Andrew Martin: Real men carry power tools - or they used to

Falling house prices and the loss of a make-do-and-mend attitude have done for DIY. But our writer misses the sound of Sunday-morning sawing

Share

It was reported last week that spending on DIY equipment has fallen to its lowest level since such spending began to be recorded in 1996. The pole-axed housing market has been blamed.

I knew it had gone rather quiet in the gardens around here: no hammering or sawing, none of those shouts of "Bring us out a cup of tea, will you, love?" betokening the sheer sense of entitlement enjoyed by a man with a power tool in his hand. I grew up thinking of those sounds as the inevitable accompaniment to Sunday morning. That was in the early Seventies, and most of the noise came from a man called Tommy who lived over the road.

Tommy was almost certainly equipped with the Reader's Digest Complete Do-It-Yourself Manual, which was first published in 1972, and inculcated Seventies good taste. How to lower the ceiling of your bathroom so that it looks like a prison cell; how to replace a boring old window with a stylish Perspex diffuser; and how to improve your fireplace – that is, remove it. Certainly there were no fireplaces left in Tommy's house. He had replaced them all with sleek radiators which he knew how to bleed without ruining the carpet.

Back then, the world was full of men like Tommy who were "good with their hands". Cars, for example, were simpler and could be attended to by their owners. Many men would fix their cars even if they didn't need fixing. Tommy himself did a manual job, as ever fewer British men do (he was a plasterer). Having resoundingly failed his 11-plus, he had attended a secondary modern school, which emphasised technical skills.

It might seem that I'm rather down on Tommy, but I too failed my 11-plus, and I was taught woodwork by a superbly mellow man called Mr Long. He tried to show me how to make a dovetail joint, and didn't become angry, but only raised a querulous eyebrow, when, in the final stages of its completion, I began actually hammering the wood into place while muttering through clenched teeth, "Get in".

My own children have never done woodwork at school, but a subject bearing the sinister title DT, which means Design Technology – nebulous words for what seems a nebulous, spuriously upwardly mobile subject.

In Tommy's world, there was no football on Sunday, so you might as well build a car port. There were no armies of affordable Eastern European workmen, and consumer durables were expensive. You needed to look after your furniture in those days, to the extent that the provincial ladies who belonged to the oldest profession could advertise in post-office windows "French Polishing" and "Seats Re-caned" amid the people who were the authentic providers of those services. Many a naive man must have turned up at the address given, to have the door answered by a rouged lady in a negligee. He would have fleetingly wondered whether this was the ideal garment for reconditioning a large item of brown furniture, yet he would press doggedly on: "I have the dining-room table in the back of the car if you want to, er, get down to it straight away...."

Back in the Seventies, there was no Ikea, whose shops do admittedly give rise to DIY of a sort, but nothing Tommy would have recognised as such. Ikea flat-packs require only one screwdriver – a positive insult to Tommy, who possessed about 150. In short, the honourable motivation for DIY in Tommy's day was to save money, whereas in the housing boom of recent years, it was to make money, and in this case the impulse was not so firmly rooted.

During the boom, my wife and I bought and sold three houses, and the logic was that a shed in the garden – even one built by me – might add twenty grand to the value of the property. So I built a shed. I fixed (sort of) a garden wall. I hung many pictures – in the first instance to beautify a room, in the second instance to cover up the holes I'd made in the attempts to hang the pictures. (It is often said, "Anyone can bang in a nail." Oh no they can't.)

In about 2005, I went so far as to acquire a boiler suit, in order to do DIY. I bought it from a no-nonsense shop in north London that specialises in steel-capped shoes and donkey jackets.

When I tried it on, the owner said, "You'll see you've got your ruler pocket on the top left." "What?" I said. "Ruler pocket? Oh yeah, I'll be needing that." But my suede shoes and Paul Smith socks suggested otherwise to the manager's colleague, who sarkily said, "I'm afraid we don't have a full-length mirror."

At the time of writing, I couldn't even say where that boiler suit is. I've lost the heart for DIY, and with the property market being flat on its back, I'm resigned to my house just being a house, and not a project. I know that practical work is good for me. I have been told so in recent times by James May from his TV Man Lab, and there was a bestselling book of a couple of years ago by an American philosopher and motorbike mechanic called Matthew Crawford, The Case for Working with Your Hands, which contains the following: "The satisfactions of manifesting oneself concretely in the world through manual competence have been known to make a man quiet and easy. They seem to relieve him of the felt need to offer chattering interpretations of himself to vindicate his worth. He can simply point: the building stands, the car now runs, the lights are on."

My shed still stands, although it's leaning a bit to the left, and I spent one of the most absorbing days of my life building it, but I am not conditioned for such work, and it was never a function of my manliness. So how does that latter quality manifest itself? Good question.

