Belfast Telegraph

Why I take a back seat when it comes to manual labour

By Robert McNeill

How sad to read that young people find manual work "uncool". That at least is the claim of Deborah Meaden, a "star" it says here, out of that Dragons' Den.

Controversially, I've never seen the programme, but my researchers say it encourages private enterprise, and so I condemn it unreservedly.

Closer examination of Deborah's claim indicates she's referring to young persons unwilling to work in her textiles factory.

It's not quite what I envisaged when she said "manual work". I'd thought of the great outdoors, of stravaiging hither and yon with a mallet and hitting things.

I'm forever on the brink of manual work (reader's voice: "Yes, perhaps you'd be be better suited to it"). I did a bit of it in my youth, mostly with embarrassing consequences.

On my first day in one job, we all had to go up on a roof garden and lift heavy bags of gravel. I was last in line.

Everyone else swung their bag effortlessly onto their shoulders. I managed to get mine up to my knees and kind of shuffled downstairs with it in that manner.

This was technically "estate work" and, later, I was restricted to cutting the grass, which I could manage if allowed a rest every ten minutes.

It's funny because I became happy in my work and was thinking the other day that, if I hadn't made a wrong choice, I might still have been there today. The wrong choice was in allowing myself to be head-hunted as a top grass-cutter by another outfit, bizarrely called Lord Fatarse's Feuars.

Here, I was reduced at one point to hauling horse-cartloads of dead leaves around cobbled streets. As autumn slithered into winter, the temperature fell one morning to minus 13 degrees.

There was no heating in the hut, which was my only lonely shelter, and I walked out. Funnily enough, for a long time after that, I felt guilty, as if it were my fault for somehow not being hardy enough.

Today, of course, when I am intelligent, I would have Lord Fatarse arrested, along with many other people generally.

Undoubtedly, labouring placed me in the wrong milieu. During tea-breaks, while everybody else read newspapers featuring short sentences and massive mammaries, I took out my Tolstoy, attracting only titters.

Mind you, my colleagues made the fair point that, after six months, I was still only up to page 18.

I never do manual work now, unless you count the garden, but somehow I feel it should be part of every man's life.

I hope I don't sound too much like Pol Pot when I say the authorities should make us work in the fields. But, come to think of it, nobody does that now. It's all mechanised.

There's forestry and that sort of thing but, generally, you don't want to be too near the countryside, where you might get contaminated by ghillies, a species of individual that definitely merits imprisonment.

Short of that, there appears no shortage of roads that need digging up as part of the Government's programme to annoy motorists out of their cars and onto bicycles.

But I think it a shame that young persons should not spend at least part of their lives in manual labour. It made me the man I am today - someone who largely remains seated.

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