A practical guide to being practical.

“Are you practical?” a female friend asked me recently.

It’s a common question, but an odd one nevertheless. For most people, ‘practical’ means DIY: electrical problems, water thingies and overflow pipes…you know, the household services blokes are supposed to know about. And putting up things: cupboards, shelves, pictures, simple walls – that sort of thing.

I need to explain something here. While other kids were building ocean-going yachts in First Year woodwork, I was still trying to create corner-joints in the exercise wood without sawing through it. Other kids were on the pipe rack before I’d managed to chisel out the exercise joint without stabbing myself. Other kids were blowing into their hand-crafted pipes at around the same time as I was asking for another piece of exercise wood because the one I’d been attacking was no longer one piece of anything very much. I remember creating a great deal of sawdust, but never anything recognisable as a manufactured object.

My Dad was very practical. All Dads were like that in the 1950s. He’d go off to the garage and make a sledge out of old bits of things.  I could watch him do this for hours – and very satisfyingly tactile it was to do so – but I  really didn’t get it. I could turn a sledge into old bits of things by smashing through the farmer’s fence and into the river beyond, but that was the only way round for me.

After a while, I suspect Dad decided I was an intellectual, and just gave up trying to teach me DIY stuff. But then at the age of 27 I bought my first property, and not long afterwards a young lady joined me there. This was in the days when there would be doubts about your true gender ID if you couldn’t tackle the repointing of chimney stacks without a safety-net. So I had to learn how to do DIY.

My first project was a wardrobe. It was a very intricate wardrobe, informally constructed from expensive new bits of things, its design constantly changing on the grounds that the previous design elements had been rendered obsolete by what I’d put up, joined together, and otherwise fixed into position that bore very little resemblance to the design forecast. What’s more, I had a way with screwdrivers that seemed to explode the head of any screw, such that while the design might be flexible, the construction was irreversible. The young lady smiled a great deal, and eventually moved her stuff into what little storage space remained once I’d finally reduced the wardrobe’s unique wobble factor to something only visible to the keen eye.

Her Dad had a very keen eye indeed, but despite the obvious evidence of my aversion to DIY, he bought me an array of tools – perhaps out of gratitude for marrying his daughter, I’ve no idea really. But buying me those implements was rather like offering George Best a lifetime supply of zero-alcohol beer. However, such is the socialising chaps go through when young, I vowed to grasp the nettle and learn more about grasping hammers without hitting thumbs.

When my new wife and I purchased an actual real house (as opposed to a one-bedroom flat with the anti-Tardis nailed to one wall) I bought a pair of overalls and started to read about how to convert a Brixton slum-terrace into the sort of bijou beacon of gentrification likely to tempt other aspirant SDP voters into our locale. After the builders finally left the site, never to return, I was at last forced into an understanding of RSJs, and their vital role in the quest to keep Victorian jerry-built property upright. I’d love to write that this was a catharsis which led to my success as a structural engineer, but the truth is that the main emotion I felt after completing the mission was an overwhelming desire to take up flower-arranging.

All that related, the ability to put perfectly horizontal shelves into alcoves is far from being an eclectic definition of practicality. So while my answer to the question – “It depends what you mean by practical” – might seem weaselly, in truth I would contend that the ability to think about what needs to be done (and then hire others to do it) is much underrated in our culture. Further, I would venture to propose that in the new survivalist world which may well be approaching, there will be as much room for those who can don the mantle of planner/thinker/comic as there will for those who build the planner/thinker/comic’s ideas in return for knowing what the ideas are in the first place.

In fact, I would go as far as to suggest that the forelock-touching and cap-doffing will continue to be done by the artisans rather than the dreamers. I mean, nobody ever asked Sir Richard Branson, “Never mind all this records by direct mail bollocks chummy, can you or can you not get a fire going without matches?”

Here’s where my practicality begins and ends: I have learned to know when people are fibbing, I have learned to spot early on those who are humbugs and showboaters, and I have grasped the principle of telling shit from putty. I can query a bill, tie snake-oil artists in knots, discern terrible scripts and be dismissive about derivative art or copycat ads. I can plant veg, grow but trees and barter for protein from neighbours. Finally, if necessary, I can don the cap and bells, and produce enough amusement to persuade others in the pack that it would be a shame to eat me.

I’ll manage – as will most humans when needs must. We are an adaptable species…up to but not including lawyers, accountants, bankers, Mandarins and politicians. For while they have nothing to offer, the rest of us do. This is the thing to cling onto when it comes to the practicality issue.

35 thoughts on “A practical guide to being practical.

