That Old Hut

Something was always holding me back from clearing out that old hut. There was all that electrical equipment to go through, and the old paint tins, and what about the broken bikes and the broken sunlounger with the ripped mattress? Clearly, all this stuff couldn’t just be thrown out. No. So my patient brother put up with my procrastination, and for months we had ‘the old hut’ and ‘the new shed’ both in use in the back garden of the home we grew up in. At one point I’d had three old bikes (one in bits and one not working) then a friend gave me a shiny new (to me) one. Something had to give. The abandoned kid’s bike I’d rescued, that no-one I knew wanted, I fixed up and left outside a community centre (last year) with a note on it: “free to a good home”. It was gone in two days. Months later, I faced the fact that the best-looking bike was actually the worst (as it needed more ballbearings in the rear hub) and fixed up the old banger so it would go. And then, for weeks, I did nothing.

That old hut wasn’t just wood inside and junk inside, of course. It was our gang hut when we were wee. Me and my sisters used to play together, as my bro was too old to play with me, ‘the baby’. I remember rare Scottish sunny days with Cremola Foam drinks in lime green plastic tumblers, making up gang hut activities, like our perfume factory (the roses recovered and the compost heap was blessed) and our neighbourhood espionage (noting down the licence plates in the car park round the corner – why?). It was also where we kept our tennis racquets, for our yearly fortnight of summer enthusiasm during Wimbledon – until we fell out with each, other over who had to go get the ball, and gave up.

But most of all it was Dad’s hut. All those mysterious manly objects, like spark plugs and the whetting stone. The heavy roller lawnmover and the electric hedge cutters, that I pleaded to use then almost cut my finger off with, were here and, later, the strimmer. Seed packets, bought and harvested, the riddle, spades and hoes and rakes and forks. Wellington boots and green twine. It was a world I was always impatient with. It wasn’t till my last year at my first university that I began to get a glimmer of understanding why. I read Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance then and hardly understood a word. But I got this bit:

They talk once in a while in as few pained words as possible about “it” or “it all” as in the sentence, “There is just no escape from it.” And if I asked, “From what?” the answer might be “The whole thing,” or “The whole organized bit,” or even “The system.” […] The “it” is a kind of force that gives rise to technology, something undefined, but inhuman, mechanical, lifeless, a blind monster, a death force. Something hideous they are running away from but now they can never escape.

Robert M. Pirsig (p.24 in the 1999 Vintage paperback edition)

It wasn’t till my last year of my Ph.D. studying Pirsig’s work that I felt his theories click into place – and saw how I could simplify them. The famous paraphrase of Einstein (by Roger Session of the New York Times) asserts that ‘everything should be as simple as possible – but no simpler’. So I cannot simply characterise my father as a technophobe. He was a tailor by profession, a competent car mechanic, gardener and helpful handyman. Yet he’d swear in Polish (which was worse than when he swore in German) when wallpapering and an old anger, of being pitted against the world, would return.

For years I felt inadequate in the man’s world. Young men often feel like this and the father-son relationship is often very difficult indeed. For years I felt I was secretly disappointing him so I told him openly how disappointing he was to me. We had years of pain. This is not unusual. I grew up and understood more deeply not just the war horrors that he and his generation had survived but also why almost everyone feels alienated from technology – even from organisation. And I strove to counter the basic illogic that constantly fucks things up in Britain, where it’s not polite to suggest rethinking something that’s always been a bloody mess; and I tried to do this in my family and largely failed. Because, of course, the root of it was in me.

All that junk in the old hut, and all my emotional baggage, life’s just simpler without it. But life isn’t life then. When I realised that my reluctance to clear out the old hut was my reluctance to (once again) face my unresolved conflicts with my late father, I did what I always had to do when I was leaving a country I’d been living in, or trying to hitchhike away from somewhere. I let go. Or rather I accepted that that’s where I was and stopped holding onto things that kept me stuck there. “Stuckness” is a very Pirsigian concern, he devotes a whole chapter (24) to it.

So I fixed up and gave away the old banger to a friend – with instructions about locating a shop to service it for free, under the Government 50 quid scheme. And this morning I sat down and went through all the electricals to see what could be reused. So only some things were taken to the dump by my sister (they recycle what they can there). And this afternoon my brother and I took down the old hut. Tomorrow we plan to build raised beds. I plan to keep you posted.

All photos (c) Alan McManus.