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'Reuse content