A post from 2017 in memory of my Dad…

Wanting an allotment bench, I enrol on a woodwork course. Making furniture is in my blood of course. Dad and his Dad before him made all the tables, chairs and monstrous sideboards in their respective homes.

On the first day of the course I’m alarmed to see that all the other participants are male and at least thirty years younger than me. Some have care workers with them. The organiser speaks to me in a slow, loud voice, as if she thinks I have learning difficulties.

I should perhaps have smelt a rat when the application form asked if the course would help me cope better with daily life. But writers are compelled to craft careful replies to questionnaires. So I described in detail (with examples) how gardening and other practical hobbies helped me deal with stress. There was supposed to be a waiting list for the course but I was offered a place immediately.

I survive the first day despite discovering a sobering fact. When people treat you as though you have learning difficulties, you start having learning difficulties.

I commit a ridiculous number of what the French term ‘betises.’ The drill wobbles in my grasp and screws go in aslant. I gouge ugly chunks out of my ‘project’ with the chisel. I try to use a plane upside down and wonder why no wood shavings come out.

Yorkshire allotment, humour, woodwork

Site of religious pilgrimage

Lovely Tom, roofer turned tutor, corrects me gently. He is a gifted, patient teacher with a dark sense of humour and a knack of being there just before someone lops their fingers off with the circular saw or gets dragged across the room by the belt sander. I catch myself hoping he sees me as ‘normal’ (whatever that means).

But in the end, the question of who has ‘issues’ and who hasn’t seems irrelevant. All the group are better at woodwork than me. And they are fatherly despite their youth. They steady planks while I saw wonkily and hold my project while I try to hammer nails in straight. One even offers me the bedside cabinet he has spent five weeks making. Tom gently discourages him.  I enrol on the follow-on course and the one after that.

Apart from the bench, which turns out well (it is only a basic one) I make a gate, an outdoor table, two planters and some cross supports for my raspberry canes that turn the allotment into a site of religious pilgrimage.

Dad is unimpressed by my craftswomanship. Instead of being pleased that I’m following in his footsteps, as I’d sentimentally hoped, he views my efforts as an attempt to usurp his role and a poor attempt at that.

‘You’ve used too many screws,’ is his sole comment on my table. ‘Have you got money to burn?’

woodwork, shed, DadHe is only slightly mollified when I say the wood came from an old pallet and cost nowt. ‘So why spend everything you’ve saved on screws? Especially when nails would have done the job just as well.’

‘The screws only cost a few quid,’ I say, stung.

‘Yes, but it’s the principle of the thing,’ he says.

What about the principle of your daughter wanting to emulate you? I think but don’t say.

He’s probably right though. My attitude is not that of a master craftswoman. My slogan is ‘that’ll do.’ I’m happy if people can sit on my rustic bench without getting a splinter up their backsides. A lowly goal perhaps but enough for me. If the bench falls apart in a year, I will make another one.

Yorkshire allotment, woodwork

My gate

I enrol on courses further afield. In Sheffield I whittle a poplar branch into a long handled wooden spoon, ideal for jam making. In Bolton Abbey woods I make a mallet and spatula out of hazel and in the Scottish Borders I make a garden chair out of willow. Out of it all comes a love of wood, and trees.

On the sideboard he made himself, Dad keeps nine little blocks of different woods, planed and polished to show the grain. He often stands (as best he can at 93) and turns them over in his hands. And smiles. I am beginning to understand why.

Drawings by Janis Goodman