Little, Brown, £12.99, 248pp. £11.69 from the Independent Bookshop: 08430 600 030
A Shed of One's Own, By Marcus Berkmann
Friday 27 January 2012
Every man needs a shed. For most of us, midlife marks the death of ambition. We're not going to edit newspapers or score goals in the Premier League. We can't do eminence or pomposity or work ourselves stupid only to get replaced by someone younger and hairier. For Marcus Berkmann, the end of youth is the realisation that "most of us will stay roughly where we are."
"We are weary of great purposes," he writes, in his book on "midlife without the crisis", but this is not without its compensations. Midlife man finds "a sort of zen calm... the need to strive and achieve is supplanted by a desire to please yourself." He just wants to lose himself in pottering, or "directed idleness", pursuing small purposes. Favoured activities include fishing, which involves creating a "virtual shed" around the fisherman, taking things apart and then not being able to put them back together again, cooking new dishes not very well, and going for a walk to the pub.
It's familiar territory from a man who has written books on useless amateur cricketers with Rain Men and pub quizzes in Brain Men. Yes, it is a little close to Grumpy Old Men at times, but Berkmann writes with easygoing charm and not a little insight into our fear of both mortality and nasal hairs.
A Shed of One's Own is based on the comedy of familiarity. This reviewer readily identified with a number of leisure activities, such as working on a garden water feature instead of delivering copy, purposeful walking, joining the National Trust, trying Pilates, joining a pub quiz team, rambling, owning a dog and the full-scale hobby of obsessive recycling, with its attendant slug-fighting in the compost bin.
His chapter "Crumbling" contains horribly familiar details such as the Grecian 2000 dilemma - but mentioning Tom Jones and Paul McCartney soon rids the reader of this temptation. Though it has to be said the cover shot of Berkmann, who recently hit 50, looks suspiciously dark-haired.
Then there's baldness, not being able to hear at parties, wayward eyebrow hairs, frequent flatulence, dribbling at the urinal, and never being able to read the A-Z or a CD cover again without the aid of a searchlight and reading glasses. Mental crumbling begets pedantry – he doubts if anyone under 40 bought Lynne Truss's Eats, Shoots and Leaves - and an obsession with clearing up litter and reading obituaries and noting the ages of the deceased.
Yet there's something uplifting in the way Berkmann rejoices in the liberation of old fartitude: "Having shed most of my ambition, I find I have also lost the shame I had when I was young. I have lost the self-consciousness and self-doubt that make you second-guess all your own reactions and never just loosen up and just enjoy yourself."
Strangely, Berkmann confesses to not owning a garden or a shed. Mega-success might inhibit his directed idleness, but let's hope he will sell enough copies of this book to purchase that shed and a pot of creosote.
Pete May is author of 'There's a Hippo in my Cistern' (Collins)
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