Real men will always head for the shed

April 13, 2007

With the 'bloke' making a comeback, Clive Bloom examines a raft of publications designed to appeal to nostalgic - and slightly eccentric - fellas everywhere

The metrosexual is dead. Long live the bloke. As David Beckham packs lotions and skin tonics into his Gucci holdall and prepares to fly west, all over Britain real men are emerging from sheds and looking to a new dawn. Not for our bloke the luxury of Victoria's new LA pad, but rather the creosote and wooden home from home at the end of garden or allotment - cosy, comforting and safe, where everything is familiar and everything is in its place, where men's rules count, where anything abroad is simply foreign, where nothing beats an "honest" pint of English beer and exfoliating men are never admitted.

Bloke-ism is making a comeback, with a whole wave of new books aimed at the slightly eccentric and geeky in all of us fellas - books aimed at every age and none, feeding a fantasy of nostalgia for those certainties we felt would last forever and for the loss of which we are all in permanent bereavement.

There's Gonn and Hal Inggulden's ultimate Dangerous Book for Boys , which combines boy-scout nerdishness with the suggested danger of a James Bond adventure. It is a volume purposefully imitating the sort of Edwardian annual that you found at your granny's while the adults watched the boring football results on their new 14in telly. Here, at last, are reminders of how to make sailors' knots, grow crystals in solution and play a decent game of chess alongside descriptions of the world's great battles and the seven wonders of the modern world.

Then, of course, there are books such as R. A. Saville-Sneath's Air Recognition , first published in 1941, to allow boys in short trousers to recognise a Jerry plane before it blew your house into oblivion, but here reissued for all those 50-somethings whose only involvement with the Battle of Britain was to recreate it in miniature. The book reminds us that we used to love Airfix kits (despite getting glue all over the cockpit of our Junkers 88 or Focke Wulf - German planes being so much more interesting), and we loved to pore over those mechanical drawings in the Eagle , Hotspur or Valiant .

For those who wish to relive the war they didn't participate in but their dads never stopped talking about, we have the anthology of Commando comic where Germans endlessly say: "Die, Britisher pig dog" and the Japanese are prone to scream "Aieeee!" as they are massacred by our brave boys, all recreated in loving detail in Achtung Schweinhund! by Harry Pearson.

You may have thought that blokes were now an extinct species, killed off at the end of the 1970s by the global warming of feminism, flourishing only in the cultural wastelands north of Watford, but you would be wrong. Blokes are back.

Michael Caine's portrayal of Carter, the hard man from Cockneyland, set the tone for the television series The Sweeney , where men stank of beer, fags and testosterone, and pulled birds before doing handbrake turns in Ford Grenadas while in pursuit of geezers who'd done a blag - something that was "bang out of order". Blokes once had their own language (and their own body hair), never went to the gym, wore Y-fronts and nylon shirts, drank Watney's Red Barrel and had the sort of cultural attitudes that would make Jade Goody blush.

When blokes went to football they stood on the terraces and bawled at the likes of Kevin Keegan, a miner's son from Amthorpe - one of their own. It's all in Stud: the Greatest Retro Football Annual the World has Ever Seen , as the blurb tells us, where girls in hot pants drool over men with Zapata moustaches. Middle-class supporters were all "jessies".

The bloke did not die out. His ghost still lingers on, embodied in Alfred Wainwright tramping Lakeland, Jack Hargreaves, still lovingly remembered in The Fast Show 's Bob Fleming, and in Fred Dibnah, the ultimate hero of blokishness, forever up to his elbows in oil and steam-engine parts and knocking back 16 pints of Guinness before discovering another piece of Britain's heritage at the back of a derelict factory. You can even download his bronchial cough from one of the many fan sites dedicated to the man in the flat cap.

In sheds everywhere there are pockets of resistance from Dibnah supporters, where men tinker with household machinery that long predates computers or make ocean liners out of string and bits of wood or mend bicycle tyres with bicycle tyre-repair kits that were their father's before them. Here is to be found the resistance movement against the modern world, where the word "wireless" still means the BBC Home Service and Freddy Grisewood. Here time stands still. Give any self-respecting bloke half an hour alone with an old jar of wing nuts, a conker and some meccano and you've got Christmas presents for all the family, or at least that is what the phenomenally successful The Shed Book by Gordon Thorburn and Gareth Jones would have us believe.

In glorious black and white are recorded the lives of blokes doing what blokes do. There's Lyndon, for instance, who has converted his shed into a Second World War fighter plane, or Guy, who spends his leisure time whittling decoy ducks, or the Inland Revenue officer who has on his shed wall a Sun calendar from 1984 permanently open at Linda Lusardi.

Of course, for those not keen on old calendars there's Roundabouts of Great Britain by Kevin Berresford whose book is the result of a search for a non-sexist promotion by a printing company in Redditch. The book has tips on roundabout-spotting and useful exit roads. Oddly, it's hilarious.

Obviously not everyone who roundabout-spots or lives for most of their leisure hours in a shed is quite that eccentric. There's Phil who dreams of fortune and fame for his group Geezerbird while playing the organ to no one in particular, Luke, who built a shed in his open-plan apartment so he could read in peace, and Bryan, who has a model railway round his garden and salivates at the thought of a two-tier operations shed (planning permission unlikely). Yet there is one eccentric who made a fortune sitting in his shed: Trevor Bayliss's clockwork radio is the product of the Elysian heights of shed life from where he dreams of electric shoes to recharge mobile phones and hearing aids for the Chinese to teach them basic English.

Women are not to be ignored in all this nostalgia, but women are usually not gadget, gizmo or shed fans, so it all comes down to lipstick and hairdos and getting your man (who will pack his bags for the shed as soon as you are married). Adolescent girls who had graduated from the stories of gymkhanas and girls school in Judy , and were fed up with gifts such as the ladybird ring in the first issue of Bunty, read Jackie . The Best of Jackie Annual was issued in 2005, its strapline being "The best thing for girls - next to boys". With a foreword by Nina Myskow, who was the editor between 1974 and 1976, the annual has picture stories of Donny Osmond lookalikes, photographs of the Davids (Essex and Cassidy), cartoon fashion plates with girls in bubble wigs and questionnaires to help you find your perfect man.

Above all, Jackie was about "romance", not girly stuff, but even that has made a comeback with new books on etiquette and nostalgic cooking. It is a trend exemplified by the return of knitting and the appearance of home-sewing kits endorsed by Kirstie Allsop of Location, Location, Location fame, whose boxes of useful household bits for singletons are adorned with faces from of the 1930s and 1950s.

Just maybe the bloke revival is an ironic postmodern come-on, designed to sell us books we never knew we wanted. Yet it strikes me that there is something important here that, long suppressed, has finally found its hour. Bloke-ism was fought against by feminism and banished to the closet by gay and queer studies long ago, but being a bloke is part of being a man and should not be ignored by courses in male studies. I say, head for the Brylcreem and Old Spice. You can't beat a bloke in a shed.

Clive Bloom's new book, Terror Within: The Dream of a British Republic , will be published in May. ( www.clivebloom.com )

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