“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.