As I write, I am thinking about fixing stuff. Clocks, old leather chairs, a 1950s radio, a century old teddy bear. These only seem like random items if you’ve never watched the TV programme: The Repair Shop. If you have watched it, even if you haven’t watched all 120 plus episodes since 2017, you might guess – these are examples of the range of things repaired on the show. All are things fixed by experts in different crafts – men and women, whose skills are on display in this beautifully slow- moving show. It’s about fixing heirlooms and sometimes fixing broken feelings.
My dad loves this show. When my mum was alive, they watched it together, in their wee flat in Edinburgh. They were both makers and fixers of things. My mum made and fixed gardens, in most of the houses they were forever moving to, in their long attempt to find peace inside themselves. My dad would fix up old houses, and then sell them, and move on. I remember when I was about 10, and he made a dining table from an old door, carefully crafting a long oval and filing and sandpapering the edges, until it was smooth and seemed as if it had always been that shape. He had a lot of skills. He was a trained engineer who had worked on ships, and then at the Timex watchmaking factory in Dundee. Later, he studied Fine Art; and – for a few of his happiest years, he escaped from the factory, and taught art in a college, also exhibiting his own paintings.
I first found out that my dad watched The Repair Shop on one of our pre-Lockdown trips to Edinburgh. On those trips, me, my dad, and Isobel, and sometimes my sister Shirley, would wander around the big museum, or go to charity shops, or to a restaurant. Or, we would just sit talking about the past and the world in his living room. Listening to my dad explaining how he practised playing the small piano in one corner of the room. Before she passed away from cancer a couple of years ago, my mum was teaching my dad how to play. He promised her he would play every day. And he does. He still paints too. And, he watches The Repair Shop and a few other programmes he also watched with my mum.
The beauty of The Repair Shop is its focus on objects which mean a lot to their owners. Like a pair of rusty wire cutters, used by a young, wounded soldier to cut himself down from barbed wire which trapped him on the Somme battlefield in 1916. The wire cutters were brought to The Repair Shop by a great grandson. Or, there was a 1950s radio, which vividly reminded one old man of his late wife. So much so that when the radio was repaired and played music again, and a local station played a much-loved song for him, the tears in his eyes and his expression of joy were unforgettable. He reached out to hug the craftsmen who made the miracle happen.
The people who do the fixing, and spend hours tinkering with capacitors, or filing down tiny clock cogwheels, or stuff soft toys, or stitch leather, are fascinated by craft skills – their own skills and those of their colleagues, and they chat about them. Always learning and teaching. And, they’re even more fascinated by the stories about the objects brought to them, and the looks on the faces of the owners, when a once wrecked heirloom is unveiled – fixed. The faces of elderly men and women are transformed the most. Older, sadder eyes widen and shine – like those of a child on a Christmas morning.
The sentimentality of the programme could easily have become too much, and sickly – like eating too many chocolate eggs at Easter. This is avoided by focusing again and again on the practical skills that make the transformation of objects possible. Fixing, like healing, is a practical task. And the experts at work are real craft workers first; TV stars, second. Like – Steve Fletcher, a clock restorer, with his ultra-thick magnifying glasses strapped to his bald head, peering at the badly-damaged workings of an old clock. “I’ve got my work cut out for me here” he says. It might be an ordinary thing to say, but the skills he shows in the fixing are extraordinary. And, there’s always a slight tension – as if, maybe some wrecked object cannot be fixed. The owner would be left with only a reflection, a memory, of what the object once looked like. But then, it is fixed! Time travel happens. Perhaps, the fixing is by Steve’s sister Suzie Fletcher– a skilled leather worker for over 40 years. Her strong fingers push a needle through leather which looks too thick to be pierced by anything, not even a pneumatic drill. Or, a chair or table or music box is fixed by Will Kirk, a young cabinetmaker, who transforms battered items into things of beauty. Or, Amanda Middleditch and Julie Tatchell, toy restorers – also known as ‘the teddy bear ladies’ – make toys come alive again, and allow much older children to give their toys to their grandchildren.
There are other experts too, with centuries of craft skills between them, learned from past masters. And, presiding over the magic, like a ringmaster in a circus, is Jay Blades. A furniture restorer, originally from Hackney, he welcomes the people who bring their possessions to the barn. (It is a part of The Weald and Downland Living Museum, in West Sussex.) . Jay Blades is taller than most of the visitors and leans over the table in the middle of the barn, to take a first look at whatever treasures arrives. He listens carefully to the stories which go along with the objects. Learning about broken magic which needs to be fixed. And, there is a strong sense, when he is listening to visitors, of how genuinely interested he is. He has his own true stories too. Like – being a youth worker, and creating a charity called Out of the Dark, which gave young people a way out of crime through learning about furniture restoration. Sadly, its funding was cut, and it collapsed. He ended up not only losing his job, but his marriage collapsed, and he became homeless. But he bounced back and fixed himself through restoring furniture, in Wolverhampton. In an interview with the Shropshire Star, in 2018, he said “I’d always done repairs; they call it ‘upcycling’ now but when I was a kid we called it ‘make do and mend’. I was born and brought up in Hackney and we were pretty poor, so that’s what we did.”
Fixing stuff will always be important. And, it can be fun too. And if, somewhere along the way, people get fixed too, that’s even better.
ps I wrote about an art exhibition in memory of my mum HERE.