I have built a wall. Alright, not a very big wall, about six foot long, two feet high and 18 inch deep, but a wall nonetheless; requiring sand and cement, shuttering, a spirit level, a trowel and back breaking application. Cynics will wonder what all the fuss is about? Afterall, several hundred thousand walls are probably built every day. But for one who has lived much of his life at the coal face of frippery journalism (pontificating upon the quality of distant beaches and the size of men’s lapels) building anything more solid than an argument is a milestone achievement.
Since buying The Red House I have embarked upon many jobs that would have seemed beyond me in another life. In fact, it is remarkable just how many new skills can be learned in the course of home improvements. Admittedly much of my work has been with either a sledgehammer or axe while the delicate tasks of restructuring and finishing have often been performed by skilled professionals. Yet even in this area Kim has mined previously hidden talents. We bought a rotary tile cutter some months ago and adequately tiled the kitchen splash-back along three walls. It wasn’t easy if you took into account the condition of the walls after the “disco tiles” (black glass, postage stamp sized, with multicolored streaks) had been removed leaving gaping holes and cracks. I use the adverb ‘adequately’ because only our professional builders spotted the mistakes in the tiling our diplomatic friends generously overlooked.
Alright, at this point I should come clean and admit that some 25 years ago I wrote a monthly DIY column for The Daily Telegraph. At the time an able journalist and all round good drinking fellow by the name of Tim Rostron had left Elle, where I’d met him, for the role of deputy features editor at The Telegraph, at Canary Wharf. Tim was allocating a new generation of writers in a range of subjects and I fancied myself ruminating upon food. Alas the food column had been assigned and the only one still vacant was DIY. I was probably the worst do it yourself writer Fleet Street has ever known. I knew nothing of the subject, yet as any freelance journalist will attest, you never, under any circumstances, turn away a column. It’s regular money. It’s the mortgage and several nights at The Groucho Club.
The fact that I didn’t know a cross-head screw from a tenant saw or a piece of 4×2 was neither here nor there. I gave it my all. I bought a stack of DIY books and set about writing columns on the sorts of jobs thirty-something upwardly mobile gentrifying homeowners might attempt. The scourge of the column were my readers whom I soon discovered knew far more about DIY than I ever would. I received so many damning letters those first few months that I resolved to research longer and harder. So much so that I submitted nothing until I had actually performed each task in question myself: It meant several walls of my north London home drilled, sawn, removed and put back, painted, re-painted, varnished and papered. Of course, it all became too much (the worry) that under duress I did the unthinkable – I quit. Just shy of two years I pulled out, although not before I had been invited to speak in Cyprus at a conference arranged by the British Hardwood Association. I turned that down too.
From that you will glean that there is a smattering of DIY in the Futrell tool box. More ability at general household maintenance and decorating than say my pal Bob, a writer and radio presenter. At this juncture I must confess to the shameful habit of whenever I am doing something manual about the house muttering ‘Bob couldn’t do this’. In fact, I am not alone in marveling at Bob’s hopelessness with anything as complicated as a screwdriver. His friend and cycling partner Ben Ingram (you may have seen his striking images for cycling clothing company Rapha) thought there could be mileage in an about the house fly-on-the-wall DIY reality television series entitled, ‘Let’s Watch Bob’.
Back to the wall. Kim insisted it needed building to retain the lawn, that requires raising so that a path can be dropped into the turf, so that visitors don’t slide and come a cropper walking to our front door steps, and…
Kim is the original hands-on do anything sort of person. I can’t tell you how many times her cool head and resourcefulness have retrieved us from sticky situations. Her finest hour was at low tide, a mile from the seafront, well beyond the pier at Morecambe. We were in a Mitsubishi 4×4 that the public relations manager made me promise I would take care of it as he was buying it for himself as soon as it came off the press fleet shortly after our trip to the north west. At Morecambe the tide retreats so far it can’t be seen, only heard ominously in the distant west. But it returns in a rush, swooshing across the shallow mudflats at considerable speed. It’s where those Chinese cockle workers died in the 2004. The speed of the tide is probably why dog walking is forbidden there. Behind the wheel I’d fool hardly sunk the front of Mitsubishi up to its windscreen, in mud and sand. The quagmire was so high we couldn’t open the doors and could only evacuate the vehicle either through the windows or the tailgate. Any reasonable person would panic, which I duly did. Kim on the other hand was pulling sand away from the rear wheels with her bare hands and packing the space with pebbles and bits of driftwood hoping to gain some traction to effect our escape. It didn’t work and we ended paying a man with the sort of 4×4 contraption seen in Mad Max films to literally drag us free. But the illustrates Kim’s cool head, and unwavering practicality.
In fact, Kim does have some history with walls. Upon returning from a holiday in Barcelona some years ago where she’d been smitten by the ceramics in Park Guell she recycled broken bits of china – tea cups and saucers, teapot spouts and bits of glazed tiles – to effect a Gaudiesque garden border. With a wall required and the garden full of discarded slate and brick, from I don’t know where, and plenty of sand and cement in the garage, left by builders who’d worked on The Red House, she insisted we give it a go ourselves.
Mixing cement is a satisfying job. Not up there with curing a terminal illness or even reviewing the latest cocktail bar. Yet combining sand and cement – three to one – with water to create something that is even in colour and texture, and suitable to work with proved rewarding. Without an angle grinder or something to cut the mixed shapes of slate the task was more akin to a three dimensional quiz than actual masonry. I prepared the cement while Kim positioned. Once positioned I gently tapped each slate with the trowel handle, in a way I’d seen bricklayers go about their task. Excess cement was removed with a brush and water.
Kim proved a worthy brick/slate layer, balancing the texture, colour and shapes of the natural Cornish slate with the sort of intuitive adroitness she uses for her art. Whenever the random shapes proved impossible to dovetail irregular slate chippings were inserted. In a final and commendable act of recycling Kim commandeered three two inch slabs of Cornish slate that had been garden steps in another life and employed them as capstones. I recall muttering ‘Bob couldn’t do this’ as I tapped the final one into position with the trowel handle.
In fact, we are in exalted company when it comes to wall building. Winston Churchill chased away the ‘black dog’ of his depression laying bricks and building walls on his estate at Chartwell. And having completed my first wall, celebrated with a Montecristo Especial, I feel a certain empathy a man who preferred masonry and Cuban cigars to therapy.