I have a shed – which is somewhere between a stereotype and a cliché. Strictly speaking, it is one of the stalls in our stable-block, has a concrete floor (in my mind, a proper shed has a wooden floor), and isn't at the bottom of the garden, but in spite of all these shortcomings, it is a shed. I hadn't really thought of it as anything other than a place to get things done, until I walked in there yesterday to finish building a gate.
They say smell is a powerful trigger for memory, with taste just behind. Over the last few years, just out of curiosity, we have indulged in little bits of food-related nostalgia, treats from our childhoods to find out if things that seemed so wonderful back then were really all that great. How about Wagon Wheels? I quite liked them as a kid, and perhaps they changed the recipe, but one bite and there was a decision to make: spit now, vomit later. More successful was lemon meringue pie, which I was ambivalent about as a kid, but my wife was really keen, because her mother made it from real lemons – so we tried the instructions in the Good Housekeeping cookery book and I can now forget the dubious lemon meringue of my childhood, and enjoy the real thing on special occasions.
Not so long back, I came across a Tunnock's Caramel Wafer - my grandmother always had them, a taste I really adored. I tried it: quite nice in a vaguely chocolatey, caramely, chewy sort of way, but nothing to get excited about.
To borrow another pseudo-cliche, nostalgia isn't what it used to be. That was until I walked into my shed yesterday – a warm day, the smell of sawdust, the tickle in the throat that says there's something nasty in the sawdust, the work-bench made from old pallets, the tools and shelves... just like walking into Granddad's shed. There was nothing so-so about this. Real nostalgia, they way they used to make it, full fat, full calories, full memories.
My maternal grandfather started out as a car mechanic and had all sorts of stories: looking after Lord Hailsham's car (and how Lord Hailsham could cycle in the rain and hold an umbrella up at the same time), pulling a sports car out of a ford because the air intakes were low and the pistons rods bent (a cylinder full of water does not compress and something has to give), early clutches that were faced with cork and could contaminate the engine oil with little bits of burnt cork. Those are just the ones I can remember, stories I had not thought about for years until I walked into my shed, on a warm June day, and it was just like the old timber summer-house Granddad used as his shed.
I learnt to solder in that shed, how to wire up a car's indicator system, how an old clockwork gramophone motor worked, the startling sensation of being really alive at the touch of the output of a car ignition coil, and I learned that I never wanted to be quite that alive again. We lived in Bristol, mum's parents were in Hailsham in Sussex, so we only visited a few times a year, and Granddad's shed was a magical place on a hot June day.
Later, a few years older and in my first year at university, faced with a very real prospect of failing my Maths course, I spent a couple of weeks at Easter in Granddad's shed, working through every lecture note, attempting every available old exam question. I think that shed made all the difference.
So maybe some childhood wonders have lost their magic, but you can't beat a really decent bit of nostalgia. Or a really good shed.