Replacements Man: Knobs, Dials and Rings

Have you ever thought about how things are made?

[I’ll warn you now, this line of questioning will inevitably lead you to considering the source of where everything comes from.]

Take a minute to think about the mind-blowingly huge nature of the world we live in.

It can be really easy to take the current modern world we live in for granted, but it’s important to remember that for every incredible piece of technology or innovation that we use on a daily basis there will be dozens (if not hundreds of parts) that will each have been designed by a team of people, which would then be sent away to a factory, which could hire hundreds more people to produce the part. These parts would then have to be shipped and delivered in bulk to another factory to be brought together by yet more people, before the finished product is sold on to retailers and finally handed to the consumer.

A single person could spend their entire life slaving away in a factory, performing a basic task that will combine with hundreds of other workers to create something as simple as dial for an oven or a computer chip for a budget LCD television.

Thankfully, my life’s work has not been spent in the service of creating such tiny parts or pieces.

No – my life’s work has been spent in the service of hunting down and fitting such parts.

My work as a handyman and procurer of specialist parts has taken me all across the country, hunting high and low for the small parts that are integral for appliances and consumer goods to function. Admittedly, my job is one tailored to my nature, that of an obsessive collector and hoarder. My London base, a nondescript cargo container in Hackney, is home to the thousands of parts that I’ve collected over the years – each of them has their own place in its own custom box, with a label, archived amongst hundreds of other similar boxes. Each label is given a code, unique to a system that I’ve created myself and means that I can easily locate the part I need, when I need it.

It might seem a little over board, holding on to all these bits of plastic and metal, but I’ve got a Father’s love for each and every one of them. Once upon a time each one of these tiny pieces were in abundance. Belling spare cooker knobs, Armitage Shanks taps, Magimix mixer dials – all of these weird little totems would have been mass produced in huge factories, but time and wear has meant that their number has grown fewer and fewer, until the point where they are now essentially collectors items.

For those like me, anal individuals who believe that the right part should be fitted to its proper place, my collection is a treasure trove of missing puzzle pieces.

For every faulty filament or lost gizmo, I have a replacement and I consider it an honour to reunite these parts with their long lost appliance.

Long Distance Land Surveying

Student life in the eighties was hard.

When I was studying in London, attempting to balance a new found love for booze with my land survey degree, I always felt like I was forever digging myself out of a hole.

I was one of the last lucky few students who got away with a free University education. Like many of my fellow blessed students, we were the first of our family to attend University. We’d already made our parents proud by grasping hold onto a degree, but graduation was just around the corner and we needed to produce results that would guarantee us a job in the challenging financial times we were about to head into.

Long days were often spent outside, learning the ropes from tired looking professionals who already had enough to worry about without having to teach hungover students for half a day. On one of these particularly gruelling days I found myself in the front of a Ford Transit with Ian – a land surveyor of 20 years who had a reputation for taking the most remote jobs possible.

I’d drank a lot the night before meeting Ian in a frosty car park outside of Sidcup. It was a Friday morning, my brain was clawing to break out of my skull and all I could think about was making it through this day and getting to the weekend. The bags under Ian’s eyes looked deeper than they usually did, each deep saggy pouch was flecked with blue veins making me wonder if he hadn’t been out drinking himself.

“You look awful – best get some sleep in the van, we’ve got a long way to go.”

I didn’t need telling twice.

The van journey slipped by in a comfortable haze of dusty car heating, drive-time radio and husky murmurs from Ian.

When I woke, it was cold in the van. The driver’s side door was open, letting a harsh breeze in that blew fragments of snow into the cabin with me. Ian’s theodolite sat next to me on the middle seat, along with his high-vis jacket, but the man was nowhere to be seen. I grabbed his things and jumped out of the cabin, thinking that he must’ve gone ahead without me and found myself on the edge of a wooded glen in a deserted car park with wood chips on the floor.

He’d not said we were coming out so far and I was struggling to remember where we were even going. A single path led away from the car park into the dark of the forest – with no other options, no mobile phone and no keys for the van, I picked up the gear we needed to do the topographical land surveys and heading into the darkness.

Ian had never struck me as the skittish type, a little dopey, but never the type to simply run off without a word. However, the further I delved into the forest the more I started to doubt myself.

I found the van keys at the end of the path, precariously balanced on a cairn in front of cave. Very little light managed to penetrate through the forest, the darkness from the cave almost felt like it was spilling out from that foreboding hole.

I’d already climbed out of enough holes that year and I wasn’t about to jump into another one.

Sometimes, when I find myself driving to a particularly remote job, I think about Ian and how deep that cave must’ve been to  swallow him, then I shake of that nagging feeling of regret and remember that I was one of the lucky ones who didn’t have to pay for his degree.

One Simple Job in 2008

Sometimes the hardest jobs to complete are the simplest ones.

In the summer of 2008, my work as a handyman was steadily drying up.

The skies were blue, the sun beat regularly upon the fertile English soil and my business was slowly, but surely, going under. I’d struggled for months leading up to the financial crash. Of course I didn’t see it coming, I’m not sure if anyone really did – still, when it hit I was not prepared for the complete and utter loss of business enquiries.

Luckily, I’d managed to tie down one last big job before the crash really set in.

An outdoor pursuits company in Wales just so happened to be looking to commission a decent-sized building on their land, for the purposes of housing the ever shifting bank of instructors that found their way into their employ over the course of each year. The job was large, but simple enough. A steel structure, one-storey with breeze-blocks and double glazed windows – it would be a lot of work for one man to do, but they didn’t mind paying less for work to be completed at a slower rate.

A number of things happened over that summer (some of them connected and some of them not so much) and I’m inclined to blame all of them on the corrupt bankers that caused the Financial Crash nearly 10 years ago – although I’m willing to take my fair share of the blame for a few of these things:

  • My wife left me
  • I had an affair with a kayak instructor
  • A 6-week project was stretched out to 18-weeks
  • I lost everything in the eventual divorce
  • My building supplier went bust
  • I discovered a new love for outdoor pursuits

Now, as I said, I feel like some of these things might be connected, some of them might well be my fault, but most of these things are pretty much the fault of those damn bankers.

Holly liked to kayak – it’s one of the first things that she told me, when we met on my first day in Wales. She showed me around the activity centre whilst I wondered how old she was.

‘I’m 27’.

I had trouble keeping thoughts in my head at the time.

That Summer was an eventful one for me.

Crooked steel beams meant that the project was delayed by a week, it would have taken a day to drive back and it was Monday, so I thought I may as well stay put and camp out in the temporary accommodation they had set up for the instructors. With nothing better to do, I found myself roped in to all sorts of activities that I’d never tried before. Rock climbing one day, caving the next, then it was kayaking and even white water rafting, with no phone signal in the Welsh valleys there could be no phone calls with my wife.

The instructors were all so…accommodating. I’d not experienced such friendliness or joviality in a long time.

When the manufacturers of the steel beams called through to the centre to inform me that they’d shut down indefinitely and that they couldn’t refund me the £3,000 for the steel – I didn’t find myself cursing or worrying about the future, I’d already started sharing a bunk with Holly and I had a stag party of 5 to take zip-lining.

I was far too busy to worry about anything.