As I was leaving a neighbour’s house last week something sharp scratched my knuckle. The culprit was the head of screw. For such a commonplace thing, the humble screw comes in a rich variety of forms – length, width, head shape, drive form (slotted, Philips, Torx), thread geometry and in the material from which it is made, and in its strength and colour – brass, steel, aluminium and black japanned. And all have different uses, looks and properties.
In this case, the screw was wrong in itself, it was out of keeping with the others and inevitably, its mal-fitting head stuck out. The door was late Victorian and the latch had probably been there forever. One of the original screws had, I imagine, worked loose. But instead of replacing it with a 1”, size 8, slotted round-head black japanned screw like the others, the handyman had sloppily used a modern and thinner aluminium countersunk Phillips screw that he happened to have introduced at an angle. Everything was wrong; bothering was clearly not part of his work ethic. While my hand was not hurt, my sensibilities certainly were. The handyman’s lack of “bother” appalled me.
It was someone’s not bothering that led to the replacement buttons on my mother-in-law’s blouse being in odd sizes and colours, sewn on using different coloured threads and often too big for their buttonholes. Here was a piece of unbothering that insulted everything – the wearer, the blouse, the giver (my wife) and sensibilities generally. Not bothering to this extent is an abomination.
As you might have surmised, bothering, at least for some things (though not my appearance for instance!) is a quality I value enormously and indeed look out for. Whenever I see the fruits of bothering, something inside me glows, or in cat-terms purrs. There is something heartening about seeing objects, big or small, to which someone has given that extra bit of care, has applied that extra attention to detail, that extra investment of time.
There are contemporary examples of bothering but the practice also stretches back centuries, as can be seen in collections and museums. What pleasure it gives to see the charming, signed, samplers, painstakingly embroidered over months by girls who bothered as long ago as in the 16th century. Or to look at the intricately whirled lines covering large granite slabs and carved with great patience 5,000 years ago in the burial ground at Gavrinis off Brittany.
Recently I have had two causes to purr, one arose in India and the other in London. The Taj Mahal was built in 1653 by the Mughul emperor Shah Jahan in memory of his wife Mumtaz Mahal, whom he is said to have adored. The building itself is extraordinary. But the bothering was in certain detail. All around the base of the white marble walls are hundreds of flower motifs and abstract or algebraic patterns in inlayed, coloured, semi-precious stones. Each is said to have been drawn out by the emperor himself with his architect. Nothing was left to chance; bother indeed. I have seen another such bothering with the ‘fixtures and fittings’ in a building. Although not on such a scale, it can be found in a house in Glasgow designed by the architect Charles Rennie Mackintosh.
My second spotting relates to the London underground. The 1930s underground map is famous for its geometric layout, but it also established the colours of the different lines. Sitting, staring and minding my own business, I suddenly realised that the livery of my carriage and most notably the colour of the hand rails, matched the colour on the map (in that instance the dark blue of the Piccadilly line). In due course, I discovered that there is the same matching arrangement on all the other lines.
Every time I see the different colours on the tube I grin to myself – what bother, what imagination, what cheek, what next? Whatever it is, it will be a pleasure.
Photo: Early 19C sampler by Martha Searle, Wells and Mendip Museum