  1. I am a qualified electrician and plumber and can do a lot of joinery and i am hoping these skills will keep me and my family fed post the inevitable collapse


  2. I’m proudly impractical and the results show in our 130 year old former workman’s cottage. I’ll need to spend some real money before flogging it and getting a modern apartment. Fortunately, my wife is much more practical reflecting her experience as cabin crew and living in the Middle East . My kids, both well educated here show even less inclination than me.

    I don’t have expensive tastes though. Just a 19 inch box TV. Never owned a record player or my own music. No radio except the laptop. No dishwasher or tumble dryer. Basic mobile phone that makes calls and takes text messages. 12 year old second hand car. Oh and a £1.50 wristwatch from HK. My weakness is custom tailored shirts.

    One of the few great things about living in the US in the 1960s to 80s was not having to do anything. There was always cheap immigrant labour eager to do things and one could get on with what one did best. Adam Smith (yes him) had it right when he talked about the division of labour and specialisation of function. In other words, to each his own.


  3. Come the inevitable collapse, do I really believe that we will go back to the stone age, no sir. People will still have some mode of exchange and the powers that be will want to enact some sort of society, which will involve some element of the life we currently have. Therefore there will still be a need for my skills altho in that case I feel very sorry for the legions of civil servants and marketeers who will be useless.


  4. All very well John, but have you managed to get the better of Tescos yet and work out the best value for money. They always seem to be trying to get one step ahead of us with their – ‘every little helps’!


  5. So, JW, you were never in the Cubs/Scouts, then? I was in the Girl Guides & learned to make a fire without matches in howling wind & rain,(which is something I hope I’ll never have to do again). I’m also a dab hand at tying a clovehitch & a reef knot, & I can swill water round the ketchup bottle & pour it into the almost new one with the best of ’em. So I’m halfway there in the ‘practicality stakes’ then. Also, I should add that hubby still cuts the bottom off the toothpaste tube in order the gain a further week out of it!


  6. @IATL So, post financial collapse the Sun will go out and it will stop raining… I think not and agree with Mark, practical skills are worth having.


  7. @ It’s already to late:

    Come a “collapse” people will still need water, and so plumbing of water.

    People will still want electricity, so someone that can connect this to your device will still have skills that are in demand..

    People still need shelter, so joinery is essential.

    I’m a professional in none of these areas, but have done all of them because I sought knowledge and enjoyment. I’m such a masochist, I even designed and built from the ground up a two bed timber clad house with my own bare hands. I have particular respect for roofers to this day, I also have respect for the architects/structural engineers that have to work out how to get things past building control.

    Most of my other white collar work colleagues think I’m nuts, and should spend my time playing golf!

    The other thing is the the wider ground of experience means you can form connections with a much broader spectrum of your community, rather than the isolationist middle-management @ bluechip set, or the sometimes equally ringfenced tradesman types.

    My father was a professional sparky, time served apprenticeship @ the old electricity board, and he to this day can make pretty much anything. He’s not a “prepper” but found a well in his garden, and combined plumbing and electrical knowledge to save himself a fortune in water charges!

    One thing he always joked about was “Plumbers are electricians who aren’t clever enough to be electricians”, and (“how can you tell when a politician is lying… his lips move”, at that time he was on the district council)


  8. Back in the 8os in Athens we had frequent electrical blackouts. That, plus my intention to end up living (and farming) in the stone family house on our island – on the proviso that I rebuilt it – stoked a 30 year fascination in dong without electrical aids in the kitchen, learning traditional techniques and having a flat that functions comfortably during blackouts.

    Of course I do have electrical appliances…but also a fall-back zone:
    Gas hob with kettle; the local baker’s oven for casseroles and roasts; steel food mill; old, reconditioned, hand-cranked ice cream machine; copper bowls and whisks; mortar & pestles; old wooden ice box. Oil lamps, petrol heaters.

    In turn it made me appreciate our really great electrical luxuries – fridge, hot water heater, clothes washer, ceiling fans!

    What I fear will be the great necessities come The Future are plugs to charge the mobile phones and laptop!

    So Mark Polden – please advise!!


  9. Well in simple terms go and get yourself some solar panels and as many car batteries as you can muster. Charge the batteries off the panels and then you will be able to use low current draw items such as mobiles, laptops and LED lights


  10. JW, I’m about the age you first bought a property, and I’m feeling depressed after realizing that those were times when most people had the possibility of a life. My father got married at 25 and, despite not owning a house, real state was so cheap at the time it was not uncommon to pay the house in 10 years. Of course he had an stable job that allowed him to support a child and a wife with a single salary, and to afford a well built car.
    Those were interesting times you lived, man. Now I’m approaching the 30s, and I can only dream of having a house of my own. Prospects of finding a profession stable enough as to be “awarded” with a 40+ years mortage seems rather low. But even if I could. it would be pointless being single. And I’m afraid this is not going to change either. Our western societies of today hates men.
    I could buy a cheap car but these plastic programmed-to-fail 4-wheeled things can’t compare to what my father had in the garage.