We men are all over the place just now. We're so many craven David Camerons sucking up to so many formidable Rebekah Brookses. What are the wastelands of so-called "Forgotten Britain" except the places where the northern industrial male once strutted his stuff? We still shirk the housework, but with less justification than formerly, since our wives now work. We do more childcare, but we're conflicted about that, hence the poignant title of a current bestseller, Commando Dad.

Even in the arena of semi-recreational manual labour, women are taking up the slack. They call it "craft", and the crafter-in-chief is Kirstie Allsopp. The blurb for her book, Kirstie Allsopp Craft, runs: "Kirstie Allsopp's love affair with British crafts took off when she renovated her house in Devon." And possibly also when she realised the bottom had fallen out of the housing market, so she'd better move on from property programmes.

Her book will tell you how to make family scrapbooks, appliqué cushions, jam, and "handmade bunting". (Re the last, there is a Diamond Jubilee coming up, you know). None of this will be done in a dowdy Women's Institute way. No, this will be modern, cutting-edge scrapbook and jam making.

In any branch library, there will now be a Knitting Circle, in which women sit in a circle and knit. It would be dangerous ask – especially if you were a man – what this has to do with actually reading books. A friend of my wife's recently announced that she was going to be building a pottery. When my wife told me of this, I said, "You mean she's going to be building a sort of factory?" I was sceptical of this, since she works full-time as a publisher. And if it was that easy to get a pottery going, there wouldn't be an economic problem in Stoke-on-Trent.

The Devil, it is said, finds work for idle hands, and so we men reach for the beer can ring-pull, the TV remote, the computer mouse...

Andrew Martin's latest book is 'Underground, Overground: A Passenger's History of the Tube'

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for spe...

Maths Teacher

£90 - £160 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Science Teacher (mater...

Maths Teacher

£110 - £200 per day: Randstad Education Leeds: Secondary Maths Teacher for an ...

Maths Teacher

£22000 - £37000 per annum: Randstad Education Leeds: A West Yorkshire School i...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

i Editor's Letter: The campaigning is over. So now we wait...

Oliver Duff Oliver Duff
In this handout provided by NASA from the the Earth-orbiting International Space Station, weather system Arthur travels up the east coast of the United States in the Atlantic Ocean near Florida in space. The robotic arm of the Space Station Remote Manipulator System or Canadarm2 is seen at upper right. According to reports, Arthur has begun moving steadily northward at around 5 kt. and the tropical storm is expected to strike the North Carolina Outer Banks  

Thanks to government investment, commercial space travel is becoming a reality

Richard Branson
Mystery of the Ground Zero wedding photo

A shot in the dark

Mystery of the wedding photo from Ground Zero
His life, the universe and everything

His life, the universe and everything

New biography sheds light on comic genius of Douglas Adams
Save us from small screen superheroes

Save us from small screen superheroes

Shows like Agents of S.H.I.E.L.D are little more than marketing tools
Reach for the skies

Reach for the skies

From pools to football pitches, rooftop living is looking up
These are the 12 best hotel spas in the UK

12 best hotel spas in the UK

Some hotels go all out on facilities; others stand out for the sheer quality of treatments
These Iranian-controlled Shia militias used to specialise in killing American soldiers. Now they are fighting Isis, backed up by US airstrikes

Widespread fear of Isis is producing strange bedfellows

Iranian-controlled Shia militias that used to kill American soldiers are now fighting Isis, helped by US airstrikes
Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Topshop goes part Athena poster, part last spring Prada

Shoppers don't come to Topshop for the unique
How to make a Lego masterpiece

How to make a Lego masterpiece

Toy breaks out of the nursery and heads for the gallery
Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Meet the ‘Endies’ – city dwellers who are too poor to have fun

Urbanites are cursed with an acronym pointing to Employed but No Disposable Income or Savings
Paisley’s decision to make peace with IRA enemies might remind the Arabs of Sadat

Ian Paisley’s decision to make peace with his IRA enemies

His Save Ulster from Sodomy campaign would surely have been supported by many a Sunni imam
'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

'She was a singer, a superstar, an addict, but to me, her mother, she is simply Amy'

Exclusive extract from Janis Winehouse's poignant new memoir
Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

Is this the role to win Cumberbatch an Oscar?

The Imitation Game, film review
England and Roy Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption in Basel

England and Hodgson take a joint step towards redemption

Welbeck double puts England on the road to Euro 2016
Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Relatives fight over Vivian Maier’s rare photos

Pictures removed from public view as courts decide ownership
‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

‘Fashion has to be fun. It’s a big business, not a cure for cancer’

Donatella Versace at New York Fashion Week