suspension could be adapted for insertion into the steering tube to replace the original rigid forks with sprung ones. The result was nigh-on indestructible. You could bump up kerbs, drop it, crash it and still pick it up again to go home.

Amongst the boys of my age on our estate, my growing tool-kit became legendary. Of course we all had bicycle spanners, a type of crude early multitool cut from a piece of steel plate, because they came free with some bikes. But they rusted and bent and soon became toothless. Their only advantage was portability. And so our house became meeting-place and maintenance-pit for my friends. It had other attractions too: in front of it was a grassy green on a steep slope, ideal for practising soft-landing aborted wheelies and impressive feats of controlled oversteering on arrival. It was also located across the road from our first destination, a large area of wild open space, bisected by a tree-lined river. Alongside it, a series of 'bumps', hardened mud tracks forming a rollercoaster of exhilarating rides.

My father, a mechanic – though he preferred to call himself an engineer – occasionally helped us out and also taught me the rudiments of good practice. I resisted at first but found out the hard way he had much sense to share. Simple things, like finding a box or an old tobacco tin to keep your nuts and bolts in when you strip down, like approaching the most elementary of jobs with patience and careful workmanship. The consequences of losing pieces, of burring a nut or cross-threading a bolt were always boring, occasionally infuriating.

And so I gradually acquired the habit of doing things his way. Each time I set about a repair or maintenance job, I'd clean down with petrol, clear threads of grit and grease with a wire brush or even an old toothbrush and re-apply clean oil. In carrying out these and other tasks, I struck up what I'd later come to see as a zen relationship with tools. I loved the way they felt in my hands, the way they worked, as an extension of both my arm and my brain.

And again, though I didn't know it at the time, deeply embedded in this praxis is the notion of quality. Not just in the tools, their materials technology, their manufacturing tolerances, but at the very core of their user's relationship with the material world. Basically, there's a rubbish way of doing something and a quality way, even down to mundane everyday jobs like washing the dishes. Both ways expend roughly the same amount of energy. Occasionally, on the surface, the results can look similar, but it's the process that counts as much as the result if you want to feel truly alive while engaging with man-made objects. These questions lay at the heart of Robert Persig's bestselling novel, 'Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance' (1974) and I shall be covering them in more detail at a later date.

In these days of maintenance-free or non-user-serviceable cars, appliances and other household products, I often wonder if the large numbers of grown men that still mess around with Airfix, Meccano and other constructive toys are answering a deep desire to put things together well. An artefact of your own making is usually a thing of beauty too.


Photo Credit: Denise Carbonell under creative comms.

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