muscle spasm

I bet you’re relieved to be reading something that’s not about either Glastonbury or the World Cup. The former has stuffed its reputation for me by not magically dispelling the heat wave for these four days. Where is the fabled force of Glastonbury Tor, if it can’t even call up  mud?

As for the footie, all I want to know is whether the Flag of St George has  yet been lowered to half mast over Downing Street.  Is there an official Keeper of the PM’s Flags crouched in a garret over Number 10, awaiting the call to yank on a rope? Was it not perhaps a tad foolish of Dave to promise to fly it for the duration of the tournament, knowing, as a man of his intellect must, that within seconds it would become merely a humiliating ensign of defeat? And how will he explain to his children that he, the most important and powerful person in the country,  couldn’t fix it  for England to win?

We missed Father’s Day this year – at least, Dolly and I did, as we were Extreme Camping in a lumpy field in Suffolk, for which we had cleverly chosen the only two days of pouring rain and whipping wind in the otherwise cloud-free rapture of the last three weeks. As a result, Mr Fixit’s special day was marked only by a Dad Rock CD from his son, who pointed out several times that he had bought it with his own money – as opposed, presumably, to money mugged from the patrons of Paddy Power, or rifled from the parking change in the car.

Mr Fixit always says he hates these occasions, but he can turn moody when we take him at his word. So once we’d wrung the water from our sandwich bags and combed the newts from our hair, I suggested that perhaps Magnus and Dolly might like to cook a lovely supper for him the next Sunday, instead.

And it was a lovely supper. It just wasn’t exactly they who cooked it. Magnus went off to watch the Game, fully intending to come home in time to do his bit. It wasn’t his fault that by the time the whole grisly spectacle had played its course, the only way he could face the world was by taking his ball off to the park to replay the whole thing, as it should have been, in his head. And Dolly would undoubtedly have got back from her rendezvous at the Lido in time to join in, if she had just remembered to look at the clock, or answer her phone, or both.

All in all, it was pure chance that it was once again me putting the dishes away at ten thirty last night, after another long day of cooking, mending, hanging up washing and taking it down again, biking round town on errands, and squishing in a brief encounter with the music for next week’s  concert – the latter just long enough to remind me of the sad fact that, just because Mozart second violin parts are dull, it doesn’t mean they’re easy.

Anyhow, noticing after all of this that I was really quite tired, it occurred to me as interesting that the spate of recent books about the joys of working with your hands and body as opposed to your eyes and brain, all seem to have been written by men.

(At which point, just in case Mr Fixit reads this, I have to point out that he does at least his share of the hard labour around here, as I am ideologically committed to the position that many of the chores he considers essential, such as french polishing the egg cups  , topiarising the cacti, and ironing the mail, might be considered by sane people – if we knew any – to be not merely supererogatory, but a waste of scarce resources).

He knows about housework. Possibly too much. But many men apparently do not. If they did, they might  already have discovered  what millions of working mums could tell them, that a good balance of body and brain work not only gets things put away, but also saves quite a lot of time and money at the gym Surely I can’t be the only person with the wit to observe that it’s a bit pointless to invest in technologies that save physical effort round the house, only then to run off and spend £50 a month on physical effort somewhere else, that doesn’t even get anything clean?

It’s also noteworthy that the activities lauded in these books tend towards  what you might call rustic Utopianism . The idea that all manual work is creative and enjoyable might  ring slightly sourly to anybody on a production line, including those iPad assemblers jumping off roofs like lemmings. (Mysteriously, it didn’t seem much comfort that this particular factory was no more suicide-prone than the Chinese average.)

So I think – or hope – that nobody is advocating fifty hours of shift work as a perfect  solution. But a few light chores in between the heavy brain work of filling column inches might do  some people the world of good. Look at Churchill! Did he strategise the defeat of Hitler at a desk? No, he did it laying bricks (and consuming champagne, but he could be said to have earned it.)

We are analogue creatures. We surround ourselves more and more with digital technology and toys, but we remain ourselves analogue. We have brains, but also bodies, and we are meant to use them; to make things and mend them, to take them apart, explore and improve them, to move them around and engage with them, using all our muscles, not just the ones in our heads and wallets.

Our bodies and our brains are so interwired that we can move things just by thinking about doing it (sadly, you still need some sort of brain-controlled interface – it’s not enough to contemplate the dirty dishes from the comfort of your armchair).

Unfortunately, evolution seems to have wired us up to be lazy. We’re not alone, of course.  Lions confined to the equivalent of a Tokyo capsule hotel apparently show no signs of distress. Would you run after your food at fifty miles an hour in tropical heat, if you could just lie in the shade and wait for  Room Service? They only do that David Attenborough stuff because it’s that or starve.

We humans have constructed around ourselves a world where technology always advances in the direction of more automation, and less human effort. We’re fascinated by robots    , whatever dumb things they do. And even the cleverest robot is very dumb indeed. Try getting a robot to understand ‘biscuit’, for starters. Or unwrap a birthday present. Or indeed, sort the laundry. All these are still a long way off, which is actually a very good thing.

If we didn’t have bodies, we couldn’t understand the world, either. A robot can’t define what makes a biscuit a biscuit  , because it doesn’t have eyes that can recognise the shape, or hands that can feel the texture. Plus, the poor thing has never tasted or smelled one. You try defining it in words. Colour? Brown, beige, pink, white, or some combination.  Or maybe iced blue, with little white dots. Shape? Round, square, oblong, possibly with rounded ends – plus it might have a hole in it, or a blob of jam, or some rather delicious coconut cream in the middle.

You can see the poor machine exploding already. But any human child could tell you what a biscuit is, and isn’t. They’ve absorbed the notion of  ‘biscuit’ the enjoyable way. Into their bodies.

So I am here to save you £20 at the Guardian Bookshop by revealing that Peak Oil may be nature’s way of reminding us to re-balance our lives a bit – those of us lucky enough to have time and energy left after the working day. If there isn’t the oil for all the machines we think we need, if we have to chop wood or do without escalators, or carry the shopping home by bike, or use a mangle instead of a dryer – you never know, we might end up healthier and happier as well.

And the time our bodies spend doing chores is also time our minds need to go offline and wander around coming up with ideas. Like this column.

Excuse me while I go and persuade my children that washing up en famille is practically a party. But don’t wait up.