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.”