Deborah Ross does DIY: Can the hapless homemaker become a practical woman-about-the-house?
Saturday 30 April 2011
When I am first called by this magazine and asked to attend a couple of "You Can Do It" DIY classes at B&Q I say: "No, but thanks for thinking of me. I am always thinking of you. Bye, now".
When I am asked again I say: "Nope, still going to pass, although thanks again for thinking of me. I am still thinking of you. Bye, again". When I am asked for a third time I figure it's best to give it to them straight. I say: "I'd rather slice my own ears off and flambé them. I'd rather gouge out my eyes with a melon spoon. Plus, I'm Jewish, and haven't our people suffered enough without having to put up our own shelving? Do you think it's what we spent 40 years wandering the desert for? Are you understanding me now?"
At this, they say: "Oh, and we're just about to sign off on your expenses". "On the other hand," I say, "and as a professional, I suppose I must accept whatever work I am assigned. Bring it on."
And so they do, which is why, one sunny day when I could be doing something more sensible, like watching daytime TV while not answering the phone, I have to truck up at B&Q for a three-hour "painting" class in the morning and a three-hour class on "common basic plumbing faults" in the afternoon and I could not be less excited; could not be less excited even if the afternoon class was on "extremely rare plumbing faults" of the kind that only turn up in this country once in a blue moon, and people travel miles to see.
I don't do DIY. I have never done DIY. I don't know about Phillips screwdrivers or why Phillip is allowed to hog them. Can't they be Tom's screwdrivers every once in a while? I did once spend several hours – or was it days? It seemed like days, maybe months – assembling an Ikea desk for my son, but got so bored and fed up part way through I couldn't be bothered to tighten any of the screws properly, so it sways alarmingly at even the slightest hint of pressure. "Haven't you got any swaying to do?" I might even ask, by way of enquiring about his homework. I also managed to put in the drawer upside down, which diminished its usefulness quite significantly. My husband, meanwhile, who has many good things going for him – he has nice hair, for example, and toes that descend in perfect size order – is just as useless. He once put up some bedroom blinds but they'd fallen off by morning and he could not be cajoled into having another try.
"Go on," I said. "No," he said. "You've got lovely toes," I said. "No," he said. "I love your hair," I said. "No," he said. Sometimes, I wonder about the work I have to put into my marriage, and whether it wouldn't be better to just call someone in, but I don't know. They'll probably charge an arm and a leg up front. And then not turn up.
So, anyway, to B&Q, because you can do it if you B&Q it, just as you can if you go to Homebase or Wickes, but you won't get any of the rhyme satisfaction. That said, I guess you can fix it, if you Wickes it, and face it, if you Homebase it, but I'm not here today to copywrite for the other stores. (They've got their own people to nag and bribe and harass by phone and dangle expenses in front of, surely.)
B&Q now offer more than 20 "You Can Do It" classes with "tiling" being the most popular and, although I do not know which is the least popular, I'm thinking it can't be "removing a radiator for decorating" as who wouldn't be up for that? There is even a waiting list, I bet. My classes today are being held at the Gillingham store in Kent. I approach with some trepidation, as I've never set foot in a DIY superstore before. Ikea, yes, but only the once, and that was terrifying enough; so many veneers, so little time, and those silly, pesky meatballs that run away from the fork.
I enter via those huge bags of compost and seed potatoes stacked up just outside, and that giant trolley filled with trays of petunias and lobelia and pansies. Every DIY store has huge bags of compost and seed potatoes stacked up outside, and those giant trolleys filled with trays of petunias and lobelia and pansies. There is a law, I think. And inside? Usually, I like to quote the war poets at moments of significance, or the Lake poets, but in this instance I'm going for Disney, and I'm telling you, this is a whole new world, a dazzling place I never knew. It is vast. It has its own café. It has its own toilets. There is garden furniture. You could come here for two weeks in the summer. There are aisles and aisles and aisles of stuff: glues and screws and wood and tiles and sheds and laminates and doorbells and even, interestingly, "Georgian-style" light switches, but not "Elizabethan-style" bath taps, or it may just be that I missed them.
I'm entirely enraptured by all the packaging. I like the man on the grass fertiliser packet who is gazing at his lush, green lawn and looking pleased as punch. I like the couple on the box for the outside light who are gazing up at that light and looking pleased as punch. One day, I would quite like to stand back from something I've done and look pleased as punch. I did not stand back from that desk and look pleased as punch. I looked sad, because it swayed so much, and the drawer was upside down.
The store has a space set aside for classes, a set of faux rooms where people can paint, plumb, tile and laminate and then, when the day's done, someone comes in and strips it all out again. Who knew? Our teacher is a young chap, Andrew, who is kind and patient and a sweetheart. My fellow pupils today are Rita, a mother of three, and Linda, a nurse who hopes to become an interior designer. I say to Linda: "If you become an interior designer, will you interior design for me? You look like a woman who will turn up when you say you will." "I will!" she confirms.
