It’s a cruel world, the world of technology. I’m currently suffering The Demon Trouble with Email – where some nasty little gremlin with pointy ears and a desire to roam the world of broadband and make madness – has got inside my system and is playing around. Emails are deleted at random, others come in duplicate and triplicate, others start out looking healthy and then catch the disease. All very trying. And then comes the moment when the competent woman bows to the inevitable and telephones her helpcentre for a technician. This is when all belief in one’s self-worth vanishes. The technicians may be in Delhi, they may be in a small town in Ireland, they may be in Glasgow – they may even be in the Thames basin on a barge – it matters not – they are inevitably young men whose sole delight is to run rings around the plaintive – in this case me – until she lies in a moaning heap beneath her desk wondering where her life has gone. And, invariably, it ends with the said triumphant technician saying ‘It is not us, it is your equipment…’ This always reminds me of Cherie Blair writing about her ‘contraceptive equipment’ – at which phrase the mind boggled. I cannot tell you the kind of thing I imagined on reading that, but it involved steam power and switches.
For today and tomorrow only, Three Men on a Plane is just 99p!
It was great fun to write – eventually – (it’s based on something very true and I can tell you that, at the time, there was nothing funny about having three different exs all getting on the same ‘plane together – Good Grief – but I did see the humour in it afterwards). I wonder what you would make of the same situation?
I haven’t blogged for ages so this is a VERY LONG BLOG to make up for that. You may read it in stages, and you may yawn – and even nod off if it so takes you. You are excused.
In my books and short stories I’ve often championed the cause of the single woman dealing with what are still, alas, some of the failures of equality of the sexes. And of course it is not governments or businesses or institutions that will stop the nonsense about women being lesser than men, it is the women and men within those places who will stop it. Before any change to any received wisdom comes about, it is people who must change how they see the world and act in it. And, with this in mind, I want to talk about BUILDERS.
Many years ago when I moved from London to the very rural countryside in Wiltshire and bought a house that needed quite a lot of work – I employed an elderly architect who did not tell me that he was unwell, and he brought on board a building firm who had the absurd cheek to name themselves after that most sturdy and upstanding of trees, the oak. Well, if they were an oak they were an oak with very rotten roots. They took advantage on every level and I – who had never overseen a building project before – was totally and absolutely vulnerable. They were not alone in this appalling behaviour – I had already experienced it on a lesser scale with the Mole Man (a greasy looking individual who talked at me as if I were an idiot), the Septic Tank chappie (moustachioed and in a countryman’s check suit, a right little conman), and the man who cut my grass (liked to wag his finger at me and begin his answers to my questions with the phrase ‘Well, now, Mavis, let’s look at that from a different angle…). And there were others.
As the architect for my building project became less and less able to check the quality of what the builders were doing, and had less and less energy to control their wilder greediness, they ignored the architect’s planned strategy for leaving me always with the basic essentials (ie. a working bathroom and some form of cooking arrangement) and turned my home into a shell in which I had to live for more than three months under a dust sheet with nothing but a hastily installed lavatory and a standpipe (and only that because I stood my ground and insisted despite their contemptuous reaction). They ripped me off and took away some of my stuff without permission, a beautiful piece of marble which I am quite sure they flogged for a very good price – they charged me an additional £5000 for simply digging a hole and when I baulked at this they said they would down tools (the architect remained silent during this exchange). They were supposed to renew the plumbing but evidence showed afterwards that there was still years of corrosion from hard water on the workings which had not been replaced though they insisted that they had – they added on charges that were already in the contract, they did not do the work they were supposed to do in the areas that the ailing architect could not visit (he would not go up ladders, ho hum), they did not finish the job according to the contract when the poor architect eventually died – they did not like the fact that I drove a BMW and they did not like the fact that they had to receive their cheques from a woman. In short they ran rings around me, and short changed me and bullied me – and they got away with it because I was a single woman and they could. In the countryside, if you have a husband, things are different. If you do not have a husband or (in the old mediaeval way) a father or brother to be your ‘Guardian’ – you suffer the consequences. I had nightmares for years about them – I do not exaggerate.
