It is curious that after nearly 20 years of writing about work and more than 30 doing it, I have made my biggest discovery quite by accident at home in my kitchen.
It all started with a fall. The Victorian dining chair that had been bearing my weight with growing reluctance these past two decades finally gave way a couple of months ago. The webbing snapped and my bottom fell though the seat, leaving me trapped in the frame like a napkin pulled halfway through a ring.
I extricated myself and carried the broken piece of furniture down to join its mates in the chair graveyard in the basement. As I surveyed the desolation, I felt a sudden urge to do something about it.
So I seized my iPad and ordered books, tools, tacks, webbing, hessian, calico, something called scrim, 10-inch needles, webbing stretchers and a 5 kg bag of animal hair (80 per cent pig, 20 per cent cattle). This is a beauty of modern life: One touch of an electronic screen and all the kit needed to pursue an ancient trade can be delivered straight to your door.
While waiting for the stuff to arrive I watched a video on YouTube of an old man breathing heavily as he stitched springs on to webbing. Upholstery, I then knew, was going to be wonderful.
But I did not know how wonderful. Two days in, I realised that I had discovered the platonic form of work. Not many people appear to know this. As far as I can see, the only other person in the world to have made this discovery is, somewhat unexpectedly, Pamela Anderson. She said in an interview that she found upholstery better than therapy.
There are, of course, some things that aren’t so good about it. My hands bear the stigmata of nails being hammered into flesh by mistake. Animal hair is everywhere, finding its way into bowls of cereal. The mess is prodigious, the banging - and swearing - endless.
But even so, when I am gouging out old tacks or stuffing handfuls of pig hair under the burdles I’ve made, I can stay focused for hours. I never feel even the slightest desire to check my e-mails. Afterwards I am left with a deep contentment.
This proves to me what I’ve long suspected: Losing yourself is a far better idea than finding yourself. I have also known for ages that work is the best sort of losing yourself there is - you don’t feel hungover or guilty afterwards. But what I didn’t know is that upholstery offers more than total self-loss. With hammer in hand I am motivated and determined and a dedicated student.
Upholstery has also made the world more fascinating to me than it was before. When looking at the pictures of the Queen in the endless diamond jubilee supplements, my eye was drawn each time to what she was sitting on and urgent questions formed in my mind. How often does the red velvet on the throne get replaced? And is that gold trim held in place with coloured tacks or with glue?
Much as I would love to fill the rest of this column discussing these matters, I have learnt that people tend to look a bit glassy-eyed when I get started on the ideal arrangement of springs in a rocking chair or whether one can reuse horsehair.
So I am going to put my hammer down and ask a more general question instead. What is it about this kind of work that makes it so perfect?
I can think of lots of reasons. First, it is solitary, so there are no bosses or underlings or tiresome people with their tiresome problems. Second, it does not involve a computer. Third, mending things is good for the soul. Fourth, seeing a result is satisfying; sitting on one is better still. Fifth, it is repetitive (so you get better) and sixth, it is varied (so you never get bored).
My new career as an upholsterer lends some weight to the new, trendy theory of motivation espoused by Daniel Pink, the author, who says we yearn for three things in a job: autonomy, mastery and purpose.
My upholstery has autonomy, as no one tells me what to do. It has mastery as I’m improving all the time - my latest chair is really rather good. But does it have purpose? Mr Pink defines this as “our yearning to connect to something larger than ourselves”.
Here he’s got it wrong. I actually have a strong preference for working on chairs that are smaller than myself - the bigger ones are too hard. He may be right, though, to say that work needs a purpose - but then I can think of no more purposeful activity than making something that is safe to sit on.
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