On a Saturday morning in quiet suburbia, the Fremantle Men’s Community Shed accommodates a former solicitor and convicted criminal, CEO and artist, toxicologist and substance abuser, oncologist and designer for a tobacco company. The men's former lives are now masked by a raft of wrinkles, arthritic hands and stooped postures, the past discords reconciling as they stand around the workbench, shoulder-to-shoulder, working.
I first heard of the men’s community shed through Alan Gowland, who arrived at Notre Dame University on a 1100cc motorbike at the invitation of our media professor. We were in the process of finding subjects for a short documentary. Alan sauntered into the lecture theatre wearing a leather jacket, top hat and an earring, then slouched on the swivel chair. The professor asked him to tell us about the shed, the facts and figures, but what ensued was a number of entertaining diversions. The raconteur in his raw and animated Geordie (Newcastle, England) accent told the stories of the men, specifically of Mike Pauly, a 75-year-old with osteoarthritis who was a quarter of the way through circumnavigating the country by foot to raise money for men’s mental health. At the end of the lecture, as the students exited the room, I asked Alan if Mike would be interested in being the subject for the documentary. Alan said he was fortuitously back in Perth for a short stay because of a few ‘minor setbacks’. I also asked if I could join the Shed, because I’d just bought a woodworking manual and the idea of a shed full of tools, interesting blokes and skilled craftsman gripped me.
“You’ll love it,” he said.” And you won’t need a bloody manual, mate. We’ll teach you.”
I stepped into the shed, turned a corner and, under a sign that said, ‘Caution, Men at Work,’ bumped into a burly man packing up tools.
“Watch it, young fella,” he said and lobbed a slab of jarrah onto his shoulder.
“Sorry,” I cowered as he turned to face the room. “Well, gentlemen,” he bawled. “I’m off like a Jewish man’s foreskin.” Two men in the corner cackled. (I later found that one of them was Jewish.)
I was an hour early for the interview with Mike Pauly and, call me ambitious, thought that was ample time to put 10 dollars into the donation box for three strips of timber to churn out my first woodworking project, a jarrah basket for the girlfriend’s bicycle. I gawked at the workshop and at the array of machinery with intimidatingly large and razor-sharp rotating blades, then hopelessly at the planks on the workbench.
“Not going to make itself, young fella,” a croaky voice said over my shoulder. “Stuey.” He said, jittering.
“Jayden,” I said.
“Come on. Turn on the table saw, young fella.” I inched in the direction of one of the many tables that had an electronic blade-like-saw on it.
“As useless as a chocolate teapot, young fella. Said the table saw not the bloody bandsaw,” he yelled in the deserted and relatively quiet room.
With Stuey’s gentle guidance, I eventually found the table saw and cut the timber to size.
“Now just glue and screw.” He plonked a tube of PVA glue on the bench, the sort I remember using in primary school.
“Don’t I need something a little stronger?”
“It’s the strongest, young fella. Sticks like shit to a blanket.”
Following Stuey’s instructions I dabbed glue onto the timber and screwed the basket together with some oversized bolts. The finished product was rustic and industrial in a substandard sort of way. But proud nevertheless, I called Stuey over from the kitchen to win his approval.
“Looks like a bloody cray pot. You didn’t even countersink the bolts. She’s going to cut herself on it. ” And he stormed off back to the sink and continued to wash the dishes.
A man next to the bandsaw chuckled. “He’s about as subtle as a flying brick, isn’t he?”
Alan says Stuey is the best peggy—the man who makes sure the dishes are clean and tea bags stocked—the shed could have. He’s often threatened to quit, saying as a last ultimatum that he’s not a maid, that he’s sick of cleaning up after everyone’s mess. But every time, Stuey returns, “because no shed can function on an empty tin of tea,” Alan says.
