Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Frugality plus inventiveness can be a trap

When people see all the beautiful things Dave has made - furniture, stained glass, carvings, Christmas decorations - they envy me. 

They also envy me because he is so good at FIXING things. I am a lucky woman. I know this.

However...there is a dark side to all this talent: his eagerness to create things from bits and bobs when one would much rather go out and BUY said object. 

Take yesterday. I came home from Bakewell market and complained to Dave about the heavy shopping, and how I was wondering about buying a shopping trolley - a trendy one (if 'trendy shopping-trolley' is not an oxymoron.)

He said 'Oh, you mean one of those tartan ones.'

'No! No! Something modern!'

'You don't need to buy one,' he said. 'I'll make you one. Something robust and capacious.'

My heart sank.

'What you need is one like window cleaners used to have,' he said. 'I could use old bike wheels. I've got two in the shed.'

'I have no idea what you're talking about, but NO.'

'Yes, yes,' he said. 'Google an image of a traditional window cleaner's trolley.'

I did.

'That's it,' he said. 'But there should be a box on top.'

'And how am I expected to get that in the back of the car to bring it home from Bakewell?'

'I'll make you a ramp!'

You may laugh, dear reader, but he wasn't joking. 

Anyway, this conversation reminded me of a piece I once had in the Times which I don't think I've shared with you before:

Make do and mend spend !

Do you ever look with dissatisfaction at your furniture and wish you could start again? You don’t want to submit to the horrors of trial by makeover, but you would like to junk that ugly lumpen armchair your mother-in-law gave you, or that trendy-in-the-seventies standard lamp reminiscent of a salon hairdryer? After we lost all our things in a fire, and the emotional ashes began to settle, we had that chance to start again. But even with a lump sum and an empty house the task was arduous for a couple with no experience of buying new furniture.
We married as impoverished students, and as the years passed most of what furnished our house before the fire was not so much chosen and bought, but inherited, or just somehow acquired. Objectively speaking we had some good stuff, such as the three handsome grandfather clocks my husband Dave had inherited. But I could have counted on the fingers of one hand the items of furniture which we actually went out and bought in a shop. This was a result partly of lack of funds at the appropriate time, but also of an abhorrence of waste, a make-do-and-mend philosophy, a drive to recycle and reclaim wherever possible, and the inability to look a gift horse in the mouth.
In our young and untroubled student days when we were able to afford a Land Rover but not new furniture (why was that?) we had been asked by some newly married friends if we would take to the tip a “hideous three piece suite” which a parent was foisting upon them to be helpful. Well, the suite turned out to be beautiful - art deco, upholstered in blue velvet, with walnut veneer arms – so we took it home. It became one of my favourites, much coveted by the more discerning of my friends, but much reviled by my modernist husband.  It was followed by similar items, which friends wanted to get rid of and which I wanted to give a good home to. At one time in the sitting room of our first small flat we actually had three sofas.
It’s hard to buy new things when recycling is in your genes. I remember going off to camp for the first time with a home made rucksack my mother had recycled from an old gaberdine mac, with zips reclaimed from long dead trousers, and a cord from a pair of tattered pyjamas. She would make us bedside tables and dolls houses out of orange boxes, and even long after she had anyone needing dolls furniture, she found it excruciating to throw away those tiny plastic catering tubs when emptied of jam or UHT milk - they made such wonderful wash-basins. Her one thousand and one ways with a pair of old tights is so well documented that we can’t see a pair adrift in a hedgerow without my husband saying “your mother must have been here again.” Her favourite use was as twine for tying up my father’s raspberry canes in the autumn.
And my grandmother was the same. She made a superior picnic blanket out of an old tweed coat, and dusters out of old knickers  (“every gusset a memory” – Victoria Wood.) Her better underwear was not suitable for dusters, being made from an old silk parachute. The tights-recycling gene manifested itself in her case in the knitting of them into peg bags.
As for Dave, his recycling tendencies verge on the pathological. Once, to get rid of unwanted junk, we hired a skip with the couple next door. The two men would each wheel a barrow full of old rammel through their respective gates to meet at the skip with mutual cries of “Don’t you want that? Can I have it?” followed by the swapping of treasures and the wheeling of full barrows back up the two garden paths.
So you can see that the fire did us one or two favours:  I am delighted to be rid of the hundreds of beads from a dismantled car bead seat, the spherical light shade made out of Sainsburys High Juice plastic bottle caps, and a mound of worn bicycle tyres.
Make-do-and-mend is a trap. In one of my Dave’s joyful austerity periods he mended my daughter’s glasses with string and then sprayed it gold to match the glasses: she has never forgiven him. He also resoled his shoes with an old car tyre. Even now, when anyone needs anything at all, from a bird feeder to a roof rack, our long flown children will say with ghoulish delight “Don’t worry - Dave will knock you one up out of an old bike tyre!” Don’t get me wrong: I love the huge set of wind chimes made from wardrobe rail which now adorn our hall; and the aerobic ankle weights he fashioned from a piece of old lead piping are great.
But recycling requires raw materials, and even Dave was flummoxed by an empty house. On receiving the insurance cheque it was extremely difficult to break away from frugal ways and actually spend money on large items of furniture, particularly when we viewed them as once only purchases which had to last us the rest of our lifetimes.
And even though we had been married for 25 years, the profound clash in our tastes only became apparent when we were choosing new things. It was a case of traditionalist with a penchant for period style meets radical minimalist who thinks that form should always follow function. What possible middle ground in clothes storage is there between someone who wants an Edwardian chest of drawers in satinwood, and someone who prefers a stack of wipe clean plastic boxes? Or between someone who yearns for a king size cast iron bedstead, and someone who hankers after hammocks?
Yet another problem was Dave’s aversion to shopping. I thought I’d found the solution by using mail order. But catalogue sofas with apparently perfect proportions, when transposed to our sitting room looked like sofas on steroids. We returned them, and for 18 months we sat on the floor. 
We have now managed to buy most of the furniture we need, but it has been a novel and a gruelling process. And after having  a lot of detritus forcibly taken from us, we are definitely more discerning in our recycling. But what’s that lurking behind the new sofa? A carrier bag full of old tights?

© Sue Hepworth/Times Newspapers 2018
published here with kind permission of Times Newspapers


Anonymous said...

I’ve been thinking about this all day. I had parents who were excellent make-do-and-menders and my early married homes were full of things passed on and received with thanks. I can’t remember when it all changed but there is nothing in my current home that has been passed on or recycled. I spend a lot of time wondering how to get rid of stuff no longer needed or wanted and fight the urge to hold on to something ‘because it might come in handy one day’. For me it’s the dread of clutter that keeps me trekking to the charity shops to donate or to the dump to discard. I’m left with a sense of waste and of never-ending consumption. But I do like my current home which is all my choice, matched and spare in contrast to homes of my past that I remember fondly. Great post, Sue.

Sue Hepworth said...

Thank you for your comment, Anonymous. I’m glad you enjoyed the post.
I have a suitcase full of old family letters I brought home from my mother’s house ten years ago and have still not sorted out. I thought they might provide useful copy for my writing, but have never investigated. Last time I looked in there I couldn’t cope with the associated nostalgia and the weight of times lost and shut it up and put it away again. I am minded now just to burn the lot without looking at them. But it’s very hard.