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Woodwork by Any Other Name

At the first school they called it "carpentry." At a later school they called it "woodwork." But the change of name didn't help much: I was still bad at it, whatever it was known as.

At the first school, it was the tools. Mr. Lole, the carpentry teacher, undoubtedly informed us that "bad workmen blame their tools." He would. He was intent, it seemed, on making men out of us. He had worked in coal mines. This definitely meant he had had a man made out of him.

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So his tools - the set squares, the tenon saws, the hefty planes, the wooden-handled spoke-shaves, the chisels, hammers, and mallets - seemed to be a kind of test of our male mettle: The implication appeared to be that if we couldn't handle such things competently, there was little hope of eventual manhood.

He had a point, of course.

Actually, we liked Mr. Lole very much. His mining background gave him an air of craggy realism - a breath of the coal face - that, without casting aspersions, was a little lacking in teachers who had never been anything else. Under his rigor there was, I suspect, a warm heart.

But these large carpentry tools had been made for massive six-foot joiners who probably spent their spare time muscle-building. They were not made for puny nine-year-olds nurtured on postwar rations who probably spent far too much of each day sitting at desks learning Latin, Greek, French, history, and geometry.

I exaggerate, of course. We were not puny. We were in fact overwhelmed with energy and only sat still when we absolutely could not avoid it. In spite of the appalling school food, we were irrepressible striplings, I think.

Nevertheless, these tools called for large fingers and bulging biceps. And in order to effectively plane a length of wood, or saw out a mortise-and-tenon joint, or even hammer in a nail, it helps if you have some degree of height from which to bear down weightily on things.

All this goes some way to explaining why my experience in the school carpentry shop was an undistinguished trail of bungled saw cuts, misshapen chisel spaces, wonkily planed surfaces, and bent nails angling out of the split sides of pieces of wood when they were meant to penetrate dead center.

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All this said, however, Mr. Lole's tough cajoling wrought some permanent effect. Otherwise, there is no possible explanation why, after such unpromising beginnings, I have spent gigantic portions of my adulthood working wood and doing so with some satisfaction - if with perhaps somewhat basic results.

The Lole years did leave me with some knowledge after all: I learned about the grain of woods; I learned to saw to one side of a pencil line; I got to know - unforgettably - what rabbit-skin glue, stewing in a sticky old pot, smelled like; I gained respect for beeswax, for the glorious aroma of honey rubbed into pine; I learned the names and shapes of the tools; I learned their functions, even if, at that time, they never did do what they were meant to do.

All these have stayed indelibly with me. Even though I have never used beeswax since. Even though I am today as devoted as the home-improvements chap to any tool that has a wire and a plug attached to it - sanders, planes, drills, saws, screwdrivers, the works.

The second school I attended was certainly not responsible for any later flowering of my latent genius for primitive joinery. In fact, the woodwork classes at this establishment belied the idea that a secondary school is necessarily an advance on a primary school.

I forget the teacher's name. This may be because I only met him two or three times in the same number of years. Oh, I attended his classes - 80-minute sessions, they were. Eighty minutes of queuing.

We were told never to make a move against a piece of wood without asking him first what that move should be.

But since he was forever giving 20-minute demonstrations to boys who had somehow reached him first, I made an astonishingly small number of moves woodwise.

By the time I was 16 or so, I had made, in all those weekly classes, one unfinished, unhoned, unsanded, not-at-all-beeswaxed string-winder. If I had completed this utilitarian test piece, I would have been allowed to make something slightly more ambitious. Or so I was told by those who had had the fortune to come face to face with Mr. What-Was-His-Name.

Now, while I do not claim that I am to shelf-erecting what Mozart was to music or even Edward Lear to nonsense verse, in all modesty and humility, I wouldn't mind taking that nice man on a conducted tour of my house to show him that even his tenuous concept of education did not succeed in completely suppressing my innate carpentry capacities.

But then, perhaps he knew this all along - and what he was actually trying to teach me was not woodworking but how to wait patiently in a queue.

If so, he should know that he failed abysmally.

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