  11. Thank you Mark!

    We DO have solar panels. And car batteries are inexpensive now with 50% of cars off the road. This is great advice – and much appreciated. I assume the plug and electrical line would be attached to the final battery as needed?

    Perhaps those involved in electronic design could think about solar batteries (as with calculators)….there are solar powered laptops in African schools I seem to remember.

    Re-reading my post I see I listed some items that are not “essential” like the old ice cream maker, and one a bit mysterious, the old wooden ice box. These were salvaged from the shed of our family house. Once we worked out how to use them we now use both constantly. The ice cream maker makes up to 4 litres of ice cream in about 20 minutes, and is easy and even quite fun to work, especially if everyone has a turn armed with a drink. The wooden ice box – essentially 3 boxes inside each other – is incredibly efficient. When the two outer walls are packed with ice, it freezes food up to 3 days; packing one wall with ice acts as a fridge. A slotted divider makes separate zones…..this beautifully carved and decorated contraption now lives on my balcony – perfect for drinks and ice cubes back when we had parties (last: 3 years ago) and a useful larder in winter. It’s quite big, but the divider means that only a small part need be in use ice-wise.

    Yes I know – first get your ice! But this used to be available year round before electricity, delivered by wagon from underground ice houses. Maybe a (revived) future profession?!

    My aunt still uses a hand cranked clothes washing drum…in her Kolonaki flat…..because “I am too old to get used to new ideas”. This horror is not cranked by her though :)

    Because of the heat in Greece we build bread ovens (wood-burning) in the garden – these cook everything else too. Essentially a raised stone or concrete block construction coated inside and out with cement, with a chimney, a door, a ledge to rest the food on inside and out – I remember seeing something like this built against the wall in a medieval house in England, inside of course. The bread from these ovens is delicious! As delicious as steak cooked over a wood fire gripped between 2 grills…

    In older greek houses a large marble sink is usually fixed outside in the garden too, piped from a well.

    Random ideas from the close-to-the-earth south :)


  12. If you want to just charge a USB device, these are fine (and much cheaper than trying to store mains level voltage)


    Guys that do trips to the poles use similar things (though probably much better quality). I have one and have used it to recharge my GPS unit and phone.

    If power is out so long you need to rely on solar, then mobile phones won’t work anyway as the masts also require electricity, and while they have backup power, it isn’t designed to last indefinitely..

    Same goes for telephone exchanges / data centres / Internet providers. Ultimately why power them up if your customers have no electricity to use them?

    (Really you want at least one plain old phone, cordless phones don;t work in a powercut for emergencies, but as mobiles are now so common lots of people forget this, and if they have a problem in a powercut AND their mobiles have no signal get caught out)

    You could buy a small “inverter” for essentials that must use mains level, and leave a couple of car batteries (you really want leisure rated ones, they are more suited to this use) on a trickle charger when your panels are working. Don’t expect to run high load items off these without spending lots of money though. Google “Maplins Inverter” for some ideas of cheap ones that are perfectly capable of powering a laptop.

    If you have a minimum of 4 car batteries charged at any one time, at a push you can even use them to do emergency welding!

    This all supposes a societal collapse to the extent that I just don’t believe will happen (unless we have a non-man made disaster, like a massive solar flare)

    Best guess scenario, we finally have enough, riot in the streets, critical infrastructure like electricity goes into a rolling blackout, and life gets tough for all. We elect some new leaders who promise to look after us, they begin new nepotist dynasties, complete with new school tie chums, rinse repeat.


  13. “Being good with your hands” as my tradesman father was want to say. You either got it or you don’t. Same as being a creative artist.

    What they don’t tell you in those D.I.Y. programs on T.V. The amount of hours a real tradesman has had to correct the D.I.Yer’s screw ups.

    Since the explosion of DIY renovators (due to popular TV programs) the amount of small work injuries, exposure to legacy asbestos and lead products and subsequent call in of professional tradies has also exploded.

    If you are in the housing market and are keen on a house that has been renovated by D.I.Y.er’s get an engineers and building inspectors report before making the sale.


  14. Old analogue telephone exchanges ran power to your phone out on the copper wires. No power in the house but you still had a phone.

