Tuesday, 15 June 2010
Recent comments on Guthlac's misadventures with vintage engines have set me thinking about the critical part that "being practical" played in the lives of my father's and grandfather's generations, and how a mechanically able man still commands blokish respect. No man wishes to sound, for instance, clueless in front of his garage mechanic (partly lest they slap a 200% clueless twerp surcharge on your bill for 'adjusting the sparkplugs on your diesel' or similar, but partly out of desire not to lose face).
The male half of humanity, it seems, is divided into tattooed Morlocks who can tune an engine and linen-jacketed Willas who write supposedly hilarious and heartwarming columns in the broadsheet press advertising their cluelessness in terms which still produce a torrent of Black-Country eloquence from my father's aged lips.
The former is represented by my biker mate and sometime commenter on this blog Mr Wessex, a motorcycling gentleman of intimidating bulk who is capable not merely of stripping down and rebuilding vintage motorbikes, but of lifting them with one hand and eating them; or by my friend Hubert, an engineering graduate whose idea of helping to fix a car is (deliberately and expertly) to replace the gearbox back-to-front so that the car has one very slow forward gear and five reverse ones. The latter is - surprisingly - the realm of No Good Boyo, a man whose unfamiliarity with his own car led to him being unable to close the sunroof during a snowstorm.
And then there is me (and, I suspect, several million others) squatting nervously in the no-man's land of this particular cultural divide. I am not the man to turn to when you have broken down, taking painfully long periods to complete even relatively simple mechanical procedures and needing to "pop out to Halfords" twice in the middle to buy new tools that I need but don't have, only to return and find that I did have one after all lurking in the depths of the toolbox and now have two, which is twice as many as I will need for the one time in my life I shall be called upon to use them.
And yet I cannot raised myself to the lofty Mandarin magnificence of the resolutely unmechanical. I can change a wheel, do an oil change, rewind fuses and change tap washers. Most of the shelves I have put up are still in place. I can even explain what most of the bits under the bonnet of my car do, albeit with a large sprinkling of metasyntactic variables: "Yeah, that's the oil filler cap. And that's the cylinder head thingy. And then that doodad goes round and round so that the whatsit wobbles up and down on the oojamaflip..."
I put my state of partial confusion down to a traumatic experience in my teens. One Saturday morning when I was 14, my father sought me out in my foetid lair. "Son" he said in a kindly way, "You are now approaching manhood, and there are things you should know - " I prepared a teenage sneer and was just about to roll my eyes at his naivety "such as how to remove, strip down and replace the gearbox on a Ford Escort. Follow me." Gobsmacked, I complied.
His method of instruction took an unusual form. He donned a boilersuit and eye protection and then sat himself on a stool with the Haynes Manual open upon his knee while I grubbed around underneath the car, struggling to understand his instructions. The conversation was full of exchanges such as:
"Now pick up the radial torque wrench and fit the 3/4" Hackett ratchet sprocket."
"What's that look like?"
"It's the one we had to have surgically removed from Uncle Frank after the incident at Lutterworth."
"Ah. I'll just put rubber gloves on..."
"Now unlatch the self-tapping grommet plunkets."
"Where are those, Dad?"
"There boy - just behind the 4 1/2" pillion bush!"
And so it went on. The result of this form of mechanical education is that I ended up knowing with a fair degree of certainty what things were and how they worked, but not what they were called.
Furthermore, in my mind's eye all cars are now Ford Escorts. If I open the bonnet and see things that look like the equivalent on the Escort I have a fighting chance. Any other layout or form of engine and I'm sunk. Front-wheel drive is still an impenetrable mystery. But even that's better than everything being an impenetrable mystery.
Now if you will excuse me, Mr Wessex and I are just popping out to replace the sparkplugs on Boyo's diesel. And we're only charging him 50 quid...