9 July 2015

Getting it right

Not long ago I took my shoulder bag to a shoe repair shop on the Euston Road to get the strap altered. A satchel-style bag, hand made from rancid goatskins by village craftsmen in India, just the sort of thing than you can actually repair or modify. The result was a laughably botched job, so bad that I went back to complain and ask for my money back.

It got me thinking though, because when I showed it to other people they didn't really understand what was so badly wrong about it. Neither did the man in the shop. He said he had done a lot of work and he thought he made a good job of it. I thought he had made a complete mess of my bag, and told him so, but he was adamant and refused to refund the tenner I'd paid for the work. It didn't really help that I had already decided not to let him do anything else in case he made matters worse. Perhaps I approached it the wrong way. You would perhaps think a strap could not be wrong enough to need changing, but one way or another I thought it was: it buckled the wrong way round and had an annoying long tail that blew into my face when I was cycling. Wrong to start with, even more wrong as supposedly fixed, so that I didn't really want to use the bag at all the way it ended up.

When I brought the bag into the repair shop, we had quite an entertaining time working out what needed taking apart and which bits to make shorter. The repair man wrote down what he was going to do. I did a sketch, but he didn't want to remember that way, he wanted to write it down - not everyone thinks visually. Look, I told him, don't forget to write down 'reverse the whole strap'. But when I came back, one of the things wrong was that he hadn't reversed it - he had evidently take the strap right off, but then he'd forgotten which way was which and put it back the same way round. He had made a series of other decisions, all of them wrong as far as I was concerned. Fancy brass rivets for example, when the originals were silver. Hence the dissatisfaction. When I got home, I took a deep breath, took all the new rivets out, and put the whole thing together how I wanted with plastic cable ties through the rivet holes to hold everything together. Then I took it to Timpsons in Walthamstow who charged six quid for new rivets, no thinking involved. Which I suppose is what I should have done in the first place.

That happens to me rather too often, getting a job done and then finding the result doesn't match up to my original intention. But how can you anticipate what might go wrong, in what way someone else might have a different idea about how to go about the job? What obscure criteria make one way right and the other a bodge job? A common thread with these bad experiences is that I know exactly how I want things to turn out, and the result has to compete with that preconceived idea.

We had a chainlink fence put up by straightforward cowboys, who would perhaps have done the easiest possible job regardless of instructions, but in fact I didn't think any instructions were necessary. The old fence was rusty and sagging with big holes. A new chainlink fence is supposed to be stretched tight between the posts, and that's what I expected, but not what I got. The result was hardly better than the old fence it replaced. It was nice new plastic-covered mesh but just as saggy, and hopelessly tangled at the edges. Perhaps the rainy day didn't help with their work ethic, but clearly the kind of fence I hoped for was not within their capabilities. I complained and their boss offered a bit of money back. I should have insisted they did the job properly, but settled for the easy option. It seemed unlikely that a second chance would have had significantly different outcome. I was sorry to think that was how they made a living, providing a poor service and relying on people's reluctance to make a fuss.

On another occasion I wanted to get an old leather bike saddle repaired and with a bit of research, found a local saddlery workshop, which proved to be a charming setup in a sort of garden shed down a side street in Leyton. Not the most likely place for saddlery, but the place was full of harnesses and other horse paraphernalia, even horse blankets. The proprietor hadn't tackled a bicycle saddle before but he obviously knew about leather, and said he could stretch it tight and put in new rivets. I went away daydreaming of the beautifully polished-up almost-like-new saddle he was going to make out of my old worn out one which, I have to admit, had been sitting in a skip for a year before I noticed it was still there and thought it might be worth getting it repaired. On the appointed day I cycled over to Leyton to pick it up. By now it must be obvious that I was in for another disappointment. The leather was nice and tight but still the same dull weather worn finish, and the rivets were frankly amateurish. I just shrugged and paid up. I still use it and in a way, I've come to appreciate the crappy home-made look. At least nobody has tried to steal it so far.

But on the plus side, and with much more money involved, we got a new architect designed kitchen and everyone concerned did an amazing job. Reliable people who took a pride in doing the job properly, and of course people who understand the language of drawings with dimensions and notes, and have more or less the same criteria as my own for a job well done. There were a few mistakes, most of them my own, all rectified (or still being rectified). So disappointment clearly isn't inevitable.

If only things usually turned out that well. What goes wrong? Sometimes it's simple incompetence but often it's more a communication failure. As an architect I ought to be good at giving clear instructions but in fact, instructions are very specific to the task in hand. You have to know how the job is likely to be done and how it is likely to go wrong, before you can anticipate bad decisions and make sure there is an instruction to cover that. People tend to know how to do their job and don't really listen to instructions, even if you want something different from their usual way. And then, a complicated instruction is just confusing, so it seems best not to say too much. You can do drawings, but not everyone can understand a drawing, or you can write on walls, but what happens when the writing gets painted over? I still don't know the answer.