    If you are serious about a solar installation with backup batteries you need properly designed deep cycle batteries – not car batteries. There are internal specific designs for each type.

    Old fashioned lead acid batteries last many years longer than modern chemical types. The disadvantage of lead acid is the dangerous fumes that must be vented.

    Those solar powered laptops for African villages were a good idea until the internal battery (which is often made of unobtainium) ran out.


  15. @ boneidle

    Quite plain old phones, got their power from the line, and still work in power cuts, problem is lots of people don’t RTFM on modern cordless phones and so are without phone in an emergency (I believe it’s legislation they all carry a disclaimer about this)

    Yep, deep cycle (also known as leisure batteries ;) as I mentioned, but trying to keep it simple). My father designed the 12v battery backup for the V&A museum way back when, I often went down with him on site as a nipper (pre HSE days), and he explained the system. Being young and impressionable it was very interesting.

    Big problem with SLA vs LiPo/ LiFePO4 is energy density . The question is why give African villages laptops, not really low energy desktops (desktops are cheaper after all), maybe based on something like Raspberry Pi’s, then they could use SLA batteries because transportability is less of an issue. Sure not as fancy, but then do they need to sit in coffee shops with something that goes out of fashion in 12 months, and sod the longevity of the battery?


  16. When it comes to buying property, the best advice will always come from an experienced tradesman. Many years ago, 1975, I qualified as a surveyor but quickly realised that writing reports was not for me. Having started to repair cars at age 10, I came to the conclusion that a life on the tools was more my cup of tea, so, after qualifying I went and did that for several years. When I acquired my first property, in need of much work, I started doing that instead – along with a sideline in playing music which was not very profitable – and I still do. Mainly, I work as a gas and heating engineer/plumber but have long experience in carpentry/joinery and the other building trades including electrical work which is, in any case, an essential for heating work. Over the years I have worked with many surveyors, architects and other ‘white collar’ building bods many of whom have good theoretical knowledge but few practical instincts; these people will charge you a pretty penny to write a report full of caveats. Whatever it is, doing it for a living always leads to a much greater level of insight than looking at it for a living, IMO. On the other hand, not everyone wants to get their hands dirty I suppose and, of course, everybody has got to be somebody.. I would certainly agree that ‘D.I.Yer’s screw ups’ can cause many problems and be relatively expensive and very frustrating to rectify!


  17. Ok, so there are societal problems around immigration (people > resources) and lack of jobs etc., but what seems most likely in the main is some form of currency collapse. If and when this happens, as seems very possible, I don’t think we will be thrown back to the stone age or into some post apocalyptic wasteland – unless there is war on a large scale. The infrastructure that exists will not suddenly disappear in a puff of smoke, even if the way it is funded and operated has to change dramatically. Our problems seem to stem from fiat money/fractional reserve banking/financial madness and chicanery/living beyond our means, and the refusal of those currently running the show to acknowledge that reality. I believe there will come a tipping point and that when people refuse to cooperate with the system in sufficient numbers, the system will change. Greece, for instance, has been turned into an isolation ward, which is relatively easy (not for the Greeks!) while we can pretend that the infection is geographically limited, but as soon as that is shown not to be the case – and with little or no prospect of economic growth against a background of sovereign debt/rising costs and unrealistic welfare expectations, it is only a matter of time – there will be a reckoning which will encompass most of the developed world. As long as we fight ‘them’ and not ourselves we may yet survive without having to abandon everything; one thing for sure, JW’s curved balls will be flying hither and yon. There may well be a period of transition and adjustment, and practical skills are always useful, but necessity is the mother of the other thing, let us not forget.


  18. My suggestion: Kafka’s “Poseidon.” One page or less. Speaks to mythical powers of creation and what not from a nonconventional angle somewhat along lines suggested here.


  19. Yes. Dad was frightfully good at all three; flew & navigated four engined bombers through hurricanes in war time and then .. ?

    One great secret worth keeping in mind though — there are really far fewer really competent people around than most people, even really bright people, suspect — but this is an essential secret, one of the most essential in fact, thank goodness.


  20. There is too much anxiety about electrical power generation in the general population, though I can’t say I blame anyone for it. While people are terrorized with the spectre of possible future shortages due to the propagation of ignorance in the media, they should understand that in the past thirty years advances in electrical power generation’s efficiency have been enormous — really epochal — and this passes as an unknown. During that time period, in a developed area of the world like say California, the demand for electrical power has increased by a substantial factor due to population increase and proliferation of gadgets, of course. But, due to the improvements in grid technology, circuit engineering and power transmission, the amount of absolute electrical power sources has not had to increase by nearly the same factor — not even close. This “non-sexy” but really fundamental science and engineering, every bit as real as the internet, mobile phones and $300 laptops that were supercomputers but a few decades ago, barely gets mention, but if it were appreciated it might go a ways to help people keep a better grip on things as far as their security and that of their children and grandchildren and so on. This is a classic example of where ignorance is not bliss at all. By mentioning these things I don’t mean at all to disparage anyone who keeps a sharp eye out on how to be self-sufficient from the ground up, not in the least.


