Words: Anna Hoghton / Pictures: Remco Merbis
Jonathan Boaz is a farmer, tinkerer, poet (though he’d tell you he wasn’t), philosopher, and lover of people and nature alike. He's sold machinery all over the world but is now settled in Huddington, UK, where he is known for his conservation work. Whether it's putting hedgerow back in, or taking the paint off an over-renovated tractor; Jonathan’s work revolves around undoing the damage done when people don’t appreciate things for what they are. He is full of gratitude for life and believes in having a bit of fun. We meet him in his cabin above his tractor museum. Jonathan chucks another log on the fire, offers us one of his wife's home-made cakes and settles into his favourite armchair to chat with us about the importance of creativity, conversation and maintaining connections to nature, the past, and one another.
When did you start making things?
We’ve always been hands-on people in my family. My father was a great creator. He built the bungalow we lived in.
Meccano sets were the thing when I was a kid. I used to like to modify mine and make things a bit different. One of my great strengths is the fact I can conceive an idea and take it through to fruition. I’m not the best at anything, but I am a perfectionist and I have a great quest for knowledge. I’ve got to understand something and get to the bottom of it. It’s how my mind works. I don’t sleep a lot. I’m always thinking!
If I couldn’t create I’d be bored to tears. Whether that's creating habitat for wildlife or modifying a machine for the museum. There's something about it that's hard to put your finger on. Sometimes I do stop and think - why do I do this? Why don’t I just sit there with a pint? But I believe creation is the most important thing we can ever do in life. I love what we’re doing now, and how creativity leads to conversations and connections.
What places have inspired you?
I used to travel a lot, buying and selling machinery. I’d hire a car and then just fire off across the States on my own. I’d go round about nine states in ten days! When you travel alone you really have a chance to appreciate things. If you want to stop and take more interest in something you stop. To me that was a beautiful thing to do.
Traveling is great because it broadens your outlook. I sold out in Thailand and Sri-Lanka a lot and got to know the locals and see stuff tourists never went anywhere near. I was amazed by the faith of some of those people and their attitude to life. They had nothing, yet they were so grateful for their simple quality of life. It was very humbling. We’ve got it wrong, haven’t we - with our materialistic world; always wanting to have the best car, the best house... These people have an appreciation that we’ve lost somewhere.
Another place that inspires me is at home on Mill Farm. I feel comfortable here, relaxed and at one with myself. The rat race isn’t for me anymore.
If there’s a lonely place in this world to me it’s ruddy London. People don’t relate to one another the same there. In the country everybody is part of close knit communities. Of course, I’ve got a vested interest to say that because of who I am and where I’ve come from but I say if you want to be lonely - go to a city.
How did you start the tractor museum?
I’ve always had a serious interest in machinery, the role it plays on the farm and how that’s evolved. I grew up on my grandfather’s farm. It had a great influence on me and I remember seeing some of the machines in here being used. The museum tells a story of my life, and my father’s and my grandfather’s. How technology has evolved in my lifetime is just unbelievable. One questions where we’re going to end up really.
I've got all sorts: hand-rakes and forks, spades and shovels, those old tractors that you used to have to start with a handle, on petrol and paraffin. To me it’s a great tribute to our ancestors to see what they used to manage with and I like to share that with the people who come here. I’m full of admiration for the energy those machines took to use. They needed more people on the farm then and there was a lovely community of workers back then. And at the end of the day they would all enjoy the cheese and cider together.
We've moved forwards but we've lost those connections. I’m concerned that the modern generation of farmer is losing his ability to connect with the soil too. Now they have an air-conditioned tractor that steers itself. It’s so remote from the job we’re doing that it almost becomes an office environment… with a very good view! The soil just becomes something which supports the weight of the tractor as opposed to something that’s living, which we need to nurture so it will look after us.
Why do you do up tractors?
It’s more about how we do them up. Anyone can put paint on a tractor but you try take it back off again - that’s where the skill comes in. I’ve got a tractor down there that somebody had partially painted and when I started to clean it off I found girls names scratched all over the fuel tank. I was a bit annoyed until I saw that under these girl’s names there were the initials: W.L.A for the Women’s Land Army. I thought: hang on a minute, this is history!
So I removed the rest of the paint and restored it by un-restoring it, if you get what I mean. Now that machine is totally original to how it was when it as bought new and the girl’s scratched their names on it. To me, that is spectacular. That tractor won the award for best exhibit in the tractor world show last year. I wrote a poem that I displayed beside it. One of my lunch time concoctions, just to wind up the concourse tractor exhibitors who frown on nostalgic patina.
I'm here today so you can see
what 50 years has done to me,
no twin pack paint to display,
God forbid that rueful day,
when shot blast grit and loads of paint
try to make me something I just aint,
I hope you like me as I am,
if not I couldn't really give a damn.
I knew it would offend so I put ‘Enjoy the Show’ in big letters underneath!
Do you think it’s good not to be precious about these machines?
Absolutely. Otherwise these tractors become ornaments really. Yes, these machines are a thing of beauty, but I see no beauty in doing something up far better than it was new. It loses its identity then and might as well be made out of plaster of Paris because you can’t enjoy it. You’re frightened to go anywhere near some of these concourse things.
Last year, we took all our tractors down to the wildflower meadow and made hay with them using the old equipment. The smell of the fuel and all these lovely wild flowers, and the insects about - well, it was pure nostalgia. We had a big party here in the cabin afterwards. I don’t think you could ever derive that level of pleasure out of something that was in pristine condition.
Do you think modern technology has restricted people’s need to be creative?
