“I feel a blog post coming on,” said my son, grinning as he watched me snapping away at the bees. The words have become something of a joke, as practically everything may now engender a blog post. We were having a break. There were dozens of bees on the loosestrife beside the pond, all different kinds, busily harvesting the nectar of summer. It had been a busy morning for us too. After all the normal jobs and his breakfast had been done, I’d put his shopping away and cleaned the barbecue ready for the Thursday ‘lad’s night’. At least I wouldn’t be cooking for them for once.
“Possibly,” I replied, pausing to point the camera skywards at a low-flying kite. What I would be doing was cleaning the pond and fountain pumps and sorting the UV filter… housed in the most inaccessible position for vertically challenged people. Still, we were working together, his height and strength, my dexterity, and talking as we worked so the day passed pleasantly, even though I was obliged to go back to the dreaded supermarket for a few things he had forgotten…and call at the homeware place to get him a houseplant for the table we had just built.
I’m getting good at this flat-pack malarkey. I remember the very first flat-pack furniture I had tried to build, way back in the 70s. The board from which it was made was soft and bowed with the slightest pressure. Holes were pre-drilled, but hit and miss. Dowels had not come into use and no-one had electric screwdrivers.
As a very young wife, we had just moved in to a house with a huge living room. I had considered the long wall… a wall I could, potentially, fill with books. The new, flat-packed furniture seemed a good option. It wasn’t exactly cheap back then…but it was sleek and modern and it matched. Up until that point, our home had been furnished with a misassorted collection of whatever we could manage. I could build them, surely. The adverts showed beautifully coiffed women putting them together with ease and a simple screwdriver. How difficult could it be?
Youth is so optimistic…
Who on earth had invented this stuff? Okay, the Romans, probably, with their collapsible travelling gear as they marched across the globe. You can blame the Romans for most things… and if they could cope with the perennial problems of flat-packing their army, they probably deserved to conquer the world.
I wrestled with boards far taller than I, attempted to make sense of the translated instructions with little success. Scrabbled through the mysterious piles of screws, washers and strange plastic things that were supposed to hold the lot together…Regretted buying the models that came with drawers and doors and hinges…ironed on the edging strips… and finally, in frustration, resorted to the hammer.
Since then, there has been an array of bookcases and cheap furnishings that have come and gone…or simply given up the ghost and collapsed over the years. Construction has, on the whole, improved with the screws all being present and the holes aligned more often than not and I can now assemble a six-foot bookcase in a little under twenty minutes. The console table we had assembled should, in my experience, have been no more than five minutes and six screws. No… they had to do it in the most complicated fashion with three-foot long metal dowels and locking contraptions. Even so, with a variety of implements from the kitchen drawers being put to unorthodox uses, we…eventually…prevailed. It looked good. It needed a plant on top…
So off I trundled to the supermarket, wondering on the way about the flat-pack society we have created. I understand the economics, both for producers of the stuff and at point of sale. I am cognisant of the logistics of shipping and can see all the benefits of flat-pack both to suppliers, stockists and consumers. For those on a limited budget, the stuff is a godsend…my bookcases cost peanuts. But the difference between living with prefabricated DIY furniture and something made in real wood is huge. So, at point of purchase, is the cost, yet over a lifetime, the real wood will last, acquiring a patina and character, where the flat-packed stuff will not.
We don’t want to wait for things any more. We have become used to being able to get something that will do the job and have ‘the look’ now. Flat-pack furniture gave us the option to do just that. For a long time it was cheap… these days, as soon as you get beyond the basic and functional, it is often just as expensive, if not more so, than its solidly built wooden counterparts. Except that even a lot of that is self-assembly. So ironically, our demand means that we pay more, deliver to ourselves, build it ourselves and dispose of the packaging …creating more work for ourselves than strictly neecessary whilst eliminating the jobs of others. Meanwhile crafts are under threat, skills are disappearing and the antiques of the future won’t be coming from the average home as no-one will dare to move them lest they fall apart.
As a society we seem to have come to expect instant gratification and have lost sight of the values we once held, where patience was a virtue and the things we wanted were worth working and waiting for. I thought about the bees and the kite I had been watching. The bee is an ancient symbol of tireless industry and diligence and as such was always associated with both kingship and the priesthood, which is quite telling. The hawks are symbols of focus and attention…and the clear vision of the soul. There is no instant gratification in the spiritual journey; everything must be worked towards and the results awaited patiently as they filter through into our daily lives. Not because there is a need to quest and strive for enlightenment or spiritual awareness… but because we perceive it as such as we dismantle the bars we have built around our being. We call it the Work, yet we ourselves are the work.
As I sat in the traffic, heading back to pond-cleaning duty, I wonder how much it truly costs to live in a flat-pack society. What are we losing, how much are we missing in our haste to have everything now? I would spend the afternoon getting covered in cobwebs, sludge and algae, being attacked by brambles. It would be a long and messy job that would need focus, attention and diligence. The results would be worth it though, seeing the water flowing fast and clear, watching the fish play in the fresh and oxygen-rich pool. More importantly, I would enjoy the afternoon because I was working with my son and laughing through the horrid, dirty jobs…sharing time working together. Sometimes, no matter how messy the job, it is worth the effort.