Andrew Martin: We may be useless at DIY, but taking pleasure in housework is a man's right

Tidying, ironing, and looking after the kids do not deserve their lowly status. It's all harder than it looks – that's why it's therapeutic

Related Topics

James May, whose new BBC2 series, Man Lab, promotes the learning of practical skills, has been bemoaning the uselessness of the modern male,

his inability to wire a plug or countersink a screw. He has in mind mainly DIY skills, but he also damns those men who can't iron a shirt.

I can iron a shirt, and anyone who wants to learn can jolly well read my book, How To Get Things Really Flat, which is about how and why a man should do housework. The book stemmed from my belated realisation that physical work was the antidote to my deskbound neuroses. For years, one of my favourite activities has been taking things to the municipal dump, which involves the superb therapy of loading and unloading a car, and then pitching things into a skip. Sometimes, I have found myself taking more or less perfectly serviceable items to the dump. For instance, this summer, my wife asked,"Where's the metal stepladder?" "I took it to the dump." "Why?" "Because I was depressed."

I began to take pleasure in doing household chores right. For years, I would move the lever on top of the main vacuum cleaner attachment idly back and forth, irritated at its apparent irrelevance. Then one day, I turned the attachment over, whereupon I saw that the lever brings down rows of bristles. If you use it in this mode, you can clean a wooden floor without scratching it, whereas I'd thought that a slightly scratched wooden floor was the price you paid for having a clean wooden floor. I also began to savour the counterintuitive aspects of housework: you can do the washing up better with a small amount of washing up liquid than a large amount.

I am not alone in enjoying housework. It was reported last week that a survey conducted by the charity Working Families suggests that the levels of stress felt by a man are inversely related to the amount of housework he does. Well, they would be. His environment becomes cleaner and more pleasant; he is absolved from guilt, and his wife will be less likely to shout at him. He can forestall awkward conversations by simply turning on the vacuum cleaner, and nobody will object. And the satisfaction of removing grit from the carpet or dust from a shelf is elemental: you can see where you've been. You have, as they say, "made a difference".

But it has been bothering me for a while that the domestic work I undertake counts as unskilled or semi-skilled labour at best, and James May's point is that it is worth learning to do quite tricky things.

One of our wedding presents was an electric drill. I wrote back thanking the giver saying, "I hope my wife will have many happy hours using it", a joke that came true in that I never touched it for 15 years (and nor did my wife). A couple of years ago, an architect came round to dinner. I mentioned the drill and he, clearly bored by the dinner, asked to see it. He told me it was a very good drill, and that he couldn't believe I'd been able to avoid using it: "I mean, how do you hang up your pictures?" "I just bang a nail in," I said. "Show me," he said, so I took him into my study and shamefacedly took down my painting of a bus. Behind it, the wall was pock-marked with the failed attempts at getting the nail in, the appearance of each crater having been signified at the time by my shrieks of "Go in, you little bastard!" "It's a masonry wall," the architect calmly explained. "You need to drill a hole – with your drill – and then insert a wallplug. You then screw in your picture hook."

That all still sounds a bit technical to me, but after speaking to that man I did buy a flat-packed garden shed, and assembled it myself without any trouble, while wearing a rather flattering (I thought) blue boiler suit. My wife was overawed by the work I did that day, and the shed, which is still standing, features on the tours of the garden my wife likes to give visitors. "Andrew built that," she'll say, very proudly, if a little incredulous, even now.

It is his physical capacity that partly, perhaps largely, defines a man, and we men have been divorced from our physicality by the growth of a service economy, the end of National Service and the rise of electronics, which do not allow for tinkering. You're not allowed to take the back off anything. And you can't fix a car without plugging in a laptop, whereas in my boyhood, the men of our street would be almost as surely found lying under their cars on Sunday morning as they would be found lying in their beds on Sunday night.

As British industry has declined so has our technical skill base. According to Engineering UK, we need 600,000 engineers over the next seven years, but, last year, the number of students taking degrees in subjects related to production and manufacturing declined by 17 per cent. Rectifying the lack of practical skills at the humbler level is fraught with problems of class.Urging more vocational training earlier this year, Vince Cable neurotically cautioned against looking at craftsmen with either snobbery or inverted snobbery.

I suppose Matthew Crawford, who last year had a best-seller in America with a book called Shop Class as Soulcraft (published here this year as The Case for Working With Your Hands) might be classed as an inverted snob, but his book is highly persuasive. He compares the creepy, passive-aggressive discourse of the typical office with the more bracing instruction given to a trainee plumber: "If you don't vent the drain pipe like this, sewerage gases will seep up through the water in the toilet and the house will stink of shit." Crawford calls modern office work "ghostly", it being conducted ethereally, via the computer screen.

