All of the Things That I Am Not Very Good At…

blood pressure
Photo by Marcelo Leal on Unsplash

I have not, despite the fact that we are at times close companions, become fully reconciled to failure. I would still really rather like to succeed from time to time. I try to succeed; I always try to succeed, but more often than not, the avoidance of utter disaster is as close as I get. I aim to do things right and I aim to do them well, but in reality I seldom do either – certainly not to my own satisfaction. When I began this thing, I wanted each piece to have a beginning, a middle and an end; for each piece to have a point, and I think that by and large I have succeeded in that. But I aimed for something approaching Stephen Leacock, Alan Coren or Alan Bennett, and what I ended up with, more often than not, was Orville the Duck.

Making the effort is the big thing of course, trying to do the best you can. The only problem is, when you have tried really hard to get things right, the dog’s dinner that you end up with is doubly troubling. Having a unicorn in your head is all well and good, but when the result is a carthorse on the paper, it is wildly frustrating.

I have recently, much against my better judgement, embarked on a number of DIY projects: flooring, joinery, general decorating, with results that can be best described as variable. (Some are bad, some are worse.) I managed to electrocute myself last week via the simple process of catching a wire whilst screwing the top back on a socket, but I have baulked at plumbing. I have no desire to drown.

On occasions I have watched skilled craftsmen going about their work and I am always struck by the serenity. There is none of the all-out panic that I experience during the course of a simple task. Picture a headless chicken in possession of an electric drill and Stanley Knife and you’ll get the drift…

I can imagine that the more charitable amongst you are thinking, ‘Now come on, there must be something that you’re good at,’ so I’ve given it a little thought, and the answer is ‘No.’ I have never found myself involved in anything that I did not feel somebody else could not have done much better. I have never looked at something that somebody else has done properly and thought, ‘I could do that better.’ I have looked at things that have been done by somebody even more incompetent than myself and wondered if I couldn’t have done it slightly less badly. There are even times when I do things to an altogether reasonable standard. It’s just that it all takes so bloody long.

Many many moons ago I wrote, with my very good friend Chris, a series for the local BBC radio station, which we also recorded and performed. We were inordinately proud of it. I loved the whole process and I loved our little series, as did the commissioning producer, the radio station and even The Radio Times who chose to plug it with its very own cartoon in the radio listings. When it was broadcast, NOBODY listened. The first series also became the last and the whole enterprise was quietly put to bed. At the time I blamed everything – it was broadcast at a stupid time, it was on the wrong show, Saturn was rising in Uranus – but what I never considered was the possibility that it (or more likely, my own contribution to it) was actually just not good enough.

I feel that I have something to say, but unfortunately nobody seems to want to hear it. Which brings me back to the beginning: not my tendency towards the frighteningly inept, but my inability to fully reconcile myself to it.

Today I went for my annual MOT at the doctor’s. My blood pressure was, as usual and despite medication, on a par with that to be found at the bottom of the Mariana Trench. The nurse asked me if I had been doing anything particularly stressful and I said, ‘Breathing.’
‘Well, I would consider packing it in then,’ she said. I think she was joking.

The point is that I have decided that stress is the enemy of age, and it’s worth side-stepping it whenever you can. Refusing to worry about all these things that you are not very good at is a good place to start. Especially when that is pretty much everything…

Making A Hobby Out of ‘How?’

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I don’t know if any of you will remember it, but when I was a boy there was a program called ‘How?’. It featured Fred Dinenage, who did daft things; Jack Hargreaves, who did ‘country’ things; Bunty James, who did ‘girl’s’ things (different times, different times) and another man, whose name I cannot remember, who, to my recollection, kept electrocuting himself. Now, why this has come to my mind is that, as the show’s title implied, this show told you how things worked and also how to do things. These things we would, I suppose, class as hobbies and it is hobbies I have been thinking about for the last few days, because people keep telling me I need one. I say ‘I’m fine, I have a hobby’: I’ve got you dear reader, but they tell me you’re not enough, I need something more tangible. Something I can make or (pray excuse me) do.

