A shed of one’s own, Neville Bennett

Blokes and Sheds
Jim Hopkins (text) & Julie Riley (photography)
HarperCollins, $24.95,
ISBN 1 86950 278 7

Back Down the Track
Barry Crump
Hodder Moa Beckett, $39.95,
ISBN 1 86958 672 7

To assert “blokes’” values – albeit very mildly – is extremely non-PC in an increasingly feminised world. Elsewhere I have written often about fathers, and I am steeped in the huge contemporary literature that so often portrays marriage as a patriarchal conspiracy against women, and asserts that gender differences are an oppressive social construct and that family life should be reconstituted around egalitarianism and androgyny. Enough has rubbed off to create a meta-myth of a unisex society in which there are no differences between the roles of women and men, in which masculinity is neutered, and any anxiety about fatherless children is sneered at as nostalgia for a golden age.

Jim Hopkins has brilliantly portrayed a group of men with a very strong sense of self-identity, who have created a space where they can carry out activities unsupervised by their wives. Bill states, “A woman has a house: that’s her domain. Well, this is my domain.” This is not to imply any marital antagonism or a motivation to avoid wives. Indeed, almost all the people portrayed seem to indicate a stronger marriage because they are more fulfilled (women have sheds too). As one who makes aeroplanes says: “You have to do something: if you do nothing, you die.” A carver believes, “Every man has got to have a shed. The place you go to be creative – and you get lost in that – you transcend the world.” Another comes home from work, flings his tie off, and starts restoring cars. Obviously, the shed contributes to well-being, partly because much work has been de-skilled and divided into small components. No one builds anything completely at work, but in sheds they can go through every step in the production process (sometimes even making the tools too) to make cellos or planes or farm pasteurisers.

The shed is also a refuge for men who are unemployed, retired or injured and therefore not in the workforce. In our society we are often defined by our job, and many find it hard to preserve an identity when they have no formal work. Hopkins’ people have developed an interest, re-skilled themselves, and often produce saleable items such as hunting knives, pottery or restored toys. Others repair or restore items for friends. And while being in the shed is often solitary and contemplative, many of Jim’s people often have mates around for a few beers.

Some shed people are hoarders, but their motive is often to preserve the past, especially the beautiful artefacts and tools created by respected craftsmen. Shed people often conserve massive machines, rather than allow them to be scrapped. Their sheds are often awesomely large. I have an ambition to expand my shed: it’s a three-car garage that has never been used for parking, but it is bursting at the seams with the woods, tools and polishes necessary to restore antique furniture.

Jim Hopkins is aware that sheds could provoke feminist opposition and bravely argues that men are an endangered species. The bloke in the shed is, he says, “creative, generous, energetic and passionate”. It’s the place where Richard Pearse made aircraft, others developed the jet-boat, electric fence, animal tranquilliser gun, and where Rutherford “split the atom with a chisel.” Hopkins combines charm with a very incisive text that gives free rein to his sheddies’ personalities. It makes a fine read, noticeably assisted by Judy Riley’s excellent black and white photography. I’ll be a starter for any sequel.

Barry Crump was the quintessential Kiwi bloke. And the public loved him: they avidly watched his marvellous Toyota commercials and have kept his many books in print. Some authors might sneer at his vulgarity, yet Wild Pork and Watercress sold over 100,000 copies. Knockers might nurture a myth that sales and quality are in an inverse relationship. That would not hold for Graham Greene or Waugh or even that bloke Hemingway. My theory is that Crump succeeded because of his unpretentious sincerity.

But Crump as a photographer? Perhaps not a Cartier-Bresson; yet his amazing amount of very slow travel (his speed was about 40 kph maximum) took him to out-of-the-way places, where his excellent eye could capture a detail. He left photography alone until the 1980s, when he found a camera for duffers. Thereafter, he pointed and shot, and now provides an album of such subjects as gate-posts, post boxes, abandoned machinery and camps. There are also some competent landscapes, and wonderful cloudscapes, which came one amazing night in Canterbury when Crump shot five rolls of film. There are no people. His final selected album is delightful, but so, I suppose, would any average bloke’s album be.

Crump has not yet got a biographer, and the editors of this volume missed a chance to say more about his life and significance. Their method – which is entirely legitimate – is to take extracts from his books to accompany the photos, allowing scope for some biography. But his photographs only add to the enigma of a bloke of no startling abilities, who became a Kiwi icon in his own lifetime.

Neville Bennett teaches history at Canterbury University.

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Posted in Gender, Non-fiction, Review and Sociology
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