As I have mentioned before, at the age of seven-and-three-quarters, I was sent to a school for the blind. Linden Lodge School in Wimbledon was a light, airy, modern building. There was also a modern approach to teaching children with sight loss. By the age of ten I was already being taught a wide curriculum including biology and French, as well as craft subjects such as pottery. There was a great emphasis on music and drama and we even had an indoor heated swimming pool.
We also had woodwork lessons.
(Yes, you read that correctly. They actually taught visually impaired children how to use hammers and saws.)
I am not a very practical person but I loved woodwork. We had a wonderful teacher called Mr. Grenfell who was a descendant of Sir Wilfred Grenfell, the celebrated medical missionary who was sent to Canada in the late nineteenth century and founded clinics and hospitals in Newfoundland and all up and down the coast of Labrador. In his own way, our Mr Grenfell was a marvel too. He seemed to be able to keep order without ever raising his voice. I think we were all so engaged in what we were doing that playing up never entered our minds!
It was all interesting but I particularly enjoyed planing wood. I found the repeated arm movements soothing and it was deeply gratifying to feel a rough wood surface gradually becoming beautifully smooth.
When it came to banging nails into wood we used a gadget rather like a small bottle. There was a narrow neck which you fitted round the nail. You then held the bulbous end with one hand and hit hard on the end with a mallet. This too was highly satisfying and it was a system that meant we could hammer nails with reasonable safety.
But we weren’t only taught how to wield simple hand-tools like planes and hammers. We were also instructed in how to use more sophisticated devices and I well remember how much fun it was to use the jigsaw. The one we used had a mechanism that allowed you to pre-set the length of wood you wanted to cut. There were holes in it that equated to inches. You counted along to the length of wood you wanted, put a peg in the corresponding hole and put the wood under the saw. It would then cut your long piece of doweling to the required size.
The sensation of sawing wood was wonderful. You could feel the vibration and hear the blade cutting through the wood. You could even sense when you were getting to the point when you were just about to cut right through.
We made a variety of different objects in woodwork and when we had finished the carpentry part of each project we then got to paint our creations. I made a box for my father to keep his shoe-cleaning materials in which he used for the rest of his life. Inspired by the moon landings that were happening at the time, I also made a spaceman puppet. I painted his body silver and Mr. Grenfell attached strings and added felt hands.
I know of many visually-impaired adult men who are very good at woodwork and DIY in general. I don’t know if any of the girls I was at school with carried on developing their woodwork skills. Once I left Linden Lodge I never had another opportunity to indulge myself with a plane or a mallet. Looking back, though, it gives me immense satisfaction that, for a few years during my childhood, I positively revelled in hammering, smoothing and sawing wood.