  21. There was a time that a smart capable person was multitalented and not good in one field . To mention few : Aristotle was an extraordinary polymath not only a philosopher but he wrote poerty ,physics ,poetry,logic,music,politics,biology.ethics and zoology . Leonardo Da Vinci one of the most talented man to walk on earth , artist , inventor ,engineer , thinker .Isaac Newton mathematician , physicist,philosopher,
    theologian.Thomas Jefferson talented politician with interest in architecture,inventions,wine,birds.So many others .We live in times that the most of people , even the most intelligent and talented are good at one thing .Maybe because the aim is to be an expertise in one lucrative field and make a great deal of money .Maybe in modern world knowledge has been growing so fast that is against even the most clever to contribute in one field unless he devotes all his time to it .Maybe because knowledge in our times is so enormous that if we try too many things we will be only dabbler and dilettantes .So by specializing and having intrest in one thing the most of us become narrow,ignorant in every subject but our own , even dull, lopsided ,and we lack perspective and vision and we miss cross-fertilization of ideas that can come from knowing something of other subjects .” Do some stuff. Most fails. Some works. You do more of what works. If it works big, others quickly copy it. Then you do something else. The trick is the doing something else” was Da Vinci’s advice .


  22. If only those who ‘specialise’ in playing with (for) money and making plans for their own advancement, to the inevitable exclusion of everybody else, would ‘do something else’!


  23. Brought back memories form the early 1970s when I was stage engineer for an amateur dramatic society during the Ted Heath power-cuts.

    In order to ensure some lighting during performances, I strung together a complete duplicate set of 12v lighting (acquired from car-scrappers), then ran a feed-cable outside and connected it to a Triumph Vitesse, in which my father sat patiently each evening, awaiting the moment when the mains power failed, to start up the engine and power the whole building from his car.

    As it happened, the power-cut never happened, so the audience never knew the contingency effort we’d made to ensure both their continued entertainment and safety – and all long before Health & Safety laws too. Happy days.


  24. I hope that i am right, but the collapse of civilization as we know it as been rather overdone.
    A bit like the the end of the millennium [nothing] the 2012/2012 [nothing]
    The only certain thing is that 1 in 20 of us won’t see the end of this year, but who will be No 1? and who will be the 2-20? that is the question. So just enjoy life.


  25. My attitude to DIY has always been simple. As a dentist and good at it,if I make more money /hour than the tradesman then I will do dentistry and pay him/her to do what they are undoubtably better at than me. Gets me out of loads of jobs.


  26. Gets you out of every job i imagine Gordon the amount you dentists earn.

    Why o why can’t we let in the eastern european dentists to sort out our supply side problem over here ? I dont buy the “not upto our standards” argument. Every foreign person i speak to says their dentists are miles better than over here.

    Dentistry is a mafia controlled racket.


  27. why convert to AC if you can run your laptop from a 12v DC car adapter. just get a car charger for your laptop and terminate your 12v battery supply with car cigarette style sockets (with inline fuses). Dc to ac back to dc is needlessly inefficient. Mobile phones can be charged from 12v batteries the same way.


  28. there are are good and bad everywhere-you can’t generalise. There are very large numbers of immigrant dentists already here. After the disasterous 2006 nhs contrick the govt opened the flood gates.The result was a large number poured in. Many had poor English and to juddge by the cases coming up before the GDC clinical skills of some were wanting. Many also it appears did not have indemnity cover. Now our home grown newly qualified dentists can no longer get on the training year required if you wish to do nhs work while the EU graduates are exempt. So much for equality.Result-dentists out of work after all that money spent on training!
    Indeed after the 2006 contrick many practices cut down on dental staff so there is no supply problem ,in fact the opposite,oversupply.Add to that the dumbing down by allowing “dental care professionals” to uptake work traditionally done by dentists and you have the perfect conditions for the privatisation of nhs dentistry. A few large selected corporates dealing directly with govt with access to cheap labour . Both sides win. Govt gets to boast about “access” while the companies supply low grade cheap work . Guess who loses?
    THe guardian http://www.guardian.co.uk/society/2013/jan/13/private-firms-corporation-tax-nhs-profits


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