Monday, 26 January 2015

Trigger’s broom

“This old broom,” says Trigger, “has had 17 new heads and 14 new handles”. To the mind of the nation’s favourite road sweeper from Only Fools and Horses, nothing about this statement sits uneasily with the fact that he’s just won an award for being in possession of the same broom for 20 years. We all laugh knowingly at the character’s naïveté, but the paradox of whether an object is essentially the same when its constituent parts have been replaced has appeared in the musings of philosophers through the ages, from Plutarch’s Ship of Theseus to Hobbe’s favourite sock*.

I’m always reminded of this when the time comes to replace one part or another of my secateurs. I’ve had this pair for over ten years and, while the handles remain the same – albeit now featuring rather tatty red cushioning on the grips – several of the other parts are of a less impressive vintage. In addition to regular, often daily maintenance – cleaning, sharpening, lubricating – each winter they get completely stripped down, every part being treated to a program of rejuvinaion. A hibernal tool spa – beginning with a gentle, abrading exfoliation with wire wool, a deep cleansing with Muc-Off, and a luxuriant drenching in WD40 to replace the oils lost during the cleaning process. With the abuse they get throughout the rest of the year, I figure it’s the least I can do.

I once got into one of those daft twitter conversations – you know the ones, where one moment you’re having a nice, jolly chat, and the next, some rabid individual you’ve never before encountered is foaming at the mouth for a reason as unaccountable as it can be important. In this particular instance I had happened to mention that not only was I deeply fond of the brand and model of secateurs I use (Felco number two, if you’re interested), but that I’d also had cause to replace the odd bit over the years. Enter rabid, tweeting Herbert, with an almost audible virtual “a-HA!”, roundly berating me with the essence of the above-mentioned paradox, in the manner of one who had just had the most strikingly original and incisive thought, before advising me that any gardener worth their salt should of course be using those fancy-pants Japanese pruners (they do look rather nice, but I’ve no reason to change – perhaps a birthday/Christmas present? Hint?). Naturally, I extracted myself elegantly from the conversation and went about my business – I’m known for my tact and finesse, on Twitter, as in all other spheres.

Today a new spring is called for. The old one was more or less holding its own, working admirably on even quite thick dry, dead stems, but fill the mouth of the pruners with a handful of thinner material and the jaws would stick together. With the old part next to its replacement, it’s not hard to see why – the spring is noticeably compressed – small wonder it lacks the energy under load to push the handles apart. A couple of seconds to remove the worn piece and substitute the shiny new one, et voilà! As good as new.

I have a natural tendency toward the personification of natural phenomena and inanimate objects, and so, I worry. Has this action somehow damaged my secateurs’ own sense of self? I hope not. Does this programme of incremental renewal to which I subject them make them fundamentally different than they were before? I don’t believe so. To my mind and, more to the point, in my hand, I can’t honestly say that they feel any less like my own, trusted pair. I’m with Trigger.

*More recently, during the noughties many of us had cause to wonder whether the Sugababes really were the Sugababes when none of the original members were left in the band.