Stewart Lee on The Art of Repair with Hackney artisans Riley Upholsterers, JC Motors and TJ Electrics
4th October 2013
Comedian Stewart Lee narrates a unique and touching insight into life in London’s East End.
Hackney has a long tradition of artisan craftsmanship and repair, but in recent years the once familiar landscape of low rise workshops and light industrial buildings have made way for more profitable, high-rise residential dwellings.
The Art of Repair follows the story of four artisans that see their work as a way of life. The changing demographic has been a godsend to some who thrive on the supply of magnificent, bespoke, hand-built instruments and furniture, whilst others struggle to withstand squeeze from manufacturers who promote the built in obsolescence of their products.
This very personal, and sometimes moving story is an honest account from a community that’s lived through change. There’s more behind that old shop door than you might think.
In Len’s eyes, they perfected the motor vehicle in 1938 with the original VW Beetle. Since then it’s been about comfort and image. It used to be that every part of a car was built to last, and if something went wrong, it was the job of the mechanic to fix it. Nowadays, a car is built from replaceable components, whereby if one part breaks, an entire module needs replacing.
JC Motors is a family business, only none of the staff are related. The workshop’s namesake, Joe Chi, was Len’s mentor and friend. Joe passed away in 1999. Today Len carries the mantle with a sense of pride and respect that Joe would be proud of, and Len’s staff have the same respect for Len as he did for his mentor. When they’re not hard at work, they like to race it out on the go-kart track (of which, of course, Len is the best), or take time out on a Friday lunch with a big African fish.
“I’ve got my little tribe here. One is Dunstan, one is Singh, and the other one is Didier. I started off with Dunstan first about 10 years ago, and somehow magically we just gelled together, just me and him. Then the next person who came here the same thing continued to happen, we move together as one. Didier? Hmmm, I dunno. He’s taking his time, he’s not ripe yet! But don’t forget the tea, he’s good at tea, as you well know. Sometimes I buy a nice big African fish, well seasoned, and they love it. JC Motors is named after Joe Chi, who is somebody I met many years ago. He took me under his wings and taught me a hell of a lot, he was a very inspirational personal. He died in 1999. Even here right now there are tools that he used to handle that many years ago, that I will always treasure, because he was special.”
T J Electrics is a family run business, with wife Rose out front with the customers, and husband John out back in the workshop. Electrical repair is not something often seen on the high street any more, but for John and Rose it’s always been a way of life. Every new job on the bench is a challenge, and it’s this tireless hunger to complete the job that keeps them on the high street, and in the community. The residents of Stoke Newington are unique in that instead of having to through their old things away, they can opt to have them repaired.
Nowadays the big manufacturers require you to have an account before they let you buy parts, but for indie shops like T J Electrics that’s not an option. Electrical repair is becoming a rare public service, so it’s a mystery why as a society we don’t try harder to protect it. For John and Rose it’s a passion to work that keeps them in business, but once the big corporations have squeezed them out, who will be left to step into their shoes?
“Once upon a time this was a good business to be in. People would take their TV or hifi to the shop to get it repaired, but today it’s so cheap to buy a new one that they just throw it away. In the past, the market was regulated. If a manufacturer declared an object obsolete, they would have to hold stock of the parts for seven years. If you needed help fixing a product, all manufacturers would give technical support. Today it’s completely different. Unless you have an account with the big manufacturers, and spending thousands and thousands of pounds with them, you are on your own. But I’ll always want to be fiddling about with a screwdriver in my hand. My wife likes selling, I like fixing. Every job I put on the bench is different, no two jobs are the same. It’s a challenge, and I love a challenge.”
Bridgewood and Nietzert
The beauty of a violin workshop is something you’ll never forget. Bridgewood & Nietzert have been selling and repairing string instruments in Hackney’s trendy Stoke Newington for decades, but the sense of history accrued in their workshop goes way beyond. Staffed by a truly multinational workforce of talented musical technicians from Itlay, France, Spain, South Africa, Holland, Australia… Although curiously ‘no Americans’!
Since a young boy, Gary always knew he wanted to be a violin maker. His passion for stringed instruments is evident, and his flair for music and the production of sound go further than just technical accomplishment. Getting an instrument to sound ‘right’, doesn’t always mean making it sound ‘perfect’, and it’s this personal relationship between musician and violin that Gary’s team seek to preserve.
“I was making instruments from a very early age. I knew i wanted to be a violin maker from about 10 or 11. There’s a lot of mystery to how a violin works, and the sound is always changing. It’s like an organic, living body. It can become so specific to a player that it almost becomes a part of their body. It can change somewhat after a repair, and even if the sound is very good, or even improved from before, the change can be a very upsetting experience for the player. Any one violin will be made from a number of different woods, and sometimes we’re looking for very plain woods- spruce is used for the front because it has very high tensile strength. We sometimes get guys from Romania, or Hungarians sometimes pull up in a van outside, full of wood. Bosnian Maple, or wood from their area. Prices usually very high.”
What Neil of Riley Upholsterers says he loves the most about his work is the ability to breathe new life into old objects. He has a respect for the old fashioned craftsmanship, the ageing objects that regularly pass through his doors. Furniture with history, or materials and woods that regulation dictates can no longer be used are given new purpose once he and his apprentice, Thomas, have worked their craft.
Thomas comes from Romania where he learned upholstery to a basic level, and one day knocked on Neil’s door looking for work. Now that Thomas is every bit as skilful as Neil, the duo are thinking about taking on a new apprentice. More than just colleagues, Neil and Thomas have an unspoken understanding that allows them to continue to work in such intimate quarters. After all, Neil spends more of the day with Thomas than his own wife!
“Everybody’s taste is different, I’m not saying my taste is right but it’s nice when the customer picks a fabric that I like too. 99% of my customers are very good, and I often have people come in and say ‘Oh, that’s nice’. So that makes me feel good, when people appreciate somebody doing an old fashion job like this. Thomas is the guy who works for me and I’ve been very lucky because he’s a very good worker. He came into the shop one day and asked if I had any work and now he’s a great asset to the company. It’s crucial that we get on because we see a lot of each other, I probably see him more than my wife. I think the profession will be around for at least as long as I’m doing it, because you can’t very easily replace me with a computer. I try to look after my hands because they’re very important to my job.”
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