Sunday, 7 February 2016

Make do and mend - Polak nadal potrafi?

My father (92, Warsaw Uprising veteran) never fails to surprise me. Yesterday he fixed the lid of a saucepan. The wooden knob had come off the stainless steel lid. He spent an hour or two finding a stainless steel screw from the many jars of old screws kept in the garage for such a purpose, finding a matching hexagonal nut that could be inserted into the wooden knob, inserting it into the hole properly, packing it with filler, then filing it flush before solidly screwing the whole ensemble together. Other than a visible screw-head in the knob, the saucepan looks as new.

Today's generation, not having lived through the wartime privations and post-war rationing, would merely throw out the lidless saucepan and buy a new one from Saucepan World on the high street. Or more likely these days - buy it online.

Having finished a pot of Herr Lidl's most excellent wild boar paté, my father decided, before putting the empty glass jar into the recycling box, to check whether it couldn't serve purpose as an egg cup. Sadly no - the jar's diameter was slightly too wide for an egg, so the jar was reluctantly put out with the rest of the glass for recycling. My father hates waste. He will use steam rising from the kettle to warm his mug to keep his tea hot for longer.

I watched the first part of the new BBC2 series Back in Time for the Weekend, which transports a modern-day family back to 1950 for a journey through the leisure-time revolution that befell Britain since post-war austerity, and it resonated deeply with me. For the picture of the 1950s British family, in which mum slaved away at the housework while dad did DIY, was eminently correct.

Like the father in the TV show, making pelmets, coffee tables and electric doorbells, my father would - and still does - do it himself. The programme explained that in post-war Britain, tradesmen were scarce and their services expensive, so people had to made do and mend themselves. My father - a civil engineer by profession - installed the gas central heating system in his house - and then did it all over again in my house. Fixing things is in his blood, first instinct is to see whether or not something can be fixed oneself before reaching for the Yellow Pages.

Today's male (me included here) would rather call a specialist than try to do it himself*. The gulf between what I'd attempt to fix and what my father can actually do is extremely broad. I see tinkering as a waste of time, but admire his ability - and determination - to get the job done.

This is a generational thing and is alluded to in the BBC series. As society has become wealthier, so the skills of individuals living within it have become more specialised.

There are differences between the UK and Poland, however. When I was in my mid- to late 20s, I got to know many Solidarity-era Poles who had ended up in the UK after Martial Law. They settled here at first as students, found work and got on with it. They amazed me in that they were far more like my father than me when it came to making do. Janusz, Marek or Darek - all my age or younger - could, unlike me, fix boilers, change the fan-belt on their cars, install bath taps and insulate a loft on their own. Why? Because like 1950s Britain, 1980s Poland was a country in which tradesmen were scarce and their services expensive.

So the can-do approach that was lost in Britain as it became prosperous in the 1960s, 70s and 80s can still be found in the generation of Poles that grew up around the time of Martial Law. The term Polak potrafi, or 'the Pole can'/'the Pole is able to' suggests a Jack-of-all-trades, but there's something here of a practical problem-solver, who circumstances have forced to tackle challenges and see them through to the end. And having said that, whether in Poland or in the UK, this generation of Polish entrepreneur who experienced the hardships of life under communism shows greater resourcefulness, can-do attitude and - dare I say it - determination - than their peers brought up in the West.

Is the generation of young Polish males any different? I'd hazard a guess and say that making do and mend is no longer de rigeur among today's urban 20-30 year-olds. Have we seen the passing of the last generation of Handy Man? The trend to specialise is shaping up, albeit one generation later than in the UK. Let us hope that the will to succeed is not fading too.

Has prosperity made us soft? Have we lost sight of the value of things as their price has plummeted in real terms? If everyone in the rich world had retained the make-do-and-mend attitude, would economic growth splutter to a halt as factories failed to find new markets? It is amazing to look at Cuba, how those amazing American cars from before the Revolution (which happened in 1959) are still going. The youngest will be have been driving around for 57 years. If the world's automotive industry suddenly stopped churning out cars, the billion vehicles on our planet's roads could be kept going for centuries before the last one finally ran its last mile.

* From the book of verse, A Cautionary Tale by Hilaire Belloc (1931):
Lord Finchley 
Lord Finchley tried to mend the Electric Light
Himself. It struck him dead: And serve him right!
It is the business of the wealthy man
To give employment to the artisan. 
Now, Hilaire Belloc was wealthy enough not to have to trouble himself with fixing electrical faults. And in encouraging his privileged readership to follow his example as the Great Depression began to make itself felt, he was doing society a service.

This time two years ago:
The A-Z of my online world

This time four years ago:
Life and Death in the Shadow of the El - A short story, part I

This time five years ago:
Transwersalka in midwinter

This time six years ago:
Work starts on the S79/S2 (completed autumn 2013)

This time eight years ago:
Crazy customised Skoda


student SGH said...

Truly impressed by your father's dexterity.

My father, 8 years older than you is, in this respect, from your father's generation. A dozen or so boxes or jars in the garage with different screws, wahsers, but and other stuff wait their turn as well, enjoying the status of przydasie, but in earnest DIY skills do come in handy and I believe make a man more man-like.

My father, an electrician by profession, has somehow not taught me nothing more than how to change a light bulb (no chance to change a light switch, repair or install a socket), but repairing a leaking tap, unclogging a sink, installing tap fittings or stuff like this are not a problem. I don't remember seeing a plumber in our house. My father can boast about repairing a rear light in my car (and thus saving me some 200 PLN and sparing a visit to a garage), while I mended window opening mechanism in his car (while it broke down in my car, I assisted a mechanic while he was fixing it and learnt how to do the job) - another 200 PLN saved. Plus we have a track record of spending hours trying to fix something in our vehicles to no avail. Plus sometimes it wise to hold back from trying to repair something if it appears to be beyond your capacity.

Is tinkering a waste of time? Then how about waiting for a specialist to come, or carrying your staff to a craftsman and back? Look at, there are plenty of men, often experienced amateurs, not professionals, fixing stuff on their own. Fortunately, most consumer prefer to call an expert, pay and get it fixed, and oil the wheels of economy. Others will save some money, sacrifice some time and draw satifaction from mending stuff on their own!

Anonymous said...

Great post! My father, who ended up in the UK after the war and later emigrated to the USA, was also just like this. He could fix anything, and love the challenge of doing so.

I'm not so good at myself, but when I do manage to accomplish a repair I always think of my father and his inspiration.