Papering over the cracks

One of the Textiliste’s summer projects for her degree involves William Morris the 19th Century artist. We visited the Red House where Morris and his family lived for five years or so before he moved into central London for his business.

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If I did a word association with ‘William Morris’ it would be ‘wallpaper’ which is a prosaic underplaying of the man’s skills as both an artist, poet and businessman. Did you know, fr’instnace that Morris was offered the role as Poet Laureate? Me neither (though a pound to a penny the Archaeologist does).

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This house was build for him in his 20s which rather tells you something of the family wealth at the time. Morris planned it to showcase his work and that of his fellow artists, Burne-Jones and Rossetti. The house stayed in private ownership until the noughties when the National Trust took it over and since then they have, slowly and painstakingly begun to reveal the original paintings under layers of anaglypta and paint. It is a gem.

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Standing in front of a Burne-Jones masterpiece I was, oddly perhaps , taken back to 1985. Having climbed, somewhat shakily onto the property ladder in 1982 with a first floor flat, the Textiliste and I began to crave a garden, a little plot of dirt of our own. But affording a house was a stretch. Still nothing ventured and all that, so after a year of looking we found this wreck in Herne Hill. The current owner had put in central heating (tick) and a new roof (tick) and then gone bankrupt (double tick for us, not much cop for him). There were no floor coverings, no kitchen beyond a beaten up sink and a bathroom that owed more to the lack of taste of the 1970s than The William Morris aesthetic.

It needed a total makeover and we were up for it. Sadly we had zero home decorating skills and my father thought we were barking. Dickhead Tours hadn’t been incorporated back then but the Old Bugger already had pretty set ideas about my practical competence.

‘Do you have any idea, the first notion what you have let yourself in for?’

Mum was a different cartoon of paint. It wasn’t that she had any particular confidence in me – she reserved that for the Textiliste – but she saw an opportunity. To join in. If there was one thing she loved it was a makeover. At 80, when she decided to move out of the family home of forty years she had a choice: a bungalow that was freshly refurbished needing nothing done or a heap  of trouble needing a total gutting, months of dust and living check by wrinkle with a string of Albanian builders. She chose the Anglo-Balkan option with relish.


I sometimes needed a break…

Mum was a great teacher. Actually she may be dead these past 5 years but she’s still teaching me. That’s a different post. Back then it was lessons in decorating. Stripping back, filling in the cracks, lining and then papering. Every evening, after a sweaty day toiling behind the legal plough, I dragged myself home on my bike and, still sweaty, set to with the continuation of whatever room we were working on while something heated in the explosive oven. The 1980s wasn’t necessarily the best decade musicologically but decorating to the Eurythmics and Bronski Beat and the Thompson Twins is highly recommended.

Practice makes perfect. Well maybe. With me, it breeds an irrational confidence. I was pretty competent on  the painting and decorating front, if I say so myself. I added in electrics and some basic plumbing without ever causing fire or flood. And then I tried carpentry.

I should have known. When the Textiliste moved into a flat in Clapham, her bedroom was minuscule. There was a tiny alcove where the loft was accessed. Below the hatch there was perhaps a 3 foot square of space and I decided to make her a small bookcase. Surreptitiously I took measurements and sourced wood. Over a few weekends I cut and shaped and varnished my masterpiece. One Saturday I took it on the 45 Bus from Lots Road to North Clapham and presented my gift. I accepted the praise that flowed from her and her flat mates . We formed a small and squashed procession to install this little piece of love. It was 2 centimetres too big.

But that was 5 years before. Now I had proper tools and an appreciation of the skills of measurement. I even had a workbench and a circular saw attachment to my drill. My optimism knew no bounds. And, glory be, we had just laid carpet tiles in the hall with the result that the hall toilet door (which opened outwards) stuck.

It was a murky day and the Textiliste was out somewhere. I thought I’d surprise her. I took the door off its hinges, clamped it to the bench and carefully measured the small amount of wood I needed to remove to make it swing freely.

Whistling along to Everybody Wants to Rule the World by Tears for Fears I sliced with breezy confidence and set about rehanging it. I was mid screw when the Textiliste returned. She made tea and sat on the bottom of the stairs while I finished off, telling me about her afternoon.

I stood back and swung the door. It still stuck. I was a little disappointed but it wouldn’t take long to fix. ‘I didn’t cut enough,’ said I rather unnecessarily.

She stood up. ‘I think you did,’ she said pointing to the light from the toilet that was now stippling the hall ceiling through the newly created gap at the top of the door. ‘Shall we leave it for now?’

Staring at Burne Jones’ mini masterpiece I had to wonder if he stuck to painting because of his incompetence with other materials. Probably not. There are artists as well as hewers of wood and drawers of water and we all have our roles to play. Mine was to pay for workmen.