In 2003 while campervanning with his wife in the Eastern States, Bill Johnstone heard of a communal workshop run by a few men in the community of Nambucca, NSW. He arranged to quickly call in for two hours but ended up staying for two days, observing the holistic benefits of the shed. When he returned to Perth, he told Alan of the idea, saying it was a ‘no brainer’. The venture was mainly philanthropic, but also partly personal: the two mates had recently downsized from large properties with their own workshops to urban cottages in Fremantle where tools had to be stored under the bed. Six months after Bill proposed the idea, the Mayor contacted them about a disused asbestos cladded shack in White Gum Valley. Bill and Allan immediately moved in and consummated the new space by making the first workbench, a plank of wood over two 44 gallon drums. The community, many being families of deceased handymen, after hearing of Alan and Bill’s lack of supplies, called up to donate stacks of unused tools. The shack soon became filled with what Alan affectionately termed ‘a fair bit a junk’, but grotty tools aside, the founders had a shed.
The duo always knew that a shared wood and metal working space was only the first step for a much larger vision. Bill, with a background in Education, and Alan, who was a prison and TAFE Carpentry and Joinery Lecturer, wanted to use the shed as a community space to help men transitioning into retirement. Bill says that men don’t often prepare for the social isolation that comes post-work life, so retirees yearning for a mate are left behind closed doors, alone and unaware of the bevy of others isolated in the surrounding houses with the same longing. While a few senior social groups, or what Bill terms ‘talk fests’, did exist Fremantle at the time, 85% of the attendees were women and most of the remaining men consequently dropped out within the first few weeks. Bill and Alan thought that men would feel more at ease socialising around the workbench. “Men don’t talk face-to-face. They talk and learn better shoulder-to-shoulder, working,” Bill says.
They were unsure whether anyone would want to join, so they were grateful when the Herald ran an article advertising the shed’s opening day, and surprised when they arrived that first morning to see that 30 men had rocked up.
Alan and Bill observed that the shed was becoming a hub not only for avid wood and metal workers but for men who simply craved a cup of tea on the patio with their mates, so they began to reserve areas for just that. The founders, on one of the many errands, chanced upon a 1 m in diameter and 1.5 m in height old butchers cutting block out the front of someone’s house. The perfect kernel for drinking tea and telling tales, they thought. Bill and Alan stopped the car, then got on either end of the block and hauled and hauled to no avail. “We called it the ‘Hernia Maker’,” Bill says. When they finally accepted that they’d never be able to lift the block, a Maori bloke—a hulk, Bill says—called from a porch.
“He asked us what we were doing with the log and we said we wanted to use it for the Men’s Shed,” Bill says. “He thought about it for a bit, because he put it out for his cousin, but then said we could take it.”
The Maori man then, according to Bill, sauntered over and without a pause or warm-up or help, hoisted the giant eucalyptus slab onto the truck.
One afternoon, Alan says the men sat around the hernia maker and started to tell the stories behind each other’s scars. Scotty, a man that’s deemed a ‘bit of a wimp’, without coercion revealed a tiny two-stitched mark on his forearm, to which a bloke sitting opposite bawled, “a circumcision scar, that is, Scotty,” and stood. “You want to see a scar?” The man lifted up his shirt revealing a welted mark across his abdomen. “Fell on glass. 14 stitches,” the man said.
Another bloke next to him piped up. “Mate, I’ll show you a scar.” He showed his bare torso which was marked with jagged scar tissue. “Got bitten by a shark. 40 stitches.”
The stories and showings of battle wounds from former lifetimes followed around the table. Construction site accident. 28 stitches. Hernia operation. 18 stitches. Car accident. 36 stitches. The men continued to rejoinder, to outdo, and at the end of it all, Alan says, a small, stout man with a hunched posture and a soft, quiet voice, who had not spoken a word, slowly stood with his cane. “You want to see scars, boys,” he said. He lifted up his shirt and dropped his dacks to reveal a labyrinth of scars from a plethora of surgeries—heart, leg, hip, cancer, shoulder—that started from the toes and traversed up and around his feeble body to the top of the shoulder. “How’d you survive that, Freddy?” Alan remembers asking.
“Well,” Fred had said, “I’m a bit sore but I’m all right.”
“It was so fun for guys to show how tough they were and what you can get through,” Alan says. “The whole conversation was so organic. That’s the magic of it.”