My dad came from the real age of do it yourself. Now, whilst DIY is still an adventure of great skill and endeavour, the whole dynamic has changed. Just imagine any bank holiday Monday at the local retail park. Hordes of fresh faced customers filled with determination and optimism, buzz between the aisles ticking off the widgets on their list. The trolleys groan with the weight of tools and bits in awkward shaped plastic packaging. There are gadgets for everything from screwing on your lovely new house name to replacing the downstairs toilet cistern.
My first memories of Dad the handyman involved going round individual shops. There was no packaging. Everything was wrapped in newspaper. We would be traipsing back with bundles of nails, sheets of hardboard and ten foot planks of wood held under the arm like a latter day Sir Lancelot, charging towards the joust.
“Be careful when you turn round, you’ll knock someone over.” We’d just moved into our first and only family home.
It was a modest little terrace in Seacombe. It was old and old-fashioned. The plugs had cylindrical pins and there was only one power point in each room. There were no points upstairs. Each of the two downstairs rooms had an open fire. Next to each fireplace was a gas point for a gas poker.
At first most of the major projects had relative assistance. There was dad and my two uncles, Pete and John. Uncle Pete was a genuine do it all yourself sort of person. He’d done a lot of similar jobs in his own house so he was useful to have around. Uncle John was more of a craftsman; the master of the model boat. And what was the first big job?
“Oh some of those old sash windows will have to go.” The window in the box room was furnished with a new home-made scenic window. It was all made from scratch. It took all day with the three of them up there creating our new showpiece window. In amongst the succession of parallel sash windows it was outstanding.
“We’re going to be living in a palace,” I thought. True enough, more new windows followed. All but the bay windows were replaced. They had sills you could sit on; very important to a young boy.
Can you imagine the thrill of coming downstairs on a Saturday morning to find all the living room floorboards up? I could actually see under the house. It wasn’t very interesting but it was good to know. I looked high and low (mostly low) for any treasure maps but there were none to find. Instead I made one of my own and hid it in the gas cupboard. But what were the three of them up to?
One of my uncles had the floor up by the electric cupboard. They were replacing the cable to the socket in the living room. I offered to crawl under the floorboards with the new one. There was no need however. They pulled the new one through with the old one.
To a nine year old boy it was ingenious. Then came the clever bit. Our living room ended up with two sockets. That’s two sockets with square plugs. Our house rocked.
Down the road there was a wood yard. It was packed with neat piles of timber. I can still smell the fresh wood odours. I wanted to climb to the top of these dormant towers and survey the kingdom of Egremont. Dad wasn’t keen. But I could always live out my brave knight fantasy on the way home.
One very important Saturday we were instructed to “use the toilet”. “Why?” came the response. “Because we’re fitting a new one.” And they did. By mid afternoon we had a shiny new low level toilet. There was no chain to swing. It had a handle. The outside toilet had also been knocked down somewhere along the line. I can’t actually remember that one.
That wasn’t all. On a solo quest my father lowered the ceiling in that toilet. Then he panelled the kitchen and fitted new units. But I think the most impressive achievement was the new fireplace in the front room. He built the whole thing from scratch. I watched the gas fitter put the new fire in. He asked me all about it. I could tell he was impressed.
I could go on; the shed built from scrap wood, the reinforcement of the joists, the new guttering, the new bannister and rails and the ever so posh quilted chimney breast with brick (plastic) surrounds.
I will finish with the roof. We had old slates and we had regular gales. We needed a roof ladder. So he made one. It had little wheels on the head of one end so it could roll up the roof and hook over the apex. How did he get the measurements right if he couldn’t yet get on the roof.
It’s just as well because the mother of all gales created the mother of all holes in the roof. At the weekend my dad was up there for hours; longer than expected.
“Oh I finished ages ago,” he explained. “I was just sitting on the roof watching the world go by. “Can I go up there?” It was a hopeful plea.
In 1975, we hade the first of two house renovations. We said goodbye to the floorboards. After twelve years of nursing and nurture they’d had their day. The concrete didn’t creak. The windows also had to go. The old slates were replaced by tiles and we had a brand new glass front door. My mate Andy, a joiner, said the windows were a disgrace. By the time of the second renovation they were falling off.
We also had the trendy louvre windows at the top. Dad replaced the living room one with a conventional one. It was a masterpiece of measurement and construction.
Now it’s all double glazed and centrally heated. It’s the oven of Kenilworth Road. I’m sure my father can remember many more of the jobs he carried out on our house but there would genuinely be too many to mention. I’ve just given you the extended highlights.
