In one way or another, men seem to do women's work

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The Independent Online
THE other day, my wife and I were idly watching a man going along a beach with a metal detector. It's the sort of thing we enjoy doing together, watching men with metal detectors on beaches. And why not? It keeps the marriage ticking over, it's dead cheap and it's something to talk about in the long winter evenings.

So for a long while we watched this loony progressing along the strand at about 2mph, waving the detector from side to side, conscious of nothing around him - the sun, the sea, the tinkle of far-off ice-cream vans - except the crackling in his earphones which he hoped would change suddenly into excited static to indicate that he had just approached some rare medieval beer can, until my wife said: 'I wonder if he ever does the vacuum cleaning at home?'

I could see her point. The way he was walking across the beach with this wretched machine on a stick was identical to the way women are often trapped, or at least are popularly supposed to be trapped, behind their Hoovers.

'You don't use earphones to do the vacuum cleaning,' I said.

'Women quite often listen to the radio on headphones to relieve the dreadful tedium of vacuum cleaning,' she said.

There was no answer to that. Except that I, as a man, sometimes did the vacuum cleaning to relieve the awful tedium of Radio 1 or 3, but as there wasn't a word of truth in it, it hardly seemed worth saying.

'Actually,' said my wife, 'there are some activities popularly associated with women which men wouldn't dream of doing unless they could do it in a disguised form. Like vacuum cleaning disguised as metal detecting.'

'Oh, really?' I said loftily. 'Give me another example.'

'Well,' she said, 'there are men who would never dream of cooking in the kitchen, but put them outside at a barbecue and they whip on an apron, wave a big fork and see themselves as the chef. There are men who would never condescend to clean an oven, but are out every weekend cleaning the car . . .' It's true. In fact, I once read a William Faulkner novel in which he claimed that if men reserved half the care for their wives that they lavished on their automobiles, then half the ruined marriages in America would be saved.

'You never see men knitting,' she said. 'On the other hand, you never see women tying flies for fishing. It's man's permitted version of knitting.'

'You don't often see little boys dressing up dolls,' I said. 'But you often see them meticulously dressing up their soldiers and spacemen in their uniform and gear.'

'You don't often see men sweeping the carpet,' she said, 'but you see them mowing the lawn a lot.'

We could have gone on all day like that, if we hadn't had something better to do: namely, watch the man with the metal detector start searching the rocks at the edge of the beach, although a moment's thought would have told him that nobody ever buries treasure in the rocks. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised there was a lot of truth in the idea that for every supposedly female activity there is a diguised male equivalent, and vice versa.

For instance, I know women who are addicted to soap operas such as The Archers or Neighbours, and who are scoffed at for it by their husbands. And yet those husbands are equally addicted to the soap operas provided by sport . . . Can dear old England make it to the World Cup? Will poor Graham Taylor hang on to his job? Is there any chance that England can ever get the Ashes back again, and will dashing David Gower have any part in it? Meanwhile, dashing Jeremy Guscott is coming on to the field for an England side which does not look the unbeatable force it once was . . . all soap opera plots, every one of them.

Again, men who wouldn't be seen dead carrying handbags go around with briefcases. Men have photos of their wives, women of their children. Little girls furnish doll's houses, while little boys turn up their noses at such things and rearrange the cars in their toy garages. Women file their nails, men trim their beards. Grown-up men make model railway layouts . . .

'Women come up with throw- away ideas,' said my wife suddenly, 'which men turn into whole articles. Don't they?'

'I expect so, my dear,' I said mildly. I was glad she had interrupted my reverie, actually. Try as I might, I couldn't think of anything done by women which sank as low as making model railway layouts.