Book Review: Darn it! Traditional female skills every man should know
Darn it! Traditional female skills every man should know, by Sarah Williams is aimed at helping men become better at household management. It has four sections covering ‘Craft and Make-do,’ ‘Housekeeping,’ ‘The Kitchen,’ and ‘First Aid.’
My Grandmothers would have recognised every single piece of information in this book as they ran immaculate households during the war and rationing eras while raising daughters to do the same. They also raised sons with rather more limited domestic abilities – for example, my Uncle still posted his shirts home to be washed and ironed while he was at University.
Before chortling at my Uncle as a dinosaur from a by-gone era, it’s important to note that many new generations of domestically inept men have followed after. In my teenage years I taught my friends to – among other things – make a cup of tea, boil and egg and create that culinary masterpiece, beans on toast. These accomplishments were greeted with exclamations of wonder – and not surprisingly. My friends grew up in traditional working class households run by Mums brimming with traditional skills. Kitchen’s were no-go areas for men who came home to ready-made dinners in houses that had miraculously tidied themselves from top to bottom in their absence.
So is it even plausible that traditional female skills can be transferred to men – and if so, is ‘Darn It!’ the book that can bridge the gap? Well, in this humble reviewer’s opinion the answer is a clear and emphatic ‘yes.’ And also an equally emphatic ‘no.’ Most of the book is brilliant and I would have turned to it as a new student, freshly moved out from home. I would have used it when I lived alone for the first time in my own house. And I will use it now as a stay-at-home Dad. There are some great, bite-sized chunks of domestic wisdom – in ‘Craft and Make-do’ I can learn how to sew on a button. In ‘Housekeeping’ I find out how to remove stains. In ‘The Kitchen’ there are several basic recipes that I could survive on including that staple – Spaghetti Bolognaise. And in first aid, I’m given good advice on cures for the common cold.
However, the book’s first 32 pages (there are 186 in all) give detailed explanations of how to knit and then how to use a sewing machine. This is a tough start and I fear almost guarantees that most men will read no further. The writing is perky and engaging, but will men really believe that ‘the beauty of a sewing machine is that you can sew things in minutes, leaving you more time to relax and have a beer with friends.’ Can we really imagine two men saying to each other.
“Do you fancy meeting for a pint this Saturday, at 7 o’clock?”
“Yes, I’d love to, but let’s make it 6.30 because I’ve saved so much time this week running up those new curtains.”
“Oh Dave, how me and the rest of the lads admire your skills on the sewing machine.”
I fear that ‘Darn It!’ has missed the mark here because while it’s packed full of information our grandmother’s needed and used during their lifetime, much of it won’t actually equip a man with the skills a man needs – or thinks he needs – today.
Instead of the knitting pages, I would have loved ‘Darn It!’ to include a short guide to cooking a roast meal. My student house was always packed (with girls) on Sundays because I alone in my peer group knew how to baste a chicken, roast potatoes and make a gravy. I can guarantee my son won’t be leaving home without that ‘traditional female’ skill!
Instead of the section on sewing machines ‘Darn It!’ could have included a section on the basic items you need to buy when setting up home like knife, chopping board, saucepan, cheese grater etc. This is basic stuff – but then again, men are quite basic creatures. I have also thumbed through the ‘First Aid’ section more than once but can’t find a hangover cure…
So, would I buy ‘Darn It!’ for a friend? Well, I probably would. But I’d also be realistic about whether it would be used or not. Most men I know are more domestically inclined that their fathers, but they don’t actively try and up-skill – especially once they have met their life partner. Indeed avoiding anything to do with running their household is the most traditional of all male skills. As my cousin once said, ‘I knew exactly what I was doing when I put that red sock in the white wash. It was expensive to replace everything that turned pink and my wife shouted at me a lot. But it was one of the best long-term investments I’ve ever made: I haven’t been allowed near that washing machine in 20 years.”
This book has been reviewed by the Walthamstow Official Man’s Bureau or ‘WOMB’ for short. You can follow @WOMBe17 on Twitter (Editor’s Note: Mark Burton kindly reviewed this for us. Thanks Mark!)