Howard Jacobson: Why I'm damned if I'll bleed a radiator

My father was a man of the sort James May laments. He could paint, he could wire, but hatches were his passion

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According to James May, a person who drives fast cars on television, men are not what they once were. Myself – though I am definitely not what I once was – I never trust anyone who puts the word car and the word man in the same sentence. I just have, I know, but only in reference to James May. We have lost our "dad skills", he's been telling us. That's three, no, four words I don't care to see in the same sentence: man, car, dad and skills.

In support of his thesis, a poll has been conducted in which men who want a quiet life admit to not being able to bleed a radiator, unblock a sink, change a fuse or hang a picture. I suspect most men can do all these things well enough, but in their own time. If there is one essential difference between men and women, it is that women cannot live for more than five minutes with a blocked sink, whereas a man can survive a lifetime indifferent to it. He just runs the taps less often. Doesn't notice the smell (only women notice smells). And tackles the problem of washing-up by not doing any. This is a skill I learnt from my dad.

His laissez-faire attitude to blockages apart, my father was a man of the sort James May laments. He could paint, he could wire, he could seal, he could grout, he could tile, he could install concealed lighting – to this day my mother is still looking for some of the concealed lighting he installed – he could wallpaper, he could lay carpets, he could fit a lock, but most of all he could make a hatch. Hatches were my father's passion.

That there must be some psychological explanation for my father's love of hatches I don't doubt. Always look for the pun, Lacanians tell us. Knowing to look for the pun is as far as I've got with Lacan, but it could be far enough in this instance. To hatch is to bring forth from the egg by incubation. My father was hatched as a twin. His twin survived the hatching but died tragically a few years later. Could it be that my father went on "re-hatching" into adulthood, making holes in walls in the unconscious hope of "breaking through" and finding his lost self on the other side?

We were the beneficiaries, anyway. No sooner did we move into a new house than my father began knocking through from the dining room into the kitchen. No other job came first. The windows might be broken, the walls might be damp, gas might be coming in through the plug sockets, but still the hatch had precedence. I say we were the beneficiaries, but the benefits were not always immediately apparent.

"Remind me why we need this," my mother felt it behoved her to ask before the first brick was removed. My father would laugh away her puzzlement.

"We need it to make life easier for you – so that when we're sitting in the dining room you don't have to carry food in from the kitchen."

"Max, we don't sit in the dining room. We've never sat in the dining room. We don't have a dining room."

"So what's this room for?"

"It's where you will fall asleep in front of the television."

"And where are we supposed to dine?"

"Dine? Since when did we dine? We eat in the kitchen."

He would turn from the wall with his club hammer in one hand and stonemason's chisel in another and throw us all a look of supreme triumph. "Precisely. That's why we need a hatch."

Though it began quickly, the hatch usually slowed down some time towards the end of the third week. It wasn't that he would lose interest – though it's true his passion for knocking through cooled a little the minute he saw into the other room and presumably had to face the fact that yet again he had not found the missing half of his divided self – but little niggling problems would arise and put a dent in his fervour. The wall would start to crumble, necessitating a bigger beam than he'd anticipated. The house would turn out to have been built on a slant or a mudslide, so that while the hatch was at an ideal height in the dining room, it was either too low or too high in the kitchen. ("Should have used a theodolite," he admitted once.) And on one occasion he knocked through only to discover that he'd come out over the cooker. "That will save you even more carrying," he tried to persuade my mother, but conceded that a hatch you could reach only at the risk of going up in flames had a serious design fault. "Snagging" was how he described these problems. From which we were to assume that they would soon be fixed. But no hatch was ever finished or put to use. Unless you call having a shelf on which you could pile magazines from either room useful. Eventually, as the magazines and unread mail accumulated, the hatch vanished altogether and was never referred to again until we moved house and his enthusiasm to knock out another revived.

I see now that we should have been more grateful to him. Whatever the initial psychological compulsion, he was only trying to make our lives more comfortable and sophisticated. But in this he suffered as many men have suffered before and since. Though a woman claims she wants a man around the house who can "do" around the house, the truth of it is she will deride him for half the work he does, and not notice the rest. An old girlfriend of mine sent me spiteful letters after we broke up, complaining that the bookcase I'd built when we were together was so flimsy it fell down the minute her new boyfriend rested his after-shave on it. Another wrote letters no less unpleasant cursing me for putting up a bookcase that was so sturdy it could not be dismantled without the wall it was on having to be demolished.

This is why men eventually stop trying. I, for example, can lay new floorboards, re-tile a roof and plaster any surface. But I'm damned if I will. The floor has only to subside, the roof let in rain, the plastering look as though a bear in heat has rubbed up against it when it was damp, and there's hell to pay. Better to affect a practical incompetence and let the women call in James May.

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