When Jay Blades, host of the hugely popular global hit BBC Series The Repair Shop, left high school at age sixteen, he had an appointment with his careers teacher. The teacher stared out from behind his desk and smirked “Well, you’re going to amount to nothing, Blades. It’s not even worth talking to you!”
This article invites the question in the second half of the title. The story of Blades’s career, reported in his 2021 book Making It: How Love, Kindness and Community Helped Me Repair My Life, is punctuated by moments of choice, where he seems in control over his career, and moments of chance, where serendipity takes over. In turn, the story invites you to reflect on the interplay between choice and chance in your own career situation, and to ask “What’s next for me?”
The high school careers teacher could well have done his homework. Blades was raised by a single mom in a blue-collar district of north London, had shown no interest in any of his classes, been in trouble with the police, and had a complete string of “U” (“Unclassified”) entries down his final report card. He was always getting into fights in the school yard, and the career teacher’s colleagues could reasonably report that Blades threw the first punch in many of those fights.
After high school he found a variety of largely unskilled jobs, including one as an office junior in the fashion industry, where none of them called for an application form. Blades knew what his high school career teacher did not know – that he could neither read nor write. He got thrown out of a girl friend’s house where he’d been staying, and ended up in a Salvation Army hostel. A Church of England charity worker visited and asked Blades if he wanted to work in a halfway-house with other homeless people, and Blades accepted.
Later, at the same charity worker’s recommendation he moved to another homeless people’s shelter in the city of Oxford. There, his duties included not only de-lousing and washing down the new arrivals, but also befriending the residents and helping them get along. He reports he was absolutely astonished that he was “really, really good at it.” The work gave him a sense of purpose, and he understood the residents far better than the other counselors who came from more privileged backgrounds.
He left the shelter when new austerity-focused managers moved in and restricted his time with residents, and started work in a major GM car factory, On weekends, he volunteered at another care home, with more dangerous residents than he had worked with before. After some time, both the factory and the care work ended when he moved to another town with a new girlfriend, and returned to working on building sites to make his money.
The girlfriend pointed to an advert for volunteers for a charity called Youth at Risk, and Blades became a mentor for delinquent young people. Once more he realized he had a special talent to speak with them. So, too, did his employers, but Blades still couldn’t read the social workers’ reports he was offered. A new landlady advised him to go to university, and he went to the local Buckinghamshire New University to follow up. The admissions officer asked what his interests were, he said he knew something about fashion and crime and ended up choosing criminology.
He was offered a place, and the landlady helped him write his acceptance letter. Blades went to his classes, was able to get something from them and join the conversation, but had no idea how to go about taking exams. A female friend, Jade, nudged him to get tested for and hear confirmation that he had dyslexia. Shortly after, he had a serendipitous meeting with technology. It was the early days of Dragon voice recognition software, and Blades realized he could listen to readings and write papers through it. In both directions, literacy was unnecessary! The final outcome of his efforts was an Honors Degree in Criminology.
Before his graduation, though, a recommendation from the past and the visibility of his volunteer work led to Blades being approached by the Chief Superintendent David McWhirter of Thames Valley Police, wanting to hear how his force could do better in policing ethnic minorities. Blades ended up addressing a roomful of police officers and McWhirter loved it. Blades and his friend Jade had already been discussing how they could make a difference in the world, and they seized the opportunity to propose an ambitious program of youth workshops. The workshops were a success, and both the Chief Superintendent and other regional sponsors wanted more! Blades and Jade formed a company, Street Dreams, to deliver the work.
All went well until the financial crisis of 2008, and the UK’s shift from a left-wing to a right-wing government in 2010. Money for new projects dried up, and the two partners needed a new source of revenue. Jade had the idea of teaching young people to renovate old furniture. The town of High Wycombe, where they now lived, had been the capital of British furniture building and they could seek out old-timers to explain the best techniques. They could pick up tattered chairs, renovate them, and sell them at a healthy profit while teaching young people “to turn something that looked to be worth nothing into an item of value.” It was a lesson they hoped the young people would apply to themselves.
The company the partners formed, Out Of The Dark got noticed by the upscale London furniture store Heal’s which began to sell the company’s furniture without commission, and also donated their own broken furniture for restoration. The Guardian newspaper sent a video producer to make a short film of the young people doing the work, which subsequently went viral. Gerald Bailey, a black sixteen-unit chain-store owner from The Midlands befriended the partners and placed a large order.
Moreover, a side-effect of the Guardian film meant that TV production companies began to take an interest in Bales’ broadcasting abilities. He was invited by Heal’s to offer occasional classes in reupholstering chairs, and after one of those he was approached by a BBC TV producer to appear on a Christmas show and in turn to appear at an event called “The Handmade Fair” in September 2014. Things had gone well for Blades but less so for Out Of The Dark, since a change of architect and order cancellation led to a temporary setback. That also triggered a change in Blades’ 15-year relationship with Jade. He felt his home and the business were crashing down together.
It was not the first time Blades’ domestic life had turned sour. He had lived with and had children with two other women, and taken on a third woman with a young daughter, before he settled down and had a child with Jade. In each case, he was on unfamiliar ground having been raised without a paternal role model. He had tried counseling once, but the counselor dropped him when she heard about all the fighting he had done. Distraught, he got in his car one night with no belongings and no phone, and drove into the dark. He woke up in a shopping center car park and stayed there several days before driving into a nearby town to take a hotel room and clean himself up.
By the next morning his car had been spotted on closed-circuit TV and he was visited by a policeman, a psychiatric nurse and a social worker. As the visitors deliberated on whether it was safe to leave him by himself again Gerald Bailey turned up and said “I’ll look after this gentleman.” Blades sat in Bailey’s car delivering “shoulder-heaving, gut-wrenching, inconsolable sobs.” When Blades was finally quiet, Bailey said he had a job for him to transform a disused warehouse, and gave him temporary accommodation in his spare room. Later he would set Blades up to live with his mom and step-dad who proudly proclaimed Blades as “our son from London.” Later again, Blades was assigned warehouse space for himself through which he returned to furniture restoration.
Soon after, Blades received a call from a TV production company he had met earlier, who said they had got a commission from the BBC for a new series. It would be called Money For Nothing and the presenter would salvage an item from a recycling center and invite Blades to restore it. Unfortunately, the project was funded by the European Social Fund and Brexit put a stop to the funding. However, it wasn’t long before the TV presenter from London that Blades had met before reconnected, and reported that the TV production company Ricochet had been in touch. She then asked “Would you like to be involved in a new show called The Repair Shop?”
The interplay between choice and chance runs through all of Jay Blades’ career. How does his story prompt you to think about your own career? What has the interplay done for you, and how open are you to choice or to chance in your next career move?
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