Mr Wilkie’s feeling for metal

I am going to elaborate about my interest and sense of fulfilment in making and repairing things, more particularly my feeling for metal. From a young age I had ideas of a career doing this. These ideas were particularly strong when I was struggling with my medical studies – they became a fantasy escape – if I can’t pass my exams I will become a watch repair man. However, I did pass all my exams and medicine and the National Health Service was too secure and attractive an employer to leave. My creative urges were sublimated into various practical pursuits: bicycle, motorbike and car mechanics; woodwork; and once I became a home owner plumbing, wiring and any other building trade I could turn my hand to. Now I have retired from medicine my ambition is to become a craftsman.

You may have discerned a certain pattern in my practical interests – none of them are truly creative – they involve repairing things that someone else has made or making things according to an established pattern. If you asked me to draw a picture of my motorbike the result will be disappointing whereas if you ask me to take apart the same motorbike and put it back together there is a good chance it will work.

A couple of writers have explored the topic of making and repairing things and both of them have an interest in motorcycles – Matthew Crawford the author of ‘The Case for Working with Your Hands’, gave up his highly paid job in a Chicago think tank and set up a motorcycle repair workshop. He references Robert Pirsig’s ‘Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance’ notably the passage where Robert talks about saving his motorbike from a cack-handed mechanic:

… now there really was a tappet noise. They hadn’t adjusted them. I pointed this out and the kid came with an open-end adjustable wrench, set wrong, and swiftly rounded both of the sheet aluminum tappet covers, ruining both of them. “I hope we’ve got some more of those in stock,” he said. I nodded. He brought out a hammer and cold chisel and started to pound them loose. The chisel punched through the aluminum cover and I could see he was pounding the chisel right into the engine head. On the next blow he missed the chisel completely and struck the head with the hammer, breaking off a portion of two of the cooling fins. “Just stop,” I said politely, feeling this was a bad dream. “Just give me some new covers and I’ll take it the way it is.”

Both authors identify the mechanic with a lack of mechanical skills, neither fully explains the reason for this phenomenon. Their discussion centres on the attitudes and values of the mechanic and that this is the cause of his cack-handedness – simply put he is careless. I am interested in a different explanation. Whilst lack of care may lead to just about any mechanical mishap I think that it takes more than care to make a good mechanic. In the detective novel ‘Miss Smilla’s Feeling for Snow’ by Peter Hoeg, Miss Smilla possesses an intuitive understanding of all types of snow and their characteristics. This faculty is attributed to her Inuit heritage and growing up in Greenland. Her certainty about the manner of a child’s death is due to this visceral “feeling for snow”. In a similar way I believe a good mechanic has a feeling for the bits of metal that make up a car or a bike.

I have worked with several people on various mechanical projects, for example building a bicycle from the frame up. I have been surprised that things that seem obvious to me are a challenge to others – I have handed someone a component which is the next stage of the build – as far as I was concerned there was only one way it could possibly go. He took it and proceeded to try and place it the wrong way around. I took it back off him and explained which way it needed to go. But it left me wondering why could I see something in my mind’s eye which he obviously could not? Was it because I had taken apart and reassembled numerous bicycles or could I imagine the right and wrong picture in my mind and pick the correct one?

When I was at secondary school a little test of manual dexterity was making the rounds. You took a matchbox in one hand and performed a series of actions entirely one-handed. Open the box, remove a match, close the box, use the match to make a hole in the top of the box, insert the match in the hole (live end showing), open the box, remove another match, close the box, then use the second match to light the first one. There were a variety of similar challenges involving lit cigarettes and matches – the most daring of which was to put a cigarette in your mouth burning end first and blow smoke out of the end. The challenge of the first task was in completing it – most people can’t – I succeeded on my first attempt.

Where is all this going I here you ask? I am not sure – these are the things that go through my head when I am walking the dog and lying awake at night.

I believe some people have a good eye and hand for mechanics in the same way as others have a good ear for music and that this an innate rather than acquired ability.

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