If men don't actually move about, then what are they for? What is their USP? The Dworkin-esque vision of their dispensability will come ever closer to reality. We might say there's been a crisis of masculinity – relieved by the occasional need to fight wars – for 200 years. The bristling, moustachioed Victorian patriarch who was supposed to hold such sway over his family has long been exposed as a man trying desperately to maintain a front in the face of industrialisation, which took away his autonomy, and the romanticisation of childhood, which metaphorically whisked away his children as surely as the public school system would do in reality. This romanticisation would produce great turn-of-the-century children's literature; all those books by E Nesbit, J M Barrie and Arthur Ransome in which the father is either a bumbling dolt or, better still, dead by the end of the first chapter.

Fathers of today do much more childcare than their own fathers, but that doesn't mean they know how to do it in a distinctively masculine way. In much postwar literature, the father is fated to mutter resentfully of his upwardly mobile children, "They don't know they're born." He himself probably left school at 16 (or at eight, in the case of Albert Steptoe, as his son Harold would frequently remind him). His own practical skills – he had perhaps been a miner or a factory worker – held him back rather than lending him any dignity. But we may be starting to see that prejudice dissolve.

A few months ago, I fixed a puncture on my son's bike. I had the bike upside down in the kitchen, and he came in just as I was performing the most recondite part of the job, namely, rubbing the cube of chalk on to the abrasive surface on the repair kit tin, thus sprinkling powder on the patch. "It's to help the rubber solution to dry," I sagely explained. My repair has held in the weeks since. I'm sure my son has forgotten all about it, but sometimes, when morale is low, I am tempted to remind him.

React Now

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

Argyll Scott International: 2x Service Desk Analyst

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Argyll Scott International: Service Desk Analyst Re...

Langley James : IT Project Manager; 6 month FTC; Brighton; £400p/d

£400 - £420 per day: Langley James : IT Project Manager; 6 month FTC; Brighton...

Langley James : Web Developer; PHP, MySQL, Java; Blackfriars; £25k

£25000 per annum + training: Langley James : Web Developer; PHP, MySQL, Java; ...

h2 Recruit Ltd: Sales Manager - Holiday Homes - £100,000 OTE

£40000 - £60000 per annum + £100,000 OTE: h2 Recruit Ltd: Birmingham, Derby, L...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Since her stunning Booker success, Roy's real passion has been for politics, not fiction.  

Gandhi’s failings and the persecution of a modern-day Indian renegade

Peter Popham
The racy marketing to entice consumers to buy Fairlife, which launches in the US next month  

The Fairlife 'Coke Milk' adverts: Do we really need pin-up girls to sell us drinks?

Ylva Johannesson
Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

Cameron, Miliband and Clegg join forces for Homeless Veterans campaign

It's in all our interests to look after servicemen and women who fall on hard times, say party leaders
Millionaire Sol Campbell wades into wealthy backlash against Labour's mansion tax

Sol Campbell cries foul at Labour's mansion tax

The former England defender joins Myleene Klass, Griff Rhys Jones and Melvyn Bragg in criticising proposals
Nicolas Sarkozy returns: The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?

Sarkozy returns

The ex-President is preparing to fight for the leadership of France's main opposition party – but will he win big enough?
Is the criticism of Ed Miliband a coded form of anti-Semitism?

Is the criticism of Miliband anti-Semitic?

Attacks on the Labour leader have coalesced around a sense that he is different, weird, a man apart. But is the criticism more sinister?
Ouija boards are the must-have gift this Christmas, fuelled by a schlock horror film

Ouija boards are the must-have festive gift

Simon Usborne explores the appeal - and mysteries - of a century-old parlour game
There's a Good Girl exhibition: How female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising

In pictures: There's a Good Girl exhibition

The new exhibition reveals how female creatives are changing the way women are portrayed in advertising
UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover - from advent calendars to doll's houses

UK firm Biscuiteers is giving cookies a makeover

It worked with cupcakes, doughnuts and macarons so no wonder someone decided to revamp the humble biscuit
Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

Can SkySaga capture the Minecraft magic?

It's no surprise that the building game born in Sweden in 2009 and now played by millions, has imitators keen to construct their own mega money-spinner
The King's School is way ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology

Staying connected: The King's School

The school in Cambridgeshire is ahead of the pack when it comes to using the latest classroom technology. Richard Garner discovers how teachers and pupils stay connected
Christmas 2014: 23 best women's perfumes

Festively fragrant: the best women's perfumes

Give a loved one a luxe fragrance this year or treat yourself to a sensual pick-me-up
Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund: Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition

Arsenal vs Borussia Dortmund

The Ox celebrates century with trademark display of speed and intuition
Billy Joe Saunders vs Chris Eubank Jnr: When two worlds collide

When two worlds collide

Traveller Billy Joe Saunders did not have a pampered public-school upbringing - unlike Saturday’s opponent Chris Eubank Jnr
Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Drifting and forgotten - turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Homeless Veterans Christmas Appeal: Turning lives around for ex-soldiers

Our partner charities help veterans on the brink – and get them back on their feet
Putin’s far-right ambition: Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU

Putin’s far-right ambition

Think-tank reveals how Russian President is wooing – and funding – populist parties across Europe to gain influence in the EU
Tove Jansson's Moominland: What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?

Escape to Moominland

What was the inspiration for Finland's most famous family?