Repair Shop star JAY BLADES: My breakdown and a bitter divorce
My crippling breakdown, a bitter divorce… and then one day I answered the phone: Repair Shop star JAY BLADES reveals shock of a call from the father who’d ignored him for almost 30 years, in the last extract from his searingly honest memoir
When I left my wife, I hadn’t planned to go. I hadn’t packed a bag or even picked up my phone. I just got in my car and drove.
And I spent the next few days and nights in that car, parked at a shopping centre out of sight of CCTV cameras, in a town that happened to be Wolverhampton but could have been anywhere.
My life had come crashing down around me. I was 40, I was in a cloud of dust and couldn’t see anything. This is it, I thought. There’s no way forward. All the things I have achieved are worth nothing now.
I had spent years fixing things: chairs, communities, estates, homeless people, young people. I had fixed all of those things, but now I couldn’t fix my relationship. I couldn’t fix me.
Each morning brought a new day. And each day, the car park filled up around me with purposeful shoppers. I felt nothing. I was numb, asleep . . . dead. Beyond repair.
My life had come crashing down around me. I was 40, I was in a cloud of dust and couldn’t see anything, writes Jay Blades, pictured above on The Repair Shop
Eventually, I took a long look at myself in the rear-view mirror. My eyes were red and bloodshot, and there were days of beard growth on my chin. I had to find a hotel and take a shower.
Using my credit card, I ordered room service and ate the first real meal I’d had in days. I’d lost a stone since leaving home.
Next morning, the police wanted to talk to me. My wife had reported me missing, and when I paid for the room by card, alarm bells rang.
The police brought a psychiatric nurse, who began asking me questions from a clipboard. I answered on autopilot, feeling like I wasn’t really there. It all seemed to be happening to someone else.
But I got jolted awake when I overheard the nurse say to the policeman: ‘I’m not sure yet that we need to section him.’
‘We think you might be a danger to yourself, sir,’ the policeman said. That was scary. Then, to my astonishment, a man I knew walked in. A friend.
His name was Gerald Bailey, a businessman who had served as a trustee for my charity, Out Of The Dark. ‘I will look after this gentleman,’ he said.
I sat in his plush motor, sobbing. Proper, shoulder-heaving, gut-wrenching sobs. Everything poured out of me. When I stopped crying, I realised I’d got my feelings back. I was alive again.
One red-hot recipe for MasterChef
I never cook, except for three or four basic dishes I make for myself on a loop. But when I was invited to appear on Celebrity MasterChef, I was full of my characteristic, inexplicable self-confidence, and I decided I didn’t even need to watch the show in advance, let alone practise my culinary skills.
‘It’s TV!’ I told my partner.
‘I know how it’ll work. I’ll start cooking some stuff, then they’ll turn the cameras off and someone will come out and cook it for me! They’ll pretend I have done it.’
On the day, the hosts Gregg Wallace and John Torode handed me and the other contestants a box of ingredients, and told us we had an hour to rustle up something spectacular. The clock started ticking and everyone began running around. I stood there, holding my box, waiting for a professional chef to step in.
I waited, and waited. And a terrible truth dawned on me.
I ran to the ‘market’, or studio food store, and picked up some sweet potatoes and red peppers. Well, I thought they were peppers. I had no idea they were red-hot chillies. When Gregg took a bite, he looked right surprised. ‘Have you tasted this dish, Jay?’ he asked. ‘Do you always use chillies instead of sweet peppers?’
There must have been six of them in there! I’m surprised Gregg didn’t have steam coming out of both ears. ‘Er, yeah, I like it super-spicy!’ I grinned.
That evening, I thought I’d better practise my next dish. But I was staying in a hotel and they wouldn’t let me use their kitchen.
So I turned up for round two the next day, having never even cooked my chicken dish before. As you’d expect, it was an utter fiasco.
I basically presented Gregg and John with a plate of raw chicken.
So that was that. I was out. And that was the end of my Celebrity MasterChef adventure.
Gerald explained that my wife had called him, asking if he could check I was OK. He did a lot more than that. He helped me get back on track, kitting me out in new clothes and finding me a warehouse where I could begin restoring furniture again.
‘Go in there and throw some paint around, or whatever it is that you do,’ he told me.
He even set me up with a home while my divorce went through, living with his mum and stepdad — a lovely Jamaican couple, Thelma and Cass.
I began to feel human again. Thelma and Cass were kind and loving, teaching me to cook ackee and saltfish, callaloo and yam and dumplings.
They started referring to me as ‘our son from London’. In fact, Cass is the only man I have ever called Dad.
I was playing dominoes with him one day, over rice and peas, and I got the overwhelming urge to say: ‘I have so much love and respect for you. I would like to call you Dad but I don’t know if I should.’
