A Spanner in the Works
Words Jude Rogers
Photographs Katya de Grunwald
Pink Floyd composer, author and self-professed ‘neo-renaissance man’ – Ron Geesin is many things. He may even be possessed by alien beings (as friend Peter Gabriel claims). But the man himself would rather show us around his unequalled collection of adjustable tools…
At Stonegate station in spring-flushed East Sussex; a man with a white beard stands smiling on the platform. He speaks in a thickly Scottish accent, despite having lived half a century in Ladbroke Grove and the South Downs. His gestures are bold – he’s holding a heavy camera aloft. ‘Right. Your picture first, ladies!’ Two clicks, and Ron Geesin is done. ‘That’s enough nonsense from me. Now it’s over to you two to work me out.’
There are many whirlygig artists with wild and varied interests, and then there is this self-styled, surrealism-loving ‘neo-renaissance man’ – humorous tautology intended. To fans of prog rock and psychedelic music, Ron Geesin is a minor but pivotal character in the story of Pink Floyd, as co-composer of their hugely ambitious 1970 album, Atom Heart Mother. To obscure record collectors, Geesin is a John Peel-endorsed producer of experimental electronica, soundtracks and library music. In a 2014 documentary, Ron Geesin: An Improvised Life, The Who’s Pete Townshend called him ‘very badly behaved’ (‘I thought coming from him, that was fantastic,’ Geesin gushes, ‘fantastic!’) while Peter Gabriel, still a friend, was slightly more measured. ‘I never had much time for these stories about humans being possessed by alien beings, but in Ron’s case I might make an exception’.
Also a keen photographer, record-repairer, metalworker and woodworker, toiling from a complex of corrugated sheds in his large garden, he has also just published a book, his second in three years. The last one was called The Flaming Cow, which settles the score, to his mind, on his contributions to the Pink Floyd album he worked on (its name refers to Atom Heart Mother’s artwork, a Friesian heifer, with ‘flaming’ there to substitute a stronger word starting with ‘F’). His new book makes less sense until you enter the first shed, as we do after a rollingly rural 15-minute journey from the station. Here sits a huge, meticulously organised museum of steel and brass tools. Ron Geesin’s new book – surreally and perfectly – is entitled The Adjustable Spanner: History, Origins and Development to 1970.
‘Why did I write it? Because I was trying to find a book about them, and there wasn’t one – so I had to write it!’ Geesin certainly has a collection of spanners to work from: around 3,000 from the UK and over 1,000 from continental Europe; a love fostered in his teenage years after he ‘liberated’ one from his father’s toolbox, and became fascinated with the beauty of these strange, simple tools. He hasn’t counted them recently. ‘I’m never going to stop to count them now! And that shouldn’t matter: once you get a certain way down the road, you can’t stop, or you shouldn’t stop. To do so you would have to sue yourself for bad representation!’
‘There is a pattern in collecting things and keeping them beautiful, isn’t there?’
What matters to Geesin is this: what the adjustable spanner represents in British culture – as a tool of our history, as a humble object of use, a crafted item for the ordinary worker – something that tells us much about the small details of our world. It also appeals to him as a man who is interested in the form and structure of things; of music and other forms. Or as he puts it: ‘There is a pattern in collecting things and keeping them beautiful, isn’t there?’
Ronald Frederick Geesin was born in rural Ayrshire in 1943. He was making things from the get-go. ‘I’d bolt my meals, because I wanted to get back out in my dad’s little bench at the back of his garage, to make something. Maybe I didn’t make it very well, but it was the feeling of doing that got to me, there’s no doubt about that.’ Geesin Senior had built the bungalow his family lived in, and made the buggy baby Ron was pushed around in, which now sits on a bench on the side of his son’s biggest shed. But as Geesin Junior grew up, his interests wandered away from his family. ‘By the time I was 15, 16, I was rebelling, doing surreal paintings, and generally annoying my dad. He was priming me towards steelmaking, but something was telling me that that was all wrong. And I was, right, wasn’t I? The steel industry’s just collapsed!’
Instead, music became Geesin’s ‘sort-of career’ in the mid-1960s, when he lived in the swing of London’s Portobello Road with his then new wife Frankie (also known as Frances Geesin, a pioneering textile and technology artist in her own right: the couple celebrate their golden wedding anniversary this summer). He turned himself into a one-man band on records like 1967’s A Raise Of Eyebrows, which married tape manipulation and sound effects with his wild playing of banjo, piano and harmonica. He created one of the first one-man record labels – Ron Geesin Records – to release his experiments, and made a soundtrack in his home basement studio with a pal who he occasionally played golf with; this happened to be Pink Floyd’s Roger Waters, and the record accompanied a film called The Body, which used mainly sounds from the body. Whatever he did, however odd, innovation was key.