About TanGental

My name is Geoff Le Pard. Once I was a lawyer; now I am a writer. I've published four books - Dead Flies and Sherry Trifle, My Father and Other Liars, Salisbury Square and Buster & Moo. In addition I have published two anthologies of short stories, Life, in a Grain of Sand and Life in a Flash. More will appear soon, including a memoir of my mother's last years. I will try and continue to blog regularly at about whatever takes my fancy. I hope it does yours too. These are my thoughts and no one else is to blame. If you want to nab anything I post, please acknowledge where it came from.
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33 Responses to Papering over the cracks

  1. Charli Mills says:

    I have no ability beyond words and dirt. Not really with the dirt but I get results, just not the results I intend. The Hub is actually an accomplished carpenter, but only works on jobs, never bringing his work home. My children attempted the decorating seems how their parents failed, as if to show us painting could be done. The Runner painted his room gunmetal gray, insisting it was the color blue. He also built me a lopsided spice rack which I still have because he thought I tried to throw it away (how did he know? I still feel guilty). Radio Geek wasn’t half bad and painted elegant colors in her room, but she couldn’t stop painting…she doodled on her ceiling fan, across the top of her bathroom mirror and painted frogs on her toilet seat. Rock Climber painted her room jungle green and supplied the paint for the toilet frogs. She also managed to set our house on fire…twice. Luckily we moved into a lovely rental that doesn’t need our enhancements.

    Liked by 3 people

    • TanGental says:

      I have a lot of near and total disasters to my credit but (1) I still get asked to do jobs and(2) I still believe next time will be different. The Lawyer moves into a flat shortly with plans on doing some decorating. Results awaited with trepidation .

      Liked by 2 people

  2. jan says:

    My skill more and more these days is also paying for help!

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Ali Isaac says:

    Oh haha! Cant believe you did that! 😁 Its like Carry On… but quite endearing. DIY is not a strong point in this house, either.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. davidprosser says:

    Lacking an understanding that doors vary in size, I discussed putting glass doors in place of solid ones in four places in a previous home.We wanted more light to flow between rooms and hallways. I bought 4 glass doors via an advertisement in the local rag, removed the old doors and sent them off to the skips and started to hang the new ones. They didn’t fit. There was a half inch gap all the way round which necessitated rushing to the nearest DIY centre and buying some wood to the frame to narrow it. Chamfering the edges to meet top and bottom was down to my specially bought saw kit which sorted angles which on a couple of cuts was wrong by dint of the fact I cut the wrong side. Eventually they fit the holes and even had the hole in the right place for the catch of the handle.Everything was repainted to hide the additional wood.
    It was difficult to get round such narrow doorways and required long explanations (lies) when it came time to sell and move on. Since then I adopted the PIY system which is Pay it Yourself and outsource work from then on.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. Entertaining as ever, Geoff. My role is the same as yours.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. gordon759 says:

    Curiously enough I did know about Morris and the Laureateship. However did you know his fortune came from mining, specifically arsenic and tin. It was estimated that each year he produced arsenic enough to kill everybody on the planet. It is not surprising then that he had no truck with those people who claimed that arsenic dye in wallpaper could possibly be harmful and it wasn’t until the very end of the nineteenth century that his papers were reproduced without arsenic in them.
    So if you have original Morris wallpapers – beware!

    Liked by 1 person

  7. willowdot21 says:

    I do not like the look of William Morris’s House it looks miserable, a sad mouth of a front door and windows that have a bored and tired expression. ( Sorry if my wired habit of putting feelings to inanimate objects) But those walls inside are amazing. I love the story about the toilet door I loved it the first time I read it!!

    Liked by 1 person

  8. noelleg44 says:

    Wonderful story and I think the house looks intriguing! With regard to the sticking door – remember the old adage: measure twice,cut once. Might have helped!

    Liked by 1 person

  9. Rachel M says:

    I love makeovers although I prefer watching other people complete them than doing them myself. My son has been learning about William Morris in school, primary 5. Isn’t that great?!

    Liked by 2 people

  10. I admire all the new DIY skills you leaned over the years, Geoff, but I’d still rather pay a few hardhat builders to come in and do the jobs for me, even if they do eat me out of house and home with an endless supply of tea and biscuits. Now if I could just get them to improve on their ideas of what a ‘builders clean’ is then I’d be an even happier customer.

    Liked by 1 person

  11. Norah says:

    And, to complete your final sentence after all those comments, to weave words.
    Great story Geoff. I can just imagine it! At least you never suffered from not having a round tuit! 🙂

    Liked by 2 people

  12. Very interesting, look forward to maybe seeing The Textiliste’s project one day.
    If it’s any consolation I did, impossible though it may sound, manage to saw a hole in the wall of the room you and she once or twice stayed in!

    Liked by 1 person

  13. Helen Jones says:

    I love this post – you’ve captured the memories and the time of your decorating perfectly. I also love the Pre-Raphaelites and Red House is a place on my list of places to visit.

    Liked by 1 person

  14. Autism Mom says:

    I can see myself doing the exact same thing. Numbers and measuring are so not my strong point!

    Liked by 1 person

  15. bzirkone says:

    All these years I’ve suspected it’s music that gives me that same false confidence. I’ll plow thru any task with Gimme Shelter rattling the windows. Then home comes the (much younger) spouse to wreck my otherwise happy project with his depressing logic and stomach churning 80’s music. “This wallpaper is NOT pre-pasted” he chides as sheets of Ralph Lauren Faux
    Stone paper slides off the wall and he switches the dial to Hooked on a Feeling. Why can’t he just stick to mowing? Btw, every door in my house has been cut, or as he calls it, a little shaved off the bottom and yes, light dapples thru the tops of them all. I feel your pain. Funny piece.


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