Lucy Vickery

Famous writers get to grips with DIY

Famous writers get to grips with DIY
‘While we were shut in there was an outbreak of cleaning the barbecues…’. Credit: Granger/Shutterstock
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In Competition No. 3151 you were invited to imagine famous authors reflecting on their struggles with DIY.

Highlights in a terrific entry included John Osborne on grouting, A.E. Housman on the torture of cutting your own hair and several accounts of W.B. Yeats’s botched attempts at sorting out the plumbing (‘things fall apart’). I much admired Mike Morrison’s reworking of Robert Frost’s ‘Mending Wall’ and also tip my hat to strong -performers -Patrick Massey, Dominica Roberts, Nick Hodgson, Bill Greenwell, George Simmers and Anne Parsons.

It was especially tough to choose the winners this week but those who made the cut appear below and pocket £25 each.

While we were shut in there was an outbreak of cleaning the barbecues. This you did personally, in an intimate way, which created the element of tragedy. Without the element of tragedy, there was only disgust and the hollow feeling you have when you watch a cowardly matador. Those who have laid their barbecue away for the winter uncleaned face harder work and, too, the disgust that comes with handling filth. But in truth without the disgust there is no tragedy, only a vague disappointment such as you find in the novels of Henry James. A man needs to know this. There was a waiter in Key West whose mother cleaned his barbecue, and he is not spoken of by name. For myself, I cleaned like a mitrailleur, first the stripping down, then always the soaking, then the fine detail, the streets outside as empty as a whore’s promise.

Basil Ransome-Davies/Ernest Hemingway
Smiling Mfanwy, beguiling Myfanwy

Changing the bulb in my high-hanging light,

Nanny and mum to me, d-i-y chum to me,

All of my life I have cherished the sight

Of you standing tiptoe there, high on my nursery chair,

Wobbling and laughing and stretching up while

Your skirt rises up to show glimpses of what’s below —

Ankles in stockings of flesh-coloured lisle.

Reaching aloft up there, bulb fitted in with care,

Sleeves falling back on your arms bare and bold;

Bright in their new-won light, there to this boy’s delight

Suntan’s warm glow and their down of soft gold.

Neatest Mfanwy, my sweetest Mfanwy,

Wobbling and flushed as my Teddy and I

Hold both your ankles tight. Old age will never blight

That picture of you and our shared d-i-y.

Martin Parker/John Betjeman
Today we have naming of parts. For the pack

Has been waiting for months, with instructions attached.

Before you assemble the sections, make sure

That each fitting is numbered, none lost on the way.

I’m lost in the soft air each day, with permission;

      But today we have naming of parts.


Today we have naming of parts. Fasten screws

Only lightly at first until all is assembled.

Part 4 and 5B don’t connect; in a word

It’s vital you keep them apart. And the birds

Sing their wordless song to dispel isolation;

      Yet today we have naming of parts.

Sylvia Fairley/Henry Reed
‘The sash needs fixing,’ Florence sighed,

Ay, Florence sighed,

‘The window sticks and will not glide

While you in verse take flight!’

Years of neglect I can’t defend,

In Max Gate there is much to mend,

So window-wards my way I wend

To put the matter right.


This wretched lockdown should afford

Ay, should afford,

A chance to tackle tasks ignored

I fain would sooner shun.

’Tis best I let these chores accrue,

The dripping tap, the smoking flue,

And simply pen a verse or two

On all I haven’t done.

Alan Millard/Thomas Hardy
The name Henry, allied to the general rotundity and roseate colouring of the device, brought sharp reminder of another Henry of brief acquaintance in the days of Lady Molly and her soirées, the sound created as its power-cord slithered socket-wards adding to the general feeling man might have been reincarnated as machine, such was the echo of the human Henry’s peculiar laugh, though admittedly he had enjoyed a proboscis of lesser proportions. Switching it on and approaching the first of so many patterned rugs of dubious provenance, the engine roar took one back to a time of air-raids and Widmerpool’s pronouncement that normality might resume all the sooner were men of his stature, men whose will outweighed all other attributes, in charge of the crisis. The present Henry, eyes raised, mouth arched in a knowing smile, might even be said to be mirroring one’s own reaction to the memory.

Ian Rankin/Anthony Powell
They’re holding their breath in the close tonight,

A tropical dusk and a terrible reek:

The sewer’s backed up to an ominous height

And the plumber can’t make it till Saturday week;

The lateral gully has burst its sides,

The neighbours curse and the kids complain,

And the voice of the harridan briskly chides:

‘Man up, Man up, and rod that drain.’


The rim of the manhole is red with rust,

Red with the rust of routine betrayed,

The auger’s bent and the plunger’s bust,

The soffit’s a wreck and the wrench mislaid;

There’s a seven-foot drop to a right-hand turn

And a horrible sludge in the souterrain;

But the harridan’s words on the conscience burn:

‘Man up, Man up, and rod that drain.’

Nick Syrett/Henry Newbolt

No. 3154: here comes the summer

You are invited to supply your own variations on the medieval ditty ‘Sumer is icumen in’. Please email up to 16 lines to by midday on 17 June.

NB. We are unable to accept postal entries for the time being.