by Dr. David Weeks.
One of my favourite subjects is JOHN WARD, a former librarian and engineer with a gift for whimsy. Wearing a huge multi-colored bow tie and Elton John-style white-framed glasses, with his white hair shooting upwards as if electrified, he describes himself as a freelance “Junkist Inventor of the Unusual”. His inventing began with his attempt to paddle across the English Channel for charity on a “craft” made out of four bicycles and four oil drums lashed together. However, the seas on the day proved to be “too choppy by half”, and reluctantly he had to turn back.
When John was starting out, he told me, “I have known so many people who are absolutely burnt out from trying to push an idea, so I said to myself, ‘Forget about it. I could be practical, but no, I’ll go to the funny side.’ ” As his title implies, he creates various fantastical and delightfully humorous contraptions from objects other people have thrown away. One of his first constructions was a “Jungle Bus”, which was soon put on display near his previous home in Northamptonshire. On the day the Prince and Princess of Wales were married, John celebrated the event by welding together three bath tubs to make a boat for his four children.
For months afterwards, John beavered away with piles of household junk and a mini car gearbox and engine. Well-meaning friends and total strangers turned up on his doorstep with donations of broken household appliances. Local businesses contributed hundreds of pounds of faulty goods. Finally John unveiled the fruits of his hard work — a fully functioning, fully equipped simulated Moon Buggy, described as “Chitty Chitty Bang Bang on acid”. In appearance, it was like something from a Star Wars movie set, with flashing lights, sirens and a mind-boggling array of Heath Robinson-style gadgets and instruments. Taken apart, it consisted of an old bed, a number of hairdryers, several vacuum cleaners, a wicker linen basket, and bits and pieces from, among other things, a milk float, a tumble dryer and an old pram. “It is a shining example of a load of old rubbish,” John said, with tongue firmly in cheek.
“An eccentric is someone whose modus operandi is not linear. I prefer the ‘funny’ side as opposed to the ‘hate’ or ‘frighten’ side of life
One of his madcap machines looked like a cross between a torpedo mounted on wheels and an autogiro-helicopter. He spent three years constructing it from an old motorcycle and sidecar, adding the front end of a scooter, two wheels off a mini, a tailplane, rotor, and wings made from a gate-leg table. He ended up with a five-wheeled machine twelve feet long, eleven feet high and nine feet high, so big that it was too big to go through his garden gate. Sitting in it and smiling broadly and wearing a mask and a clown costume as I surveyed its wings, fins, stabilizers, multiple propellers and its small engine mounted under the cockpit built into the back of the fuselage, John said, as his suburban former neighbors looked on bemusedly, “There’s so much waste in the world, so I like to put rubbish to good use,” he said, adding disarmingly, “I call this model the Wogan after (the popular radio presenter and prolific chat show host) Terry Wogan, because, like him, it’s always there. I think it will prove popular.” He then added, “A lot of people say I’m into my second childhood, but I don’t think I ever got out of my first. Getting carried away is the bother of invention.”
“There’s so much waste in the world, so I like to put rubbish to good use.”
John has also “worked” as a professional wedding guest, built the world’s only three-wheeled Robin Reliant fire engine, and, using a catapult of his own devising, masterminded and attempted to set a world record in the national cabbage-hurling contest he founded. About the latter event, he remarked, “It actually amazed us, we didn’t realize it would go global . . . by the interest it has generated around the world.” His other inventions include a mobile church baptismal font (described as a “go-anywhere christening device, complete with a thermostatically-controlled water vessel, self-leveling castors, and inbuilt towel dispenser”); an electric spoon; a giant bird feeder; a musical frying pan (“one verse of ‘Heartbreak Hotel’ or ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’ and your egg is ready”); a hand-held barbecue; an automated hair washing module that operates on the same principle as a car-wash; and the electric bra-warmer. In inventing the latter, John was simply responding to the cold climate of rural central England. One can only imagine the scene at Belfast Airport when John’s baggage, containing many of his more portable inventions, was examined as he was traversing the thorough security checks shortly after the Irish Troubles had come to an end. I witnessed this myself, and can say that the customs officers and stern-faced policemen were convulsed with laughter the deeper they probed.
When asked to explain his behaviour, John told me, “An eccentric is someone whose modus operandi is not linear. I prefer the ‘funny’ side as opposed to the ‘hate’ or ‘frighten’ side of life as that is easy to do as you need no effort to be nasty but to get a laugh from somebody takes a certain know-how (if only I could find out what it is!) and while I perhaps don’t ‘click’ at times with the odd one or two folks, perhaps three even!, I get an overall result because I like the challenge, as without challenge why would we bother? . . . I sometimes have as many as four or five ideas buzzing away at any given time — at this time, there are three ‘in motion’ but each one is geared for the GF — the Giggle Factor. Life is just one big giggle, and it isn’t equipped with an instant-replay button. I’m just trying to cram as much fun into it as I can. People have always said that I have a great zest for life.
Life is just one big giggle, and it isn’t equipped with an instant-replay button. I’m just trying to cram as much fun into it as I can. People have always said that I have a great zest for life.
“I get a response even going shopping, as I can change the process into an adventure of sorts as I can ‘paint’ if you like the situation and then carry on with the input of the sales assistant as being my ‘straight man’, but he is unaware of that! And within minutes the whole place is giggling away — no smut, no foul language but just good honest banter.
“On the other side of the coin, like it or not, I now find myself in the position of being my own worst enemy as was proven a couple of years ago when I was invited on a local radio program and the response was, they tell me, that I overshadowed the supposed radio presenter who was basically inadequate as he had never come up against anybody like me. It was all a bit of a rum do. I am supposed to be a ‘natural’, I am told, as opposed to another churned out sausage machine standard issue BBC presenter with a charisma bypass, and I was looked upon as a threat of sorts as this guy could not handle doing anything ‘ad lib’, and was unable to think on his feet in real time terms.”