Jay Blades on restoring hope in the community and the importance of human connection
Host of The Repair Shop, Jay Blades, joins Happiful to talk about the amazing ability to mend anything, even ourselves, with the help of community, human connection, and conversation
Jay Blades is visibly buzzing with energy when he pops up on the screen from his agent’s central London office. The past month has been hectic for him, he says, but in the best way possible. He’s received an MBE for his services to craft, The Repair Shop has returned for its 10th series, and No Place Like Home, a fantastic new documentary series about his childhood home, Hackney, has recently aired.
Making It: How Love, Kindness and Community Helped Me Repair My Life, Jay’s autobiographical book, has also recently been published in paperback. It’s a warm, honest, and open account of everything that’s brought him to the point he’s at today. It charts his struggle with mental ill-health, the people and places that brought him back to a place of wellness, his relationships, and deep love of mending and making good of objects and situations that others might write off.
“I don’t like to give up on people or things,” Jay says emphatically on this subject. “I believe that everything can be repaired, and it might take a little while – I know on The Repair Shop we normally do it in 15 minutes, but in the real world it could take anything between a day and six months to repair an item. If you’re ‘repairing’ somebody, it could take their whole life.”
Jay knows this concept personally, and draws on his own experience, including actively contemplating suicide seven years ago.
“I needed repairing at 45, and I’m still repairing myself,” he says, with raw honesty. “I’m still looking around to make sure that I manage my mental health, and stay strong physically, too. I do that with the support of other people, who make sure that I eat right, I sleep enough, and so on. I listen to those people, because I’m vulnerable and I’m not as strong as I believed I used to be.”
Jay’s clear that maintaining wellbeing isn’t a lone project for anybody. “The reality is that we need people to help us repair us, because if you fall down again, who are you going to speak to? You can’t speak to yourself if you’re in a dark place. You need that community.”
The concept and impact of community fascinates Jay, and he’s explored this further in his recent documentary. Over three hour-long episodes, he learns about the history of the streets he walked as a boy, meets old friends and local heroes, and wonders at the incredible events and unbelievable injustices that took place mere minutes and miles from where he played as
Hackney, he says, has left an indelible mark on his heart, and helped him to form the unshakeable ethos he has when it comes to community support and giving back. He explains that he’s benefitted from the support of so many people at different stages in his life that it’s only right to ensure that help is available to others when they need it, too.
Jay’s keen to note, however, that you don’t have to be a public figure to help or make a difference. “We can all do good, I don’t think it’s something that’s only possible for a chosen few.
“Doing good could be volunteering at the local church, it could be volunteering anywhere.
“And you never know who you’re going to come into contact with and what impact you’re going to have on that person,” Jay says. “Let’s say you’re a man and you’re volunteering at a place and there’s someone there that doesn’t have a father. You could become that role model for them. So really and truly, we all need to give back.”
As part of his personal commitment to this, Jay has mentored a number of people, including Little Mix’s Leigh-Anne Pinnock. He’s now a trustee of her charity, The Black Fund, an organisation that channels finances and other support to charities already doing important work to empower Black communities. He’s also an ambassador for Gangs Unite and The Prince’s Foundation, as well as informally supporting and inspiring people through the programmes he presents.
“I classify myself as a glorified community worker that they’ve put on TV,” Jay says.
“And my role is to influence and help people I’m never going to meet.”
As for the people he does meet on the set of The Repair Shop, his influence is more immediate and visible. He’s a people person, able to put contributors at ease as they share the memories and emotional meanings behind the precious family heirlooms they’ve brought in the hope of having them restored.
This skill is one that Jay is immensely proud of, as it’s born out of his ‘super power’: dyslexia. “It’s not something that I’ve shied away from,” Jay explains. “I’ve been able to adapt in any different environment that I’m in.
“As humans, I’m grateful that we can speak and communicate, so we don’t need to rely on technology; when you talk to someone, that’s more impactful than sending an email or a text. When you can talk and smile, see their reactions, hold their hands and give them a hug, that’s really powerful. So I’m gifted to be able to speak to people. That’s what my superpower is.”
Instead of working from scripts, or the production notes on the show, Jay says that he’ll be told the name of the person and what they’re bringing in for repair just a few minutes before they meet on camera. “I have a conversation with them to find out what the item is and the history behind it. I find it’s easier to do that when you know nothing, so then you’re just having a human-to-human communication. I’d say 99.9% of the time it works out beautifully.”
Jay is so evidently passionate about all the work he does, and his mood remains as vibrant and good humoured as it was at the beginning of the conversation, despite the endless work commitments he has coming up in the days ahead. There is, he says, a good reason for his sustained positive energy.
“I’m 52 years old, but the thirst I have for life now, I feel like I’m 17 or 18! It’s because I was in a place where I hit rock bottom, and I’m not saying that everyone should go out and do this, but for me it’s actually what gave me life again.
“To hit rock bottom, to see that you’re not existing in tomorrow, and then to come out of it, you’re just so hungry, and grateful for life.”
‘Making It: How Love, Kindness and Community Helped Me Repair My Life’ by Jay Blades (bluebird books for life, £9.99) is out now.
Listen to the full interview with Jay on Happiful’s podcast, ‘I am. I have’
Photography | Paul Marc Mitchell