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Rock Maze
  • Writer's pictureNeil

Johannes Factotum

I’m a practical sort of chap. I think, on the whole, practical sorts can generally adapt their skills to a wide range of applications. All of my family seem to be practical/problem solvers. My grandfather built and ran a garage on Bodmin Moor where my father was born 92 years ago. Interestingly my grandfather served the first fuel to their first customer and my father, very late in his life, was asked to visit the garage to serve the last fuel before the petrol pumps were discontinued after continuous service for about a century.

My grandfather also owned Four Winds granite quarry and monumental masons on Bodmin Moor, above Millpool. My father’s acquired skills were motor engineering and later monumental masonry, hardly surprising back in the day.

Later my Grandfather owned a café on the notorious Union Street in Plymouth. It was called Bate’s Café (safer than Bates Motel). My grandfather’s brother was an esteemed sculptor, a member of the Royal Academy.

Later when we were kids my father also drove earthmoving machinery, was a school caretaker, a shopkeeper, owned a load of holiday caravans but my overriding memory is that of my father having a wood workshop.

So my own skills are possibly a mix of innate and acquired.

Most of my skills were learnt before YouTube if you can believe it. My skills, like many other people’s skills are born of necessity. D.I.Y. because there’s no other option. We were really lucky growing up. Dad gave us free rein in his workshop. We spent hours and hours making things. A few planks of wood, nails, bolts, wheels and rope and a dilly can be created. (Dilly; aka. Soap box cart, cart, gravity racer). I think we were all quite inventive. We were constantly making things. Between us we rebuilt bikes, fiddled with motorbikes, changed engines in cars, built hi-fi systems. One brother even built a metal detector. We were industrious.

Like my eldest brother our best practical skills were wood based so much so that my eldest brother and I both started our careers as woodwork teachers. He studied from ’72 to ’75 and I studied from ’75 to ’78. Both of us attending Shoreditch College at Englefield Green, near Egham in Surrey. (Historical note; the last man killed in a duel is interred at Englefield Green cemetery). The college, now an upmarket residential development, is just along the road from the Air Forces Memorial, or Runnymede Memorial.

So for a while I became a Teacher. I might have liked working in wood but I certainly didn’t like teaching. A short lived career. A career that consisted of teaching a wide range of practical skills, not only woodwork but a bit of maths, technical drawing, engineering, motor mechanics, plastic tech and even weaving.

I was becoming a Johannes Factotum ("Johnny do-it-all").

However for the bulk of my working life I found myself sitting behind an office desk or behind a steering wheel travelling from office to office but I have never been without a workshop of some sort.

Many moons ago I bought a tumble down cottage. The renovations were so extensive that, at one point only the four outer walls remained. Even the roof was gone. I remember standing in the shell thinking “Bleddy Hell, I’ve taken on a lot here". The only thing I didn’t do myself was re-slate the roof. I had to learn plumbing, electrics, plastering, dry lining and a load of other skills. In modern parlance a steep learning curve.

So, having accepted I’m a “Johannes Factotum” I also have to accept I'm bit of a “last minute merchant” and a “near enough is good enough” sort of bloke. Essentially that's how my time management works.

In recent years there are more and more regulatory issues to contend with. Or are there? Take a recent addition to our house, a wood burner. On the website, where we bought the thing it was strongly implied that it needed to be installed by a HETAS registered installer. Our chimney was lined for a gas fire but originally built and properly constructed for an open fire. So could I fit this thing myself? Of course I could. Does it need the suggested new expensive stainless steel chimney liner? Nope. There’s obviously some things that need to be done properly. But, insidiously, when eventually the house is marketed for sale this HETAS thing becomes an issue and therefore a worry. Estate Agents will want to know installation evidence and solicitors then will want another bit of expensive indemnity insurance when there’s no legal requirement to have a registered installer. It’s not the way I roll. Now you know why, if I was selling the house, the wood burner would be pulled out and dumped on the lounge floor. Ridiculous!

Anyway that’s probably enough nonsense for one post. And I’m knackered. One kind of hidden side effect of chemotherapy is the impact it has on the efficacy (a word we've all become familiar with because it’s often used when describing vaccines) of my bone marrow. My bone marrow is far less able to do it’s stuff. Consequently my blood is much crapper at getting oxygen around my body. I easily become breathless and my heart rate soars with just about any sort of exercise. Even kneading dough is an effort. Showering is tiring, as is putting the rubbish out for collection. I have, however, perfected the old boy shuffle!

For your further edification, in Elizabethan English the quasi-New Latin term Johannes Factotum ("Johnny do-it-all") was sometimes used similarly as "Jack of all trades" is used today. Although now often used as a compliment the original "Jack of all trades master of none" had negative connotations as did Johannes Factotum.

I hope I'm the master of some.

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Juliet French
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Jan 30, 2021

6:35 here. Dough rising, coffee for me as well. Sesame Cinnamon swirls with Tahini icing today.


David Osborne
David Osborne
Jan 30, 2021

Hi Neil, apologies for not joining the coffee club of late I’m home schooling two boys, our eldest grandchildren as our daughter goes to work ( she’s works in social services, a key worker who can’t get her kids in school) were enjoying seeing the boys and relearning maths etc. I must do better !!

I can resonate with this post, at an early agar I was also let loose in the tool shed / workshop- always modifying my dilly and built a metal detector, lots of wood involved. The “Indemnity” policy what an amazing earner for solicitors- don’t get me started, one for windows, the drain, chancellors ( will the church really reclaim your garden or impose a …

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