Now during the course of my ramblings these last few months, I have looked briefly into what I suppose might be described as the most likely of ‘old man’ hobbies: D.I.Y. and gardening, and it’s fair to say that neither of them really hold any appeal for me. What I’m looking for, I think, is something rather more challenging than collecting stuff, but rather less dangerous than climbing rock faces. I do not suppose for one second that my long-held interest in whisky tasting will be allowed to develop into a hobby. I took Art at ‘A’ level (which means, basically, that I know how to draw a bus station and colour it in) so I guess that might be an option. When my mum died, I bought myself paints, brushes, canvas, an easel. They have lain unused ever since. Perhaps I’ll give painting a go. My Art teacher at school always told me that I had a special talent – at least I think that’s what he said.

My problem is that I am, by nature, solitary. I’m ok in a group setting once I’ve got to know everybody, but meeting everybody for the first time is torture. Remembering them for the second time is worse. The only way I could ever join a club would be to go along with somebody who is already in one, so that I could slowly skulk my way into the group consciousness. Once I am part of ‘a team’ I am fine, it’s the introduction phase that scuttles my equilibrium. I have dallied with golf in the past, but I have no talent for it and, anyway, it is far too stressful for me. Other folk, who are far more skilled than I (skill in golf is indicated by lack of dress sense) have a tendency to be both impatient and patronising. I try to make it a rule never to play sports with anybody whom I would like to kick on the shin during the normal course of events.

Despite many pleasant childhood days spent on the riverbank with my father, I have never understood the pull of Angling. I do not see me spending my twilight hours spearing carp through the hard-palate; taking a selfie of myself with them before throwing them back from whence I have just tugged them. Especially when armed with the knowledge that somebody else is going to try to do just the same thing to the poor little buggers the following day and – well, a fish’s memory being what it is – probably succeeding.

Anyway, the point is this: if any of you do remember ‘How?’ and can remember any of the things they did (except the electrocution ones) please let me know. It might be time to give them a go…

D.I.Y (part 2) – doors, decorating and electrical shenanigans.

paint brushes

…So, we begin part two by presuming that you have not had to visit Accident and Emergency and that, flushed with shelf-hanging success, you may have decided that you wish to attempt door hanging. The main advice I can offer at this point is ‘For God’s sake, make sure it’s an internal one’. For a start, there are no awkward locks for you to fit back to front and it doesn’t matter quite so much if it doesn’t shut. The necessary equipment and the methodology are similar to shelf hanging except that it involves hinges that will initially be affixed to the wrong side of the door. In addition to your previously assembled toolkit you will also need a plane with which you will remove three inches from the top of the door and half an inch from the bottom, all at an angle of forty-five degrees. Do not even consider an electric plane unless you want to end up with something from which you can make the front of your bird box. A slight draught is one thing, but being able to walk between the newly fitted door and the frame without touching either is quite another. Never attempt to remove the bottom of a door with a saw; you will only end up having to nail it back on. Saws are seldom a good idea for the DIY enthusiast: you will never have the right one and you will always end up hacking bits off with a bread knife anyway.

Once you have hung your door, you may wish to paint it. Beware. However small you leave it, once painted it will always stick, even if it does not physically touch the frame. This is one of the great mysteries of our age, like why hats only ever suit somebody else. Now, there is, God forbid, just the outside chance that your experience of door painting might give you the taste for decorating in general. Please believe me when I tell you that shutting your tongue in the car boot will be less painful in the long run. If you must put stuff on the walls, at least stick to emulsion; that way you will only ruin the carpet and the furniture, the house itself will at least retain some value.