As a footnote, I’ll leave you with my favourite extract from Three Men in a Boat. I would read it to my year six class and end up chuckling all the way through:
He always reminds me of my poor Uncle Podger. You never saw such a commotion up and down a house, in all your life, as when my Uncle Podger undertook to do a job. A picture would have come home from the frame-maker’s, and be standing in the dining-room, waiting to be put up; and Aunt Podger would ask what was to be done with it, and Uncle Podger would say:
“Oh, you leave that to ME. Don’t you, any of you, worry yourselves about that. I’LL do all that.”
And then he would take off his coat, and begin. He would send the girl out for sixpen’orth of nails, and then one of the boys after her to tell her what size to get; and, from that, he would gradually work down, and start the whole house.
“Now you go and get me my hammer, Will,” he would shout; “and you bring me the rule, Tom; and I shall want the step-ladder, and I had better have a kitchen-chair, too; and, Jim! you run round to Mr. Goggles, and tell him, `Pa’s kind regards, and hopes his leg’s better; and will he lend him his spirit-level?’ And don’t you go, Maria, because I shall want somebody to hold me the light; and when the girl comes back, she must go out again for a bit of picture-cord; and Tom! – where’s Tom? – Tom, you come here; I shall want you to hand me up the picture.”
And then he would lift up the picture, and drop it, and it would come out of the frame, and he would try to save the glass, and cut himself; and then he would spring round the room, looking for his handkerchief. He could not find his handkerchief, because it was in the pocket of the coat he had taken off, and he did not know where he had put the coat, and all the house had to leave off looking for his tools, and start looking for his coat; while he would dance round and hinder them.
“Doesn’t anybody in the whole house know where my coat is? I never came across such a set in all my life – upon my word I didn’t. Six of you! – and you can’t find a coat that I put down not five minutes ago! Well, of all the – “
Then he’d get up, and find that he had been sitting on it, and would call out:
“Oh, you can give it up! I’ve found it myself now. Might just as well ask the cat to find anything as expect you people to find it.”
And, when half an hour had been spent in tying up his finger, and a new glass had been got, and the tools, and the ladder, and the chair, and the candle had been brought, he would have another go, the whole family, including the girl and the charwoman, standing round in a semi-circle, ready to help. Two people would have to hold the chair, and a third would help him up on it, and hold him there, and a fourth would hand him a nail, and a fifth would pass him up the hammer, and he would take hold of the nail, and drop it.
“There!” he would say, in an injured tone, “now the nail’s gone.”
And we would all have to go down on our knees and grovel for it, while he would stand on the chair, and grunt, and want to know if he was to be kept there all the evening.
The nail would be found at last, but by that time he would have lost the hammer.
“Where’s the hammer? What did I do with the hammer? Great heavens! Seven of you, gaping round there, and you don’t know what I did with the hammer!”
We would find the hammer for him, and then he would have lost sight of the mark he had made on the wall, where the nail was to go in, and each of us had to get up on the chair, beside him, and see if we could find it; and we would each discover it in a different place, and he would call us all fools, one after another, and tell us to get down. And he would take the rule, and re-measure, and find that he wanted half thirty-one and three-eighths inches from the corner, and would try to do it in his head, and go mad.
And we would all try to do it in our heads, and all arrive at different results, and sneer at one another. And in the general row, the original number would be forgotten, and Uncle Podger would have to measure it again.
He would use a bit of string this time, and at the critical moment, when the old fool was leaning over the chair at an angle of forty-five, and trying to reach a point three inches beyond what was possible for him to reach, the string would slip, and down he would slide on to the piano, a really fine musical effect being produced by the suddenness with which his head and body struck all the notes at the same time.
And Aunt Maria would say that she would not allow the children to stand round and hear such language.
At last, Uncle Podger would get the spot fixed again, and put the point of the nail on it with his left hand, and take the hammer in his right hand. And, with the first blow, he would smash his thumb, and drop the hammer, with a yell, on somebody’s toes.
Aunt Maria would mildly observe that, next time Uncle Podger was going to hammer a nail into the wall, she hoped he’d let her know in time, so that she could make arrangements to go and spend a week with her mother while it was being done.
“Oh! you women, you make such a fuss over everything,” Uncle Podger would reply, picking himself up. “Why, I LIKE doing a little job of this sort.”
And then he would have another try, and, at the second blow, the nail would go clean through the plaster, and half the hammer after it, and Uncle Podger be precipitated against the wall with force nearly sufficient to flatten his nose.
Then we had to find the rule and the string again, and a new hole was made; and, about midnight, the picture would be up – very crooked and insecure, the wall for yards round looking as if it had been smoothed down with a rake, and everybody dead beat and wretched – except Uncle Podger.
“There you are,” he would say, stepping heavily off the chair on to the charwoman’s corns, and surveying the mess he had made with evident pride. “Why, some people would have had a man in to do a little thing like that!”
Thank-you for reading.