The joy of The Repair Shop

I’ve become obsessed with a wonderful series on BBC Two called The Repair Shop. The rationale behind the series is simple: members of the public bring their worn or broken treasured items to the team of restoration experts based at the Weald and Downland Museum in Sussex, and the team repairs and returns the item. They accept a huge variety of different items, from clocks and furniture to teddy bears, barber poles, typewriters and even antique pinball machines. There’s a core of experts, but they also bring in specialists to deal with particular items. The items tend not to have much monetary value (this is not The Antiques Roadshow), but they have immense personal or emotional value to the people who bring them in. The programme airs early on weekday afternoons, so we have to record it, but I can’t tell you what a wholesome, life-affirming tonic I find it. The more episodes you watch, the more fascinating it becomes.

This programme could really not be more closely fitted to the kinds of things I enjoy: incredibly skilled experts painstakingly repairing and restoring old things? Check. Wonderful stories about the family history of those items? Check. Seeing people’s overwhelming joy when their item is returned to them working/polished/back in one piece? Check. The work itself is often slow and careful, but it must be immensely satisfying for those who work on these pieces. They often comment to the effect that the item is now good for another 50 or 100 years, which is something that not many of us can claim of our work.

I’m in awe of the skill of the experts. I love watching them all, but Steve the clockwork expert remains a favourite because he does such delicate work straightening the teeth of cogs, or tweezering tiny components in to their rightful places, and you get to share in the wonderful satisfaction of seeing the mechanism running smoothly and ticking sweetly. I have also become fascinated by his ‘clock cleaning fluid’ which seems able to magically transform grotty, greasy old bits of metal into gleaming, clean components. He also uses two pairs of spectacles overlaid on one another for close work, and I’m amazed that it actually works and doesn’t give him a raging headache.

I also love watching Kirsten who patiently and gently removes old glue from botched porcelain repairs and fits them back together again so that it is almost impossible to tell that a vase was previously in about a hundred pieces. I could watch her do that all day. She must have superhuman levels of patience to do that sort of job, because I think I would be tempted to chuck the whole lot in the bin after an hour.

The repairers all clearly feel a heavy responsibility towards the item itself and the owners, and they often agonise about the degree to which they should renovate an item. If a previous repair or some wear or damage is part of the history of the piece, they often leave it be out of respect. One striking example of this was a violin which had belonged to the current owner’s father (if I remember correctly) and both the father and the violin had survived Auschwitz concentration camp together. The violin was seriously broken and she wanted it be playable again, as she had last heard her late father playing it. The expert agonised over which parts of the wood to try to save, and how much to clean and polish it. Most movingly, he had found this woman’s father’s fingerprints on the neck of the violin, so he said he would absolutely not be polishing those out. This was also the episode where I learned that old violins often have a little clump of fluff and horsehair inside the body which becomes matted together with the rosin used on the bow. Violin restorers call it the ‘mouse’ and they carefully remove the mouse if they have to take the body apart, store it carefully and then pop it back through the sound hole when they have finished. You can see the return of this violin here, but do have tissues ready!

The other fascinating and joyful aspect of the programme is in understanding how much treasured physical objects still mean to us. Often the items brought in are the last physical connection people have to a loved one. Holding the item in their hand again and touching it is a way of feeling a connection to their parent or late spouse or grandparent. In a recent episode, a woman brought in a silver purse which was the only thing she had left of her mother, who had died when the woman was in her late teens or early twenties. In this purse, she kept a huge old crown (a coin: it was the first pay her father had received when he started work) and her mother’s wedding ring. The purse was in a very sorry and battered state and didn’t close properly. Brenton (the silver expert) lovingly worked out all the crumpled and dinged bits, and Susie (leatherwork) made a gorgeous new leather insert to replace the old torn one. It looked beautiful in the end, and the woman was understandably very emotional about it. She solemnly took out the crown and the wedding ring from her own bag, and one by one placed them carefully into the leather compartments Susie had created, and gently clicked the purse shut. It felt a bit like a ritual or spell which — in some small way — restored her mother to her.

A surprising number of visitors to the repair shop have obviously shouldered heavy burdens of guilt for decades because they were either responsible for breaking something that had been left to them, or they felt that they had not taken enough care of it. It is wonderful to see them leave with that feeling of guilt lifted at last. For others, the item they bring in directly conjures happier times or their childhood. Being able to sit again on a Moroccan leather pouffe that used to sit in a beloved grandmother’s front room, or hear the tick of a family clock, or to cuddle an old teddy bear that had comforted two or three generations of family members, has a deep and visceral effect. Some come already braced for this emotional wave, whereas it takes others completely by surprise, and bowls them over with joy and sorrow and remembrance. Sometimes it affects the repairers too, and one or two items have had everyone in the barn in pieces.

There’s often a moment after the repaired item is unveiled to the owner when they look at it, astounded, and say “Can I touch it?”. Perhaps that’s because they can’t quite believe that something which was so broken and delicate is now whole, or because they can’t believe it is the same item, but that moment when they touch it again has a special magic. In a throwaway society, it is good to be reminded that some things can still be restored and repaired, that physical objects serve as anchors to connect us to stories about our loved ones, and that items you can touch and hold have enormous power to move us.