You could hardly call my childhood rural, but it was most certainly not urban. I come from a medium-sized commuter town in Surrey, with a river running through it and varied countryside nearby - forest, agricultural land, chalky downs and heathlands. My grandparents lived at the greener end of town, and during my many happy weekends at their place, I soaked up a working knowledge of the trees, plants and wildlife around me, and spent a lot of time outdoors, doing outdoorsy things - quite often with tools.
For a while, my favourite activity was making boxes from off-cuts of wood using the tools from my grandad's shed. I have clear memories of the shed, which I always considered the dark, slightly sinister counterpoint to the muggy, sun-filled greenhouse. I found the shed forbidding and exciting in equal measure. So much danger! So much possibility! It was a thrill to be entrusted with hammer and nails.
The boxes I made were a wonky, rustic affair, at the very limits of what you could reasonably call a box, and they proliferated way beyond the point of usefulness. I clearly remember the feeling I had when I made them. I felt adult, self-sufficient, like I could craft a solution to any problem. In later life, roasting a chicken and knitting a pair of socks would inspire the same feeling.
My grandparents were so good at keeping me busy in meaningful, physical ways like this. If I wasn't making boxes, I was potting out seedlings, peeling muddy potatoes, making sponge cake, splitting firewood*, learning to knit, washing the dog (Fred!), brushing the cat (Benson!). All these jobs made me feel good about myself, but the making of things was what really stuck with me.
These days, I find I'm not very good at doing nothing. I'm excellent at procrastinating and not doing the thing I set out to do, but being idle - having idle hands, in particular - makes me feel queasy. Making things makes the queasy feeling go away.
As well as my idyllic weekends with my grandparents, I almost certainly inherited this trait from my parents. My dad is a keen coarse angler, which creates endless opportunities for rig tinkering, bait preparation and tackle room refurbishments. He also writes and draws well. My mum has the air of a retired athlete** (don't laugh, mum!), who can't sit still. The upside to her restlessness being that her house is mad tidy. (Regrettably, and for the avoidance of doubt, our house is a catastrophe most of the time).
Here, in the city, I worry that their urban upbringing offers fewer opportunities for my children to experience the self-esteem and confidence-raising effects of making stuff. Of course one can make stuff anywhere, but sheds are in short supply in our corner of west London. The boys can copy MisterMaker's latest creation, but I can't help thinking there is more value in proper, purposeful making.
Some city dwellers will be keen DIYers or makers and their children may naturally gravitate towards the wielding of tools. However, I suspect it's rather more typical for tools to be dug out only when needs must, or for them to enter through the front door in the tool box of a handyman or woman. So I cultivate opportunities.
Yesterday, Oscar had a play date. In an effort to fend off having to constantly suggest new activities and adjudicate turn-taking disputes, I set up a picnic blanket in the garden and put out some scraps of wood from the skip next door (I asked first), hammers, nails, bottle tops, pipe cleaners and paint. Oscar and his friend are both the sensible, cautious type, so they were a little nervous around the tools, and I'd wager it was their first time using the real thing (it was certainly Oscar's). Ultimately, the project veered away from woodworking towards art, but they worked at it for a long while and l loved what they produced together. Oscar was keener on the tools than his friend, so I am hopeful he will return to his hammer and nails.
* Nearly chopping off a valuable index finger with the curved wood-splitting blade was an early, keen lesson in respecting your tools. The silvery slither of scar tissue above my knuckle serves as a reminder.
** My lovely Mum was actually a serious athlete in her teens.