There’s a scene early in my film, Withnail and I, that revolves around a toolbox and some antifreeze. It belongs to the character Marwood, who is to a large extent based on me. I’ve always had a toolbox. I am surprised when others don’t. In the late 1960s, I lived in a house in Camden Town, not unlike the one in the film, that had been split in two extremely cheaply, and at the bottom of the stairs there was this flimsy hardboard door. I was paranoid about someone getting in, so I spent all night mounting a proper door and making a frame for it.
I still love getting hold of something that’s buggered and making it work again – another one of my hobbies is to mend old clocks – but if I had my life over, I’d be an historian. It’s so fascinating how everything knocks on – nothing happens in isolation, everything is interconnected.
Take my fondness for old tools. My father was an American Jew. I never met him and never knew, until I was 68 years old, that I was the product of a GI shag in the war. When my stepfather came back from the war I was presented to him as his kid. He found out I wasn’t when I was about four, and that’s when the nightmares started – years of psychological and physical abuse. When you’re a child, because it’s about survival, you go where the love is. My maternal grandparents were the ones putting out the love. My grandfather was a brilliant carpenter and he had a toolbox full of these lovely things that I destroyed over about three or four years by taking them in the garden and burying them or leaving them out in the rain. I’ve always felt guilty about it and maybe that’s what got my extreme interest in tools going, particularly old and obscure ones like Victorian woodworking tools. I felt like I owed something to the kind of things that he brought into my life.
I still have some bits and pieces from my grandfather’s collection, including an amazing set of chisels with wonderful boxwood handles and steel blades stamped with his initials and the maker’s name. They have an inherent sense of craftsmanship – these tools knew how to cut beautiful joints and grooves in furniture, which is why they are in themselves beautiful, and the furniture they made was beautiful. Whereas modern stuff is just a machine cutting it out in the same precise shapes, with no human hand involved, and it doesn’t know the difference.
My writing room is in some old stables just by our house outside Hay-on-Wye and underneath it there’s a kind of a workshop and that’s where I keep probably about 150 of these really old pieces that I’ve found, mostly in junk shops, over the years. I have little planes made out of bronze, with teak inserts to hold the blade. They’re icons of joy to handle. Some of the tools I use – there’s a Victorian vice that I use for carpentry – but most I just love to see on the shelf. The toolbox I use for everyday jobs is blue steel, full of high-tech shiny stuff, which doesn’t give one any satisfaction at all other than that it will do the job. I also have old steam engines in the stables too that I fire up sometimes. You get that lovely boyhood smell of methylated spirits that I still adore and when the pop-pop-pop-pop noise starts up, it gives me a huge pleasure.
Why are tools called tools? They shouldn’t be, they should be called something much more romantic. The word “tool” is in itself absurd. My favourite of all is a bandsaw, dated 1701, which still has its original blade. I’m not sure if it isn’t a surgical saw – it would have your thumb off in a jiffy, with curved steel ends like a swan’s neck. Or I have a spirit level, brass and ebony, its bubble as accurate as the day it was trapped in 1878. But I love a chisel – or a plane, for the paring back. One of the greatest writers we’ve ever had was Orwell – a 12-year-old could read him. What Orwell always tried to do was to pare back and get rid of words. Whenever I write anything, I go through it and cut the adjectives. I think it’s dreadful to make the reader work.
One of the things my grandfather made was extra parts for a wonderful clockwork railway set he bought me. He made all the flyover bridges and the little level-crossing gates, not out of balsa wood but of hardwood. And I left that out in the rain too. What an arse I was, allowing that to be hurt – it was only on loan to me. I could have given it to my son and he to someone else. But you just don’t get it when you’re four. And maybe that’s the right attitude to have towards possessions anyway. Here we are, we’re just borrowing stuff all our lives really.
They All Love Jack: Busting the Ripper by Bruce Robinson is published by Fourth Estate.
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