Cass looked at me and smiled. ‘I would love that,’ he said.
It was an extraordinary turnaround. But my life has been full of them.
A decade earlier, when I turned 30, it was the year 2000 and everyone was banging on about the new millennium. It should have been exciting, but I felt like I was a hamster on a wheel — running fast but getting nowhere.
I was working as a volunteer for a couple of charities that helped young people, and getting a lot of satisfaction from that. But to pay the bills I was slogging my guts out as a navvy on construction projects in Gerrards Cross, building mansions for millionaires.
My eyes would be out on stalks at the opulence on display. These were some of the wealthiest people in the country, and the Georgian facades reflected that wealth. A lot of showbusiness people lived nearby, as it was convenient for London and Pinewood studios.
This was an exclusively white world. I must have worked on 50 houses in that area, putting in their cinema rooms and saunas, and every single owner was white. So were their neighbours.
I wasn’t jealous. I just didn’t imagine that I, as a black man from Hackney, was meant to aspire to that kind of success. Nor were the young people I was trying to help at an organisation called Youth At Risk. The counselling sessions I ran could be intense. I’d hear the stories these kids were telling me about their lives, and it sounded like my own life. It made me realise — I did all those things. And no one tried to help me like this.
Understanding that these young people were on the verge of making all the same mistakes I had left me quite emotional. Plenty of tears were shed in these sessions, many of them by me.
I knew the hard life they were talking about because I had lived it. My empathy made me really good at mentoring. And that was just as well, because some were in serious need of help.
Lee and Kyle were both 14, and horribly messed up. They both came from broken homes, as did nearly all the kids we dealt with, and no one could get through to them.
Their rap sheets included robbery, intimidation and domestic abuse — Kyle in particular talked about slapping his girlfriend around as though it was totally normal. I had a lot of meetings with them, talking about their violence, and slowly I saw Kyle start to become less aggressive. But it was slow progress.
I felt I had a lot to give the world. I just didn’t know how to go about doing it.
One night I was bemoaning my lot to my landlady, Lisa, and she said: ‘You ought to go to university.’
What? I can safely say this was one idea that had never occurred to me. But I needed a big challenge, and what could be bigger than that? I called my local university, Buckinghamshire New in High Wycombe, and announced that I wanted to be a student.
The admissions manager sounded friendly. She asked me what I wanted to study, and I realised I hadn’t got as far as thinking about that.
‘I know a bit about fashion. And crime,’ I blurted.
Before I knew it — and in spite of my seven U grades at O-level — I had applied to do a degree in criminology.
The entrance procedure was surprisingly easy — one short phone conversation with a guy from the criminology department. He seemed interested in what I had to say, and offered me a place from September.
I didn’t mention that I could barely read. What saved me was a diagnosis of dyslexia and a course in using dictation software on a computer. Suddenly, I was no longer held back by the ball-and-chain of my illiteracy.
For my dissertation, I wrote a paper called Manufacturing A Black Criminal. It argued that society conspires to feed young black men into the criminal justice system, and that they are just so much fodder — similar to the slave trade. Incendiary stuff!
When I graduated, my mum — who had left Britain to return to Barbados — flew back for the ceremony. I was quietly proud of myself, and delighted to see her.
I wasn’t quite so delighted, 15 years later, to hear from The Man Who Contributed Towards My Birth (or TMWCTMB, as I call him, because I don’t want him to have the satisfaction of seeing his name in print).
Getting a call from him was the last thing I expected. But once I had started appearing on television, I suppose it was only a matter of time.
The charity upcycling workshops I’d set up to mentor and teach disadvantaged young kids led to work on shows such as Fill Your Home For Free with Kirstie Allsopp, and Money For Nothing, where I became the regular presenter.
Life really changed with the success of The Repair Shop, especially when I moved from being one of the worker bees to fronting the whole show. This suited my personality, because I’ve always enjoyed talking to people.
The other Repair Shop experts are geniuses at doing repairs, but they can sometimes start mentally dissecting the problem as soon as the item is handed to them.
They’ll look at it, thinking ‘Hmm, I’ll take the back off it first’, even as the guy who brought it in is still talking.
My job is to focus fully on the visitor, connect with them and get their story. I seek out the human-interest angles that make the show tick. Because, when you know the story, you connect to the item so much more.
Life really changed with the success of The Repair Shop, especially when I moved from being one of the worker bees to fronting the whole show. This suited my personality, because I’ve always enjoyed talking to people
It’s a genuine joy to work in The Repair Shop. One reason it works so well is that the majority of us experts are middle-aged. We’ve all gone through life’s many ups and downs. It lends us empathy.
Most viewers love The Repair Shop, but I get some negativity on the show’s social media. One question haunts me: ‘Why doesn’t Jay Blades do anything? All he does is pass the work on to the others — why doesn’t he mend anything?’
