Memories are made of this...
Updated: May 14
Terry Martin explores how conversations with older people about significant attachments formed to people and objects can yield some important outcomes:
The Repair Shop is a British television series in which family heirlooms are restored for their owners by experts and furniture restorer Jay Blades acts as the foreman.1 A heart-warming antidote to throwaway culture.2
Each episode follows professional craftsmen from around the country who restore family heirlooms that have sentimental value for their owners. Heirlooms are found mostly through social media, and their owners are not charged for the restorations. The series is filmed at The Weald and Downland Living Museum,3 which is located by the South Downs National Park near Chichester.
It is currently enjoying enormous popularity and for its sixth and most recent run, has been promoted to a prime-time slot on Wednesdays at 8 pm, where it typically garners an audience of 6.7 million people, around one-tenth of the UK population. It has recently been nominated for a BAFTA award under the Features category.
Its popularity, particularly among the older generation, is not difficult to understand. The throwaway culture has never appealed to those who have lived through austere times of shortages and rationing and learned the hard way to make do and mend.
The format of the programme is straightforward and effective. A guest, or sometimes guests, bring to the Repair Shop an item of great sentimental value, to which they have become deeply attached and that has, for a variety of reasons, fallen into disrepair.
The item is often a family heirloom that provides a link with the past, and when repaired will be passed on to future generations.
They explain some of the history of the item to both the foreman, furniture restorer Jay Blades, and the relevant expert who carefully question the guest to ascertain precisely what they want in the restoration and repair. The expert takes the item to their work bench and explains the specific challenges presented by the item and how they plan to proceed. They are filmed as they carry out the repair and later the guest(s) return to see and collect their item in its fully restored state. The item is covered by a blanket which is removed, and the process reaches a moving emotional climax. The guests are often speechless, tearful, and intensely grateful to the expert for what they have done. They often mention deceased relatives who they imagine looking down with great pleasure on the restored item. In a typical three or four items are restored and the accounts are skilfully intertwined and described by the narrator.
Attachment is an emotional bond, usually with another person but can also be to an object. The importance of the earliest bonds formed by children with their caregivers was first suggested by John Bowlby, a developmental psychologist, who formulated the highly influential Attachment Theory.
The central theme of attachment theory is that primary caregivers who are available and responsive to an infant's needs allow the child to develop a sense of security. The infant knows that the caregiver is dependable, which creates a secure base for the child to then explore the world.4
As is well known, children often also develop strong attachments to objects like teddy bears. Interestingly teddy bears feature regularly on The Repair Shop, which even has its own two teddy bear experts.
In his article, 'The psychology of stuff and things', Christian Jarrett explores our lifelong relationship with objects.
Our relationship with stuff starts early. The idea that we can own something, possess it as if a part of ourselves, is one that children grasp by the age of two.5
Attachments to objects thereby play an important part in developing confidence and a sense of security, and these important qualities can be restored with the restoration of the object. However, attachments to objects can also lead to negative outcomes like envy and hoarding. Emotional attachment to objects mediates the relationship between loneliness and hoarding symptoms.6
The programme is unashamedly sentimental, and although sentimentality often gets a bad press, the criticisms don’t seem appropriate here. The intense feelings that the guests experience for both the objects and the people with which they are associated, are patently genuine.
In conversation with older people, finding out about significant and meaningful attachments that they have formed to both people and objects may open up memories, both positive and negative. Exploring such memories might lead to important outcomes of healing and restoration.