Seven years ago, Jay Blades was like one of those broken jukeboxes or heap toys that teary punters bring to his Repair workshop. At 45, after a half-life of knocks and scratches, he saw no future for himself. His solution one evening was to get in his car, overloaded with a sense of pain and failure, and drive away from his home and business and his wife and daughter in High Wycombe all night until to he didn’t know where.
He ended up in a McDonald’s car park in Wolverhampton after roughly avoiding writing the car and himself on a motorway overpass. He sat in the car in that parking lot for hours, then days, finally sobbing to come back to life. With the help of a friend in town, and that friend’s parents who “adopted” him, he began to remake and mend himself. Thinking back to that time now, he says the closest he can describe to it is a feeling of drowning and then getting air, a rebirth. In the years that followed, he says, he never ceased to be delighted to be able to breathe.
Although he had never been to Wolverhampton before this trip, he stayed in the city, rebuilt his life there. At the sweltering lunchtime we meet, he’s driven from the Midlands to central London to do some more filming for his TV show and launch a DIY book. “It’s almost as if I had two birthplaces,” he tells me. “I had London, then I had Wolverhampton. Everyone feels at home. And I feel good there.”
He chose to have lunch at the Holborn Dining Room at the Rosewood Hotel, a grand old brasserie in a building that was once the Imperial residence of the Pearl Assurance Company. The place has a small symbolic value for the Blades. When The repair shop began to find success, he asked a friend to recommend a fancy place to stay for a weekend in the Smoke. The friend thought he would appreciate the sweeping marble staircase at the Rosewood, and he was not mistaken. Blades spent the whole weekend taking pictures. “I’ve never seen a staircase like this, just incredibly beautiful,” he says with his big smile.
Did you feel like you had arrived?
He laughs, leans over my dictaphone. “You come to this place,” he said, “and you have someone whose job it is to set you up and say hello, then someone comes with the jug of water, then someone brings your plates, and then check that, there is someone else bringing us salt and pepper…”
To get an idea of the pain Blades escaped from, it’s worth reading his memoir, Do it. It’s not a memoir about misery, far from it, but it’s about how Blades’ father left when he was a baby – he later found out that ‘the man who helped birth me’ had 25 more children. Raised harshly by his mother in a council flat in Hackney, in secondary school he knew a lot of people, first being racially bullied, later mainly giving a stick to bullies and racists. He was severely dyslexic and had difficulty reading and writing. violence. He went through a period on the brink of drug dealing and numerous street fights in his early twenties, navigating multiple failed relationships, fathering two children and homelessness. He found salvation first in social work, then earning a degree in criminology from Buckingham New University (of which he is now chancellor) and finally – with his first wife – finding broken things and finding people like him to put them back in place.
Part of his ongoing repair is to take care of himself. He did 100 push-ups, as he does every day, before getting in the car at six o’clock this morning. He orders what he always orders, he says, “Fish of the day – halibut – a plate of broccoli and water.”
“I live on fish and vegetables,” he says. “I eat meat once a month when we visit my ‘second mum’ in Wolverhampton. Basically, she cooks a heavy Jamaican diet: goat curry, cow’s foot, Saturday soup and my favorite, corned beef and rice. But that’s it for me for a month.
He’s grateful to be sitting down doing this interview, eating this “wow halibut,” he says, because it was an interview with the Guardian the film crew that put it on television. A documentary crew from the newspaper came to his home workshop in High Wycombe – where he worked with local craftsmen to restore and give a touch to salvaged furniture, while mentoring young children struggling in life and in a trade .
He discovered that he was natural in front of the camera. “What I like to do on TV is influence people I’ll never meet,” he says. “There aren’t too many people of my color on TV yet, certainly not in the craft world. I classify myself as being mud. It’s an elitist world. And I wish it was more accessible.
He only entered interiors when he finally had his own place. As a kid in the 1970s, style was all about clothes – “My mum was with a guy called Lloyd McFarland at one point. And he really made me want to look good. The way he s ‘dressed, he looked like a destination. Like a zip code…” – but he always noticed how things looked. He thinks it was partly to do with his dyslexia – when you can’t really read or write, says -it, you constantly compensate by absorbing as much information as possible from elsewhere, by looking for clues, by memorizing things.
He is still working on his reading – weekly lessons – and he asked a colleague to read him the menu to memorize before our arrival. Today, he is a powerful advocate not only for the 10% of the population who are dyslexic, but also for an education that allows children to work with their hands. “This land was built on worker bees. And then you take this ability to do something away from young people, what are they going to do?
One of the first things he did when he was elected Chancellor of Buckingham New University was to get them to reinstate a furniture design course that had been abandoned. The university is based in High Wycombe which, as Blades discovered, was the furniture capital of England – G-Plan and Ercol and Parker Knoll had factories there, making post-war furniture which has were built to last, and which have now, partly with his help, come back into fashion. (“I like a good G-Plan buffet,” he says.) He also created a scholarship that helped pay college tuition for five to seven people a year from backgrounds like the his.
He’s in contact with enough people he grew up with to know that most don’t make it. But he also knows – like any Repair workshop devotee knows – that second chances are possible. “I get up these days and I know it’s going to be a good day,” he says. “It doesn’t matter what trash gets to me.”
In the past, when he encountered daily racism, he always got his retaliation first. How does he handle it these days?
“When I meet him these days, it’s very subtle,” he says. “In the good old days, someone would spit on you. These days, I think it’s my job to educate people about race. I talk a lot about black history. But I also like the black future.
For him, he hopes that the future will always go through The repair shop, which has gone through a remarkable 10 streak in five years, and now has releases all over the world. He guessed that when he first entered the workshop, it might be a special sight. At first it was like a medieval guild – “all trades in one space: wood, art, clocks, ceramics, leather, etc.”. But then, with the first “revelation” they made – a woman crying over her memories of a restored piano stool – he knew they were really onto something. Antiques tour had long since proven that people invest deep emotions in objects; The repair shop offered a way for them to redeem them, let them out. From that first show, Blades made a point of not knowing the backstory of the people who entered, so he could find out on camera with the rest of us.
He hopes, he says as he finishes his lunch – tea, not pudding – that he can keep doing the show for 20 years. “What’s happened to us as adults is that we lose a lot of our imagination. Kids see things. I try to add a child mentality to things,” he smiles. know what, Tim, the other day I literally jumped into the street. A 52-year-old man. Why? Because I’m happy.”
DIY with Jay by Jay Blades (Pan Macmillan, £20). To support the Guardian and Observer, order your copy at guardianbookshop.com. Delivery charges may apply