A day in the life of handyman (glamorous it's not)

The Sharp End: A day as a handyman left Dave Waller feeling that he was a bit short of practical skills.

by Dave Waller
Last Updated: 09 Oct 2013

I'm tightening the tool belt this month as the Sharp End is sending me to sample the life of a handyman. Glamorous it's not, even in an Art Deco building. 'I'm here doing the jobs you don't want to do,' says Geoff Saunders, as I arrive at St Margarets, a large residential place on the seafront in Rottingdean. 'Come into the dungeon.'

He's referring to his office. Its contents - a cupboard full of keys, some Resolva weedkiller, masonry paint and a battered old Henry the Hoover - certainly provide a contrast to the elegant lines of the foyer. Yet, as the onsite maintenance man, Geoff is the one person with full run of the place. Sixty per cent of the flats here are rented and 40% lived in by their owners. There's Monty, the 86 year-old who's just moved in and needs help working the lift, and the elderly twins opposite the office who have taken to calling Geoff George. He's now forced to shout 'It's George!' when they ask who's knocking.

The first job is the daily round of checks - from boiler temperatures in the basement to ensuring no one has half-inched the lead covering off the roof. 'You have to act like a policeman a bit,' says Geoff. He says he draws the line at telling residents their doormat is a trip hazard.

As we walk down the stairs, Geoff points at some rough plaster by the window. 'I've been meaning to get round to that,' he says, like a true DIY man. He says that a lot. There's definitely a Sisyphean element to all this: start one job in a building this size and three others will probably roll down on you before you're done.

Our first job is in the foyer: a strip light has gone. Geoff goes up the ladder and finds the faulty bulb is red-hot. He calls the electrician to check it won't be a fire risk. Then we're round the back fixing a CCTV camera. Geoff wraps the cables in insulation tape. We go back in and examine the screen. Now it's not working at all. Geoff puts in a call to the security guy. Don't get me wrong, I couldn't do any of this, but, judging from the camera and the light, the result of me doing it would be just the same: putting in a call to someone else who knows better. I wonder whether life is simply a long chain of people doing that - all the way up to God.

But that's the thing with this job: you have to be omnipotent, turning your hand to anything. Geoff has spent most of his working life as a production manager in printing firms. After several redundancies, he's learned you can't rely on anything, especially when you're 'the wrong side of 50'. But when he started doing the handyman stuff, using skills he'd picked up over the years doing up houses, he enjoyed it so much he turned down the last print job he was offered. 'This is better,' he says. 'It keeps you moving.' He earns £15 an hour.

Geoff knocks on an apartment door. The place has suffered flooding, and he wants to check the repairs are holding up. There's no answer. Is no one in, or are we about to catch Henry the Hoover in flagrante? It's fascinating to think that Geoff can work in such close proximity to so many lives, which remain completely off-limits. It's like Rear Window without the window.

Geoff unlocks the flat and checks the damp, while I soak up the architect's absolute commitment to white and brass 1930s decor. 'You learn a lot about how people live,' he says. For one thing, he has to shuffle the four wheelie bins outside every day because the one nearest the door is always full to overflowing, while the third and fourth always remain empty.

We get back to the dungeon to find the old woman who lives across the corridor is locked out - her twin sister has fallen asleep with the door on the chain. He tries to break it, but he can't so she opts to shuffle round to the back. 'Thanks, George,' she says.

We're up on the third floor fixing a fire door that doesn't shut properly. I unscrew the draught excluder bit on the bottom, then test the door. It bangs a lot. I lack natural aptitude for this. Geoff takes out a Stanley knife and cuts a slither of wood out of the frame where the latch goes.

It doesn't work. Geoff decides we need a new Fire Exit handle. I'm struck by the sheer variety of things this job requires: so much intuition, so many skills, so many parts. Where does one even buy a Fire Exit handle? I mean the question to be rhetorical. 'Screwfix,' says Geoff. That's handy.

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