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Things That Have Interested Me

Ones They Made Earlier

James Fenton
copyright © 2006

Originally published in The Guardian
30 September 2006

I possess a home-welded object (but possess is far too strong a word for this thing) which baffles at first sight: it looks like a large four-pronged fish-hook, but without any barbs. The man who made it was something of a dreamer. Asked by his colleagues what his invention was for, he provoked some mirth by explaining that it was for a hanging basket. It is indeed the size and shape of a hanging basket, but it creates, instead of solves, the problems it addresses. It is far too heavy and sturdy for the purpose, and you would have to remember to put it in the basket, and somehow attach it, before filling it up with growing medium and plants.

For several years this anchor-like device lay unused in a shed, a monument to its inventor's visionary eccentricity. Then someone realised that if you attached a thin rope to it through the handy loop at the top, you could throw it in the pond and drag out the Canadian pondweed. It is quite a large pond, and no other tool seemed up to the job.

There must be something about a welding apparatus that provokes this kind of trance-like state. In my garden, there is a table bought years ago at auction, at a time when the papers were running stories about thefts of garden furniture and ornaments. The legs of this table, elegantly and accurately curved, are made of welded chain - extremely heavy anchor-chain, each link fixed rigidly to its neighbour. The top is very ornamental and I knew at once what it was when I first saw it: it consists of two pierced decorative panels from an ecclesiastical underfloor central heating system. The conception and execution of this table imply a high degree of professional skill, and a characteristic set of circumstances: a once grand, now derelict Victorian church not far from a dockyard welding-shop. The decisive point in the table's favour is its quite extraordinary heaviness.

The objects illustrated in Vladimir Arkhipov's Home-Made: Contemporary Russian Folk Artifacts are generally much simpler than the two I have mentioned. Many of them were made in the years following perestroika, when both money and goods were in short supply. Each is accompanied by a small photograph of its inventor and/or owner, and each carries a few words of explanation, obviously tape-recorded.

"It's very snowy in winter, and I have to go out into the yard. At the very least I have to clear a path to the chickens and the firewood. I had an old shovel, but it broke, and a new one has to be paid for. Where would I get the money? You have to count every last kopeck. So I thought: what can I make a shovel out of? I had this old bread board, and this pipe left over from an old vacuum cleaner. I fastened on the board - and there was the shovel. You can't really call it a shovel, exactly ..."

Several of the more unfamiliar items are connected with fishing, ice fishing in particular. There's a grub holder made from plastic foam and wire. The reason for using an insulating material is that you don't want the grubs to freeze. "But the bad thing about these grub holders is that this foam plastic lets water in, so with time it becomes crumbly and starts to get spoilt from the grubs. So that this didn't happen, I used a hot teaspoon to bond it. The main case is very thick, like glazing, so it stopped getting soaked, was easy to clean, and the grubs didn't start to rot either. Once you've made one you can give it to someone as a present ..."

In the same category there are home-made harpoons. There's a bore tool for under-ice fishing, a winter fish-feeder (of perforated brass, with a lead bottom made from a dismantled battery and a spring along the central axis to allow the feeder to be quickly filled with grain) and there are "goat's leg" fishing seats. These are designed as portable stools. An old chair-back is attached to a pole, creating something like an English shooting stick. You need somewhere to sit while ice fishing, and this kind of seat hangs from your belt and accompanies you over the ice.

There are forks made in prison ("We weren't allowed to have forks, only spoons. But to feel like a human being, you need to eat properly, with a fork. We're not trash") and there is an elegant television aerial made out of forks at a time when there wasn't anything to buy except poor-quality aluminium forks. "We prepared this aerial according to the dimensions published in Radio magazine. But, you know, resonators are everything. They were made from forks so that the reception would be better." The resulting aerial (very effective) sits on top of the set.

Some objects give off a whiff of desolation: for example a vase, also made in prison, from a samovar base surmounted with a blue receptacle cut from an old thermos, which has been decorated with copper filings and lacquer, made as a present for the inmate's mother ("I thought, when I get out I'll go back and give it her, but the way things turned out my mother wasn't there any more ...").

On the other hand, the chemistry teacher's chalk case is inspiring: "She was a really impressive woman. Paradoxically, I've completely forgotten her name, even though I remember lots of details about her: her manicure, her lovely clothes ... Anyway, she took an empty lipstick case and made a sort of chalk lipstick. She put a piece of chalk in it and moved it up as she used it. She used to do a lot of writing on the blackboard, and when the lesson ended, she closed the little case and put it on her desk. It was all very elegant, and it suited her style."

"Of course," the speaker goes on, "male teachers don't need this, but women teachers have to set an example, they have to be tidy, look neat and beautiful." This elegant little book, published by Fuel, costs £19.95. The items are from Arkhipov's collection of hand-made utilitarian objects. Together they evoke a world in swift transition, in which these modest inventions loom large for a while - universal ephemera, destined to be soon lost or thrown away as circumstances changed, but preserved in this collection for their evocative power.

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