Farmer Simon Fairlie reflects on the decline in practical skills – and abilities.
I came out of school at the age of 17 highly literate but almost completely dystechnic. Since there is no word for the manual equivalent of illiterate I have had to coin one, and ‘dystechnic’ is the best I can do. The ‘technic’ bit comes from the Greek, meaning to ‘shape’ or ‘fabricate’. The ‘dys’ is Greek, for ‘ill’ ‘diseased’; ‘bad’ — or more colloquially, ‘fucked up’. ‘Dysfunctional’ means one is incapable of doing anything properly – but I wasn’t dysfunctional: just incapable of executing anything but the most elementary manual activity with any dexterity. ‘Cack-handed’ is arguably a more accurate description – and ‘Growing Up Cack-handed’ would probably be a better title for this essay – but cack-handed implies an innate inability to use tools, whereas my problem was that no one had ever taught me.
Actually that’s not entirely true, I was luckier than some. I did have a half hour of carpentry a week for a few years, making toast racks and bookends — and the boy scouts taught me how to light a fire and tie a bowline. But these were extra-curricular activities in a regime that was focused on an exclusively academic and athletic curriculum. The result was that I emerged from the system able to scan iambic pentameters, recite chunks of Racine, write thousands of words on the military exploits of the Merovingian emperors and bowl a leg break, but unable to use a shovel properly, milk a cow, or recognize a carburettor.
The academic specialisation I was subjected to was, and still is, the hallmark of a middle class education. There was, I suppose, an argument that it made sense for middle class kids to devote all their working life to study of the liberal arts, since there were plenty of kids going to secondary moderns who would become experts in lathework and technical drawing, while Irish labourers were wizard at shovelry. There are of course advantages in being brought up middle class (though being wealthy is not necessarily one of them) and I am not one to deny the benefits of studying Latin scansion or medieval history.
But there is also a sense in which we posh kids occasionally felt deprived. Working class kids had dads who built them soapbox carts out of old prams, while we (if we were lucky) were given Triang pedal cars that puttered around at a quarter of the speed. At the seaside you could tell the working class families because they had massive inflated tractor inner tubes, while we had to make do with poxy little plastic rubber rings. Throughout my childhood I lived under the uneasy suspicion that in order to maintain the English class system, I was being deprived of contact with the more robust aspects of the material world, and on leaving school I realized that my suspicions were entirely correct. I was uttterly ill-equipped to do anything except write academic essays and bowl leg-breaks; the only thing I was qualified to do was to sink back into the academic system from which I had only just emerged.
Fortunately, in 1968, the climate was pretty good for anyone who wanted to deviate from the path that society had mapped out for them. There was plenty of casual work around and Tim Leary was advising us to ‘turn on, tune in and drop out’, which was what anyone with any gumption duly did. I was therefore lucky enough not to waste another three years studying Beowulf and the metaphysical poets, and instead got myself a job as a labourer on a large building site. The foreman set me to work chiselling out the half-bricks on the jambs of a doorway that was scheduled to be bricked in. It should have taken about three hours; it took me three days, because nobody had ever thought to place a cold chisel in my hands before, let alone encouraged me to find the correct angle to hold it in order to splinter brick. The foreman was a model of patience, but at the end of my eight weeks stint on the site he advised me that I would do best to go back to college.
However, my conclusion from this initiation into the wonderful world of work was that it was going to take about ten years to learn the manual skills which I could have acquired in three, had I been taught them from the age of twelve – and so I made a conscious decision to devote ten years to acquiring them. Eventually a bunch of us acquired, for the equivalent of twenty weeks work on Colchester dust carts, five acres of land with a stream and couple of ruins in the South of France. In Spring 1973 we set off in a Ford Trader van crammed with wheelbarrows, generators and all manner of tat to build our New Jerusalem, with a tattered copy of the Whole Earth Catalogue serving as our bible.
I still blush at the memory of some of our early attempts. The first roof I built was all that you would expect from someone who had read the hippy DIY building manuals but hadn’t yet grasped that water runs downhill. My fencing sagged like washing lines, and my walls were as plumb as a pregnant woman, a failing I rationalised through the notion that ‘wiggly is good’. On one occasion I had to completely redo a month-long outside job I had taken on that was well beyond my capabilities. Not that any of this mattered greatly – it is amazing how comfortably you can live even when you are utterly incompetent, provided you have control over your own surroundings and an ample source of red wine.
Nonetheless I did learn through bitter experience, and at the end of ten years, aged over 30, I had acquired most of the practical skills that you might reasonably expect of a 17 year old who had been taught by his dad. Once I had acquired the ability to build plumb and straight I discarded the principle that wiggly is good, having discovered that wiggly is difficult to build onto or fit things to and attracts dust, moisture and vermin. By the end of the 1980s, I was competent enough to pass myself off as professional stonemason in one of the few sectors of the building industry that wasn’t affected by the economic downturn. Yet I have never entirely dispelled the feeling that I am an impostor in the world of manual work – that the basic skills and understanding of materials are not as ingrained in me as they would be if I had picked them up younger, in the same way that anyone who learns a new language later in life inevitably speaks with an accent.
The fact that millions of British middle class kids in the 1960s were growing up dystechnic didn’t really matter, in the greater scheme of things, because millions of working class kids (and the luckier middle class ones who had practically minded mums or dad) weren’t. But now, fifty years later, economic trends are conspiring to make dystechnia so prevalent that it is becoming dominant. The outsourcing of manufacturing, the replacement of hand tools by machines, the decline in the number of farmworkers, the proliferation of disposable and solid state machinery – all these, amongst other developments, have marginalised manual labour and made it economically obsolete. It is an exaggeration to claim that ‘we are all middle class now’, but increasingly those who are not middle class, or aspiring to be so, are depicted as a disaffected lumpen proletariat – ‘chavs’ – rather than a skilled workforce. Soapbox carts and tractor tyres have been replaced by mobile phones and Xboxes. School education has given us a 99 per cent literacy rate, but at the price that in every successive generation there are an increasing proportion of people who have never been taught how to use their hands.
Happily, while dystechnia is promulgated in the mainstream, there is resistance at the margins, resistance that can be seen in the rising amateur interest in allotments, smallholdings, woodland management, forest schools, wwoofing, green gyms, conservation volunteering and so on. Unfortunately the enthusiasm for these activities is not always matched by a parallel level of competence. By no means all, but a worrying proportion of, volunteers I meet in the course of my work are at the same level of manual competence as I when I left school — they have never been taught how to wield a hammer, how to dig a trench, how to sharpen a knife, how to use a file or how to tie a knot. But then that is often why they are volunteering: they too, whether early or late in their adult life, have come to the realization that they have grown up dystechnic, and want to do something about it.
This article was first published (on real, actual, paper) in The Land magazine.