Owning things is a more challenging business than merely writing a cheque. Ownership isn’t only a legal entitlement; it’s a sensation. For a dozen years, I rented the attic of a fabulously ramshackle Victorian manor in Belfast, and never mind that my name wasn’t on the title deeds. I possessed it through passion. I understood that house, adored that house, worked and lived deeply in that house and it was mine.
Several friends have expressed incredulity that when I finally did buy a house in London in February (much more trouble and expense than ownership through affectionate rental), I painted the entire interior myself before moving in. Why on earth didn’t I hire professional painters? Isn’t my precious time worth more than whatever it would have cost to farm the tedium out?
But Matthew Crawford would understand. The author of The Case for Working with Your Hands, or Why Office Work is Bad for Us and Fixing Things Feels Good (Viking), he argues for “the renewed cultivation of manual competence”. In his tender, wise little volume, Crawford talks up the emotional satisfactions of manipulating the physical world yourself, and despairs that these days “there are fewer occasions for the kind of spiritedness that is called forth when we take things in hand for ourselves, whether to fix them or to make them. What ordinary people once made, they buy.” He rues the wholesale jettisoning of “shop class”, the course in carpentry, electronics, and metalworking once required to graduate from American high schools. (In my day “shop” was only for boys; girls took “home-ec”, the cooking and sewing course. Personally, I would restore both classes for both genders, so that boys could boil an egg and girls could wire a lamp.)
Thus Crawford is a kindred spirit, and believes that it is exactly people like me — airy-fairies slumped chronically before computer screens — who need to drag on the torn jeans, roll up their sleeves, and get covered in spatters of Moorish red and Jersey cream. Manual labour is a welcome antidote to the lassitude of writing, the disembodiment of words. Indeed, just now I’m impatient with my keyboard, since all I really want to do is fix the loose anchors of the toilet-roll holder with this fabulous fill I just discovered that dries as hard as cement. I would rather raise a column than write one.DIY is a way of life and a point of view. I have the highest regard for “manual competence”, and when I do hire skilful tradesmen, I’m in awe of their crafts, grateful for their mastery and attentive to their methods so that next time I can do the repair myself. Otherwise, I build my own bookshelves, and if they come out a bit rough and ready I love them — and own them — far more than any online order from Ikea.
I cut and nail the moulding for my skirting boards. I cook my own food, which beats the daylights out of the thin satisfaction of “ordering well” in restaurants or the fleeting relief of not having crucified your ready-meal in the microwave. I treasure good tools, which are super-possessions: the means through which so much of the physical world can be claimed.
The alternative is to accede to the helpless eternal childhood — the dispossession — that is modern life. We may be living in the information age, but young people are no longer provided with the information they need to manipulate their own environment. Theoretically educated but mechanically inept, they’re not taught how to work a jigsaw without snapping the blade, or even how to paint — only how to hire someone else, whose know-how is increasingly rare. Little wonder that the trades are now more reliable routes to higher incomes than degrees in media studies.
Despite the assurances of my solicitor, when I first slipped into “my” new house in Bermondsey I could feel the ghosts of the previous owners hovering in every room, and during subsequent visits I continued to feel like an intruder in someone else’s home. Until, that is, I dragged in the tins, the brushes, the tarps, the rollers and the ladder. I came to pride myself on cutting in freehand, without resort to tape; when I glance up at the ceiling line now I do detect the odd tremble, but that was my tremble, and doesn’t drive me to grumble like a grumpy old coot that lately British workmen have no standards. With Carys yellow and Sundial, Chappell and Cooking Apple green, I won that house one square foot at a time, literally making my mark. The place is mine now, and every project I personally undertake in future will lodge this little Georgian hovel more firmly in my custody still. Ownership isn’t merely a matter of
deposits, completions, and stamp duty. Ownership is earned.