|Ones They Made Earlier
copyright © 2006
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