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.