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The Therapeutic Value Of DIY

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I suppose I am what many would call a left wing intellectual, although that is a much abused term. Certainly I have spent most of my life in academia and the laboratory, and by no means could I be called an artisan. However, although my parents were middle class — respectively a civil servant and a primary school secretary — I was the first in modern times to go to university. This was at a time in the UK when only 5% of school leavers went on to further education, and even fewer would go on to get a doctorate. There is some evidence of a distant ancestor in the 16th century being awarded a degree a t Cambridge University, but the facts are unclear.

Historically speaking I am an anomaly, one of that generation who have risen from the working class by good fortune – and natural ability; but if I had been born a century earlier, I would probably have followed in the footsteps of my father, which would have either been in industry, down the coal mines or as an agricultural labourer. Given the state of our country at the moment I wonder if this will ever happen again — we post-war baby boomers had the luck to be born at a time of unprecedented opportunity.

My great grandfathers were all artisans if one sort or another; on my mother’s side as members of the industrial proletariat, and in agricultural occupations on my father's. So I am the third generation descendant of a blacksmith, an agricultural labourer, a coal miner and a potter. I very much doubt that there is a specific gene that confers aptitude with one’s hands, but I have always enjoyed pursuits that require such abilities, most of which I have had to learn by trial and error — my father was a very able gardener, but his ineptitude with hand tools was embarrassing.

Of course, laboratory work requires a high level of manual dexterity, something I have endeavoured to prolong into retirement by making model wooden boats – rigging a sailing ship takes a great deal of patience and good hand-eye coordination, something that is now starting to fail because of untreatable difficulties with the vision in my left eye. From my teens I have enjoyed making and building things, developing new skills along the way — skills that would have been second nature to my ancestors, developed as they grew into adulthood by a process akin to osmosis. I have only one advantage that they did not enjoy and that is the availability of reasonably priced power tools of a consistently high quality, and I have spent a not inconsiderable amount of money in making sure I have the best tools for the job in hand.

I live in a house built 105 years ago, and it has needed much work to bring it up to the standards of the 21st century, some of which, such as the fitting of central heating and double glazing, are beyond my abilities, but many which I have felt competent to undertake myself — and able to do to a very high standard. In recent years for example I have stripped the bathroom back to the bare brick and refitted it as a fully equipped wet room, and I always have some new project in mind. Quite apart from the satisfaction gained from carrying out a project from planning to completion, and incidentally saving myself a lot of money, I have found that working with my hands has been a wonderful way to combat the stress of my professional career, but also therapeutic, and a way to work my way out of my periodic bouts of clinical depression. It is also interesting that while my body is occupied with repetitive physical skills, my mind is free to muse on the state of the world, concentration on one set of tasks enhancing concentration in other, more cerebral activities.

In conclusion, whilst I would not recommend anyone to plunge headlong into activities requiring a high degree of manual skill without adequate preparation and forethought, I do believe that pride in one’s handiwork and a sense of achievement in a job well done are highly conducive to peace of mind, and physical labour just as effective as hours in the gym in keeping one fit and healthy into old age.

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