If, by some miracle, you emerge from the other side of painting a wall with your health and house intact, you may be determined to create a ‘feature wall’ by hanging wallpaper. If this is the case, I can say little except that you are obviously more daft than you look. If you cannot be dissuaded from such a course, then kindly allow me to offer some observations based solely upon my own bitter experience. I hope they help:

• All wallpaper is tapered. It might fit at the top, but never at the bottom.
• The pattern on wallpaper is never even. It might match at the top, but it will stray badly by the time you reach the gaps at the bottom.
• The ‘pattern repeat’ information on the label is merely a trap for the unwary.
• Wallpaper stretches – but never where you want it to.
• Wallpaper tears – but never until it’s nearly finished.
• Always cut the wallpaper around light switches and electric sockets whilst it is wet. Once it has dried you will never find them again.
• Scissors, even when new, are never sharp enough to cut wet wallpaper.
• Do not attempt to trim the wallpaper with a razor blade. Wet wallpaper is like blotting paper. A pint of blood will leach over an entire wall.
• Bubbles in drying wallpaper should be popped with a pin. Once popped, they should dry flat. They should, but they never do.
• If the bubbles make a shrieking noise when you pop them, you have probably papered over the cat.
• If you want to remove the wallpaper in six months time, you will require a flame-thrower.
• If you do not want to remove the wallpaper in six months time, it will fall off.
• The pattern is never upside down until after you have finished.

In the somewhat unlikely event that you might wish to attempt tiling, the one piece of advice I feel equipped to offer is not to worry too much about straight lines. Just be grateful if they stay on the wall.

For those of you with an even more adventurous DIY bent, there is always plumbing to be tackled. Much like binge drinking, it is only really a suitable pastime for the young and fit. Like binge drinking, it also tends to make an awful mess of the carpet. If you really must try your hand at plumbing, let me suggest something very simple at first. How about stopping the kitchen tap from dripping without ramming a huge lump of blu-tack up the end of it? Fitting a new washer to a tap is the simplest job in plumbing – which is why you can never find anybody to do it. If you feel as though you really want to attempt pipework, let me offer this solitary recommendation: always use compression joints in preference to the soldered variety. They will still leak, but at least you won’t burn the house down.

Which finally brings us to electrical works. In the UK it is now, thankfully, illegal for the amateur to carry out most electrical projects. DIY enthusiasts are largely restricted to changing socket fronts and light switches – although this still allows ample opportunity to fuse the rest of the neighbourhood. In the UK, the electrical wires are colour-coded; Live (brown), Neutral (blue) and Earth (yellow/green) with red and black thrown into lighting circuits. Improvisation is not encouraged: an incorrectly wired light switch may lead to a neighbourhood blackout, singed nasal hairs and fused dental work.

There are, of course, many other DIY tasks that you might consider taking on, from the most straightforward – drilling an outside wall in order to put up a hanging basket bracket – to the slightly more advanced task of rebuilding your house again afterwards. I may return to some of them at a later date – like a burglar returning to the scene of somebody else’s crime – not so much a harbinger of doom as the Prince of I-told-you-so. In the meantime, whatever you may choose to do, remember always why you are doing it: because you are too mean to pay somebody else to do it properly.

D.I.Y (part 1) – constructing bird boxes and hanging shelves.

black claw hammer on brown wooden plank

Easter. Time to face up to all those jobs you’ve been putting off since this time last year. Please accept my little Easter guide in the spirit in which it was written e.g. to give you something to do whilst you are attempting to concoct a reasonable-sounding excuse for not doing them. It is a little longer than normal, so it is split into two parts – not unlike sections of your anatomy if you are not careful…

As you grow older, and your time becomes less consumed by children, dangerous sports and Himalayan trekking holidays, you may feel the need to fill the void with a more age-appropriate pastime. Sadly, many will consider that sitting in an armchair drinking cider and doing the quick crossword is not such a hobby, and you may be forced to seek something a little more challenging. There will come a time in the life of all of us when we are tempted to say, “I’m not paying that. If I had the tools, I could do it myself, it can’t be that difficult.” Well, here’s my first warning for you: generally it is. All DIY projects end up costing considerably more than getting a tradesman in. A friend of mine once managed to remove the party wall between himself and the neighbouring bungalow whilst putting up a photo frame. He is, I believe, now a speech writer for Donald Trump. Of course, it would be wrong to suggest that all DIYers are so inept (there is, after all, only one Donald to go around) but the potential is always there. Never-the-less, if you feel you really must give it a go, I find it incumbent upon myself to offer such advice as I am able. Since you have probably decided to ignore my imploration to quit whilst you are ahead, e.g. before you have started, we may as well begin.