Rita and Linda both say the same: they want to be able to do jobs round the house themselves so that they 1) no longer have to nag their menfolk and 2) no longer have to call in a handyman, pay through the nose, and offer tea with 27 sugars every four minutes, and coffee with 79 sugars for all the minutes in between.
My difficulties, though, are rather different. I don't want to do jobs myself, but neither do I want to call someone in because they'll be annoying and tell me all about their divorce and play Radio 1 and I'll keep having to go back to the bank for yet more cash. This is why no work gets done on my house at all.
My house is not nice. It could be nice, but it isn't. The paint inside is all chipped. The paint outside is all peeling. The back step is now so crumbled you have to jump down into the garden. If you forget, you just sort of tumble into it. The sash windows sometimes work but mostly don't. The kitchen floor is crappy old lino. My son's artworks are hung everywhere because I have never had the heart to tell him just how uniquely ungifted he is. The lopsided toilet seat is given to shooting off if you don't position yourself correctly. The bedroom windows are blind-less.
The designer Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen once visited my house for a feature and described it as "Hiroshima" and that was before he'd even fallen into the garden. I have single-handedly de-gentrified the neighbourhood. I have never been approached by Elle Decoration or Livingetc or Wallpaper*.
It would actually be good to get a few things sorted. Perhaps, even, I'll get the bug and will one day book in not just for "removing a radiator for decorating" but also "fitting a garden tap". I admit it: I would like people to say, "What a lovely house" and "How clever you are" and "Seriously, you fitted that garden tap yourself?", and not: "Help, I've just shot off the toilet!". So, let's go. Let's start with the painting.
The first thing with painting, says Andrew, is preparation, preparation and one other thing, although I can't remember what it was now. Hang on. It's coming back to me, it's... yet more preparation. Or, as he puts it: "The key to painting is preparation, preparation, preparation. With an awful background you are going to get an awful paint job."
On average, simply preparing a wall takes three days. Three days! Think how much daytime TV you could watch! Think how many work calls you could avoid! You have to wash down the wall with something called "sugar soap" to take away all the imperfections and you have to fill in holes and chip off flaky paint and sand down, but Andrew's only going to touch on all this today, because it's a big topic in and of itself, and if we want to know more we should book into "wall preparation". I think Andrew can be a terrible tease.
He talks us through the pads and the rollers and the power rollers that look like they're attached to vacuum cleaners and f all the different paintbrushes – synthetic bristles, horse hair, cheap ones, fancy ones – and says: "You pay more for a Harris brush but it will last you 10 years if you look after it".
However, looking after a paintbrush is a business. After use, a paintbrush has to be soaked in this and then soaked in that and then wrapped in clingfilm and all but rocked to sleep in your arms, like a baby. Looking after paintbrushes may even be harder than bringing up children, although at least they won't come home one day with a pasta calendar you have to get all excited about, even though it's rubbish.
I'm dying to actually get at the painting, but not so fast. Before you can paint main areas you have to do "cutting in", which involves going around the edges with a small brush cut at an angle. This is known, to those of us in the know, as a "cutting-in brush". You paint parallel to the edge, then go over the first brush strokes in a sweeping motion. I try this. Andrew says I'm "very good", even though it looks shaky and streaky and I have paint all over my shoes.
"Can I use a roller now?" I ask. "Yes," he says. I use the power roller, and sploosh the paint about. It is quite fun for nearly three minutes but then I get tired of it. Dominick, the photographer, says if I were a decorator, "you would be one of those cowboy decorators who says: 'Just going out for more paint, love' and is never seen again". I say: "Don't be ridiculous" and "I've never been more offended in my life" and "This is the last time I shall ever work with you" and "Shall we go to lunch?".
We go to lunch, then it's back for "common basic plumbing faults". My teacher this time is George. He is a great enthusiast. "I love anything to do with DIY," he says. "You name it, I love it!" He is adorable. He shows me how to take apart a tap and put it back together again even though it's obvious I haven't a clue what he's going on about. I do things with hacksaws and olives and PTFE tape and even bend a copper pipe using my knee. I stand back from that pipe and, yes, I'm pleased as punch. I thank George. He asks: "Will you be able to do any of this at home now?". "Certainly," I lie.
I don't blame George. Not at all. Or B&Q. Their classes are probably excellent and have a cosy, family feel. I just don't have the DIY hormone. I head back to my rubbish house where my husband asks: "What did you learn?".
"Mostly," I say, "I learnt you shouldn't answer the phone unless you know who it is." And then, it being a lovely evening, we jumped into the garden for a glass of wine.
Deborah's Top Five DIY Tips
* Treat scuffed skirting boards with the contempt they deserve, and just don't look down.
* Although whirlpool baths are all the rage, you can achieve the same effect and save money with just the one big fart.
* DIY can save you money, but be warned: digging out the basement and building a glass extension to incorporate the side return and catch the sun in the mornings will be time-consuming and quite fiddly.
* Avoid Elle Decoration and Livingetc and World of Interiors and so on as you will only want to bang your head on a door jamb and cry: "Who gets to live like this? Who?".
* Don't bang your head on a door jamb more than once a month, or it will need replacing, and then where will you be?
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