Well, the answer is: because that’s what the producers ask me to do, and because I’m good at greeting people and helping them to tell their stories.
At first, the other Repair Shop experts got quite upset about me being slagged off online and said it was racist. ‘Nah!’ I told them. ‘It’s because I’m the foreman, dishing out the work, and no one likes a foreman! I don’t think it’s racist.’
‘Oh, yeah?’ one of them answered. ‘What about Nick Knowles on DIY SOS, then? He has exactly the same role you do, and he doesn’t get these comments.’ And, I must admit, that made me wonder. Ultimately, though, it’s a handful of keyboard warriors. The Repair Shop is one great, big, happy family, onscreen and off. And I’m not going to let a few racist haters dilute that joy.
Why should I? Because it’s not my problem. It’s theirs.
For the same reason, I tend to always wear the same style of clothes on The Repair Shop. I like a smart shirt, cufflinks, a waistcoat or jacket and a flat cap.
Middle England loves the show, and that’s great, but my many years in this country have taught me that some elements of Middle England have always felt wary of black people.
I know a lot of older viewers who love me on The Repair Shop would have crossed the road to avoid me a few years ago. They believe the social trope of the angry, dangerous black man.
If those people saw me on The Repair Shop towering over people and looking menacing, all in black, as if I was about to film a rap video, it would confirm their prejudices. So, I dress smart and tidy. I dress in an unthreatening way, like their grandad dressed in the Thirties.
We’ve heard some heart-wrenching, humbling stories. A guy called Andrew came in with a teapot for Kirsten Ramsay, our pottery conservator, to fix. The teapot had belonged to his wife, Jane. She’d died and he passed it down to their daughter, Alice.
A lice had her own child, Lily, but then tragically died of lymphoma. And, just two months later, here was Andrew, having lost both his wife and daughter, getting the teapot repaired to eventually pass it on to his tiny granddaughter.
It was so moving. Kirsten did a wonderful job on the teapot and then Andrew came back in with his son-in-law and Lily, to pick it up. I still choke up when I think about it.
I had one thought: ‘That’s what a dad should be like.’
And that brings me back to the day I was in my workshop when the phone rang. People call me up with all kinds of weird requests, so at first that didn’t seem anything out of the ordinary.
‘Do you restore paintings?’ the bloke asked when I picked up. ‘It’s not really the painting that needs mending, it’s the frame.’
There was something odd about this call. Something familiar about the voice. But I couldn’t put my finger on it. There was a pause, and then he said: ‘You don’t know who this is, do you?’
I didn’t. And then, a split second before he told me, I did.
‘It’s your father,’ he said. TMWCTMB, who I hadn’t seen since I was 20.
What he said next knocked me sideways: ‘Jay, everything you are doing, all your success on TV with The Repair Shop, that’s all down to me.’
Wow. I was lost for words. I managed to say, ‘Is it?’
‘Yes, of course. I am a carpenter. That’s how you have your ability.’
Oh. My. Days. Was I really hearing this? I could see where this conversation was heading. And I wasn’t going to let it get there.
‘What is it you want?’ I asked him. ‘I haven’t heard from you for nearly 30 years. You ain’t never given me nothing in my life and now you must want something.’
I could hear TMWCTMB breathing hard, but he wasn’t answering. So I summarised where he and I stood before I hung up on him.
I told him I’ve only learned one thing from him — how not to be a father. I’ve tried my whole life not to follow in his footsteps. I haven’t always succeeded, or been the most brilliant dad in the world, but I love my kids more than anything and I provide for all of them. And I’m as proud of that as of anything I’ve achieved.
I’ve never expected anything from TMWCTMB . . . and he’s never let me down on that score.
Life is good now. I’m over my breakdown . . . but my own repair job is still a work in progress.
I’m like a vase someone brings into The Repair Shop. We can fix it up and make it beautiful, but it only needs your kid to knock it off the shelf and it’s smashed into bits again.
The difference now is that, if I break again, I know how to ask for help. I won’t end up sitting in a car park for five days. Ultimately, I’ve learned that all you can do is to be good.
Put goodness into the universe and karma will give it back to you. That’s not a bad rule to live by.
It happened to me when I fell apart, and it was the kindness of near-strangers that put me back together again.
I wouldn’t have made it to where I am without those people’s help. They taught me the most important life lesson of all: The Repair Shop is always open for all of us, and we should never be afraid to check in.
Adapted from Making It: How Love, Kindness And Community Helped Me Repair My Life, by Jay Blades, published by Bluebird at £16.99. © Jay Blades 2021. To order a copy for £14.95 (offer valid until May 14, 2021, UK P&P free on orders over £20), visit mailshop.co.uk/books or call 020 3308 9193.
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