On 29 September 2014 I was very busy helping out on the land my brother works on, helping him to fix up a cow shed. My entire adult life I have done little, if any, manual labour. It was probably the most rewarding work I have ever done, outside of my writing. As I come from a working class background, with a long line of working men behind me, it was a big deal that I was not comically inept.
The day starts not precisely early, at about 7.00am. For actual workers in the Trades this is a lie in. My father, who is the manliest man to ever father six sons, used to get up and out at about 4.00am. Now he ‘sleeps in’ until about 6.00am. I have worked in an office for the past four years, was at University before that, and then more offices going all the way back another six or seven years. Suffice to say, for me seven is early. I got up, got in to some baggy track-suit trousers and steel-toed trainers and waited for my ride.
An aside: The matter of food. My family are all big men (and my tiny mum) who have been involved in manual trades for some or much of their lives. They eat big. To contrast, while I’m pretty tall I’m a slim pale bugger more inclined to salads than pies. Before work my tiny mum loaded me down with some sausage rolls, some fruit, crisps, biscuits, a slice of pie and two door-stopper sandwiches. I though the sandwiches were overdoing it, so I put one back. HOW WRONG I WAS!
My brother picks me up at 8.30am. I needed the ride because, due to poor life decision skills on my part, I’ve never learned to drive. Once you get out of cities, you realize exactly how poor an idea it is to go on holiday instead of getting your license. I understand that some country-folk think nothing of strolling the six miles or whatever to the next village, but I point once more to my urban lifestyle which has not adequately prepared me for this.
In the car, he observes that it has been nearly exactly fifteen years since I was last on site with him. I did my school work experience. I made a weak joke about hoping not to be so useless this time, and he laughs along. I don’t have books this time, and we laugh some more.
We reach his house and unpack ourselves to get ready for the day. It wasn’t quite clocking on time so we had another cup of coffee and my brother showed me some things on a computer game. A digression, but it is entirely my fault that my broad-shouldered, burly workman brother loves to spend his time playing space-men on computers. Years back I introduced him to World of Warcraft. He doesn’t play that any more (neither do I) but to his wife all I can say is I am sorry. On balance, though, he doesn’t go around doing murders and instead gets it out of his system on the computer, which I think is a good thing.
Things seen and bits and bobs gathered, we head down to the cowshed in the jeep. Jeeps are cool and my brother offers to show me how to use the bloody thing. I laugh but don’t mention I’m deathly afraid of running over one of the cows. We reach the site.
Now, I know nothing about: cows; cowsheds; manual labour; country-life in general. So my impression of the cowshed is completely uninformed, but ‘post-apoc wasteland’ springs to mind. My brother explains what I am going to be doing to start with.
Sweeping and shovelling poop. You might think at this point that I’d be a bit put out. The evidence would certainly favour that impression, given my unwillingness to work for minimum wage as an office coffee-maker. You would be wrong. My over-riding concern as I am handed a broom and a shovel is that I am going to fuck up this simplest of tasks and, true to form, as I start sweeping my brother kindly explains that I should probably hold the broom the other way around. I’m just glad for the point as, no surprises, it works out.
I sweep and shovel, kicking out wood to get at poop. My brother pulls out an angle-grinder and tells me to stay at least one stall back at all times, which I do. I pause to look over at what he is doing. He’s got the ‘grinder in hand and white-hot sparks are flying. I think surrounded by technology we forget sometimes that we’re holding the toys of the gods in our hands. There’s something distinctly Hephaestan about this giant of a man intently labouring over metal. I go back to my job. Sweep and shovel, sweep and shovel. It’s a stupid thing to be pleased with, but I get the technique and I’m making good time. I manage to get everything done a little faster than I think the plan was, so I’m given a new job.
A hammer and iron bar are put in my hands after I am given a demonstration of knocking bolts through timbers. That’s what the angle grinding cutting has preparing the way for. I set to; I’m slower than my brother but with two of us the work is going quicker. We break. How wrong I was about the food. I’m ravenous and demolish my whole lunch. We chat with my brother’s wife about colleges and theatre and whatnot, then back to work. I have a frustrating time with bolts. My brother pours me a cup of coffee and tells me while he was going to take over the hammering stuff to help me, he thinks it is better I do it on my own. He’s right. I do.
Another aside, but jokes are made about tea-drinking builders. I am a decorator’s son (and very proud of it too!) so I’ve never made those jokes. Having done even a day of actual labour I can say those breaks for tea are very much needed. White collar occupations don’t know what tired is!
The day progresses and I’ve managed to remove all the bolts, safely placing all the washers as I’ve been told we need to keep them all (I will drop one in the cow basin, much later). Now I have a pry bar and I need to remove all those rotten planks. I set to with gusto.
Then I get shown how to drill. I used to own a drill, a very nice drill, but I’ve never done drilling. Here I am a bit inept as I nearly break the thing but I get it. I say to my brother I feel like I can claim a man-card now.
At about 3.00pm my Dad arrives. He has finished his job for the day and has come along to see how we are doing. My brother is just about to start measuring wood to hang and Dad shows him a trick, cutting time in half.
My Dad and my brother are both very, very good at their jobs and they just set to. Cutting, hanging, drilling. Doing. A lot of ink has been spilled by very posh men, and then by posh sons of working men, about the stature of these kind of men. There is something quasi-divine about the no-nonsense way in which the two of them get to work. There’s none of the banter that defines masculinity-in-crisis; there is just the work. It is awesome to see, mythical and spiritual. There’s a magic to craft, the alchemy of muscle and sweat taking something old and battered and making it strong, whole again. I may be peripheral but at no point do I feel useless.
We clean up, I put away the tools. My brother’s congratulates me on a job well done. I ask my Dad to take a picture of the cow-shed, at what feels like the first honest day’s work I’ve ever done. Back at my brother’s house we share a beer, then I go home warmed by the glow of honest work. I’m not the apprentice, I barely rank at a brush-boy, but I’m proud of my work today. I sleep like a log, having connected myself to a tradition I’m only ever half aware of.