One of the trickiest skills of modern life is putting a transparent screen-protector on an iPhone. I’ve got through an entire pack of four and still not been happy. An air bubble, a skew-whiff angle, a fingerprint, a covered-up speaker, all have incurred my wrath—and dented my marriage, as my wife tries to help but just gets in my light. So it is with some trepidation that I approach a DIY course featuring wallpapering. This is going to be one big iPhone cover.
On top of that I’ll be, apart from the instructor, the only man present. As the name suggests, Chix & Mortar is a course run solely for women. The reverse would seem odd: a men-only DIY course would be as unnecessary as a “No OAPs” sign at a One Direction concert. But despite the stereotype that chaps have an innate affinity with tools, where women would rather try on hats, no one in the function room of the Thistleworth tennis club in west London seems to be there for the sexual politics. Instead, when I ask why they’ve come, the main reason is rather practical: why pay someone to do something you can learn for yourself?
That none of the ten attendees seems tool-phobic or prone to catty remarks about each other’s overalls is only testament to my ludicrous preconceptions about an all-female DIY class. But from what Paul, the Chix & Mortar tutor, tells me, my preconceptions about men and DIY classes are sadly true. Apparently the Valentine’s Day couples’ courses that he runs consistently result in rows: the men take charge and overrule their partners. So I decide to hang back and adopt my prison-survival strategy. I become the Grey Man, drawing no attention to myself, determined to bite my tongue even if a hammer is dropped on my foot.
Our first task seems simple enough: putting up lining paper, which in real life would cover any cracks or imperfections in a wall. Wooden boards are set up for us to practise on, and we start applying wallpaper paste to the paper using rollers on trestle tables. The last time I did anything similar was 33 years ago, making collages in primary-school art lessons—but this time there’s no smell of wee, and I don’t have a crush on the teacher.
Next we’re told to do something quite counter-intuitive: fold both pasted ends into the middle, fold in half again and set the wet sheet aside for five minutes while we prepare the next one. I daren’t ask why, in case it seems like some chest-beating challenge for the position of silverback, but thankfully one of my fellow pupils follows what is after all a legitimate line of enquiry. Apparently this is the standard way of letting long sheets rest while the paste soaks in. The sheets will unfold. It is not, as someone else posits, like sticking Sellotape to itself—an image that sets me off on a bout of iPhone-cover panic.
Once my first sheet is ready to be hung, I smooth it horizontally on to the board, unfolding as I go, and pushing out baneful air bubbles to the edges using a brush. The main challenge is the presence of a light switch. I’d imagined all manner of complicated measurements would be required, maybe even a special cutter, but the technique is deliciously simple. Cover it with the lining paper. Cut from each corner to the centre, lift up the flaps, push them back over the switch, then slice off the excess. Easy. It’s like finding out carpets are fitted using perforated lines.
I stand back and beam at my handiwork. A smooth sheet of lining paper nestles snugly against the frame that simulates the edges of walls. As I move round the light changes, and horror strikes me, followed by a rising fury. It’s not smooth at all. It looks as though I’ve just stuck up a roll of bubble wrap. Paul hovers at my shoulder, and I get ready to be told that I have let down the Team of Man. He surprises me by pronouncing satisfaction. The bubbles are just the paste showing, and will disappear as it dries. I allow myself a surreptitious air-punch.
I then paste and hang a sheet of willow-ish patterned wallpaper. The pattern has to be lined up so that bisected leaves and branches become whole—like chopping down a tree in reverse. This is no challenge for a man so anal he’s happy to put other people’s spice racks in alphabetical order. The result is convincingly arboreal; my confidence surges. If you’ve got an iPhone that needs covering, you know who to call. Particularly if it has a light switch in the middle.