Tuesday 26 December 2023

Boxing Day: 26/12/2023


No, not that sort of Boxing. The name refers to the long, long ago  practice of giving presents (boxes) to poor people on the day after Christmas. Nowadays, Boxing Day marks the start of the Sale Season, to hoover up any last bits of money you may have about your person after the December-long SpendFest.
In case you are tempted to visit the Do It Yourself emporia in pursuit of discounted paint to improve your lives, mr ishmael had some cautionary thoughts.

Me and the Dream Warehouse


A Swiss Army Knife Story by the younger Ishmael Smith

There’s this place in Durritch. A Do It Yourself Megamarket. Bamfords. There’s acres of it. And they sell everything you could ever want in the do-it-, grow-it-, erect-it- and plumb-it-in-yourself line. Everything except Swiss Army Knives. The ultimate Do-It-Yourself implement and you can’t get one in Bamfords. I suppose, realistically, that a Swiss Army Knife stand in a D-I-Y store’d be as welcome as the pox in a nunnery.

Twelve months ago Bamfords wasn’t there, there was just a sign saying Bamfords Is Coming Here Soon. Now you’re lucky if you can find a space in the carpark. Doesn’t matter what time of day you go at, they’re open from eight ‘til eight and the place is always heaving. Where did everybody go before?

Maybe, before Bamfords, Durritch was just one great big pigsty. You know how Billy Connolly goes on about the poor foreigners just hanging around for centuries waiting for someone to come and discover them? Well, maybe Durritch was like that. Everybody just gazing dolefully at their peeling wallpaper and fading paint, hoping that the wiring wouldn’t catch fire and that the window frames wouldn’t fall out; and everybody hoarse from speaking unnaturally loud so they could be heard over the dripping taps and the wheezing cisterns; and stumbling down their cracked and overgrown paths wishing like hell that there was somewhere they could buy some cement and weedkiller and maybe a gazebo or a pool to brighten the place up a bit. Well they’ve got it now and they’re lapping it up.

People, employed people, nearly always couples, hire Transit vans to go to Bamfords. It’s like Aladdin’s cave. They come away with greenhouses, bathroom suites, fences, paths, pools, emulsion, gloss, varnish, chipboard, screws, nails, hammers, barbecues, miniature conifers and sacks of Somerset peat. One day I’m going to drive down to Somerset just to see if it’s still there; seems to me that Bamfords are selling most of it off to the citizens of Durritch.

The people who come by car all seem to drive fairly old motors, S to X registration mainly, so they can’t be really well-off. Enough credit with Access to buy a bathroom suite, and drive themselves crazy installing it, but not enough for a D or an E reg motor. They just want to have a house which pretends that they’re rich. Proper rich people don’t need to improve their homes, they’re generally OK; and if they did need to decorate they’d get some little man in to do it for them. So you have all these crazy home owners, up to their nuts in debt, loading their old bangers up with junk and going off home to live in a dream world. It’s pathetic, really; they’re like junkies; it’s like they all want to be Ben Cartwright, presiding over their own little suburban Ponderosas. And they all want a slice of the dreamcake you’re really buying from Bamfords under the sparkle and glass and smartness and glow; that strangely-familiar dream, balanced shrewdly between our yearning for oldworld craftsmanship, our thirst for new technology and our envy of other cultures.

The trouble is that, like AIDS, the home-improvement thing is catching if you’re not careful. It’s been murder since the kids found out about Bamfords. We have to make a family pilgrimage almost every week. The two girls head straight for the dream kitchens, opening and closing all the perfectly-aligned unit doors (why do they never align perfectly when you get them into your own house?), messing about with the microwaves, trying to flush the dummy toilets, turning on the unconnected taps and looking at me like I was Paul Getty. Mark zooms in on the battery-operated power tools. Look, Mummy, it’s only sixty pounds, he’ll say, clutching Black and Decker’s latest electronic gizmo. And all my friends’ parents have one. He says this looking disdainfully at me as if to say all his friends’ mothers aren’t shacked up with unemployed, diabetic, hippy writers. Little bastard.

Helen, by this time, has beaten a strategic, marxist retreat and is regrouping in the garden section. Isn’t this pergola heavenly, she’ll say. What the hell’s a pergola? She points at some wooden structure that resembles a mediaeval gallows; a rough-hewn, timber-post frame. Whaddawewant with one of those? We could sit under it. We could do what? In the garden…. We could sit under it. But it’s got no roof. And it’s got no walls. And it’s full of splinters. Why do we want to sit in one of those? We’ve got a house haven’t we, for sitting in? Whassamatterwith you? I’m gonna stop getting The Observer if this is what it does to you. But we could grow things over it. Grow things over it? Whassamatter with the garden, for Christ’s sake, the flower beds, why don’t we grow things in there, like real people, or in the allotment, or in some tubs? And so it goes on. Helen wanting a lumber yard full of bijou, creosoted, rough timber eyesores and fountains gushing from concrete, infant penises; the girls wanting a teak kitchen and a Jacuzzi – we got a bidet what more do they want? And Mark wanting a veritable arsenal of deadly but otherwise unnecessary power tools. When you’re unemployed going to somewhere like Bamfords is the act of a masochist.

