In this witty and superbly written book, Marcus Berkmann guides his bitter, greying readers through the dreary minefield that is middle age.
A Shed of One's Own: middle age as a rolling series of crises
Just as Virginia Woolf’s room for women was not a real room, so Marcus Berkmann’s shed for middle-aged men is a metaphor. The problem with middle age, he feels, is that the detritus of modern life offers little mental respite. He worries about money (“Envy recedes, like a hairline, but the worry doesn’t”), about his looks, about his health. The complaints stack up: “Boredom ... is easily defined for a child. Daddy, I’ve got nothing to do. Boredom for adults has a different texture. Daddy, I’ve got far too much to do, and I don’t want to do any of it. In fact, I’m not sure I want to do anything at all.”
Where is the escape route? Can he retreat into work? Not really: “We get up, too early, of course, we eat our nutritious Oatflakes and, chances are, we go somewhere else to do whatever it is that gives us the money to do whatever it is we would like to do in our time off but haven’t got the energy even to start ... [Work] may keep you occupied, but so does chronic disease.”
Nor do great deeds and acts offer much solace to the middle-aged, for they are weary of them and distrust their motives. No, happiness, Berkmann suspects, lies in finding a psychological state of “flow”. It lies in the metaphorical shed, where what we are doing may be inconsequential, but the degree of absorption is not. Here, at once within and outside ourselves, we find a literal state of ecstasy.
Children, of course, are more prone to finding “flow”: a good game can keep them occupied for a whole day. For adults, this process is much tougher: “Directed idleness must be our goal.” Thus the fisherman, silently sitting by the lake with nothing to distract him, is in a shed “not only invisible, but sturdier than any real-life, physical shed”.
Berkmann is at his best describing the little distractions from self that middle-aged men are capable of finding. He has long been one of the least-appreciated comic writers of his generation. The rhythm of his sentences is metronomic; his sense of timing laser-sharp. Few others could make an afternoon watching snooker this funny: “They rarely go out during the hours of light and one or two of them appear to have eaten their lesser opponents. Snooker players squander their youth ... and we salute them for this, as we did exactly the same thing, except we did it by accident ... Still, nice little cannon on the last red; he should clear up.”
His skill lies in the minute attention to detail, like the substitution of a full stop for a question mark in this description of one of the fielders on his cricket team, and in the stacking up of damning observations: “Our oldest player ... looks great for his years until he starts running, at which point you want to say, that’s not really running, is it. But it is. It’s also what the rest of us will be doing in a few years’ time.”
And it’s the suggestiveness of the throwaway lines that really kills you. From his A-Z of distractions: “M is for Mending Things. Make sure they are already broken before you start.”
Of course, it’s a good job that Berkmann is seeking calm, because the flip side of middle age is the rage and discontent it brings. The author is angry; but not in the sense of John Osborne or George Orwell. In a bookshop, he empathises with the disproportionate rage of an old school classmate he sees fiercely berating a shop worker for not having the book he wants. This sort of fury is rarely about its immediate subject. Its roots go far deeper: “When you are younger you seem to absorb failure and humiliation far more efficiently. But later on you feel you have put in the hours, you have paid your dues, and now you deserve more and better from the world. And the world doesn’t give it to you. In fact it pays you no attention at all.”
Berkmann sympathises with the malcontents he sees on the comments section of news websites: “They know they hurt, but the power to hurt is the only power they have.” It’s because it has its basis in impotence that middle-aged anger is so arbitrary: “Rage is seasonal. Tasteless strawberries and gigantic ... mosquitoes spark it off in summer; in winter it’s the wrong kind of snow. Rage is particular. You get a bill from your credit card company, and there’s a little note from the Customer Experience Director. Why is he called that? How much is he being paid? Rage is irrational. For my friend Z it’s vegetarians being served first on planes.”
The cruellest element of all is that the angry middle-aged man, furious at the apostrophe in “Hear’Say” (“they should be shot”) knows exactly how absurd he’s being: “Maybe pomposity is a virus,” he reasons.
Can we blame these men? They’ve lost so much. Sleep: “No one mentioned that rationing was going to be brought in.” Looks: “C has to shave the side of his nose. They don’t tell you that in kindergarten.” And worst of all, conforming to accepted norms at work in a bid to rise to the top has chipped away at their sense of self: “You have an old friend ... you are fond of him, you see him from time to time, but when you see him, you spend most of your time waiting, waiting, waiting for a spark of whatever it was you liked about him in the first place ... you realise that this isn’t a friendship any more, it’s an echo of one, because your old friend is an echo of the person he used to be.”
And it’s when we read passages like this that we realise, with a sudden, tender shock, that this isn’t really a book about middle age at all. It’s a Trojan Horse; a meditation on mortality and loss masquerading as a flippant self-help guide. Towards the end Berkmann devotes a chapter to the deaths of friends and family; another to the inadequacy of relationships, and smoothly – so very smoothly – the playlist drifts from comedy to gut-wrenching tragedy.
In a review of this length, it’s de rigueur to find flaws. So: the author occasionally finds more amusement than I suspect many of his readers do in dubious sets of statistics published in newspapers. Understandable: he is a maths graduate. And I write this as a member of the younger generation that was let down by Berkmann’s: the ones cluttering up his house because they can’t afford a place of their own,
whose own freedom to grow up will be hampered by debt and unemployment on an unprecedented scale. They think they have it tough?
But then politics and economics aren’t personal. And this is a very personal book. It’s disconcerting to see a writer whose detached, precise style seemed so perfectly suited to descriptions of supposed fripperies like pub quizzes and cricket, finally turn his attention to the Big Themes. That he’s tried and succeeded perhaps shouldn’t surprise us. Berkmann’s previous books were relentlessly measured. This book is more self-indulgent, and better for it. At one point in the description of the metaphorical shed he writes: “ ... the need to strive and achieve is supplanted by a desire to please yourself.” How ironic it would be if this superb piece of work was the one that brought him the fame and fortune for which he no longer cares.
Alan White’s work has appeared in the Observer, Times, Private Eye, The National & TLS. As John Heale, he is the author of One Blood: Inside Britain’s Gang Culture, republished this year.