Originally posted on Y360 14th January 2007
Reposted on Multiply 16th January 2008
Part of the myth, the stereotype, of being a male is that you are 'handy'. You are assumed to have been born with the ability to look under the bonnet (hood in the US) of a car and immediately know what's wrong with it. You are expected to be able to take various bits of wood, and an assortment of tools and with not so much as an instruction manual to refer to, be able to build a bookcase, a table, several chairs and a new leg for your grandfather who lost his in WW1. So, as you are about to discover, my apparent total lack of any such innate skills has made me feel somewhat inferior to my fellow men.
I first had an inkling of this lack of skill at school. While others in my Woodcraft and Metalcraft classes were building pipe-racks for dad (why, even in the Sixties, they continued to believe that all dads smoked a pipe is beyond me) and mug-trees for mom, I was producing what could only be described as scale models of the after-effects of an airstrike. Even , while in Metalcraft, the production of that most simple of 'turned' objects, the Plumb-weight, came out with the tip pointing not at the ground when suspended from a cord as it is supposed to, but almost at right-angles to it. Perhaps I should have passed it off as a road-sign instead. The teachers deemed me to have no handicraft skills whatsoever, I was written off. I was not unduly bothered at the time. I could see no use for these obscure talents.
It was not until years later that I realised what a drawback this lack of natural ability could be. When I met Vicky (who I eventually married) we moved into a flat (apartment) together. It was on the top floor of an old Victorian house in Birmingham. It was tiny and space was at a premium. As Vicky liked to cook and wanted everything within easy reach, she asked me to put up a spice-rack on the kitchen wall. I froze. She wanted me to do WHAT??? Wouldn't that involve applying skills I already knew I had none of? I tried to explain, but got THAT look (women, you know which one I mean). OK, I'll give it a go, I thought. It's a simple job. All I needed to do was put the rack assembly together . Surprising myself I even got that right, even though it only entailed glueing three parts together, I proceeded to the dangerous part. I had borrowed a power-drill from Vicky's dad (in hindsight I should just have borrowed Vicky's dad and got him to do it), got the screws and wall-plugs. Measured the two drill-points the correct distance apart. Hey, this isn't so difficult I was telling myself. Switched on the drill, applied to wall, in it went. With a horrible grinding noise it stopped again. Ok, just reverse it out again, no problem. NO, that didn't work. Tried forward and back again. All that produced was smoke from the drill, but the bit was totally stuck in the wall. Unattaching the bit from the drill, I stood and looked at this bit of metal sticking out of the wall. What to do? Ok, I know!! Getting hammer and metal punch, proceeded to chip around the bit, trying from time to time with pliers to pull it out. Hammer some more. Pull some more. Finally.....movement. Yes!! With one final mighty heave........the bit came out still attached to the brick it was embedded in. A brick-sized hole stared balefully at me from the wall. Vicky's uncle, who had experience in the building trade, was called to put it right. It was on that day that the running joke of DIY meaning 'Demolish It Yourself' applied itself to me.
After me and Vicky had bought our first house, most DIY was done by either her uncle or by her brother who by that time was showing the family talent for being great at DIY and general handiwork. One of the first things that Vicky wanted doing, however, was a job she considered small enough and innocuous enough that even I couldn't mess up. What was she thinking? It was a coat-hanger to go on the back of the door to under-stairs cupboard. A large metal hook that only needed three wood-screws inserting. Even I could do that. Yes, ok!! You're ahead of me. Being the disaster area I am, I didn't consider that the hook should be attached where beneath the veneer (these were hollow interior doors, not solid ones) the main wood frame was situated. So there I was, feeling quite confident as the screws, one after another, went easily into the wood (how was I supposed to know it was only fibreboard???), and with a flourish of the screwdriver, announced the job completed. Vicky came in with a heavy outdoor winter coat and put it in on the hook. It was most satisfying that the hook remained firmly attached to the door panel. It was rather spoiled by the door panel detaching itself from the door and parking itself on the floor with a rather sullen thump. Earning me another one of her range of 'looks', one I would become familiar with over the years.
After such mishaps I became relegated to helper and tool-passer to whichever member of her family was doing a particular job. However, I discovered on more than one occasion that the joke about 'demolish it yourself' was actually not a handicap, but an asset. When trying to remove some interior walls to extend the kitchen, Vicky's uncle said he was having problems taking down the old brickwork because it was so solidly built. Her brother jokingly said 'get Mitch to do it, he's great at demolition'. Everyone laughed, which really pissed me off. Picking up a sledge-hammer (remember that most of my adult life i was built like a twig) I applied it with such force that the wall was a pile of rubble in short order. I felt a certain satisfaction that comes with destruction (another male trait. One I am happy to say I WAS born with!! LOL). Of course, once the demolition was over, I returned once more to obscurity while the real work was done of building piers to support the metal I-beam that in turn would support the ceiling.
There are many tales over the twenty-odd years that me and Vicky were together that I could relate but it would probably mean this blog would be book length. One thing that gives me some small satisfaction from those times came from Vicky's brother, who, as I said, was really good at DIY. On one occasion, while decorating the next house that we bought, he made a howler that made me laugh. We had decided to put up white embossed-pattern wallpaper, then paint it. Vicky's brother was called in to do the job without even asking if I wanted a go at it. Wonder why? He made a start on the job, while I went out to do something in the garden. After about half-hour, he appears and says he's having problems. Oh yes?? I asked what's the problem. He said there was something wrong with the wallpaper. What problem? I asked. Well, it appeared that once he had hung a strip, try as he might, he couldn't smooth out all the bubbles in the paper. I felt this smug expression spread across my face as I looked and realised he'd been trying to smooth out the embossed pattern in the paper.
As with many things in my life, my lack of ability could be attributed to my lack of self-confidence. In later years, after I moved here to Wales following my marriage break-up, I was living with my girlfriend of that time and she positively encouraged me to try things like DIY, saying I just needed confidence in my ability. She was right. She talked me into attempting a DIY job I would never previously have even contemplated. It was to put up tongue and groove panelling in the bathroom and colour-wash it. I gave it a try. I did encounter problems. The panelling would be attached to the wall using 'No More Nails', a kind of heavy duty adhesive to be used where nails or pins were either not appropriate or not cosmetically wanted. Problems occurred when I applied the first panels. As I applied it to the wall, smoothing from top to bottom, the top popped off the wall. Pressing that back into place, the bottom popped off the wall. I then realised that the wall was actually bowed outward. With a stroke of inspiration I got some wooden poles that had been sitting in the garage and used them as braces, to hold both the top and the bottom of each panel in place until the adhesive was set. It looked like a miniature version of the hurdles race in athletics, as they were braced against the opposite wall, above the bath. But it worked. As I gingerly removed the brace , the panels stayed on the walls. And as far as I know, they are still there now. I felt really proud to have successfully completed that job. I can't say that I am now totally confident in my abilities, but I know now that if I try doing a job, there is a better chance of it not ending in disaster.