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Book Cover

Tom Fort

Rivets, Trivets & Galvanised Buckets: Life in a village hardware shop

On the face of it, Tom Fort’s latest book is about the renaissance of a hardware shop in the village of Sonning Common, near Reading in the Thames Valley. In October 2018, Shro, Fort’s daughter-in-law, took over Heath & Watkins, a business established in the village in the 1930s but by then in serious decline. The book tells the story of the resurrection of the shop and how it thrived despite the trauma of lockdown; in this respect, it is a parable for our times. Its heroine is Shro, who is clearly a woman of energy, ingenuity, geniality and considerable commercial savoir-faire.

Fort makes the case for the importance of the hardware shop - what my grandparents’ generation would have referred to as an ironmonger and what the French onomatopoeically call a "quincaillerie" - in British life. Indeed, he imbues it with almost mystical social and historical significance: ‘It is a rock to hold on to in a sea of threatening currents,’ he writes. ‘The hardware shop stands for familiar and reassuring values – reliability, competence, trustworthiness, usefulness, time for others, maintaining things so that they last.’ It also plays a part in promoting and preserving a sense of community in villages and small towns.

As a slice of social history, "Rivets, Trivets & Galvanised Buckets" has charm and certainly, Fort’s prose moves along easily, like a well-oiled piece of old-fashioned, British-made garden machinery. But the majority of the book revolves around the items sold in the hardware shop - the ironmongery of the title and much else besides - and, as tools are essentially functional objects, it quickly descends into a consideration of their usefulness at which point it becomes little more than a history of DIY. Now, I accept that DIY is widely practised with varying degrees of success and enthusiasm but, in my opinion, it should remain a private preoccupation, best kept to oneself.

Fort sketches the early story of DIY and the concomitant rise of the specialist publications - "Practical Householder"and "Do It Yourself"were early market leaders in Britain - in both the United States and here. Gradually, the book’s focus narrows: by page 102, Fort has reached the point at which he feels that ‘it is time to confront the state of my toolbox.’ He came upon Jim Tolpin’s "The Toolbox Book" (1995) while ‘searching online for exemplars of toolbox management.’ A few pages later, Fort declares that the ‘story of woodscrews is emblematic.’

From here we move through the rivets, trivets, and galvanised buckets of the title via the technicalities of locks and safes to the raw excitements of sandpaper, masking tape and Rawlplugs before feasting on the finer points of plungers and hammers. Fort discusses ‘the place of the hammer in philosophy’ before returning to more earthly concerns: Kilner jars, WD-40, and Swarfega.

This may not be to everyone’s taste but consider the case of Dana Sovel’s "Longitude" which despite its arcane subject matter became one of the biggest best sellers of the 1990s. Who’s to say that Fort’s book may not follow suit?

Richard Hopton

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