Monday 16 September 2019

Home truths: The DIY issues now affecting this country’s gnome owners

You'll need cash and patience in buckets if you're dropping into a gnomeware and homeware barn this weekend
You'll need cash and patience in buckets if you're dropping into a gnomeware and homeware barn this weekend
Mark Keenan

Mark Keenan

THE point at which you catch yourself painting a garden gnome is the moment when you truly realise you are (a) much older than you thought you were and (b) likely to be somewhat eccentric.

It gets worse. I keep a garden gnome by the living room fireplace. His name is Neville and I adopted him from Homebase. He's a bog standard no irony model: high pointy hat in fire engine red, fern green jacket with stout belt and buckle, wooly boots, and, of course, a big white beard and standard well hewn but knowing expression. I've had him about 10 years.

Ominously he carries a slightly concealed hatchet (rather than a more gnome-typical spade or fishing rod). But I like that. It gives him an edge.

Unlike his fellow gnomes Kevin and Ian (yes I have three), he has been let live indoors by special dispensation. Outside the wind keeps blowing him over and the peak broke off his hat twice. I managed to repair it both times with glue, papier mache and varnish (yes, I know). He had faded a bit so I repainted him while I was at it. That's when I realised that I have a problem. That, or I have somehow become a hipster (again a problem!).

Because get this; like Mattress Mick, gnomes are back with a bang. Long a minority secret love in a world that makes a point of despising them (in 2016 The Mirror newspaper celebrated predictions that were about to become extinct following a universal slump in sales) gnomes have become universally loved. It seemed to have come from nowhere. Some reports say it's hipsters. UK chain ASDA recently reported that gnome sales are now topping its garden department sales. Other chains report not being able to keep them in stock.

Kids are flocking to the movie Sherlock Gnomes (with a stolen/missing gnomes plot). This ties in with a police appeal in the UK this month for the return of 37 gnomes stolen from the garden of an elderly woman in Arboath. They were removed one at a time through a couple of weeks in April.

Meantime last month in the USA, 755 people dressed as gnomes in order to break the Guinness world 'Most People Dressed As Gnomes' record. They are currently submitting the evidence (photos and affidavids and such) to the Guinness organisation.

Like Neville, Homebase has been blown over a few times of late. Recently the Australian owners more or less apologised for being idiots in how they were running the chain. Last week the entire group of 250 stores (Ireland has 11 ) was sold lock, stock and barrel for just one quid sterling.

Homebase isn't the only home and garden business that has been struggling in the last few years. Others like Woodies, have had a gnome-like resurgance, but only after investing in a complete revamp of its stores alongside a cost control programme.

But for home/gnome owners, who are forced to invest a certain amount of money each year in DIY stuff to keep their house in order, the DIY and home and garden buying experience has been thoroughly transformed through the last 20 years. Sometimes it can be hat crackingly outright traumatic.

Less and less staff seem to know anything about what's what: that is what you need to fix/paint/recover/screw-in something. Or the difference between this drill/mower/sander/blaster and that one. And no one seems to know what's in stock ("If it's not on the shelves we don't have it"). No one seems to be restocking - the shelves often have big voids in them. Like supermarkets without bananas or mushrooms, you come back home with half your list unticked.

Prices are sometimes simply beyond belief. Some time back I got stung for a handful of unpriced metal and plastic tomato canes that turned out to be 14 quid each. I had six of them.

In the old days (some of us gnome owners remember them) you went to the shabby shop that smelt of oil with a grumpy so-and-so behind the counter with a brown coat that had a pocket full of biros and a ruler. With another biro behind his ear, he could pinpoint exactly what you needed, every single time, from amidst walls of crammed ironmongry and debris. You didn't come out feeling you'd been mugged.

Two weeks ago I entered a well known DIY barn with a list, a half an hour before closing. The first issue was the hose-pipe fitting I needed priced at almost €20 when I knew I could buy it in a city centre pound shop for a quarter of that. You go to a barn so you dont have to hunt down one screw or sprocket at a time. An enquiry about where to find a small packet of replacement plastic lawnmower swatches was met with: "We don't stock them - no one does", from a pimply teen in corporate colours and no biros, who looked like he still had his confirmation loot. I had bought the lawnmower (a well -known brand) there in the first place and I found out later that most shops still stocked the swatches.

Finally with 15 minutes to go to closing, staff erupted into a panic like surge. For a second we thought there might be a bomb on the premises. They zoomed in on us from all directions at the lightbulb display, hands waving and voices booming: "MOOOVE! to the door!! If you want to buy something go to the tills now!! We are closing NOW!" When we got to the tills, they had barrier tape across them. But they let me off this time and lifted the tape to allow me buy a handful of baubles for ¤80. The above shop wasn't Homebase, for which I do harbour a gnome-like fondness.

But that's when that chain's recent woes brought a lightbulb moment on a great big missed opportunity. Instead of buying just one Neville for €9 (at current sterling exchange rates), I could have spent just €1.14, and bought Homebase instead - along with thousands of Nevilles, a lifetime's supply of power tools, garden equipment and barbecue stuff. But to be honest I just don't have the space.

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