But, like most things, it’s also quite educational. One day I asked a cashier how many different items they carried. Dunno. A lot, I think. Is there anyone who does know? Well, Customer Service might help you. I went over to Customer Service. Excuse me, can you tell me how many different items you carry, please? Oh, about fifteen thousand. Is that all? Does that include all the nails and screws and pins and staples and bolts and nuts and washers; there are literally thousands of them, look, just down that aisle, copper ones, brass ones, iron ones, steel ones, round heads, flatheads, countersunk heads, masonry nails; hundreds of different sizes, different threads…. Well, she says, since you put it like that, it probably is more. What about the seeds, look, down there, there’s thousands of them. And what about the shrubs and plants and bushes and trees. And the wallpapers, look, hundreds upon hundreds of them. And the lightfittings, there’s a whole floor of them; chandeliers, coachlamps, reading lights, spotlights, standard lamps, outdoor lights, underwater lights, bulbs, plugs, flex, insulating tape. And the tools. And the paints and the varnishes and the shelving systems and the timber and the little concrete boys and the gnomes and the fertilisers and the Tomorite and the slug pellets and the netting and the bamboo. And the bricks and the cement and the slabs. And all the plumbing stuff, the pipes and the joints and the hoses. And all the curtains and the fixtures and fittings. And the glass and the putty. And the lawnmowers and strimmers and hot-air paintstrippers. And the fences and the chains and the burglar alarms and the electric kettles and the percolators. And the baths and the toilets and the kitchen units. Gotta be more than fifteen thousand wouldn’t you say?

Well, yes, she says. Is there anybody here who does know for sure? You see I want to write a story about this place and it’d help if I knew exactly how many items you carry. Well, the manager would know. Could I possible see him? Well, you could, only he’s off sick. I’m not surprised.

My friend Felix has a theory about these Do It Yourself emporia. I think he developed it while he was at Cambridge, so it might be a bit suspect. He says that one day Bamfords will sell the ultimate dream product. But only to regular, direct debit customers. There’ll be a green one. You’ll paint it all over the outside of your ultimately-improved home and it’ll never, ever be vandalised or burglarised. And it’ll never catch fire. It’ll keep out all the unemployed people. And all the sick people and the old and the poor. All the people who don’t have a home to improve.

And then there’ll be a black paint. You’ll paint that all over the inside, even over the double-glazed windows and the Carolina doors and the Laura Ashley wallpapers. And, as long as you stay inside, you’ll never ever die. Now, there’s a dream home for you. That’s what the dreams are all about. Home improvement, build your own mausoleum and live in it.

Meantime, as my friend Bob Dylan said, life outside goes on all around you. We had the General Election recently. We live in a safe spanking seat here – they still thrash the kids in school, they’re going to keep right on doing it up until the very second that it becomes illegal – but we thought we’d try to do a bit to discommode the New Right. We went out on the Thursday calling on Labour sympathisers and reminding them to vote. They all had. People seemed desperate to be rid of that awful woman. That’s why we were out. We were desperate, too. Not for Kinnock’s sanitised and undemocratic Labour Party particularly; and certainly not for Tweedledum and Tweedledee, as was. We just wanted a change.

At midnight we took Mark down to the Town Hall to see the democratic process get itself a little leaned on. I said he could have the next day off school, this was more educational than any of the nonsense he’d hear from his teachers. The rest is pundit history; overtime payments for Day, a gold-plated Mars Bar for Dimbleby, a good long rest for Peter Snow and speech therapy for Alistair Burnett. Our spanker was returned with an increased majority and Mark saw the braying, hatchet-faced, Tory women and the arrogant, conceited, drunken Tory men celebrating another five years of national home improvement. Thankfully Mark has the vote next time around; if he can get time off from his YTS.

Mrs Thatcher owes it all to Bamfords and Smiths and B&Q and all the other plastic money dream warehouses. When people spend every penny and every spare second on customising their tatty little homes, on papering over the cracks in their brittle little family lives, they’re not going to want politicians telling them to think about people with no homes, no families, no lives to speak of. That’s exactly what we’re trying to shut out or we might as well invite the Russians in, having them stomping over our thick-pile carpets and burnished pine floors in their dirty boots, sticking pictures of Lenin up over the Laura Ashley. We’re just too busy – look, it’s 7:15, just time to go down to Bamfords and pick up your Georgian-look polystyrene cornice moulding and a Dickensian plastic door-lantern, here’s value at £24.95 – and we’ll keep on keeping too busy to listen to the people knocking at our teak-finish plywood ready- warped doors…until they come knocking at our double-glazed windows with petrol bombs.

There was this poet. Byron or Shelley I think. It was one of those poets who wrote odes to places he’d seen on his Grand Tour of Europe; you know the kind of stuff, bits of gay, Greek mythology jumbled-up among a rhyming tourists guide to the Aegean. Whichever it was, anyway, he wrote a home improvement poem. It has the words: My name is Ozymandias, King of Kings; look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair. These words were on the plinth of a statue of a long-dead Emperor. All that was left of the statue were the legs. Just a pair of legs standing in the middle of the desert. This Ozymandias, one imagines, was the great granddaddy of do-it-yourselfers. He had wanted future generations of Bamfords shoppers to gaze in wonder at his plumbing and shelving and wallpapering. But his entire Empire-sized home-improvement, had, with the passage of time, crumbled to dust.

You can’t buy poetry in Bamfords. Not even for cash.

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