Tooth And Nail by Billy Bragg


When I was young, I never had a Lego set but I did spend hours building lovely detached houses using Bayko which involved slotting metal rods into a base and fitting in bricks, windows and doors before finally putting a roof on and admiring my creative talents. Unfortunately, my DIY skills all went downhill thereafter.

At school, I was hopeless at woodwork but one day I proudly brought home the fruits of my labour in metalwork class: a lovely door knocker which I anticipated would replace our doorbell. My parents were very polite about it but stored it in the garage, hoping I would forget about it, which I did until I found it when sorting things out after they died over thirty years later.

In September 1976 I left home to start my working life in Harlow. I had paid £350 for a lovely white Mini Clubman Estate in Jul. It was in good condition apart from a few rusty holes near the rear bumper. I spent long hours in August fibre glassing over the holes which was much more difficult than it looked and the result was a series of badly painted lumps. I never found out whether my handiwork prevented the return of the rust because my car was stolen a week after I started work.

My Dad was very good at DIY and spent hours in his garage constructing pieces of wooden furniture. He put up all the curtain rails in this house in 1996 and did a very fine job. His brother was also very talented and when he died in 1974, my Dad inherited his toolbox. In a misguided burst of optimism, my Dad gave me his toolbox in September 1976 which I kept in my car. I can still hear the sadness and disappointment in my Dad’s voice when I told him that the toolbox had been stolen along with the car.

In 1992 I sold my flat so that Roo and I could move in together. She told me that I would never sell the flat with the bathroom in the state that it was. I didn’t understand because it had been fine for the previous sixteen years but, establishing the habit of doing as I was told (which has been the story of my life for the past twenty eight years), I painted the bathroom a lovely shade of blue. I was very pleased with the outcome – in fact I still have clear mental picture of my handiwork now – but, as it happens, I had even more reason to be happy with my accomplishments because after Roo took one look at my paintwork, she suggested that I never do any more DIY again.

Until last week, that is. We ordered a screen from IKEA to put on the patio in order to provide a semblance of privacy when we sit under our new awning. For an extra £44 we could have had the screen assembled but the guidelines classified the construction as “easy” so I confidently said that I would do it myself. Six hours later I was able to stand it up but it doesn’t open out properly, it wobbles and I’m tempted to chuck it out.

When I was in charge of options at Oakmeeds, it was clear that there was still an elitist attitude towards practical subjects. Students who weren’t academically able were encouraged to take three practical subjects. What does “academically able” mean anyway? Good at English and Maths? Conversely, students who were “academically able” were discouraged from taking practical subjects. I’m very good at solving quadratic equations but ask me to change a fuse….

“Handyman Blues” on “Tooth And Nail” begins by Billy Bragg admitting that he didn’t inherit any handyman skills from his Dad. The song is addressed to his wife and he tells her not to ask him to put up a curtain rail, put up shelves, build a shed, use a screwdriver or change a fuse. However he is able to write love songs. In a very clever line he suggests they change the spelling of pottery to poetry so that he can earn enough money for them both. In the last verse he apologises for looking like he’s lazy but sitting around reading the paper is actually how he finds inspiration to write a song. It’s a brilliant song and I love it. The video is also very funny.

The rest of the album is good. “No One Knows Nothing Anymore” takes the search for truth using the Hadron collider and extrapolates to all of humanity looking for spiritual or economic answers. “Swallow My Pride” concerns the difficulties with apologising after a row. “Do Unto Others” suggests that the world would be a better place if we treated everybody else the way we would like to be treated ourselves. The album ends with the optimism of “Tomorrow’s Going To Be A Better Day” which encourages us all to believe in a better future and pay no attention to the “misanthropic, misbegotten merchants of gloom”. Or, as she is known when pre-judging my DIY skills, my wife.

Published by wilfulsprinter

Music lover

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