Why British tradesmen are left on the shelf

The Polish embassy has been inundated with calls from housewives looking for tradesmen


Playing the European lottery, as far as I'm concerned, has nothing to do with buying a ticket at the newsagent for £1.50 on the 76 million-to-one chance of winning £50m and everything to do with who I can get to tile the bathroom.

Playing the European lottery, as far as I'm concerned, has nothing to do with buying a ticket at the newsagent for £1.50 on the 76 million-to-one chance of winning £50m and everything to do with who I can get to tile the bathroom.

Playing the Eastern European lottery would be more accurate. The Ukrainians who decorated the back bedroom have disappeared and the Poles who sanded the kitchen floor are in the throes of opening an upmarket floor-finishes shop in Berkshire. I suppose I could try the Russian who put the bookshelves up in the boys' room but he's usually much too busy playing. The first time I heard his gypsy violin virtuosity was in the pedestrian underpass at South Kensington station on my way to the Science Museum. I interrupted his marinka and hired him on the spot for our Christmas party.

How I discovered his talent for carpentry I cannot exactly remember, but I shall never forget taking him down to the local builders' merchant to buy wood. I'd measured up the night before, written it all down on a scrap of paper and given the scrap to the man at the wood yard with instructions to load up the car while Boris and I went off to find brackets.

When we had finished and the back of the car was piled high with four by twos or whatever they're called, I jumped in eager to race home and get cracking, but Boris was having none of it.

If you've ever watched French women shopping at provençal markets fingering every courgette, sniffing every melon, judicially pinching the peaches and poking the pears you will appreciate what Boris did to that wood. If he had been a school examiner marking A-level maths papers, he couldn't have done it more thoroughly - on second thoughts, that's maybe not the right comparison and besides he didn't lose a single plank.

The upshot of his gimlet-eyed scrutiny was that Boris rejected 70 per cent of the wood, explaining to the sullen assistant in broken English with a lot of tongue clicking, head jerking and other violent gestures that this piece of wood was warped, that twisted, those scratched or chipped or just plain very, very bad. We did eventually get our shelving, but no one could have called it service with a smile, and in future it might be easier to drive to Murmansk to buy our wood.

It comes as no surprise with EC membership about to embrace another 80 million souls that the Polish embassy in London has been inundated with calls from Home Counties housewives looking for tradesmen. Poles are definitely the best bet, being the most efficient, the likeliest since they're so prolific and the most conversant with the sort of technical vocab that covers rads, wall plugs, slanges, sprockets and grout.

What's happening on the tradesmen front is precisely what everyone predicted would happen when school-leavers opted in droves to do media studies at dubious universities instead of becoming apprenticed to plumbers, plasterers, bricklayers and all the other jolly tradesmen whose pictures adorn our Happy Family cards.

The only reason I acquiesced to my son's ambition on leaving school to join the army was not for him to become a dictator, his plan, but to learn a useful trade such as mechanical engineering or the army equivalent of tiling bathrooms.

I cannot recall when we last had a home-grown tradesman across the threshold - oh yes I can, a plumber from Yorkshire called Roger who fitted the washing machine with the hot and cold pipes the wrong way round. I discovered this only after I had put all my lambswool and cashmere sweaters into what should have been a delicates cycle at 25 degrees and they came out like tough, industrial mittens.

Borhan from Istanbul, who has just reupholstered the sofa, appears to be the only person in Britain who still recognises a double star spring when he sees one. He and four brothers, also upholsterers, were brought to Britain five years ago by a dotcom millionaire who wanted all the rooms in his stately home hung with hand-painted silk wallpaper. No one in Kent knew how to do it and the man recommended by the National Trust wanted a small fortune, so the dotcom millionaire went to Turkey and brought back Borhan.

Like the pot calling the kettle black, I can't really complain, being an immigrant with no skills except media studies, which I didn't even study. Never mind, a friend has just telephoned and given me the name of a Hungarian who will tile the bathroom for us. His name is Bela. Of course it is. I have to say it - saved by the Bela.

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