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Olly Mann: Pretty old things

BY Olly Mann

18th Sep 2023 Inspire

4 min read

Olly Mann: Pretty old things
In this month's column, Olly Mann discovers a love of all things retro and repaired
If you’ve never seen a tinkering video, picture a middle-aged bloke in a shed, unctuously dismantling an old Walkman, and then, "just for fun", putting it back together. The vibe is essentially an anoraky edition of The Repair Shop, but filmed on a smartphone, that for half its duration is solely a close-up of a hook spring.  
"After a few hours in the virtual company of tinkerers, I found myself becoming increasingly drawn in"
I’ve met tinkering-type guys before: handing out flyers at antiques fairs, manning miniature railways, volunteering at community radio stations…They’re amiable enough chaps, but I am not one of them. I’m neither intrinsically intrigued by how things work, nor worried that the world is moving so quickly I must retreat to my mancave, surrounded only by objects that can be mended with a screwdriver.  
I embrace technology. I prefer contactless payment to cash, streaming music to owning music, and Beyond Burger to Big Macs. And yet, after a few hours in the virtual company of tinkerers, I found myself becoming increasingly drawn in.  

The appeal of tinkering

Partly, I suspect, this is because the items typically featured in the videos are so relatable: a battered control for a Nintendo Wii, a junked cast iron pan, an Epson dot matrix printer. This isn't restoring a Rembrandt; this is the stuff we all have in our attics.  
I also felt what one might call the "Bake Off effect": the magnetic pull of watching a process unfolding, from beginning to end, with a compelling momentum to resolution despite the incredibly low stakes actually involved. An afternoon had passed, and I had done nothing but watch quite old men repair quite old things. 
This made me reflect on the quite old things I have around me, and how they found their way into my home. And I began to realise that maybe I’m not quite as "modern" as I like to think.
"This made me reflect on the quite old things I have around me, and how they found their way into my home"
For example, the music I listen to comes from Spotify, yes, but via one of two devices: a Denon CD/MiniDisc/cassette HiFi bought from Currys in 1999; and a replica wood-carved 1940s wireless I got from a charity shop in Rochester, then unceremoniously shoved an Amazon Echo Dot speaker into. Neither item exactly screams "21st century". Why do I use them? Because they’re more charming than a faceless smart speaker. 
Then, there’s my books. I have thousands of books, despite the fact I also own an e-reader. I had a special bookshelf constructed in my sitting room, spanning from cornice to cornice, just to contain them all. There are reference books about film and music, crispy-paged holiday novels, and academic textbooks repurposed as doorstops (if you happen to have a copy of Eighteenth-Century Poetry: An Annotated Anthology, I endorse its utilitarian heft). Why do I keep these? Because they’re prettier than a blank wall. Because they’re nicer to touch than a Kindle

Nostalgic home touches

In my home studio, I have the obligatory iMac, fluorescent ringlight, and acoustic panelling from IKEA’s post-pandemic WFH range. All very 2023. But what is it that I’m actually speaking into, when I record my audio? A microphone stand I was given for my bar mitzvah. What am I sitting on? A mid-century leather swivel chair my father used to have in his office. Why? Because these furnishings provide links with the past and help to dilute the discombobulation of remote working. They are nostalgic. They are comforting. 
Older-looking designs, I’ve realised, make me feel good. Perhaps this is because I grew up in a 400-year-old house, replete with wooden beams and creaky floorboards…In any case, now I know this about myself, I’ve started buying more vintage items, or retro-styled ones, and am honestly feeling an uplift in my wellbeing. In the past few months, I’ve treated myself to a Groundhog Day style 1970s clock-radio, a 1960s cottage kitchen unit, and a wooden egg timer my kids use when brushing their teeth. 
"These furnishings provide links with the past…They are nostalgic. They are comforting"
Best of all, when my birthday came along, my wife got me a Bluetooth typewriter from America. Seemingly crafted out of wood and aluminium, it has clicky, clunky, mechanical keys like a 1930s Corona, but, ta-da!, is actually a state of the art keyboard with gamer-style backlit keys that shine as you touch them. It’s gorgeous, and makes me feel like Cary Grant in His Girl Friday. Modern function, classic form: that’s my sweet spot.  
This flirtation with bygone gadgets and gizmos has its limits. I dug my GameBoy out the drawer the other day, before reluctantly acknowledging that, truly, I would rather be scrolling Twitter. But now I’m more aware of my preference for classic design, I’m perhaps more likely to think about repairing something before giving it away.  
Apart from my old keyboard, of course: I sold that on eBay, even though it was only from 2022. After all, I had a new one. I suspect the tinkerers may have more to teach me… 
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