I’m writing this in the aftermath of the National Homebuilding & Renovating Show held at Birmingham’s NEC in March, whilst, in all probability, you’re reading it in the fruitfulness of summer. I say ‘aftermath’ without rancour, but in recognition of the intensity of an occasion that left most of us absolutely exhausted. Don’t tell anyone but it took me nearly a full week to get over it.
One of the innovations – which proved frightfully successful – was the division of the Experts section into four parts. One, which I was part of, was peopled by various regular experts and contributors to HB&R, the second by experts from independent industry bodies such as the KBSA, the third by designers, and last but not least, the fourth manned by planning experts.
All of this was managed by concierges who booked people into 15-minute appointment slots with their preferred expert. I had to chuckle each time I saw the concierge desk. In my youth, I shared a flat just off Boulevard St. Michel in Paris, and worked nights in the old Les Halles as a fish porter. There was a concierge at the entrance to the flats who oversaw everybody that came in or out. She always had a fag hanging out of her mouth and wore a knotted scarf over her none-too-clean hair. A far cry from the fragrant loveliness of Melanie, Claire, Vivienne and Zoe, who charmed the queues with such efficiency.
Two new faces in my section were Period Living magazine’s Roger Hunt, and Douglas Kent, Technical Secretary to the Society for the Protection of Ancient Buildings, both of whom I’d been looking forward to meeting. We hadn’t spoken before, but I knew that they shared my views – often expressed in The Daily Telegraph – about how many of the so-called wonder products which promised to make older homes more thermally efficient not only didn’t work but, in fact, could be injurious to the structure. It was great to sing the same song with them. And, I have to admit, it was good to gain the courage of my own convictions. It’s not always easy giving advice that runs counter to the financial aspirations of companies and manufacturers with large advertising budgets. I remember when I dished one particular product in The Daily Telegraph and my comments appeared directly above a half-page advert for the same product. There was an almighty stink and the company received another half page for free.
One tiny drawback with the new system was that it was almost always one expert to one questioner or couple. In previous times, however, we’d often joined in together to answer queries. Mark Brinkley, whilst divulging his encyclopaedic knowledge, did call me over a couple of times to join in a discussion. But that was a rare event.
Other times I’d give advice and then see the questioners go on to their next appointment with an expert such as Sally Tagg in the planning section. I’d wait and just check that we’d said the same or similar. But, in any event, as I always say to people, opinions are always going to vary. Their job, as self-builders, renovators or converters, is to sift those opinions to see which one suits their circumstances, safe in the knowledge that any advice they received from us was honestly given with no particular financial axe to grind.
My funniest experience at the Show was when all of the tables in my section were full and I had to take one amongst various eco experts. Perhaps it was vanity, but I imagined that the other occupants knew who I was and knew also of my long-held scepticism on the subject of anthropogenic global warming. And I imagined them, behind my back, making the signs of the cross and fingering their garlic necklaces.
The saddest part of the Show for me came from those questioners who’d been let down or misled by professionals, or who’d had plans drawn up that were either horribly pedestrian or unworkable. Michael Holmes, HB&R’s Editor-in-Chief, was their man and I eavesdropped a couple of times as he cut through what had gone before and finished with them getting up from the table with renewed hope in their eyes.
An exhausting four days, but I wouldn’t miss them for the world. Roll on next year’s National Homebuilding & Renovating Show.