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Curious About: Jay Blades – The Circle of Life, From Homelessness to Award-Winning Presenter

Words: Polly

Photos: BBC, Radio Times, Jay&Co

“Three things ultimately define you: Your patience when U have nothing, your attitude when U have everything, and who U help whenever U are able”.

The Repair Shop shines a light on the wonderful treasures to be found in homes across the country, that have met with age, hard times and accidental damage. The Repair Shop team lovingly and painstakingly restore these items, each with huge sentimental value to the owner, to their former glory harnessing traditional skills from the original ‘make do and mend’ era of our parents and grandparents.

Prior to TV success presenting Money For Nothing, Fill Your House For Less and The Repair Shop, Jay ran the award-winning Out of The Dark, a groundbreaking social enterprise based in High Wycombe, once the furniture capital of the UK. Born from a passion with furniture upcycling and a desire to raise up young men who didn’t fit the academic framework, drawing on his background in criminology and philosophy, along with time as a community worker at hotspots like the Job Centre and with the Police.

Jay has seen the impact loss of industry has on communities, the absence of a way to provide for families, results in low self-esteem for men whose natural career in the furniture industry has died out. This leads to social challenges that a lack of hope, direction and frustration bring.

Through Out of The Dark, Jay gathered together retired craftsmen to share their skills with hard to reach young fathers to provide a purpose and preserve traditional skills. His approach used a tiered system geared towards increasing levels of responsibility – starting with volunteering to introduce time keeping and commitment, then part-time work, leading onto paid full-time positions, to ultimately become independent and self-motivated enough to not require supervising. Such vision takes immense self assurance, social conscience and courage. Not many entrepreneurs think like this.

“I aimed to train myself out of job, so they are self-sufficient and don’t need a leader”

However, there was a cruel irony in this when funding to the project was cut and Jay found himself homeless, forced to sleep in his car. Reflecting on the time, Jay recalls feeling a failure at not being able to provide for his family. Speaking candidly about being a man born in the 70’s Midlands, naturally conditioned by gender roles of the time, loss of this role was hugely detrimental;

“Not being able to provide equaled worthless in my mind, if you don’t have a task to complete you’re a failure. We [men] are very task complete oriented and we don’t communicate. We must speak and not be too proud to accept help.”

Breaking free of homelessness is incredibly challenging, finally a friend offered a hand to pick him up and Jay had the courage to accept and receive the help. The experience has given Jay a new perspective on vulnerability, on it’s inevitability as part of life,

“I’m really happy right now, I think I’d make those mistakes again. All the mistakes got me where I am, it’s not Instagram, not perfect, I’m human, each was a beautiful mistake even in the darkest times. I came through it, many don’t come through. Accept vulnerabilities, being down is inevitable at times”.

If you follow Jay on social media you’ll be familiar with his philosophical quotes that he shares as ‘thoughts of the day’, but what of the social media culture vs the mend and make do era? Jay raises some interesting social observations here, how a lack of community, chats in the pub, or over the garden fence, versus being bombarded twenty-four-seven with notions of looking at ‘self’ to the extreme, subliminal messaging in advertising and false notions of perfect lives, have all had an effect.

“A lot of people are happy to fit in, sometimes you don’t. You were probably born to stand out

Youth culture seems to have an obsession with celebrity and fame, where the idea of making it is defined for some as overnight success on reality tv or social media. So how does traditional craftsmanship fit into this landscape? What Jay terms as the ‘Love Island’ community is false, short-lived, it serves a commercial purpose through hype, creating a buzz, a trend that influences buying behaviour. This is the new notion of community, one that’s addictive, a co-dependent social order in a circle of consumerism. Earn, Spend, Consume. Repeat. This ‘reality’ is all smoke and mirrors isn’t it? Influencers are paid to advertise, to sell a seemingly perfect dream life? Arguably, advertising has always done this, so it’s perhaps the belief in getting famous for the sake of being famous that’s the real challenge here?

This doesn’t mean Jay is stuck in the past, quite the opposite, he totally embraces modern life, loving anything different, new, cool, and possesses a healthy curiosity for shifting stereotypes, yet he also sees the darker side, one of resentment, apathy and depression – did our parents and grandparents suffer as widely from depression he asks? “There is too much choice now. Back then, decisions were made for you” and he has a point – school, career, family, community were more clearly defined and mapped out, perhaps because our expectations were less, we had less influences to reference and compare against?

“Culture used to have influences (e.g. Mods, Punks) who you were a fan of, but could still a free-thinker. Now,the young are manipulated into seeing Love Island type reality shows as real life, as the norm. Is Art imitating life, or life now imitating art? It’s become twisted into this is they way to live our life”

Even Ed Sheeran, who’s journey from obscurity as a busker to pop sensation has been molded to an extent. “He actually wanted to be a grime artist, but this didn’t fit, it wasn’t him”, so today his narrative doesn’t read as a grime artist. Such truths aren’t marketable so it is true that youngsters don’t hear about the hard choices, see the hard work, or the real sacrifices behind the glamour. What’s presented is for Jay a ‘bubblegum unreality’, that’s soulless and doesn’t show meaningful success that results from persistence, practice and hard work.

Too much choice = no standing = follow 

“Consumerism is alarming, there’s just no space for continuous producing and disposing”

An advocate of ‘slow’ in a fast-paced world, Jay has always favoured slowly sprucing things up over buying new. He recalls when repair shops were a High Street staple, from cobblers to electrical repairs, there was somewhere to take old or broken items, saving them from landfill. The Repair Shop champions old school skills that breathe new life into items that are treasured by their owners. The sentimental value is apparent and makes for emotional watching. There is a nostalgic charm in the revival of this ‘make do and mend’ era, but more than this, perhaps it will steer us away from consumerist trends that promote a disposable culture. Less trend more mend?

Jay’s passion for the industry is within the fabric of his DNA, from social enterprise to making, to teaching. to presenting and supporting the Heritage Crafts Association ‘Red List’ that details crafts on the verge of extinction. “The last guy to make cricket balls in the UK died last year without an apprentice, so cricket balls are now made in China”. He makes a strong case in explaining that it’s up to us to change the narrative, to show alternatives, to treasure possessions, to reinvent them rather than toss them, and to pass the necessary craft skills on to the next generation.

“We’re not all academic and society needs makers, the worker bees. Everyone has a place in society.”

So who inspires the presenter? Ernest Race who was the original upcycler whose first chair, the BA3, was exhibited in the 1946 Victoria & Albert Museum exhibition ‘Britain Can Make It’. At a time of limited resources, the BA3 manufacturing process was revolutionary, taking salvaged materials, including recast aluminium from redundant aircraft and upholstery from recycled RAF lightweight cotton duck fabric. Today, the BA3 is exhibited at the V&A as an example of iconic British design. Also, Ercol, G-Plan, Gordon Russell and Gareth Neil, along with drawings, photos and clothing. Downtime is spent listening to music, ironing (wow), and working out;

I’m 50, so I’ve got to stay on it, maintain myself like I would a car. I’m not training for Love Island, I’m training to stay alive!”

And when I ask what’s next, there’s a few TV projects he can’t yet reveal, but Jay’s ultimate ambition is to develop hidden crafts, to create a Jay&Co Academy that shines a light on craft as Out of The Dark did.

“I want to become the Jamie Oliver of the furniture world and show worker bees they are important. The Repair Shop does that.”

A full circle back to social enterprise would be fittingly poetic wouldn’t it?

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