Some of my earliest memories of my dad involve watching him mowing the garden, seeing him up a ladder banging nails into the side of the house, or hearing him clanging and swearing underneath a car long into the night. Somewhat ambivalently, and, as it turns out, naively, I imagined that if I ever became a responsible adult similar duties awaited me.
How wrong could I be? In today’s UK Plc, where gardening, driving and DIY are largely bourgeois pursuits, I’ve calculated that I spend about the same amount of time on the internet that my dad used to spend on all these domestic chores. My partner probably clocks up as many hours travelling to and from work as my mum did at work. And as for cooking, well, put it this way, there’s more Bake-Off than actual baking going on.
Yes, our parents' generation may have owned their homes or lived in long-term council houses, had recognisable jobs and made proper food; but did they have the opportunity to develop their own personal brands or experience the rollercoaster of privatised train travel? And were their lives emptier or fuller as a result?
We have gone from maintaining the world to maintaining ourselves, with the world as a sort of dimly acknowledged desktop background. My dad had a workshop where he kept all manner of implements, pieces of wood and nails and screws of various sizes in drawers. I have a laptop with folders full of random files, half-written drafts and obsolete CVs, as well as a sporadic blog and years of tweets and emails stored in a virtual cloud which could burst at any moment.
This is not to say that the virtual and the physical can’t co-exist, and indeed my dad was dialling up to the internet in 1991 - although I was never quite sure why - and if he was still around he’d doubtless be a keen browser of today’s online universe. But when a whiff of Swarfega is enough to trigger a Proustian rush of nostalgia, it’s perhaps a sign that somewhere along the way the balance has been lost.
There is a fault in our flat whereby switching off the oven cuts off the electricity. Something to do with the element, apparently - I Googled it. That’s something I can do. I am a skilled Googler. I can diagnose the problem. I can’t fix it, however, even if I find a how-to guide on a website, because as tenants any faults must be reported to the letting agents and repaired by their maintenance team.
It’s probably a simple enough task, I imagine my dad would have sorted it in a few minutes. But if I attempted some homemade solution and it caused complications further down the line... well it doesn’t bear thinking about. The engineers, when they visit, unsurprisingly advise against such experiments.
We’ve been trying to get this looked at for over two months now while these various agencies continue to ignore us, because until the flat catches fire it’s our problem, not theirs. And of course when this and other similarly mundane matters are eventually put right, it’s us who will pay, indirectly through our rent or, if we’re deemed to be the perpetrators, through our deposit when we ‘vacate the property’.
As serial renters we’ve been systematically deskilled: our homes, like our appliances, are factory-sealed so we can’t get into them. As involuntary consumers of landlords, electricians and plumbers, our talents are concentrated in some areas (administration, composing delicately phrased emails, arranging time off for technicians to call, tolerating faults for long periods) and lacking in others (knowledge, tools, time, money).
What brings on this reflective Sunday-supplement-lifestyle-column tone, I hear you ask witheringly as you hover over the ‘close tab’ button? Well, dear reader, I can’t help wondering about our own new life which is on its way, a tiny human apocalypse soon to land amid the stuff and precarity of our flat with a mind already attuned to the wi-fi frequency and a body acclimatised to daily four-hour commutes. How can we hope to give our child those same taken-for-granted memories which formed part of the wallpaper of our own childhoods? Fast-forward a few years to a typical conversation as I sit glumy at some glowing device, scrolling through my social media timeline and fulfilling my jobsearch obligations while the little one watches, brow furrowed:
‘Why can't I put any posters up?’
‘Well my darling, if you read section 2.14 of the tenancy agreement you’ll see that posters, pictures, photographs or ornaments cannot be attached to the walls with sticky tape, blu-tac or similar adhesives.’
'And why are there no shelves for me to put my toys and things on?'
‘I refer my cherub once more to the tenancy agreement...’