I did find a little bit of courage afterwards – enough to call them back on at least three occasions to put the things right that they had not done well. And for my trouble I had this memorable exchange with their Project Manager – a thin man, with no lips and a pale pasty face who drove around listening to classic FM and thought of himself as cultivated because he could hum De Souza marches – anyway – I digress – this man said to me in stern, accusing tone as if it were entirely my fault that things were going wrong, ‘We’ve had more trouble from this job than any other – this is the third time we’ve had to come back…’ He was somewhat surprised when I suggested that if he’d done the job properly in the first place he would never have had to see me again… He gawped at me when I said this, and left. But the huge bill I was left with at the end of all their shennanigans became a terrible financial burden over the years.
So – move on sixteen years and my return to London – tougher, wiser (maybe) and – the nightmares about those rotten old oaks now being a thing of the past – I was just about ready to take up the challenge of another building project. Quite prepared for it to be a path of difficult, stony ground but knowing that this house must be made to fit around me rather than me fit around it. And that I must brace myself for the strain. And so we begin. I am jelly in case it is a battleground all over again. But what do I find? I find that the team of three builders I have employed are as far removed from those oaks as doves from carrion crows. I find that there are liberated, thoughtful, skillful builders whose sole aim in life is to do a good job and to please the customer – male or female – and who – yes – take a pride in giving of their best. A team who have single-handedly restored my faith in the possibility that one arm of what is perceived as that most masculine of trades, general building work, can be liberated, non-patronising – and egalitarian.A team of three men whose advice I can trust (and have done). A team of three men who understand that they are invading someone’s space, inevitably, and that they must tread carefully in doing so and make it as smooth a transition as possible. A team of three men whose only transgression so far is to politely refuse my fruit cake (apart from the youngest member) and that I must bear.
These builders are not pasty faced and given to listening to Classic FM, one of them does have rather fine moustachios but he is no con-man and none of them is the slightest bit greasy or given to wagging their finger. They have restored my faith not only in builders but in ordinary, everyday working men who do not see single women as inferiors. This is how the world can be, it works and it is delightful. Part of the effect of this is that I have become more confident about my ability to visualise what I want from this project – these builders help. It’s not only heartening for me on a personal level but it is important on a broader level. If they, a team of builders, a group not necessarily known for their balanced attitude to women passing by the scaffolding in the street, can behave in such a balanced way, so can everyone else.
Is this balanced and liberated attitude an indicator of the urban male only? Or is this an indicator that things are marching on generally and that one day such balanced attitudes will filter down the M4 to lovely Wiltshire and spread throughout the whole of rural Britain. I’d say builders were a good litmus test. Of course there will (I hope) be other stories of good men with egalitarian principles who apply them in their trade and who exist not only in towns – maybe they are a growing band who have already begun to truly shape hearts and minds – maybe men are throwing off thesh ackles of the old- fashioned belief in women being the weaker vessel (come on, lads, that was said in the 17C) – but my hope is that women will accelerate the process and make sure of it by no longer submitting to unliberated behaviour in any walk of life – that women will not be bullied, conned, run rings round (yes, you garages out there, I’m also talking to you) and – more importantly – that women will highlight immediately any such behaviour that they suffer or are exposed to – to hell with feeling ashamed (which is what I felt with those first builders – too ashamed to tell anyone what a fool I had been) women must go on highlighting it until those Neanderthal men (and perhaps I insult the Neanderthals) learn that they can no longer do these things. It goes across every area of business from the plumber to the professor. You only have to look at the top 100 boardrooms to see how few women there still are in top jobs. But look – what is this? Women are beginning to work in one of the last bastions of the all-male prerogative – the building trade – and it is acknowledged that we make good plumbers because we have small hands which can easily negotiate those fiddly pipe-fixing bits. So let that be a lesson for all of us – that we may celebrate our personal qualities (I wouldn’t mind fiddling with a waste pipe but I’m not sure about carrying a heavy hod full of bricks up a ladder) and acknowledge there is no inferiority attached. Only differences. And – as the French say so eloquently – vive la difference. Though I think they may have had something other than plumbing and hod carrying in mind.
Just a footnote but after those first builders had finished with me several local people who wanted work done asked if I would recommend them. Although I was too ashamed to go into details, you may imagine my response. Muted scarcely comes close. So I know for a fact that they lost out on at least two major projects and at least two other fairly substantial ones. A small re-balancing of my self-respect – but an important one. Be not a shrinking violet, womankind, but make sure that everytime there is an injustice of equality – you shout it from the (beautifully re-tiled) rooftops. And that every time there is something to be celebrated, like my good builders, you shout about that from the rooftops, too.
I’d like to send you a short story, for free – you just need to tell me where to send it