Manual work should be given a big thumbs-up, says Tom Hodgkinson
When I was a big-headed fop in the sixth form at school – one of those schools which is divided into “houses” – we had a joke about the houses we considered to be intellectually inferior to our own. “Johnson’s,” we might scoff, “is a house for people who are good with their hands.”
We were alluding to that ancient prejudice that says that brain work is superior to hand work. Years later, inspired by a combination of the Arts and Crafts movement, George Orwell, Coleridge’s Pantisocratic fantasies and Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall, Victoria and I moved to a farmhouse where we grew vegetables, chopped wood, kept chickens, baked bread and in various different ways attempted to get good with our hands.
My mother was faintly horrified by this step backwards. She’d escaped from her working class background and moved to London to live by her pen, hoping never to have to make do or mend again.
Well, it wasn’t easy, and if I’d respected people who were good with their hands before, I now positively genuflected before them. Growing vegetables, keeping chickens and baking bread are all very difficult things to do.
But despite the best efforts of William Morris and anarchist philosophers like Kropotkin, head work still enjoys a higher status than that of the hand. And there’s a third sort of work, which writer David Goodhart would call “heart work”, that also perhaps deserves more respect: the caring professions.
On “A Drink with the Idler” David spoke to us about his new book, Head Hand Heart, which seeks to return higher status to the manual and caring professions – you can watch the conversation on Idler TV. David also writes on our “Idle Thoughts” blog this week that the Covid panic might have helped him in this mission: “There are several ways in which the crisis will enable, in the language of this book, Hand (manual work/basic jobs) and Heart (care work) to claim back some of the prestige and reward they have lost to Head (cognitive work) in recent decades.”