Graham Field: Exquisite Isolation, Shed Life part 1
I was self-isolating before there was a term for it, it got me thinking of how my shed life has evolved.
The shed, the shelter, the statuary for sanity, security and mental peace in the form of mechanical meditation, observation and inspiration based on engineering ability, ingenuity and budget.
When I had a bicycle, my dad clamped a piece of thick grey tarpaulin to the wall with a bit of wood for me to keep my pedal-powered transport out of the weather. The cover stank, I've never smelt anything like it before or since, and if I witness that odour again it will take me back to that mouldy damp canvas, too thick to fold and as brittle as thin ice. It impregned hands and saddle with its stale aroma. Looking back, by definition of ‘shelter for a vehicle’, it was my first shed. By its utter inability to stop moisture, permeate light, give warmth in the cold or insulate from heat, the odds were good that the future would hold improvements to meet my shed expectations and it did, but the progress was slower than that bicycle in a head wind.
My father was a keen gardener and every space in his plot was allotted to a vegetable. All a teenage boy with a budding motorcycle awareness wants is to have his private erection, a 4’ x 8’ structure was frequently pleaded for. A dry dream, my own bike shed, that would be the good life but the unreal estate was a dream that had to wait until I had a mortgage.
The compromise was a plastic wall, it segregated the garage, my father could still get his car in and I had a shelf for my socket set and socket for my radio, and if the cat came in when the bike was out it could just about be swung. Translucent wall? I couldn’t hang anything on it and it didn’t keep me out of sight. It was horrid but my friends weren’t doing much better.
I had a shovelhead mate who worked on his bike kneeling on cold concrete under a big plastic bag, the one his mother’s new tumble drier was delivered in. It wasn’t even considered recycling, it was simply acquiring the discarded to create a necessity. The same happened when we dived into skips. How fucking dare health and safety try to protect us from ourselves at the expense of the planet. Everyone’s waste is the vacancy in someone else’s space. Jump in and grab it, the skip never fills and the landfills all the slower. It was recycling on a personal level and worked better than Exchange and Mart.
Ironically one of my first jobs was a skip driver. Well a lorry driver delivering mini skips and I still, over 35 years later have items I pulled out of the metal treasure chests.
Keeping the recycling theme, when I finally got my own place, building the shed was a community endeavour. Windows supplied from a mate’s caravan, as he moved out of it when his name got to the top of the council house list. It was first world scavenging construction, it was the bike that was homeless not me. The best piece of luck came when, as an agency driver, I worked for an insulation company. The storeman didn’t like the look of me and counted the load into my curtain side vehicle to make sure I had the allotted amount for delivery. You can’t really overload an insulation truck by weight, your only restrictions are volume and you could have heard my joy a mile off when I realised I had one pack too many and diverted by my house post delivery to drop off the surplus. The shed had the best insulation any builder could dream of. Regardless of the season the temperature inside my shed was as regulated as a Prozac induced emotion. The only extremes were what occurred inside.
It was my first bike shed, by location – bottom of the garden, by definition - wooden built with a corrugated metal roof, and by usage - no mower or gardening equipment passed the threshold. The walls were either shelving or a galley of closely hung spanners. This was before the time, when the now almost fashionable disappearance of the 10mm socket was a concern, and anyway on an old Harley the 3/8 was a far more frequently used part of my cylindrical necessities.
It was a place where music was played (from the ghetto blaster, there was no garage band, just shed heads). In the days before enforced isolation, a social gathering of back street zeros who’d dropped by with papers and sometimes upon request the mirror came out of the naughty draw. The occasional female distraction occurred, but the place never smelt stale of smoke, sex, oil or exhaust. The overwhelming aroma was from the frantically applied and removed Autosol from a rigorous three-hour polishing session. Gleaming aluminium, black rags and the sparkling sight of a bike that would have been SORN for the season if that law had existed back then.
I’d kneel in reverence, silently surveying a sight behind a removed casing. I've experienced the bike lift, but I have a thick kneeling mat and a very low ceiling (it keeps the heat in) and ape-hangers would pierce the ceiling before elevation exceeded the height of the obligatory milkcrate.
Indecently a milk crate elevation bare metal built was once going very well until the bike was lifted to suspend itself on its own compressed suspension and I realised the oil filter was low enough to stroke cat eyes. A miscalculation that saw a curb take it off in the lake district, I glanced behind to see what all the hooting was about and saw a black slick behind me, flicked off the ignition, and prevented a seizure.
Back in the shed I’d sit on the stool, my tea cup displayed its ring of stains to the dark bottom, and a screwdriver levered off a beer cap and the process of construction turns from physical to mental. Constantly reigniting a rollie, listening to a crackling Dutch radio station with less annoyance and more rock than anything on the UK FM waveband. The bike went back on its perch, the crate that stood on an oil stained floral carpet.
When the butane barbeque came inside for the winter reincarnation, I thought it would make the ideal heating system but when lit, it produced more moisture than a sprinkler system and dulled aluminium like a coastal downpour.
When my needs exceeded the array of scrap in the boxes beneath the bench, or if I lacked the machinery to turn said scrap into the shape or purpose the current project required, I would reach for the phonebook size catalogues of the shiny and desirable. I would scribble down the seven digit part number and if the cordless phone could make a connection to base control, with memorised numbers of both retailer and credit card I would tell myself, my bike and my wellbeing, with this purchase we will all be one step closer to wholeness- the bedroom wall poster bike - slash cut pipe dream.
I was numb when the day came to clear it out, emptying that was the longest, hardest and saddest part of the house move. Over 10 formulative years had passed in the place. It was truly the end of an era. A place or disrepute and history from the tags in the newly poured concrete base to the virtual notches on the bench legs. I’d viewed the ceiling from the floor and vice versa.