The Carpenter

Strange what Lock Down makes us do.

Perhaps “ life going slower “ is bringing another dimension . 

I sense there is some curiosity about what dimension I am in right now! 

There are noises, bangs sawing sounds, and discussion to be heard from the garage ,  but just one voice. It sounds remarkably like DIY but I am known,  no, renowned,   for having an aversion to that so what is going on ?

The answer is found much earlier in my life .

Because I am adopted my family antecedents are both complicated and simple at the same time . Complicated because my adoption crossed religions and backgrounds, and while adopted into a Jewish family I am not myself, Jewish.  Simple because if there are any aspects of my family I dislike, and believe me like any family, there are some, there is always an “out” – “ it isn’t in the genes.” 

But I wouldn’t disown my grandfather . 

He came to the UK in 1910 escaping from a very hostile environment in what then was Russia. 

In an act of mild but I sense, not unkind racism, faced with a bunch of Jewish  folks speaking Russian the immigration officials gave up on dates of birth and just created one. Thus all my grandparents officially had the same birthday – December 25th, get it ? 

Confusingly they also thought they were in America because the crooked ship’s captain who took their  money, told them he was landing them in New York and the statue of Liberty was just around the corner. 

My grandfather was a master carpenter, a cabinet maker. Very talented  and starting from scratch with the instruments he brought with him he did well and owned his own carpentry factory in London by the start of the Second World War. 

Then his factory was requisitioned to make Mosquito aircraft, or parts for them at least. He set about  the job as if they were the finest furniture. He thought it was going rather well until a man from the Ministry complimented him on the exquisite quality of his work and asked if it was alright with him “ would you mind building them just a trifle quicker  than the enemy is shooting them down !”    

I knew him of course in his retirement, I was about 14 when he died .

He had a workshop then at the end of the garden and he produced furniture for family and others. Gloriously made detailed pieces of wood turning and  cabinet making. Incredible detail, lovingly crafted . From an  early age I “ helped “ him . It was fascinating to watch him work, creating something from nothing . 

I had responsibility for his pencils. They had to be sharpened a special way, and no stub was too short to be honed. Later I was promoted to sharpening his chisels and knives . I still have an obsession  about always sharpening a knife for next use that my family find mildly eccentric. I still have that honing stone, I used it today . 

On a shelf in the workshop sat a bowl he had turned, it fascinated me. The browns were graded and almost glowed. I don’t know what wood it was but it seemed very hard and incredibly heavy. I asked him “ grandad, how long did it take to take to make that ?” He took it in his hands appraised it, ran his hands over the smooth curves and said “ About 300 years, but the tree did most of the hard work . “

He didn’t  work on wood he worked with it, they were partners. Wood wasn’t a dead thing to him, his nimble fingers gave the tree new life. I think my love of trees began that day . 

I remember him making an exquisite but frankly hideous  drinks cabinet to a design by my mother. It was the kind of thing about which  Louis the IV th might have said “ bit too fussy and ornate for me. “ I asked if he liked it; 

“ Oh no, but that isn’t the point, your mother has no taste (he was right there ) but every job is worthy of your respect. There is dignity in that. There is a life in that .“ 

In time I moved on from sharpening and he taught me very basic joinery and marquetry, the latter more to teach  me how to use veneers than anything else. Of course University and life in general then came along and those skills were forgotten .

So the noises in the garage are  down to him ………and a garden furniture catalogue. 

We need a garden bench,. They marked one up in the catalogue as “ rustic, “ which on closer examination  seems to be an alternative way of saying “ sully expensive but poorly made and will give you splinters . “ So after 53 years I thought , why not? 

The output I guarantee will not be a work of art but handling my grandfather’s tools again after all these years has another reward. 

It seems fanciful, but I really don’t care . I know he is with me as I work the wood. 

It certainly wasn’t me who said  the practice work wasn’t good enough . I have no idea why I automatically sharpened the pencil that way when for 53 years I sharpened them another . I have no idea why I knew how to work the knots  and work with the grain, or who told me to saw inside the mark rather than on it .

A heavy smoker, he never lit up when I was near him but now I remember his nicotine stained fingers, now I can recall  the bitter odour of the residual tobacco contrasting with the sweet smell of newly sawn wood.. 

I can see the stubble on his chin, the lines round his eyes . He talked, patiently and quietly as he worked bent over the bench, mainly to the wood sometimes to me. His thick, square set black glasses, a face of contentment and concentration .Sighing deeply, a sigh of generations, straightening  and rubbing his back when the day’s work was done .  

Few words but important ones, ones you remember after 53 years. Kind words like the kind and gentle smile of a kind and gentle man . 

It will be awhile before the bench is finished , if it ever is. I doubt, with their appreciation of my skills,   that there will be rush to test it out, but that isn’t real the point. 

Is it ? 

Postscript….it is finished and they are sitting on it …..

The Carpenter Steve Sloan

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4 replies »

    • Thanks Jane , you have no idea how much I appreciate that comment, I was unsure if anyone might want to hear what for me was quite a personal story

  1. Steve, this resonated in many ways…

    First memory link – birth-dates – we always celebrated my Mum’s birthday on the 5th of the month. In her 70’s, she and Auntie Bridie and their friend Bea O’Hara, went to Lourdes, so, Mum needed to get a passport. So, she went to Markievicz House, in Sligo town, and found that she was registered as being born on the 7th! Mum’s interpretation of this was – that Grandpa had ‘wet the baby’s head’ a bit too enthusiastically, and only turned up at the Registrar’s office, two days after she was born, and, being a bit fuddled, gave the wrong date! That was Mum’s view of it, and she should know, she knew that Grandpa did tend to drink too much sometimes.

    And then – your Grandpa’s working with wood, reminds me of how Michael Sinclair is with wood……

    It’s not just working with it, it’s a love and understanding of it.

    And – how you feel that your Grandpa is with you, advising when you’re working with wood. My Dad does that, with the garden. For example, if I’m not too sure how to approach pruning a shrub, Dad – helps.

    And, that smell – my Dad smoked Woodbines from the age of 11 ( different times). He had a smell of tobacco smoke and working man’s sweat. I’m smelling it, now – I loved it, and I love it.

    So much there, Steve, and so many memories conjured up by your words.
    Thank you.

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