Before commencing any DIY project it is important to ensure that you have the following items easily to hand:

• Elastoplast
• Antiseptic Cream
• Mobile phone pre-programmed to dial 999
• Car: this is essential in order to fetch the vital components or tools that you always            manage to forget until half way through the job
• A small child to blame when it all goes wrong.

Most prospective DIYers will begin with a little woodwork. The lure of producing a 3-legged coffee table, an asymmetrical magazine rack or a wonky pipe-rack will prove irresistible to many. In addition to the wood, which is available from any good timber merchants at little more than two to three times the price of a finished product, you will need tools. Woodworking tools are seldom, if ever, used for their intended purpose. A chisel is usually used to hack a notch into the top of a pozidrive screwhead when you do not have a pozidrive screwdriver with which to remove it. A smaller chisel is subsequently used to remove the screw when you discover that you have also forgotten the other screwdriver. A nail punch may then be employed to drive the screw head into the wood when you discover that the chisel will not remove it. Your shoe will be used when you discover that you have lost your hammer. You will also need a stout toolbox from which to misplace your tools.

Warning: All woodworking tools are either sharp, pointed or both. If you must keep woodworking chisels I suggest that you blunt them by knocking holes into walls when your drill has fused.

Let us begin by looking at a suitable early project for the keen DIY woodworker: the bird box. Begin by constructing a simple box of 4 equal sides, a top and a bottom which can be held together with nails and glue or, if you have misplaced the hammer and bought toothpaste instead of glue, blu-tack. The box should have a sloping roof (as it is likely to slope in all directions, just choose the surface that slopes the most) and a little hole at the front through which the birds can enter. When correctly assembled the box should be capable of being lifted without the bottom falling out. Take a photograph of the finished box before it ‘weathers’ (falls to pieces) and put it out into the garden in the spring. Having been affixed to a suitable tree, shed or bonfire, the nest box will remain unused for three years before you discover that the hole is too small. By this time the bottom will have fallen out anyway and the perch will have been taken away by a sparrow for nesting material.

At some stage all DIY enthusiasts will be called upon to hang a shelf. Before you commence the project you should amass the following:

• Electric drill
• Chuck key for a completely different drill
• 3 semi-rusted drill bits, none of which are suitable for masonry, one of which has not had its head broken off during a previous project
• A selection of wall plugs, all for the wrong kind of wall
• A selection of screws in different sizes, none of which match the wallplugs
• A selection of screwdrivers, none of which match the screws.

Warning: Electric tools offer all the risks associated with other woodworking equipment multiplied by 240 volts.

Choose a likely-looking drill bit and insert it into the drill chuck and tighten best you can. If it wobbles a bit, don’t worry too much unless it shoots out when you turn the drill on and decapitates your daughter’s goldfish. Then worry. Carefully measure and mark the walls and drill the holes in something resembling the right kind of area. Insert the wall plug. If it will not fit, chop a bit off it with a kitchen knife and hammer it in with a ladle. If it is too small, simply insert another plug inside it and hammer it in with a ladle. Put shelf against the wall and insert a screw into any hole that roughly matches a wall plug. Tighten as far as the screwdriver allows and then hammer in the rest of the way with a ladle. Now, take a photograph of your shelf in situ before it has the chance to fall from the wall and scalp the cat. Find something suitable to put on the shelf that will not roll down the slope and blu-tack it in place.

Warning: never sit underneath a shelf – particularly if you put it up.