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TOM UTLEY: If only I’d studied carpentry instead of Latin, I’d have saved a fortune on Mrs U’s home improvements
Life for me of late has become one long, losing battle against my beloved wife’s schemes for tarting up the house.
So it was that a few months ago, after mounting a futile resistance, I meekly consented to calling in a decorator to replaster and repaint the sitting room.
Oh, and while he was here, thought Mrs U, wouldn’t it be a good idea to get him to redo our bedroom, too?
And wouldn’t it be nice to install fitted wardrobes, in place of the monstrosities we heaved upstairs more than 30 years ago, when we first moved in?
‘Well, I suppose so, darling, if you really insist.’
Not for the first time, I found myself wishing that in the course of my fantastically expensive education, somebody had taught me how to plaster a ceiling or build a fitted wardrobe. It might have saved me a substantial four-figure sum.
But no. Though I learned plenty of Latin and a little Ancient Greek, and studied philosophers from Aristotle to Karl Marx, none of my brilliant teachers taught me anything that could be described as remotely practical, such as how to complete a tax return, plumb in a washing machine or put up a shelf that didn’t sag in the middle or tilt at a crazy angle.
I can’t help feeling that my four sons might have been a lot better off if only they’d mastered a craft instead of saddling themselves with student debt to study nothing but ‘respectable’ arts subjects, like their useless dad
So all I could do was hand over a small fortune and watch in wonder as the carpenter from the wardrobe firm sawed and hammered away to create masterpieces fit for display in House & Garden magazine, and Patrick the decorator sealed and plastered over the cracks in the walls and the ceilings, upstairs and down, with the skill of a master craftsman.
Only one thing marred the perfection of Patrick’s work. Somehow or other, in the course of his plastering, he accidentally severed a cable connected to the panic button in our bedroom, setting the burglar alarm clanging in the street outside. Since nothing he or I could do would silence it, he clambered on to the roof of the porch, removed the bell from the wall and cut another cable to shut it up.
The upshot was that I had to call in an engineer from ADT, the alarm company, to fix it. The bill from the firm made my eyes water.
I couldn’t help thinking of that wonderful song by Flanders and Swann, The Gas Man Cometh, with its chorus: ‘Oh, it all makes work for the working man to do.’
As older readers may remember, this is the one in which the gas man tears out the skirting boards to locate the main, and the carpenter who comes to replace the boards accidentally cuts off the electricity by nailing through a cable.
So an electrician has to be summoned — and while he is standing on a bin to reach the fuse box, his foot goes through a window — a job for the glazier … and so the song goes on, until the decorator who comes to repair the damage done by the glazier paints over the gas tap. So the gasman has to be called, and the vicious circle turns again.
‘Oh, it all makes work for the working man to do…’
I’d rather hoped, anyway, that with the new wardrobes in place, the bedroom and sitting room redone and the alarm fixed, Mrs U might give her mania for home improvements a rest for a while.
But no such luck. No sooner was the work complete than she decided the time had come to replace the rotting windows in the kitchen and our bedroom, which were admittedly letting in draughts.
After fighting an heroic rear-guard action, again I accepted the inevitable defeat.
Which brings me to this week, when from Monday to Wednesday the house echoed again with drilling and hammering as the new double-glazed windows took shape.
This time, the work has set me back a cool five-figure sum (nothing but the best for Mrs U). So farewell any dreams of full retirement.
Yet again, I’ve found myself thinking how useful it would have been if I’d learned practical skills, alongside all that Latin and political philosophy.
As well as useful, it must also be highly satisfying to build a wardrobe, plaster a ceiling, fit a window or repair a broken burglar alarm.
A nice little earner, what’s more, in these post-Brexit days when skilled craftsmanship is at a premium and we can no longer rely on cheap labour from Eastern Europe.
Indeed, I can’t help feeling that my four sons might have been a lot better off if only they’d mastered a craft instead of saddling themselves with student debt to study nothing but ‘respectable’ arts subjects, like their useless dad.
I therefore agreed with the TV presenter Dame Mary Beard this week, when she deplored the ‘terrible snobbery’ of rating her own subjects of Latin and Greek above more obviously practical skills such as carpentry.
‘Most of British culture is still held back by class and privilege,’ she said, ‘aspirations which rank these subjects into sort of what clever posh kids do and what other people do.’
Like her, I have no regrets that I learned Latin. I just wish that I’d learned something useful like carpentry as well.
Indeed, Dame Mary might have quoted a famous exchange between Princess Margaret and Jim Callaghan, the working-class lad who rose to become Prime Minister. Wasn’t it remarkable, wondered Sunny Jim over lunch in Windsor, that with all his wealth and privilege, the Princess’s son Viscount Linley had chosen a career as a carpenter?
The Queen’s sister slapped him down with the curt reminder: ‘Christ was a carpenter.’
Now it seems that if only I myself had followed a career traditionally regarded as working-class, my sons might have benefited, too. For not only do our best universities, including Oxford and Cambridge, increasingly discriminate against white applicants from middle-class backgrounds. These days, employers are beginning to adopt the same practice.
This week it emerged that KPMG, the absurdly woke City accountancy firm, has set itself a nine-year target of awarding 29 per cent of its partnerships and seats on the board to working-class staff.
These it defines as people whose parents have ‘routine and manual’ jobs, such as plumbers, electricians, butchers and van drivers.
You may well ask why anyone should care about the social class of an accountant. After all, isn’t his or her fitness for the job all that matters?
But never mind that. This bonkers policy has set me wondering if there might possibly be a top City job in the offing for one of my struggling sons.
True, their father is an ineffably middle-class, privately-educated, white journalist. And true again, they would all be useless at accountancy.
But as long-standing readers may recall, when the Utley finances were at their lowest ebb, the boys’ mother worked for two-and-a-half years as a London bus driver. Surely this must qualify them for seats on the KPMG board? Just a thought.
Whatever the truth, it’s now far too late for me to learn a useful working-class skill. So I’m doomed for the rest of my days to carry on shelling out a king’s ransom every time Mrs U takes it into her head that another part of the house could do with a makeover.
Which brings me back to this week, when Ian the double-glazing man was fitting the new window in our bedroom. Only one thing marred the perfection of his work: as he pulled out the old one, he accidentally severed the alarm cable, so recently repaired, and set the bell clanging on the wall outside…
All together now: ‘Oh, it all makes work for the working man to do…’
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