Why pay someone else to bodge it?

Easter is the busiest time of the year for DIY. We have become a nation obsessed by it, the smallest job an excuse to drive off to superstore wonderlands
Click to follow
Indy Lifestyle Online
Those who work in the DIY industry should make the most of this rare day of rest. Easter Sunday is the only day of the year, apart from Christmas Day, when DIY stores are bound by law to stay closed. But the remainder of this holiday weekend is the busiest period in the DIY year. Last Easter, for instance, the market leader B&Q sold 132 miles of white kitchen tiles, and enough paste tables to cover 20 football pitches.

There are any number of reasons why Easter, and to a lesser extent the later spring bank holidays, should encourage such a rush for paper and paint, hammer and nails. There are all those bank holiday hours to be filled, for a start, now that the television is rubbish and driving anywhere has become such a reliable source of misery.

British Summer Time means there is now enough daylight to complete a job: or even to start lots and finish none. And when you look at the house from the garden, perhaps for the first time this year, you see all sorts of things that need doing badly. Why pay someone else to do them badly when you can do them badly yourself?

There may, of course, be something more mystical going on. Spring is a traditional time for renewal and repairing, not to mention wrestling with flat-packed furniture and recalcitrant power tools.

Not that the industry does badly during the rest of the year. True, there were a couple of years where negative equity made people doubt the value of rag-rolling the downstairs loo, but since then the DIY market has recovered. It is now worth upwards of pounds 12bn a year. As a nation we are very attached to the idea - and sometimes even the reality - of doing it ourselves.

In earlier generations it was perfectly possible to go through life without having split your thumb with a lump-hammer. Lovers of Flanders and Swann will recall that when, in 1960, their gas man came to call, he was followed on successive days by a carpenter, an electrician, a glazier and a painter before being called back again. All, with the crucial exception of the gas man, have been banished from the domestic scene. As the song ought to put it: "It all makes work for suburban man to do."

Lorian Coutts of B&Q insists that DIY has become a popular topic for dinner-party discussion - and they say the art of conversation is dying - as it has moved through the ranks of society. "It's something that everybody does," she says. "DIY and gardening are the two top hobbies."

Another prominent topic of conversation, though, is how awful it is to employ any sort of building worker. There is nothing quite like that sense of being simultaneously patronised and bamboozled, while being made to feel a stranger in your own home. While cost is the most basic motive for DIY, who can doubt that the desire to keep people out of your castle and retain a sense of control runs a close second?

The anxiety of dealing with tradesmen runs deep in British life. Consider Mr Pooter, hero of The Diary of A Nobody. On moving into "The Laurels", Brickfield Terrace, Holloway, he is positively besieged by men wanting to remove his troublesome boot-scraper and paint his stairs.

And yet, in a prescient note, he is not completely lacking in the home- making instinct. He buys a tin of red enamel and runs amok, stopping only after repainting the bath and finding the finish comes off in hot water. You can imagine a contemporary Pooter falling under the spell of television's Changing Rooms, hanging a large branch from the living-room ceiling, or papering the walls in gift-wrap.

Modern DIY covers the entire range, from the traditional "wet trades", plastering and bricklaying, to a bit of light brushwork. "Do it yourself" arrived from America, where it enjoyed a huge vogue in the early 1950s. But our modern use of the term dates from the mid-1960s.

In 1969, a man called David Quayle had the idea of opening a self-service supermarket for hardware and decoration products. With a partner, Richard Block, he opened his Block & Quayle store in Southampton. Suppliers abbreviated the name to B&Q on packaging, and it stuck.

At 3,000 sq ft, three times its competitors' size, this first store was considered large. It was, however, only one-fiftieth the size of the company's current warehouses. Quayle's real brainwave was to appreciate how troubling British men found this kind of shopping: not for nothing was a hardware shop a standard location in 1970s comedy.

"Before that you'd go to the hardware shop or a builders' merchant," says Coutts. "And you had to have quite a bit of knowledge beforehand." There are few things more troubling than having a man in a brown overall laugh at your choice of grout. The DIY supermarket, as B&Q styled itself, offered a different approach. Look at all the products hanging up in their plastic packets, take them home, discover they're wrong and go back for more.

The DIY companies are working on that. The new generation of B&Q warehouses, for instance, are the size of two football pitches. They stock 40,000 different products. To increase the odds of getting the right thing, the company promises it will make expert advice available. Good news, perhaps, for those of us for whom April is the clueless month. Tradesmen will tell you how to plaster a wall or dig foundations, while assistants can tell you where to find the right saw-blade or how best to tackle the arduous journey back to the front door.

The rise of DIY has not been entirely painless. Every year 250,000 people are injured - 70 of them fatally - in DIY accidents, most of them involving falls from ladders. April is also the most dangerous month, with 21,000 injuries reported last year.

And who knows how many marriages have come unstuck following a contretemps in aisle 21, adhesives and cements? Wives may provide the drive behind home improvement but they don't always enjoy the process, especially when it drags on or involves treadmarks on the Axminster. Relate, the marriage guidance organisation, confirms that DIY can be a problem: either an obsession with it or, conversely, a lack of competence causing friction.

But the worst damage caused by DIY may be to our townscapes. The sheds are getting bigger all the time, as more expensive projects using bulkier materials are encouraged. B&Q claims that its warehouses stock everything you need to build a house - although not all of us would want to live in it.

They also stock an ever-broader range of soft furnishings, following the rise of television decorating. When paint was either white or off- white and a workmate was someone who stood at the next lathe, decorating was a necessity. Now people decorate almost as often as they change their socks.

Retailers that have tried to specialise, either in heavy building materials or on decor and lifestyle, have rarely triumphed. Traditional retailers such as W H Smith and Boots, going for the lighter end of the market, found successful DIY trading beyond their reach. At the heavy end, Wickes made pounds 24.9m pre-tax in 1998, but it is trying to change its style. Traditionally as masculine as a jockstrap, it will be complementing the bags of sand with lighter, decorative fare calculated to attract female customers.

B&Q, meanwhile, is now part of the giant Kingfisher group and the biggest DIY retailer in Europe, thanks to a merger with the French group Castorama. Last year it made pounds 188m profit on sales of pounds 1,900m.

It has 290 stores, 35 of them giant warehouses. It plans 90 more by 2003. All will be out of town, flying in the face of the Government's commitment to sustainable development and urban renewal. "I will be surprised if they get permission for so many very large stores," says Brian Raggett, president of the Royal Town Planning Institute, describing its plans as "a little optimistic".

But the DIY operators have their arguments ready. The warehouses are so vast they will replace several shopping trips to smaller, inferior stores; think of the jobs that will be created; and you can't carry plywood on a bus. If they go ahead, they will no doubt be as aesthetically uncompromising as the present generation. How ironic that the desire of the British to beautify and individualise their houses has led directly to their towns being surrounded by structures that are vast, featureless, brightly coloured and ugly.