We know it's only DIY, but we like it
Do-it-yourself home improvement - from sad weekend pastime for the tasteless, to the new rock'n'roll. Richard Phillips on one of Thatcher's more unlikely legacies
Sunday 11 May 1997
If his tongue was slightly in his cheek when he said this, his words still have more than a grain of truth. DIY seems firmly on track to follow in the footsteps of other previous claimants to the title, such as foodism, alternative comedy and New Labour's pitch for street cred with Tony Blair's credentials as guitarist in a college rock band.
But why DIY? And why now?
For one, television is waking up to its appeal in a big way. There are a host of programmes and series - planned or already on air - devoted one way or another to the home and ways to make it a better place.
Part of this reflects the legacy of the Thatcher years and the retreat from community into our individual homes. Quality time became time spent at home, and what better way to spend it than on home improvements? The struggle with Polyfilla, or errant curtain rails, chimed perfectly with the Thatcherite emphasis on self-help and self- reliance. DIY is a leisure and a lifestyle activity, as much as a way to save on bills.
But the economic imperatives have also become more pronounced. Sandy Mitchell, deputy editor of Country Life and presenter of Hot Property, the new Channel 5 programme dedicated to home improvements, notes: "If you buy a home in need of modernisation, you ask a builder in, and he might quote you pounds 15,000. If you can do the work cheaper, and to the same standard, it can take the sting out of a big mortgage."
This newspaper's resident property expert, Jeff Howell, who also appears on Hot Property, adds that the problem of finding a good builder in the first place has also encouraged home-owners to take matters into their own hands.
The archetypal television DIY figure of the Sixties, Barry Bucknall, presented a programme which would have explained how to make a bathroom cabinet. Things have moved on since then, explains Howell. "The emphasis of the new home-improvement programmes is on much more practical aspects of home maintenance."
Commerce has led the way to a great extent. The vast, out-of-town warehouses have attracted a stream of people who, 20 years ago, would never have dreamt of going to their local builders' merchant.
At these new temples to DIY you can buy every conceivable item you may need to tackle a range of tasks at home, from replacing a tap washer to building an extension, many of which are incomprehensible to novices.
B&Q, the biggest DIY chain, had 283 stores spread across the country at the last count. Its last results showed the group taking pounds 1.46bn in sales, with profits of pounds 97.2m - not bad growth for a group that started off with its first store in 1969.
Most of its stores are so-called supercentres, but in the last two years, it has introduced the warehouse concept - even bigger sheds, where customers are guaranteed to find the items they want. Instead of between 15,000 and 20,000 products, a warehouse will stock a range of 40,000 products, with over 200 staff, opening at 7am. There are demonstration theatres, with experts on hand to guide the nervous beginner through all the options available to them. The warehouses also cater to the growing convergence between interior design and DIY.
The strongest proof of DIY's enhanced credentials is its encroachment into the world of the middle classes. Only middle-class approval can ultimately confer the authentic stamp of new rock'n'roll-dom on anything. This is a distinctive move away from the field's original proponents - skilled workers from the building trades, or people who had worked on building sites in their youth - to a time now when lawyers, accountants, and doctors are just as likely of a weekend to be found pulling out the Black & Decker or mixing up a bucket of cement.
The news stands, too, bear witness to DIY's new status. There are magazines devoted to all aspects of DIY, from the lifestyle pages of Country Living - definitely for the aspirational end of the market, where DIY tends to sneak in surreptitiously but is definitely part of the appeal - to the more downmarket titles such as Practical Housebuilder, very much part of the old bathroom cabinet tradition. In fact, this month's edition explains how to build a vanity unit.
DIY can be a cheap way to acquire the designs promoted in the glossy lifestyle magazines, which are otherwise out of reach for most readers. You can still show the best taste, and boast that "it cost hardly anything".
Higher up the social scale, says Sandy Mitchell, changed attitudes towards working with your hands are emerging in the shires and among the old land- owning families. This partly reflects the seizure of the crafts movement by the upper classes. Once it used to be the destiny of a second son of the gentry to become an army officer, with the third son entering the Church. Now, the second son is more likely to be found working as a gilder or picture restorer, while the third son will be a carpenter.
Lorian Coutts, spokeswoman for B&Q, says that since the stores group was launched, the profile of its customers has come to match the social profile of the nation as a whole, rather than being concentrated among the working classes as it was. Now 5 per cent of its customers are among the higher-status professional classes. "Practically everybody comes to B&Q, and the middle classes are far more comfortable with the concept now than they may have been 15 years ago."
DIY also allows men to affirm their masculinity in a world where their roles have experienced dramatic transformation. But, as Jeff Howell notes, the property revolution ushered in by Mrs Thatcher also saw a vast rise in the number of women home-owners. "Many of them dislike the idea of employing a builder, and for that reason they're quite happy to give DIY a go." His comments are backed by rising numbers of women choosing careers in the manual trades, from plumbers to electricians.
So, it's good for the bank balance and good for the soul. But DIY is also good for personal fitness - yet another of the recent candidates to be the new rock'n'roll.
Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes
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