Monday, 29 November 2010

Oh, lucky man…

I’m not an engineer. I don’t work in metal although it has run in my family blood for generations. The closest I’ve ever come to welding is an aborted attempt to solder a lamp stand back together again. Sad really, particularly as I come from a long line of blacksmiths – the original alchemists, making and shaping metal out of base ore, moulding and forging the future on their anvils.

I popped in to see my Uncle Bob at his workshop last week. A frosty early morning start and a hunt for his location, worth waiting for though as behind the battered wooden door was a world straight out of my memory.

Machines. Engineering machines. Machines that cut and drill, shave and shape, bend and bevel. How I love those machines even though I have no idea really what they do. I love the handles and the wheels, the pulleys and screws, but most of all I love the smell. That smell is like no other; a pungent oil and metal engineering smell, slightly hot, slightly dangerous, sharp and clean.

I breathed it in, deep into my lungs, the smell nudging a memory and I was back in my grandfather's forge standing in the red glow of the charcoal, watching him twist a post for the church gate, listening to the clang of the hammer on the anvil, the sparks flying out into the air and cooling to a dull, hot, grey as the fell to the grimy floor.

“Stand back at a safe distance, stand back.” He said.

And I moved closer to see, enjoying the danger.

Uncle Bob makes gate and railings. Gates, railings, fire baskets, anything that can be made from metal, he’s a handy bloke, he mills new gears and ratchets from lumps of steel, setting his marvellous machines in motion and tending them as they make metal machined perfection. He’s well known in the area, trusted, called on to make the broken things work again, making impossibly complex fittings from two old fusty halves. Uncle Bob’s an engineer, a good one and as I watched him I thought, ‘Can he fix it?’ and replied in an instant, ‘Yes, he can.’

I stood and drank the mug of coffee Bob had made for me as his pet feral cat, well fed and kept warm in his workshop, ran nervously around. We chatted. I could almost feel the waves of contentment and pride coming from Bob as he showed me his machines, the boxes of hundreds of huge drill bits, the milling gear, the drilling machine, and all around the twisted metal swarf ribbons, sharp and curled and well remembered by my bleeding boy fingers in those days of long ago.

“Don’t play with them. They’ll cut your fingers to shreds.” He said, an echo.

I picked them up anyway, not minding the cuts.

Bob was a soldier. Engineers I think. I expect that’s where he learnt his trade. I remember him in his twenties, smart in his uniform, stood to attention. I remember the fishing rod he made from an old tank aerial. I remember him taking me fishing, then rifle shooting. I didn’t catch anything. I was a lousy shot.

Remembering I gazed around his workshop, envious - what a wonderful world Bob had created. This workshop, like a big shed crammed so full with machines, his toys, his livelihood, so tight on space, and every boy’s dream, every man’s desire – a mega-shed in which to play and make stuff.

As I drove towards my meeting and Bob disappeared back inside to stroke his cat and finish the railings that he was welding into place on Saturday morning, making ready for his two o’clock trip to quote for a gate that needed altering up by the old tennis courts I thought -- well done Bob. Well done Mr. Robert Duff, you self-made, content, clever and oh so very lucky man.


  1. Kieran Goodwin commented on Facebook:

    Nothing quite like a proper backyard engineer.

  2. How wonderful it must be to be able to make something useful and or beautiful. Uncle Bob is just the sort of chap that every town needs for those odd jobs and one offs.

  3. I love your description of your uncle's workshop, your writing puts the reader right in there with the pair of you.
    I once wanted to be a sculptor specialising in metalwork, but only got so far as to investigate the price of oxy-acetylene torches. Fortunately for me and the garage I had realised it was simply too expensive to set up, and besides which - I was dangerously inexperienced.

    I just wish younger generations would look at these older but vitally important trades.
    Practical engineers and craftsmen are not being replaced and so much knowledge is being lost because this media-obsessed world doesn't want to know. I'm as guilty of this as any of my contemporaries.
    At some point we will come unstuck!

    Amy K