Yes, the technology takes over. You don’t need toolmakers anymore and this has a terrible impact on employment for people. With the population increasing, there are more and more people that need something to do. And what are they going to make? It worries me that there are so many people just aimlessly walking around. The devil makes work for idle hands. Are we going to have more wars, more crime - because people have lost a need to be creative?
If anything is alien to me it’s these blinking smart phones. The technology is trying to think for you; It’s trying to read your mind and predict what you what to say and do. You press one button and all this garbage comes out that you don’t want. I was brought up before the age of calculators so I know my tables quite well and I do believe all this modern technology is taking away people’s ability to use their imagination and think really. They become reliant on it.
People walk around looking at their screens like robots. Is that really what we want to become? Let’s have a social get-together and talk to one another! We were born with a mouth and ears for a purpose. Yes, smart phones may be good for remote communications but there’s no facial expressions there - and that's what friendships are made from. You can’t become friendly with an inanimate object at the end of the blessed day.
What sort of place would you like to make the world?
I want to make the world a better place for all of us to enjoy really. I get no pleasure in making life difficult for people. There’s enough here for all of us if we share in properly.
I would love to see a much greater degree of tolerance between people of different cultures. That would reduce the need for all this blasted trouble and hostility in the world.
We also need to maintain wildlife and good habitat. We can’t keep concreting over everything. England is getting far too much urbanisation and we’re going to have no nature left soon. People need to stop and appreciate what we have and preserve it.
‘The clock of life’ is a poem by Robert. H. Smith that hangs on Jonathan’s wall. He recites it to us AND EXPLAINS that this is the philosophy he TRIES TO LIVE by.
“The clock of life is wound but once,
And no man has the power
To tell just when the hands will stop
At late or early hour.
To lose one's wealth is sad indeed,
To lose one's health is more,
To lose one's soul is such a loss
That no man can restore.
The present only is our own,
So live, love, toil with a will,
Place no faith in "Tomorrow,"
For the Clock may then be still.”
Originally Jonathan only planned to store a few tractors in the old farm building but his imagination ran away with him. The tractor museum was born. With so many friends and visitors coming to see his eclectic collection, Jonathan decided he needed a place to sit down and have the conversations he values so dearly. So above the museum, he built the cabin. It is a revelation stepping in from the English countryside to this Alpine ski cabin. The cosy room has a wood-burner, a table, chairs, kettle and cupboards full of historical artefacts Jonathan has collected over the years. There is something so charming about the place that is hard to describe, but, as Jonathan puts it, the place has a ‘feel-good factor’. His rocking chair faces the window, through which you can see his wildflower meadows, which are full of insects and birds. Behind him his drinks cabinet stocked with his favourite spirits. Jonathan says there is nothing better than sitting back in that chair and think about all the good things in life.
Why did you build the cabin?
As the tractor museum became bigger I thought it would be rather nice to have somewhere a few friends could come have a chat, a beer, a few meetings perhaps. Some food, drink, a bit of singing. Now we often have shindigs here. It just lends itself for a social gathering. It’s generated an atmosphere that’s hard to put your finger on. People just come in and feel comfortable. Some will play the blimmin’ instrument, some look in the cupboards and pick up the objects. As well as the machinery, I’ve become interested in all these old artefacts. You can pick up any one of the things in this cabin and it has a history. I get so many different people who come here with different interests so I try to have something for everyone.
What inspired the Alpine feel?
The decor was inspired by my ski trips. The pelt in the corner was given to me by a ski instructor in Austria who was in this cabin about a week ago. He loves this cabin. It’s like a home away from home for him. It gave him a real buzz to see that pelt here. The fox head in the corner was a gift to my grandmother by a suitor. I’m no fan of fox hunting - but I don’t judge people by their interests.
It’s so warm and cosy in here, particularly in the winter. My favourite place is that chair by the window, next to my drinks cabinet. I can sit there, with a drink and think of all the positive things, and come up with ideas. I try to think positively. We’ve all got a lot of problems to deal with. But it’s best to put those behind you and think about what you can make, create and build with people.
The tomfoolery tractor.
I do enjoy engaging in a bit of tomfoolery with some of my machines. In that shed there’s a Fordson Dexta Tractor. They never made a tractor like that with narrow wheels on so I thought: we’ll have a bit of fun here. When I was in America I got the front-end off an American narrow Fordson Dexta, brought it back here and grafted it on. You would never know! It looks like it came out of the factory like that.
I entered it in the local show. They thought it was such an interesting, unique exhibit they decided to put in the foyer! A chap called Peter Love, who is the leading authority on these sorts of things and editor of the Tractor and Machinery magazine, was amazed. They did this big article, asking me all these questions about it. I got cold feet in the end and confessed. But people seem to like it. An Irish man offered me an awful lot of money for that tractor but it’s not for sale.
Brownie Reflex camera
Whilst most of my objects are collected from all over the place, there are a few that hold my personal history. The Brownie Reflex camera was a christening present for me. There's an old photo from when I was a toddler on the beach with my parents, and the Brownie Reflex box actually sat on the rug beside them. They obviously took that photo with the camera and the box had been left there. I’ve still got the camera and it’s amazing to think of how long it’s lasted and will last.
The range finder
That range finder is off an artillery gun from the first world war. The quality is unbelievable. Most people never see anything like that.
There’s a multitude of stuff in here, all odds and sods. There’s an impossible bottle that was made by a German prisoner of war stationed on my father’s farm. It’s beautiful in its simplicity. It feeds the mind to think about the man that made that; how he would have fiddled around with a few oddments seventy years ago. He wouldn’t have had much; but he made something that people are able to appreciate to this day. To me, that’s fantastic.
Remco Merbis, founder (1999) and creative director of visual storytelling agency Pixillion.