Then in 1970, after the turmoil that was the making of Atom Heart Mother with Pink Floyd – he was brought in to write orchestral arrangements, and found the brass players so annoying he thought, “I’ll f-ing get on and do it myself” – he decamped to the house where he and Frankie still live. By this point, Geesin was also a father of two sons, Joe and Dan; another, Fraser, would follow. ‘There was a need to be out in the country, and be out on my own… obviously, not completely on my own, because I had a family, but from a creative point of view, that’s where I had to be. And suddenly I had this…’ Geesin stretches his arms out. ‘All the excitement and wonder of doing things.’
A decade later, after he had also spent time doing metal and woodwork in his sheds, Geesin’s adjustable spanner collection began – by accident, really. ‘The car boot phenomenon kicked off, and I was at most of them. I was looking for old jazz 78s, and instead I found these.’ In his book, Geesin describes his spanners in his typically florid, funny, touching way: ‘[these] enticingly odd mechanisms poking their heads out of rusty buckets, their mouths imploring for air and light, and I was forever trapped in their jaws, gripped, wrenched in their direction, my life forever adjusted by their seemingly endless diversity of form.’
He particularly admired the craftsmanship in these simple tools, and how they spoke to a certain period in Britain’s industrial history – they start popping up in numbers in the mid-19th century, he explains. ‘Making them was a small operation, and that appealed to me: either a fella in a small workshop who literally knocked out a few hundred, to big industrialists like Lucas and Abingdon King Dick, who would have one bench in one corner of an enormous factory to make them.’ Spanners were adjustable because there was little conformity of nuts in those days, but they still provided a neat and adaptable tool kit.
This logic puts forward the adjustable spanner as an idealistic object, one that could work for anyone – although this is not so. ‘You actually need three to do most jobs,’ Geesin shrugs, wryly. ‘And once you’ve got three of anything – bang! You’re a collector!’
Geesin’s collection reached ‘critical mass’, as he puts it, in the late 1990s, when he found out about a collector who had just died in the Midlands (‘I’m afraid to say I was on to the widow immediately’). Geesin still remembers his excitement on seeing unusual examples together, many of which he hasn’t seen since. ‘But that area, the Midlands, was the centre of industry, so that made sense. Here were all these spanners laid out on the back garden path, by the collector’s son. Me tiptoeing through them, going, “Christ, I’ve never seen that!”’ (His car barely made the journey back down the M1: the heavier Northern spanners nearly did in his car suspension.)
The more he collected, though, the more stories Geesin discovered. ‘Vivid characters’, as he puts it, are the heart of his book, from the inventor of the lawnmower, Edwin ‘Beard’ Budding, to the man who married his adopted daughter, Joseph Asbury, to William Kilby, the coach wrench maker accused of murdering his son (his story warrants a fascinating appendix, full of newspaper reports). One of Geesin’s motivations for writing the book is to fi nd out more about the working conditions in which these tools were produced. His great hope is to find a photograph of where these people worked, or some technical drawings under a bed, put away in an old suitcase. ‘I’m sure there’s all that material out there that I have no access to until someone fi nds the book, and then they click. “Oh, yeah, my great-grandfather…” For me, it’s about finding out about the lives of those people, and what they went through to do their passion, quite often disappearing without trace.’
The book has also taught him other things about the way the world works. He loved finding out how Americans have claimed the term ‘monkey wrench’ as their own: it was actually a term given to a style of English adjustable around 1840. ‘That style – and word – emigrated to America, with the human carriers, and then myths came out of America about how the name started.’ These include the inventor being a New Yorker called Charles Moncky, and the name having racist undertones. The real reason? The style was the profile of a monkey’s head. ‘But because of the power of American influence in the world through the 20th century, something else happens.’ Geesin’s eyes glimmer. ‘That’s another interesting little study about how something starts and then it changes…’
Interesting studies about how things start and then change are Geesin all over. The book done, he’s now going back to his music – his most recent work is a sound installation for Bexhill-on-Sea’s De La Warr Pavilion called Blackbird Quadralogue, featuring four birds communicating, with Geesin exploring the avant-garde possibilities of birdsong. He’s also in the middle of trying to organise his next work, Journey of a Rhythm, although he left the piles of cables and ideas behind yesterday, ‘and made some very nice soup.’
He’s not planning to go into Europe or America with his spanner studies soon, either. ‘Good God, I’m not that mad,’ he beams. ‘Well, not yet!’ Instead, he’s keeping his mind ticking brightly, while having the daftness, intelligence and humility to keep on enjoying himself. ‘The thing about making art in some ways, or doing a project that you care about, is that it’s like this: the cat shits, and it turns round, and it says, “Oh, so that’s how I am. You make something, you extrude it, give it a sniff, and there you are”.’ He laughs again, loud and long. ‘Do with that what you will! I’ll just keep on doing…’
rongeesin.com; The Adjustable Spanner: History, Origins and Development to 1970 by Ron Geesin is published by Crowood Press