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Shelf-serving purposes

There used to be a lampoon which ran: They said 'twas a job which couldn't be doneAnd he who tried would rue it. So he took on this job which ''couldn't be done'' -And couldn't do it!

and it most succinctly summarises my experience in the world of Do It Yourself. It has long been a cause of sorrow - and expense - that in our home and over the years I have tended to rationalise the fact that I seem to have five thumbs where carpentry is concerned, with airy claims that I am primarily a Planner, an Ideas Man, or even an Administrator. Anything that absolves me from actually Doing It Myself. Naturally and inevitably there exists on the fringe of my life a covey of people who not only Do It Themselves but who, worse still, are willing to explain in depth how easy it will be for me ''If You Will Only Concentrate.'' And this is only deflected with some difficulty. The one I have found works best is to make a somewhat sinister offer to teach them judo (''It doesn't hurt much after the first few lessons . . .''). It seems to dissipate the impression that they have found a captive audience for their unpleasant skill with hammer and nails.

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Unfortunately, however, the worst recently befell me. My wife joined the DIY tribe as a sort of non-playing supporter and shortly after my last line of defence (''I'll get down to it one day when I have the time'') began to crumble ominously. It was all over my collection of books. I have been accustomed to piling them - neatly, I maintain - in the corner behind our broad Regency armchair where they are pretty well out of view to all except the nosiest of visitors. Unfortunately, these seem to have been on the increase, and such phrases from my wife as ''Mary (or Jane or Elizabeth) says that John (or Philip or George) ran up a bookshelf in no time . . .'' have been on the air waves. Then my wife played what she regards as her debating ace, i.e. she mutters about slaving over a hot stove, at which point I recognise the truth of the Duke of Wellington's dictum that ''the sign of a good general is to know when to reteat and dare to do it.'' I knew. I retreated and set out to find the necessary pieces of wood sufficient for one bookshelf.

Now there is a romantic impression abroad that England is a green and pleasant land filled with trees, e.g. ''the oak and the ash/and the bonny ivy tree/they flourish at home/in my own country.'' I wish to state that these days they do nothing of the sort. Wood is very difficult to come by just now and when you do, the price is outrageous. Incidentally, I know now why ships are built of steel and not wood. It's cheaper. However, a small yard near where we live produced some various pieces, and I felt it didn't really matter if one side of the finished article bears the faint stencilling ''. . . rom Chic: Mich . . . do not . . .'' and the other ''. . . M & W 33 Hull . . . tare weight . . .'' for I feel that one day this will puzzle some antique dealers in this district.

I do not really wish to discuss 'in depth,'' as they say, the matter of my first effort. Suffice it to note that it tended to resemble the Leaning Tower of Pisa and squeaked when a trial volume was laid on it. However, since this was a collected volume of the Works of James Joyce, this may have only been a form of criticism. In military parlance, I drew off to regroup. During the ensuing pause , which lasted some weeks, I took various alternative steps. I even tried to bribe one of our DIY friends to ''run it up'' for me, but he only laughed and said something about how ''that would take all the fun of it away.'' I then came across a booklet entitled ''Be Your Own Carpenter.'' It was indeed a mine of information. The trouble was that the mining tools were numerous and expensive. It listed twenty-seven instruments from saws, tenons and gauges to planes, vises and chisels without which ''no carpenter worthy of the name'' would be found. I concluded that I was unworthy and became very broody.

It was when I was beginning to feel inadequate that salvation came. It arrived in the form of the magic word ''functional.'' We had been watching one of those TV chat shows where an audience bullies an expert. In this case it was an architect who was being harassed over those monstrous box-like structures which have been springing up in London the last few years, and which no one except architects (and possibly cost accountants) seem to like. He was driven back to muttering that they were designed and built to be ''functional,'' i.e. suitable for purpose with no frills, but doing the job of holding in the contents - in this case a few hundred office workers. Well now! No frills. No clever stuff. That was what my bookshelf would be: functional! Clutching the word in my bosom, I set to work.

I reverted to what could loosely be called first principles and, rejecting such reactionary concepts as rounded edges, carved sides and joints, I told myself that a bookshelf is a strip of wood (or two or three) supported by two vertical pieces secured to it by the most expeditious and easy form of link. Over two days I proceeded to put this view into effect, pausing like any honest British worker for tea breaks as needed. The wall did show a distressing tendency to crumble where I banged in the nails, but I ignored it and slowly there came into view the image of a bookshelf. The pride and sense of achievement I felt could only be compared to that of the late Nehemiah when he built the wall 'round Jerusalem. Such things cast a light on the Old Testament, I believe; for I do not now doubt that as the wall reached its final stages, Nehemiah must have become intolerably puffed up and a sore trial to all those around him. It was an interesting coincidence that his wall and my bookshelf took roughly about the same time to complete - ''fifty and two days.'' Well, I didn't have any staff working for me as he did.

Looked at from a corner of the room, my shelves look quite good. A teacher of woodwork came to dinner the other night and though he blinked a little, he made no comment. Social discipline is a wonderful thing. In my expansive moments I regard those shelves as a symbol of man's struggle against the remorseless forces of nature and of those creative powers which have raised him above the beasts of the field.

My wife says they will do until we can afford some ''real'' ones. Real ones indeed! Well, possibly. But will they be half as ''functional''?