When we tied the knot I didn’t know that my hubby could renovate. I knew he could come up with the odd nifty gadget, like the really cool lectern that was attached to the back of the bed to support books too heavy for me to hold up. (I used to read really thick books). I also knew he could unblock drains, fix fuses and get things from high shelves. Well der…isn’t that why you get married? His name is Bob, yes, as in Bob the Builder, and I now know he can turn his hand to anything…and I mean anything. In our forty years together he has built rooms, decks, and roofs, fixed fences, fireplaces and finials, replaced guttering, glazed windows and rubbed back enough old timber to replenish a forest – well a copse. He knows every single tongue and groove panel in our house by name – and not all of them nice! His piece de resistance: lovingly restoring four chapel pews found underneath the Uniting Church Mission in Ipswich, and not content with cutting one pair in half, he used the remnants to wrangle a matching table out of the remaining slabs of Huon pine and some of the curly bits. It’s now my writer’s table (see above) and I love it. Lucky you, I hear you chorus. Yes, lucky me, but lucky him? Not so sure.
I also love our timber house that feels like part of the trees among which it kind of floats. Queensland born writer David Malouf said of these houses that they are like giant children’s tree houses, (only he said it better than that.) And that’s appropriate because renovating houses is a kind of game you play when you’re young, full of energy and the belief that you can shape your life. And this delusion is aided and abetted by all those renovation shows that make it look so quick and easy! An army of gorgeous youngsters storm in to a house wielding drills, saws, paintbrushes, irrepressible smiles and annoying chirpy voices. Even more annoying are their toned bronzed bodies in miniscule shorts made of some authentically workmanlike designer khaki. In no time at all they have transformed what looks to me like a comfortable homely home into a sleek living space complete with water feature and parents’ retreat. Where were these guys when we needed them back in 1982? You want a “reality” show? This is reality:
(Lovely picture reproduced courtesy of old friend Michael Leunig who, as usual, summed up our whole lives in a few a strokes of his pen.)
These shows just perpetuate the two myths about renovating:
- It will be finished by Christmas. Define “finished” if you live with a handyman whose projects beget projects in ways more prolific than the Old Testament.
- It will be cheaper to do it yourself. Define cheap if the price is lots of weekends spent wandering aimlessly round Bunning’s slowly losing the will to live.
Bob is such a successful DIY –er, because lack of dosh means he has learned to do everything and he won’t rest until it’s perfect. But looking back he sees it’s just a house, the kids are gone and worst of all, the lovely heritage tiles/taps/lamps that we loved so much first time around have been superseded by that voracious monster, fashion. Colonial has become clinical, warm creams and blues have given way to stark whites and greys and stainless steel. This house is full of stuff we like but is living proof that our taste just doesn’t cut it.
And this relentless drive for fashion has filled millions of tips and skips with tables, microwaves, doors, shelves, fridges and a plethora of other household paraphernalia that is still perfectly serviceable. They have committed no crime other than to be a few years old, or are of a colour that belongs in an unfashionable decade but not yet old enough to be retro. An otherwise blameless avocado bathroom suite or last year’s model coffee machine sits in an unsightly pile on the footpath because: It no longer reflects my lifestyle! Or: It doesn’t say who I am and what I am about.
It’s not all bad…there is a thriving second hand market which has come to the rescue of many an impecunious youngster setting up in a flat. Some areas are so full of careless rich people that it gets silly. Our boy moved to a flat in Bondi, where he only had to imagine a piece of furniture…hmm, an office chair would be good… and in no time the universe would provide it, courtesy of another Bondi resident seeking the ultimate lifestyle, chucking one on the pavement. More than fifty metres away and I don’t bother, he told us airily having wheeled a perfectly good fridge back home after a Friday night at the pub.
Anyone as addicted to Grand Designs as I am will perhaps agree with me when I note two distinct kinds of designers: those who love the project, the space, the environment, the history, the artistry…and those who love themselves! You know the ones – spoiled bratty clients who ride roughshod over neighbours, builders and occasionally spouses in order to pursue an audacious quest for personal fulfilment. I haven’t yet seen someone gazing at the house like Tom Cruise gazed at Renee Zellweger and whispering, you complete me but surely it is only a matter of time.
Clearly it can get out of hand. So many people are homeless and here we are quacking on about the way that particular $3,000 tap says so much about our values. But if we are lucky enough to have the chance, there is undeniable satisfaction to be gained from creating a pleasing and comfortable place to live. And for the artists among us, it’s a chance to demonstrate amazing skill and tenacity. My brother lets us use his lovely old house in France for holidays and Bob was able to repay his generosity by lovingly rebuilding a shattered balustrade – with only Monsieur Bricolage (French for Bunning’s) to turn to in his hour of need. Surviving only on a rose drip and daily feasts of cheeses and pates and moules, he fitted the fragments together like a Ming vase, and did a brilliant job. He’s just waiting for a call from the Parthenon where I’m told there’s some stonework to be done.
So I’m all for us ordinary folk accessing our inner artist so long as we don’t get trapped into thinking our houses have to be perfect. Let’s face it if – like me – you grew up in post-war London we used to think a good house was one that hadn’t been bombed!