Belfast Telegraph

How I’d just love to nail down some other line of work

By Robert McNeil

Are we entering the era of the tradesman? I’m not just talking about the demand for plumbers.

I’m talking about recognising the value of people who work with their hands, who get things done and don’t think abstractly or live their lives on the internet.

The new recognition is not just of their value but of the lessons they give the rest of us as to what work is about. The idea of sitting about in an office or digital hub, of separating the “real” you from the “work” you, is now under scrutiny, following the publication of a bestselling book in the States.

It’s called The Case for Working with Your Hands: or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good, and it’s by Matthew Crawford.

Crawford, who has a doctorate in political philosophy, gave up a high-flying job as executive director of a Washington “think-tank” to become, first, an electrician then, after that, a motorcycle mechanic.

He says the satisfaction of seeing someone leave his workshop with their machine roaring healthily — not long after it was brought in broken on the back of a lorry — is something that touches the soul, that connects with what it means to be human.

Crawford is preaching “manual competence”.

In a sense, this is bad news for me, the original handless man.

I just have to look at a screwdriver for it to hit the deck instantly and roll out of sight (why do dropped tools — and, in particular, screws — always roll off to somewhere improbable?).

Sure, I’ve several checked shirts and, indeed, a set of overalls. But they’re of little practical help. And I do so desperately want to be practical.

I hate when tradesmen come and fix things in the house. It makes me feel two foot tall. It’s why men don’t go to the doctor. We hate being talked down to by another man.

In one case, it’s someone telling you all about your own body, for Pete’s sake, and in the other, well, tradesmen don’t really talk down to you. Generally, they just find you an irrelevance — in your own home.

Crawford describes office or hi-tech work as “ghostly”. Working manually means really experiencing life in the material world. It’s also satisfying intellectually because you're always thinking how to solve problems.

Recognition of this, and of the value of practical trades to the economy, isn’t restricted to one book in America. In Englandshire, the coalition government is opening 12 technical colleges and insisting no one see such education as second-class to more academic pursuits.

But it’s all academic to me. My dream of being practical is pure fantasy. When I worked full-time for an employer, I used to check out courses on plumbing, joinery, electronics. It gave me a hinterland far removed from the lunacy of newspapers. Then, when I lost my job, and had the practical opportunity to do these courses, I didn’t give it a minute’s serious consideration.

I knew it wasn’t for me. I suppose words are my tools, and my laptop my lathe.

Occasionally, this work’s good for my soul, and it’s nice to make folk laugh or think.

But I’d still like to wire a house, build my own garden arch or, hell, just change a plug without profuse loss of blood — and of screws last seen rolling under the fridge.

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