It was a conventional London terraced home, recently renovated for twenty-first century dwellers with an enlarged rear kitchen opening up onto a generous, city-sized garden.  The front lounge had an overstuffed sofa and a big screen television, both of which were too large for the room.  The rear lounge was typically dark; it could only be used as a playroom for the kids.  The whole house had been painted in all the latest trendy tones of grey and white-on-white.  I’m sure you’ve seen it.

The woman who lived there led me to the corridor where I was to set up the Family Photo Wall.

‘This is the last thing I have to do before my mother comes to live with me,’ she said showing me the pile of black picture frames on the floor leaning against the wall.  ‘I’ll have the whole family up here and then my mother can see them every time she walks through to the kitchen.’

‘Very nice,’ I said.  I counted eighteen frames.  Most of them were those multi-photo extravaganzas so you can put all of your favourite people in one collection.  Other frames were your standard, single-photo ones.  ‘How would you like them arranged?’

‘You decide; I’m not really fussed.’

Oh no you don’t, I thought.  I’ve heard that before only to be told the job was not to their liking.  This is an aesthetic choice, ergo it’s not up to me.

‘I’d just as soon have you decide,’ I said.  ‘Just to be sure.’

We spent the next three hours carefully placing the frames in just the right positions on the wall with the most pleasing allocation of sizes, shapes and numbers of photos; each frame evenly spaced from the one next to it.

‘I’m so happy with this,’ she said when we’d finished.  ‘I can’t wait for my mother to see the family up here.’

I was pleased too.  It looked good; if I’d had the inclination to hang family photos on my corridor wall I might go about it this way.  It was easy work too and I was relieved of all decision-making.  So when the same woman called me up three months later to do some more jobs for her, I looked forward to another relaxed day in her terraced home.

She offered me tea and as I followed her to the kitchen we passed the Family Photo Wall, hung to perfection exactly as I’d left it months before.  I mean exactly.  Each frame still contained those perfectly nauseating, black and white, airbrushed model photos that came with the frames; beautiful couples embracing on a beach; children with textbook dimples holding a flower.  I swear their eyes followed me as I passed by, whispering in desperation through their perfect teeth, ‘It’s been three months. Get us out of here.’

I didn’t say anything to my employer, but I didn’t have to.  She turned to look at me as I passed by and gave an embarrassed smile.  I just hoped her elderly mother didn’t think these exquisite people in the frames were her own family.

According to a recent poll carried out by a soap company, 51% of men and 46% of women consider the most important lesson a father can teach his children to be basic DIY.  Fixing stuff.   How to be handy.

What this has to do with soap I’ll never understand.  Although I do often require a good scrubbing after a day’s work.

I’ve tried to convey my invaluable do-it-yourself knowledge to my son, even going so far as to dragging him along with me on unofficial Bring Your Child to Work days.  As I’ve written before, he has a great sense of humour, his observations are keen and he certainly understands the long-term effects of applying paint.  But overall his interest in basic tool functions is low and his initiative levels are in the red.  After all, why should he have to know how to plumb a washing machine when his dad is quite capable of carrying out the task?

I once asked him to cut a one-by-two piece of timber along a line I’d drawn for him and was shocked to find out he had to be told to face the pointy side of the saw down.  He still can’t distinguish the difference between a nail and a screw.  Even Blu-Tacking posters to his bedroom wall leaves him with the sticky blue putty under his finger nails, in his hair, his ears.  I should have known from the start; when he was a toddler I bought him a set of plastic tools with which to pretend-fix his toys.  He was more interested in how they tasted.

I blame myself.  It’s not his fault he hasn’t inherited my genetic predisposition for repairs.  But how do you teach a man to fish if he’s constantly looking toward the land?

Number two in the soap poll is How to Drive, which in our family is not a priority since we don’t own a car.  But if and when he does learn, both he and I will enjoy it more if he’s taught by someone who’s less likely to disown him should he not demonstrate a proper three-point-turn.   Number three in the poll is Avoiding Debt, which I’m afraid will have to come down to ‘Do as I say, not as I do’.

So do I go back to the drawing board for the great south London DIY legacy?  If that’s the most important lesson I can teach my son then I feel sorry for whomever he ends up sharing a house with when he grows up.  I suppose he could always sell soap.

A while ago I wrote a blog about a family – Mom, Dad, two kids and grandparents – who all addressed each other by their first names.  It was an enlightening situation to observe that I thought might have had something to do with them all living around the same South London square.

Recently, while working at a house on that same square, I found myself in a back garden that did not have a fence separating it from the neighbour’s.  Indeed two houses occupied by two separate families shared, in essence, a common area.  They each had their individual outdoor dining areas but practically co-owned an entire six hundred square foot cloister with contiguous interlocking patio stones.  They even shared a sizable plane tree.

I thought I’d gone back in time.  How could it even be possible in this age of insular, middle-class elitism?  I thought the whole idea behind buying a house was so that we could stop living with people we barely knew.  We pride ourselves on what is ours, especially our space.  This is my land, on which is built my house and it’s surrounded by my fence (garden wall, privet hedge, etc.) so that everyone else will know, at the very least, that it does not belong to them. 

It’s one thing to say good morning to a neighbour as you both rush out to the car on the way to work; it’s quite another to step out the back door on a Sunday morning to see Big Phil sitting in his lounger with a coffee in his hand, both of you resplendent in your boxers and mismatched socks.

The last time I lived in a home without a fence following the property line was 1976.  But when our neighbours at the time saw that my friends and I were using their half of the grass for an extended game of lawn darts, an attractive green, nipple-high, chain-link fence was erected to halve the rear expanse.  It did little for privacy but it kept me out.  I could still see the neighbour’s yard, longing to cavort twice as far than I suddenly could, but was no longer allowed to enter.

This began a long history of backyard isolation and the aching need to venture further than I was entitled.  That’s right, I blame the fence for my neuroses.

So this traditional looking square with uniform three-story houses built from London brick must be responsible for some of this New Age behaviour.  Perhaps the square is geographically situated under stars that condition sharing.  (If anyone follows astrology I’d be interested to know what constellations float above Elephant and Castle.)  Or maybe it’s built on top of an ancient druid burial ground whose spirits nurture co-operative living.

One thing I know for sure:  I wouldn’t mind living there.

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