Monthly Archives: November 2015

Signs of the times


Last Friday (Black Friday) I took a walk around the evocatively named Wheathamstead – a picturesque Hertfordshire village listed as England’s 20th richest in a 2011 survey. I drive through the place pretty much every weekday but only really visit the fish and chip shop and public toilet.

I realised how little I knew about Wheathamstead when looking at the notice board by the car park. An advert for Small Business Saturday exhorted shoppers to ‘shop local’ on at least one day – 5 December 2015 in the UK – fair enough.

sIGN OF TIMES 3But it was another advertisement on the notice board that surprised me – for the Wheathamstead Food Bank. Yes, a food bank.

Decades ago I remember being told by someone who knew about such things, that there were children dying of malnutrition in Chester. Hard to believe if you know Chester, but that was 45 years ago. It’s scandalous that Wheathamstead in 2015 is not immune from the ravages of government cuts. And the austerity doesn’t stop at the Food Bank – around the corner outside the church is a banner advertising the Credit Union. A Credit Union is a save and borrow facility helping those the high street banks won’t touch; not the sort of resident you’d expect to find in a village like Wheathamstead.

Which brings me to my passion for ‘make and mend’ to save money and the environment. I’ve always wondered why the much publicised mantra ‘reduce, reuse, recycle’ does not include the fourth R – repair.

At the Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead, we’re trying to do our bit to rectify this omission. This year we’ve run four very successful Community Repair Days – people bring their broken items, we assess them for free and, if possible, we fix them. We also do affordable paid-for repairs, but we’re not in the business of putting professional repairers out of business. We describe our facility as ‘a clinic not a hospital’ – if we can’t do a relatively quick fix but decide the item is repairable, we’ll recommend local businesses that may be able to help.

So, last Black Friday – a US import that in my opinion brings out the worst in otherwise reasonable people – I had my eyes opened in Wheathamstead. They say that poor people living in affluent areas are doubly disadvantaged because they are effectively invisible. Not so in Wheathamstead it would seem – the whole community appears to be pulling together in hard times. A silver lining in a dark grey cloud.

For photos of the Repair Shed Community Repair Days go to More about Small Business Saturday at

The paying customer is always right

Bob and a shy Michael with commissioned window boxes

Bob and a shy Michael with commissioned window boxes

At The Repair Shed in Hemel Hempstead we’ve spent the best part of the year learning an important lesson.

We’ve been making products for sale from reclaimed materials, primarily old pallets. The products ideas – for homes and gardens – have come from many sources, including members of the Shed, their families, and of course, the internet. The result has been a range of traditional and more unusual items.

We’ve had fun making them and we’ve put them ‘out there’ – to research the market – online through Etsy (a craft-based selling site), on our webpage [] and on Facebook []. Over the summer we’ve also been at outdoor events – country fairs, street craft markets and charity events. The face-to-face contact and feedback has been valuable, if somewhat disheartening.

We’ve learnt that it’s time to stop making products that we want to sell and to start making products that people want to buy. Online sales have been spectacularly unsuccessful and sales on stalls have not been much better.

a less shy Michael

A less shy Michael

Where we have had success is in taking commissions. Some are quite wacky – a ‘cat kennel’ a milk crate with a roof, and a sweet cart (as in sweets to suck and chew, not a hostess trolley for desserts) as well as more conventional items such as window boxes, and bug houses.

A commission is, of course, a firm sale at an agreed price (but costing is not always easy when you’ve never made the item before) so they’re a much better business proposition. And once made and photographed the one-off product can be promoted and might well become a source of further sales.

So we’re pushing for commissions and hoping the next stage will be repeat commissions of different items.  There are various statistics about how much more expensive it is to get a new customer than to keep an existing one (I’ve seen anything from 4 – 7 times more) but the detail is unimportant. Regular and repeat paying customers are the lifeblood of many businesses both big and small.

I was reminded about this when I heard that the landlady of a local pub knows pretty exactly how much each regular drinker is worth to her business. She can look down the bar and put a price above each head – £3,000 a year, £5,000, £10,000 … (yes, that’s a lot of beer!) And she looks after them like VIPs because they are; without them she’d close. This five star treatment was confirmed when a friend went to the pub for a meal with a small group of friends. When they asked if the noisy drinkers at the bar could be quietened down a bit, the landlady politely told them “sorry I can’t – they’re my regulars.”

The stiff upper lip re-visited

IMG_8012The stiff upper lip revisited 

It’s day 20 of Movember – 30 days of moustache-growing around the world to raise awareness and funds for men’s health, in particular testicular and prostate cancer, mental ill health and inactivity.

The idea is that each mo [moustache] starts a conversation – ‘what is that!’ and other such mo-ckery.  Since men are notoriously reluctant to talk about their personal health (‘sitting on the symptoms’ as my GP put it when talking about piles) shining the spotlight on men’s health for at least 30 days each year can’t be a bad thing.

Almost exactly a year ago I posted a blog about my efforts to get an emergency appointment at my nearest hospital which turned out to be slower than my regular appointment. Well, 45 weeks later my in-out, on-off, love-hate relationship with the hospital continues, which partly explains my mo-tivation for Movember this year.

I thought I’d try to start a conversation with a moustache and a blog – my first for many months.

To cut a long story short, after a difficult summer, caused in part by complications after a biopsy, the good news is that I don’t have prostate cancer. But a fellow choir member does.  I’ll need surgery but, as I’ve been on the waiting list since August with no date for the operation on the horizon, it would appear to be ‘non-urgent’.  Which makes me very grateful for my good health; the least I can do is to go without shaving my top lip for 30 days to support people like singer Peter.

This year – my third with face fungus – I’m growing two moustaches. After a public vote about which mo to grow, votes for the ‘rock star’ and ‘trucker’ were topped by an offer from my friend John up in the Highlands and Islands of Scotland to double his donation if I grow both!

Silly – yes, but why not have a bit of fun sparking conversations about a deadly serious subject? Another friend Carl walks two paces behind me when we go into town, and Jeremy in London is offering to donate again next year if I don’t grow a mo. With friends like that who needs…etc

If you want to see my top lip twins, go to where you can help make all the effort worthwhile by edging me towards my £600 fundraising target – I’m only a whisker away (pun intended).

See also…

Beyond the stiff upper lip

Testing the patient’s patience