Why bother?

As I was leaving a neighbour’s house last week something sharp scratched my knuckle. The culprit was the head of screw. For such a commonplace thing, the humble screw comes in a rich variety of forms – length, width, head shape, drive form (slotted, Philips, Torx), thread geometry and in the material from which it is made, and in its strength and colour – brass, steel, aluminium and black japanned. And all have different uses, looks and properties.

In this case, the screw was wrong in itself, it was out of keeping with the others and inevitably, its mal-fitting head stuck out. The door was late Victorian and the latch had probably been there forever. One of the original screws had, I imagine, worked loose. But instead of replacing it with a 1”, size 8, slotted round-head black japanned screw like the others, the handyman had sloppily used a modern and thinner aluminium countersunk Phillips screw that he happened to have introduced at an angle. Everything was wrong; bothering was clearly not part of his work ethic. While my hand was not hurt, my sensibilities certainly were. The handyman’s lack of “bother” appalled me.

It was someone’s not bothering that led to the replacement buttons on my mother-in-law’s blouse being in odd sizes and colours, sewn on using different coloured threads and often too big for their buttonholes. Here was a piece of unbothering that insulted everything – the wearer, the blouse, the giver (my wife) and sensibilities generally. Not bothering to this extent is an abomination.

As you might have surmised, bothering, at least for some things (though not my appearance for instance!)  is a quality I value enormously and indeed look out for. Whenever I see the fruits of bothering, something inside me glows, or in cat-terms purrs. There is something heartening about seeing objects, big or small, to which someone has given that extra bit of care, has applied that extra attention to detail, that extra investment of time.

There are contemporary examples of bothering but the practice also stretches back centuries, as can be seen in collections and museums. What pleasure it gives to see the charming, signed, samplers, painstakingly embroidered over months by girls who bothered as long ago as in the 16th century. Or to look at the intricately whirled lines covering large granite slabs and carved with great patience 5,000 years ago in the burial ground at Gavrinis off Brittany.

Recently I have had two causes to purr, one arose in India and the other in London. The Taj Mahal was built in 1653 by the Mughul emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, whom he is said to have adored. The building itself is extraordinary. But the bothering was in certain detail. All around the base of the white marble walls are hundreds of flower motifs and abstract or algebraic patterns in inlayed, coloured, semi-precious stones. Each is said to have been drawn out by the emperor himself with his architect. Nothing was left to chance; bother indeed. I have seen another such bothering with the ‘fixtures and fittings’ in a building. Although not on such a scale, it can be found in a house in Glasgow designed by the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.

My second spotting relates to the London underground. The 1930s underground map is famous for its geometric layout, but it also established the colours of the different lines. Sitting, staring and minding my own business, I suddenly realised that the livery of my carriage and most notably the colour of the hand rails, matched the colour on the map (in that instance the dark blue of the Piccadilly line). In due course, I discovered that there is the same matching arrangement on all the other lines.

Every time I see the different colours on the tube I grin to myself – what bother, what imagination, what cheek, what next? Whatever it is, it will be a pleasure.

Photo: Early 19C sampler by Martha Searle, Wells and Mendip Museum

2 comments on “Why bother?
  1. Jack Humphrys says:

    Joe Collier says that on all the Lodon underground carriages, the colours of the hand rails matches the colours of the lines as depicted on the undergound map. I have checked and find him to be right with regard to colours in carriages on the Central, Circle, District, Bakerloo, Victoria and Piccadilly lines. However, on the Northern line there is only a token band of black, and on the Jubille line there is no match whatsover. I find his observation fascinating but I just thought I should put the record straight.

  2. Tina Bruce says:

    Is bothering what government departments like to call ‘standards’? If so, governments with departments called by fast changing names, such as DES, DfES, DCSF and DfE need to take a long hard look at what having standards might mean. They talk about reaching standards, delivering high standards, and meeting standards etc etc. All of this talk is about other people deciding what other people or children must do. The dodgy screw in the door would not meet standards. The mismatching badly sewn on button would not either.Why are standards of work so often low?

    Perhaps the answer lies in the over-emphasis on doing what others tell you to do, and the carrying out of tasks stipulated by others. Falling in love with wood and becoming a craftsman or woman, or noticing the button needs mending and lovingly sewing it on with care are not about conforming to tasks set outside themselves. People need to feel empowered and to be autonomous if they are to develop standards. Standards require bothering, and bother comes from within. It cannot be externally controlled.The autonomous botherer will not be doing things to please others. Those who bother do things because of the pleasure of seeing something done well-safe and easy use of the right screw in the door, the intricate architecture in memory of a loved one, the caring sewing of a button or beauty of a sampler. Knowing yourself, pushing yourself to do something as well as is possible, and making connections which create beauty,logic, ease of use- these satisfy in deep ways. Being bothered satisfies the self, and brings help and pleasure and comfort to others. Meeting standards is a chore, best done quickly with the minimum effort in order to satisfy the demands of others who have some power to enforce their requirements on others. We will never have a Big Society (be Good Neighbours etc etc and the string of other government initiatives we have seen) if the emphasis is on standards. What we need is a spot of bother.

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