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Writings of Albert Morris
Article 110 - Builders take the biscuit for a job well done

FOLLOWING the metrical dictum of Hillaire Belloc, "It is the duty of the wealthy man to give employment to the artisan," the Morris household has been engaging the services of selfless citizens who have placed their energy and skills at our disposal for the esoteric tasks of roof repair and windows’ replacement.

For days, our little grey home in Edinburgh South has been ringing and shaking to the sound of breaking glass, the rasp of metal saws, the crash of roofing debris and the demotic and stentorian cries of the Scottish working man, who, if all else failed, could make a living calling the cattle home across the sands of Dee.

A fine, constructive coagulation, who, if they did not actually sing at their work like the seven minuscule, mountain-core miners of Disney’s Snow White film classic, went about their tasks with unremitting vigour and helped to throw doubt on the myth of the criminal sloth of the working classes.

My wife, considering that labourers were worthy of more than their hire, offered the lads non-alcoholic refreshments lest any should swoon because of lack of sustenance, a provision that was accepted with alacrity.

The domestic commissariat swung into action: enough coffee and tea, it seemed, to float a whitewater raft was dispensed as well as a supply of biscuits and buns to keep up, when it came to the crunch, the men’s carbohydrates’ count.

Amid the surge and thunder of demolition and reconstruction, my wife could be heard faintly asking, "Who is coffee, milk without sugar?", or stating plaintively, "I’m sorry, we’ve run out of shortbread," and receiving, amid gratitude, the cry of an artisan in his agony, "Missus, ah telt ye, we only take milk chocolate and the lad definitely said two teaspoonfuls of sugar."

We didn’t grudge a single caramel wafer. The crumbs of comfort left to us signified that the men had arrived on time and completed the work with brisk efficiency.

As one who used to lurch recklessly in the do-it-yourself minefield and found that a so-called "easy-to-assemble" product often needed the manual dexterity of a Swiss watchmaker and the mind of an Einstein, that interchangeable parts don’t, that products cut to length will be too short, and that if four screws are needed for the job, the first three will be easy to find, I have a great respect for skilled craftsmen and rejoice when they arrive at our house; I’ll amend that - if they arrive.

The non-appearing, disappearing and fervently-promising tradesmen constitute an enigma of our times. A newspaper advertisement extols the industry and ability of some toiler willing to undertake household maintenance or construction jobs so you telephone him.

"No problem," says an eager-sounding chap, sometimes speaking with children crying in the background, and promising to be at one’s home at lark rise or thereabout next day.

Comes the dawn and he either, bafflingly, fails to turn up or, if he does and takes notes for an estimate to be sent by return of post, that is likely to be the last you will see of him.

Typical response to an irate telephone call - "Sorry, been out of town; just posted the estimate; no problem," but after a week of its non-appearance, hope coughs quietly and dies.

Companies can be as bad, their rapid-response team of competent craftsmen failing to turn up on time, or if they do, throwing in the trowel early and failing to return for days, pleading sickness, domestic upsets and work pressure.

On the other side of the cement mixer, you can have too many workers with you for too long. Central heating defects in our house led to workers practically living there over three months while trying to hammer out the problem and crack open a solution.

For a time, it was like having an extended family; we got to know their domestic problems, hopes, fears, zodiac signs and, of course, their choice from our extempore menu of drinks and snacks, but we were glad when last orders came and they left our delicate morsels and paper napkins for work and provender elsewhere.

Meanwhile, our latest lads took the biscuit for a job well done. "A piece of cake," they told me on leaving: they said a mouthful.

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