The 20th-century boom in home improvement that helped launch a thousand stores passed me by, and try as I might I cannot grieve for the passing of this fad, writes Stephen McGinty
AS THE son of a man who built his own house, I know a thing or two about DIY. I know, for instance, that I don’t like it. I know that even the thought of an extended period with a hammer in my hand will bring out a form of military-strength ennui. I wasn’t always like this. As a small child I remember enlisting friends from the back lane to help build a bogey or a go-kart with scrap wood sourced from the local dump and a copy of The Beano with an enlarged picture of Dennis The Menace’s kart as our structural blueprint. My father was happy enough to lend us hammers and nails and watch us toil for a few summer afternoons on a less than roadworthy structure, before finally stepping in to build us a chipboard roadster with pram wheels at the rear for extra speed.
As I grew older, I would sometimes be enlisted as an extra pair of hands and learned that standing with them in your pockets was a considered a cardinal sin in the shipyard where he once worked before embarking on a career at the chalkface as a maths teacher. Later, when I bought my first flat, he was drafted in to fix up the place and I can still remember holding a pair of ladders while he fixed the cornicing and explained why he liked working with his hands: “Son, people are weird as nine bob notes, but this,” he said pointing to whatever structural problem he was rectifying, “this you can fix”.
I’ve now spent a career dealing with people and their pre-decimal weirdness while repeatedly failing to take up the opportunity to learn anything at my father’s hand. When he achieved his ambition and bought land in Donegal on which to build a house and eventually retire I had a bucolic notion of helping him build it over a few summers. I imagined my brother Paul and I toiling away while my mother periodically brought out the refreshments. My point of reference was the barn building scene in Witness, minus the moustache-less beards and black hats. Sadly, Donegal’s weather is rarely a match for rural Pennsylvania and my appetite for hard toil could not be described as Amish.
One hour into the first day and I was already planning my escape. Now, whenever I visit, I can make the pitiful claim to having painted a part of the wooden frame of the garage and remember a painful afternoon under the house threading and stapling the twine that would eventually hold the insulation prior to the wooden floorboards being laid. Dad can take considerable pride every time he walks into the house, while I can’t help but creep in under a cloud of shame.
Yet it seems I am not alone, though others have more of an excuse for being officially “haundless”. This week it was announced that a quarter of the nation’s Homebase stores were set to close with the company’s chief executive laying part of the blame on me and my fellow “P.S.E.T.D.I”-ers- “pay someone else to do it”. John Walden said: “We’re seeing a case of consumers who are less skilled in DIY. People who are more time pressed are more likely to look for a third party to help.” The paint is now worn and fading on the DIY boom of the Nineties when every second TV programme – the era of Carol Smillie and Changing Rooms – seemed to involve people redecorating and which featured endless chaps in tan tool-belts tut-tutting over dodgy plastering jobs. The home improvement boom peaked in 2007, when Britain spent £9 billion on kit, a figure which has now dropped to £7.3bn last year.
While the term do-it-yourself was first coined in 1912 and became a recreational movement – rather than a financial necessity – in the 1950s, the idea of self-assembly kits appears to stretch back far further than one might have thought. There is an ancient building in Potenza in southern Italy for which detailed assembly instructions were found and whose stone sections were embossed with symbols designed to illustrate what bit fitted to what other bit. It appeared to have been shipped over from Greece in the 6th century BC, so when I once spent five hours attempting to put up an IKEA bookcase I was unaware that I was carrying on the noble tradition of those puzzled Italian masons.
Yet if I was to put my haundless self on a psychiatrist’s couch, one not poorly constructed from an IKEA kit by my recalcitrant id, I’d discover that the cause of my reticence is fear. Like many DIY incompetents, I approach each job with the utter assurance that the application of my ten fingers will invariably make a bad situation a number of times worse. My wife is far more capable with a screwdriver than I and, more importantly, works on the assumption that she may well be able to fix the situation instead of triggering a fire or collapsing a shelf.
What is curious about my inability to embrace DIY is that, despite an unwillingness to embrace hammers or saws, there is barely a weekend that goes by without at least one visit to my local Homebase, which I’m hopeful will survive the forthcoming cull in which 80 stores out of a total of 323 will be soon be sawn off and chucked away. Driving past the second-hand car dealership and the tempting white-van burger joint and on into the car park of Homebase is now second nature. The principal purchase appears to be light bulbs – you know, the special last-for-a few-thousand-hours EC ones that you invariably replace every Tuesday; and glue as, for some reason, we are forever purchasing glue for which purpose I know not what. I’m rather fond of the staff at my local Homebase but if ensuring their job security involves taking a course in home electrics and carpentry then, well, sorry, it has been nice being served by you.
My resistance to DIY is now so profound that in order to avoid putting up a picture hook, which will still take me 15 minutes to half an hour, I’m this weekend seriously considering making a start on the sodden leaves that have built up on the drive. What is it about DIY that I find so repellent as to leave a nice warm house and spend hours in manual labour dragging leafy mulch into neat piles and then bagging them as a means of avoidance? And most crucially what can and should be done about it?
Perhaps there should be a more targeted focus in our schools with pupils learning a few more lessons in what they will, invariably, encounter in life. If we are teaching them how to code, should we not also be teaching them how to re-wire a plug and basic DIY skills? Tinkering with cars was common practice for my father’s generation who spent weekend’s happily ensconced in boiler-suits, but today’s vehicles are so complex and kitted out with computers as to be virtually untouchable for the budding amateur, as least those who wish to hold on to any existing warranty.
As for me, well, I may have to accept that when it comes to DIY I’m irredeemable failure and that my loss – as well as Homebase’s – will remain the professional handyman’s gain.