One would have thought that competence and contentment would be fairly close companions, but in my experience they can be poles apart and inversely proportionate. A few years back, a friend of mine was reminiscing about his father and contrasting his Dad's skills as a handyman with his own now that he had reached an age when, as he remembered it, his Dad had seemed an omnipotent figure capable of any task presented to him. "He had all these tools," said my friend, who had recently stabbed himself with a screwdriver, largely, I suspect, because he wasn't too sure which end to hold. "And the worst of it was, he knew what they were all for, too!"
I could sympathize with his sense of inadequacy.
When Jeannette and I were leaving Ivory Coast, we had an expatriation allowance for shipping stuff home. Somewhat rashly, I offered to 'calculate' the size of the crates we needed and get them knocked up by a carpenter. I'm not entirely sure what went wrong, but the first we knew of it was when the crates, both of them, turned up on the back of an articulated lorry. They were humungous! Stick them in a shanty town and they could have housed a couple of extended families. We didn't have enough belongings to fill half a crate, let alone two. And even if we had, it would have taken a hammerhead crane to shift the bloody things. Fortunately, we had a neighbour who was a DIY enthusiast. He came round with his power tools, sawed these Über-boxes down to size, and built himself a magnificent library from the off-cuts.
A few years later, I was dimensionally challenged in a different way. Living in Barcelona and short of money, we furnished our house with stuff that had been left in the street for removal by the refuse services. Our sofa was a mattress covered with a carpet and a lot of cushions.
Then Jeannette said she wanted a settee base. Bad idea.
"I'll make you one," I said. Worse idea.
You'd have thought she would have known better after the business with the boxes, but she was delighted, so I duly measured up and trundled off to the lumber yard to order the wood. Went to pick it up a couple of days later. My face must have betrayed me.
"That's right, isn't it?" said the man, offering me a dainty little package about a foot long. It wasn't a particularly small mattress. I was expecting at least two or three lengths that would match the span of my arms, but these planks were barely bigger than the span of my hand.
"Yes! Yes!" I said gaily. "That's perfect!"
I guessed what had happened. I had used a tape-measure marked with both centimetres and inches, jotted down the inches, then ordered the wood from a man who worked in centimetres.
Jeannette nearly fell over when I got home. Still, I worked out a complicated bit of jiggery-pokery with half a plank here and half a plank there, and she got her sofa base. We use it to this day. I was well pleased with myself.
It's always like that. When I set myself some necessary handiwork, disaster looms. For some inexplicable reason, I am constitutionally incapable of selecting the same shade of touch-up paint twice, so that, as it ages, the bodywork of any car unfortunate enough to be in our keeping gradually assumes a dappled appearance, as if it has aspirations toward a camouflage mottling, subtly combining different hues of silver.
Speaking of cars, Jeannette still recalls with great delight the time I tried to take a flat battery out of the van using a hammer and a chisel (I'm not making this up). In fact, the hammer is often my tool of choice. You want your hi-fi fixed? Computer's on the blink? Never fear, Davis is here with his trusty hammer. I've managed to repair some surprisingly delicate pieces of equipment using my hammer. I think they were scared into working. Much else has been smashed beyond repair, which is also gratifying in its own way. You don’t, after all, want to let some machine get the better of you.
In my defence, I should say that I did once manage to make a desk using only a Swiss Army knife and a bit of rock as tools, a desk that withstood the writing of my first novel and outlasted my year-long stay in Sudan. But on the whole, I'm not what you could call a do-it-yourself man. Or, at least, I do do it myself. But more often than not, it then undoes itself.
The sad thing is, I love what the French wisely call bricolage (a term that, tellingly, originates in the mechanism of a medieval catapult, and I can certainly fling stuff out in a potentially lethal manner), no matter that it all promptly falls apart. I know better now than to rush into volunteering for a job, especially if the result is going to be visible, but if something has to be bodged, I'm your man.
I've also developed a technique of spontaneous recycling. Nothing I do involves money. Instead, I beg, borrow and steal, taking a bit of this and bit of that, cobbling it together ad hoc on the assumption that it probably won't work, but at least it won't cost anything and I won't have spoiled a perfectly good bit of wood. The obvious consequence of this improvisational spatchcocking is that, without the right materials, whatever I’m doing always does go wrong. It’s a sort of a self-fulfilling prophecy.
A little while back, the Ivorian packing crate featured in a temporary pigeon loft alongside an old gate and a bit of rusty wire I'd disinterred from the field. The gate was subsequently recycled in the veg garden, hung from hinges plucked from a barn door, suspended on a fencing post recuperated from a pig pen, and closed with a latch nicked from a derelict caravan pitch. It was a lovely gate, leastwise until somebody made the mistake of opening the thing. The gatepost is now plugged and coated with a ragged-looking veneer of concrete. It's quite picturesque really. Nobody else has got a gatepost like that.
But for true originality, you need to consider my mobile chicken coop, which I confidently anticipate will one day become a national monument visited by busloads of tourists on the annual Journée du Patrimoine. Come to think of it, ‘consider’ is altogether too weak a word. You need to contemplate it, possibly even meditate upon it.
Determined as ever not to waste good materials, I resolved to construct the coop (technically I think it’s called a chicken ‘tractor’, but since there was nothing very technical about what ensued, we’ll stick with coop) entirely out of salvage, to wit driftwood, the remains of an old deck chair, a couple of discarded palettes, a windsurfer boom, bits of an old bike, a set of wheels off a boat trolley, a bag of bent nails recovered from previous projects, and one of the Ivorian packing crates, which are proving remarkably resilient whatever I do to them. I even drew up a rather nifty design on the computer. And then I started improvising.
Very bad idea.
Sadly, despite several sleepless nights pondering the matter, incorporating the bike proved too complicated even for me, but the result is still quite surreal. Each innovation created its own unexpected problem, the remedy for which entailed another unforeseen snag, so that the thing evolved as kind of three dimensional game of consequences. Bent nails unbent themselves in all the wrong places, palettes splintered rather let themselves be prized apart, and the driftwood proved so contrary I came close to chucking it back in the sea. Taken as a whole, no two straight lines correspond, indeed I'm none too sure there are any straight lines, nothing adheres entirely as intended, and there are places where nothing really adheres at all. Imagine a coop designed by M. C. Escher after he’d eaten a bad mushroom. It looks like a shanty town all on its own. God knows what the neighbours are going to make of it. None too sure what the chickens will think, either. But if you care to make your own appraisal, it can be seen here.
So what has all this got to do with a literary blog? Well, I rather suspect that much the same process is going on when I'm writing. I'm probably not as incompetent at writing as I am at DIY (hopefully no published author is that bad), but I'm fairly sure the pleasure I get of it outstrips the talent I have for it. And as with DIY, when I'm writing, I beg, borrow, and steal, building books and stories out of all the books I've read in the past and which have become a part of my stock of recuperated materials, cobbling them together with everything I've mucked up in life, all my failings and stupidities, tacking it together with bits of bent nails, old packing crates, and misshapen fragments of wood gleaned from a magpie mind, idle hours contemplating the manifold lunacies propagated by humanity, and more books and more books and more books. I'm not talking plagiarism here. But books breed books and all the little bits and pieces of all the stories and all the monographs and all the essays I've read in the past that have stuck inside me start surfacing like clandestine migrants when I'm writing, revealing themselves in the rickety constructs I recount to myself and, hopefully, one or two others.
It's all craft.
Craft gives pleasure.
Craft gives meaning.
Craft gives value to life.
And then it all falls apart!
Where's my hammer?
Causes Charles Davis Supports
Oxfam, Amnesty International, Greenpeace