A Shed Of One's Own

This book is the A - Z, the Hope to Despair to Beyond Caring of men's middle age, or really, human middle age in the Anglosphere. Someone apparently doesn't understand this: his review on Amazon UK complains, without any hint of a joke, that there's not enough in it about sheds. 

The book is seething and teeming with insights, wittily or even hilariously expressed and also clearly representing original thought about the subject matter. There is nothing of the borrowed or much-trodden in the book. Its subject is both researched and known intimately, inside out -- for the author was 50 while writing it: what might be called young middle age. But then again, as he explains, nobody can really agree on which age range qualifies as 'middle'. 

There are infelicities, some of which bothered me more than they bother others, I expect. There was too much of the S word and the F word, for one thing. (Does anybody actually say or think 'you bag of f----?' I'm glad to say I've never heard the expression.) His rendering (p. 118) of a 'well-established American campus joke' substitutes 'mother------' at the punchline, which not only doesn't square with the vintage of the joke, but more to the point, puts a sour lemon in your mouth at the precise moment when you should have laughed. I know this because a very eminent American academic told me his version of the joke many years ago. His version wasn't prissy: the last word was 'asshole' (though 'jerk' would have done the job). The 'senior' student of Berkmann's version was a professor in my professor's, and the joke's professor added 'young man' at the end of his comments. Princeton wasn't mentioned. The joke I know comes across as less crass and belligerent. It's how you tell 'em.

It is also curious that none of Berkmann's editors or proofreaders was aware of the difference between 'margherita', which is a style of pizza, and 'margarita', which is a cocktail. So we have this sentence:

When we complete our long years of toil, we shall gain entry to a quiet, prosperous, pastel world of golfing holidays and Caribbean cruises, resting our weary limbs on padded deckchairs while sexually ambiguous serving staff mix our margheritas and massage our aching feet. (p. 53)

The idea of torture as a condign punishment, however unreal the context, appears twice in the book, which to my mind is two times too many. And no, my second thought on seeing rioters on TV is not that it 'looks as though it might be fun' (p. 21). And no, reading the obituary of someone younger than I whose life has been cut short gives me no joy whatsoever (p. 242). Witness the case of Charlotte Furness-Smith, a serving Navy veteran and prep-school math teacher (and a beautiful girl) who drowned recently in a Dorset sea cave. I've thought about it several times with a sense of the waste and the loss, not only to herself but to all that knew or could have known her. But that's reality. Sometimes Berkmann gets carried away with the need to keep a jolly detachment from it.

Still, the man can write, and what's more he gets his teeth right in, without worrying about whether he might be going too far into truth about life, aging, and death for today's therapeutic Oprahmatic sensibilities.

The book is packed with goodies, nooks, corners, angles, and spider's webs: all the sorts of things you'd expect to find in a man's shed, in fact. No review, without regurgitating the whole book, could do its scope and curiosity about everything full justice. Some of it is rather profound. Much of it is quirky. It is hardly ever anything less than fascinating. Berkmann talks about the difference between ambition in youth, which is understandable and laudable, if perhaps in some way doomed, and the ambition of middle age, at which point one is 'driven'. But perhaps it is right to be driven still in middle age, since another word for that is 'desiring'. And what is life but desiring? Much later, he writes about parents and our tendency to throw their baggage out, and then to reclaim bits of this and that as we get older. My own feeling about my parents is ambivalent. In some ways I appreciate the freedom they gave me, the lack of nagging; on the other hand, looking back from mature adulthood, I wish they'd pushed me. Not just harder, but at all. We had very little money, but we did have a piano in the house. Why did no one ever sit me down as a small child at the piano? (I have since discovered, in adulthood, a music-writing capability). But I know the answer. They were too busy trying to stay afloat in their own lives.

At one point the author asks, 'Does a gentleman trim his pubic hair?' (p. 38). My spontaneous answer was 'Yes, if his lady does and he wants to match her, stylistically'. The unexpectedness of the book is one of its charms.

                                    -- November 2013