In recent months I’ve been binge-watching the BBC’s long-running heirloom restoration show, The Repair Shop. “What’s in the box?” asks impresario Jay Blades as each new—well, old and badly damaged—item arrives at the Weald and Downland Living Museum.
In The Repair Shop today…
I’m as eager as Jay to find out. I’m fascinated by the amazing variety of items brought to the Repair Shop for restoration. A radio that survived being shot up in Pakistan. Running shoes from the 1936 Olympics in Berlin. A portrait of King Charles whose age only became apparent when it underwent restoration.
I’m fascinated by the skills and techniques demonstrated by the show’s roster of artisans, including carpenter and cabinet-maker Will Kirk, saddler Suzie Fletcher, metalwork expert Dominic Chinea, repairer of all things small and mechanical Steve Fletcher, upholsterer Sonnaz Nooranvary, and cuddly toy restorers Amanda Middleditch and Julie Tatchell.
I have tool envy at Steve Fletcher’s immense collection of pliers.
Most of all, I’m fascinated by the extraordinary stories that accompany each piece. Things seem to be accepted into the Repair Shop not just based on the item itself but also on the heartstring-pulling potential of the background narrative.
A child’s bootie found by a British soldier in war-torn France in World War I and carried by his son as a lucky charm all through World War II. A rolled-up religious painting smuggled out of Uganda by an Indian family. A toy chest from a Jewish family who booked a return train journey from Germany to England in the 1930s and simply didn’t go back.
“Why repair it now?”
Despite the immense variety of these stories, their emotional trajectory is identical.
Family heirlooms appear in a dishevelled state. Their owners often express guilt that such precious items have become so ravaged. The World War I bootie was barely identifiable.
“Why repair it now,” asks Jay, or one of his sidekicks. Reasons vary. The anniversary of a death. It’s become pressing after the recent passing of a loved one. Or perhaps a vague unease, something that’s been on the to-do list for decades.
Everyone recognises that their item represents a link with something lost in the past.
Yet no one has picked up the subtle radar echo of family trauma, incessantly pinging, a distress call for urgent assistance. Our lives are constant feedback loops, forever sending us subtle course-correction messages—if only we know to listen.
Emotions precede thoughts
The show then takes us through the restoration to the great reveal—whipping off a cloth to display the item in all its restored glory. Gasps. “Wow!” “That’s amazing!” Various variations of “I’m speechless, which doesn’t often happen to me.” They’re so caught up in the moment they don’t notice that describing oneself as speechless is a contradiction.
The disconnection doesn’t stop there. Many people on the show express the feeling that their lost loved ones are looking down with satisfaction, as if the concept of ‘down’ exists outside of physical space.
These whimsically irrational responses tell us that another principle is in play: emotions precede thoughts. Whenever a situation contains an unresolved emotional dynamic, we always respond emotionally first. The more emotional the situation, the more rationality goes out the window.
Speaking of which, here come the tears. The hugs. The apologies for committing that capital crime of patriarchal societies, being human. Jay, Will, and Suzie look on softly as an item’s owners battle sudden, overwhelming feelings.
What are these feelings? Repressed trauma. Unexpressed grief, lack of parenting, sudden loss, abandonment.
A woman with a menorah (9-branched candlestick holder) told how her father was always away working. A woman with an ancient midwifery bag told how her grandfather went to the war, while her midwife grandmother moved in with expectant mothers for six weeks at a time. Her parents were farmed out—i.e., abandoned.
This is all glossed over. Their parents and grandparents were wonderful. Their childhood was idyllic, etcetera, etcetera. The sudden burst of tears tells a different story. They’re living in imaginary childhoods where all was well. The prospect of seeing the past as it truly was, is too frightening. For no one ventures into the unconscious except by necessity.
As well as the item, the trauma also needs repairing.
A hero’s journey
This is what philosopher Joseph Campbell calls a hero’s journey: a painful, difficult stumble through the wilderness of our unconscious. In The Hero with a Thousand Faces, Campbell writes: “The first work of the hero is to retreat from the world scene of secondary effects to those causal zones of the psyche where the difficulties really reside.”
The Repair Shop shows us Campbell’s “world scene of secondary effects”—yet the invitation to enter the “causal zones of the psyche” is refused. Our society is fundamentally ignorant—and wishes to remain so—of the generational trauma it’s built upon.
The Repair Shop is a wonderful programme, the kind the BBC consistently excel at. It creates a springboard for healing trauma. Yet the opportunity goes begging. The restored heirlooms become tokenised, both comforting and disquieting, perpetuating unresolved family trauma because the repair hasn’t gone deep enough.
Image: British Broadcasting Corporation