Wednesday, 16 January 2008

Bob the Old Etonian Builder

Perhaps it’s no coincidence that my two year old’s favourite CBeebies character is Bob The Builder. After all, builder is probably the trade he comes into most frequent contact with in his everyday life in Nappy Valley. Just walking up to the Common from our house, we will pass about 10 sets of builders, who will either be gutting a Victorian terraced house, digging out its basement, extending the loft or filling in the ‘side return’ at the back. (At least, that’s what they are supposed to be doing. More likely, they’ll be sitting out front having a fag break and chuckling as my son shouts out the theme from ‘Bob the Builder’ on our way past).

So why all this fervent construction work? Basically, the wealthier citizens of Nappy Valley have been priced out of upgrading into Kensington and Chelsea – it’s too full of Russians, Arabs and Americans – so are forced to stay south of the River, even when they’ve made partner in their City law firm or management consultancy. Making their house bigger and posher is cheaper, therefore, than moving to a smarter address – and a good way to invest their hefty salary.

As a result, these narrow suburban houses are rather like Tardises - their slightly shabby exteriors belie the vast, extended state-of-the art kitchens and designer minimalist bathrooms within.

Builders are consequently a favourite conversation topic here. Of chief concern are the woes of the wives, who, because they are not out at work all day, are forced to put up with plaster dust, dirt and chaos, and make endless cups of tea for the builders while trying to look after several small children, cook in a non-existent kitchen and empty the washing machine several times a day. Inevitably, because hubby is too busy, they also have to ‘deal’ with the builders - a delicate set of negotiations that becomes more strained when the work takes twice as long as promised and usually ends in sacking one set and hiring a new, preferably Polish, lot.

As the 'two week' project stretches on into several months, the house becomes more and more unliveable in. Things often get so bad that entire families of four are forced to ‘housesit’ other people’s homes for the weekend, or decamp to a parent’s house for the entire summer. If this is not an option, desperate measures are required; one friend spent several weeks eating her evening meal with her husband in the car, as the only usable room in the house contained her two small, sleeping children. Oh, and because people tend to call in the builders when an addition to the family is imminent, all this usually takes place when the wife is about eight months pregnant.

If you can’t stand this mayhem, there is another option – Seb, the Nappy Valley Fixit Man. A tousle-haried Old Etonian, Seb chucked in his City job a few years back when he spotted that megabucks were to be made from locals desperate to improve their homes. He now directs a posse of East European workmen whose USP is to complete their building projects in record time, for a hefty premium. No tea breaks, fag breaks or popping out to Topps Tiles for several hours on end for these guys. With Seb haranguing them via the hands-free mobile that’s permanently glued to his cheek, they work 12 hour days to complete the task in days, rather than weeks - even if they look fairly glum about it. As for Seb, his shiny fleet of cleverly-branded Fixit Man vans grows larger by the month, and he lives in one of the most sought-after streets in Nappy Valley, where his wealthy neighbours helpfully recommend him to all their friends.

So, in Nappy Valley if you can’t beat Bob the Builder, there seems to be only one answer – become him.

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