On mowing lawns, Stephen Fry, and such-like

I’ve just finished mowing the lawn – not my favourite activity! I don’t mind the bits in the middle, where one just ploughs gaily over level, open grass, flattening everything in one’s path. But I don’t enjoy the edges, with all that stopping and starting, heaving the behemoth around corners and so on. And there are always tall strands of grass next to walls and poles that the mower can’t get to. Yes, I could go back afterwards and trim them with shears, but mowing the lawn is bad enough without having to do that task as well.

What I dislike most about lawn-mowing is the sexual stereotype attached to it – that one is expected to mow the lawn because one is a man and, worse, that one is expected to enjoy it! It comes a close second to my most loathed sexual stereotype, which is that of being expected to stand around the barbecue with other men, and beer, when barbecue-related meals are being prepared. I have nothing against barbecues (I’m a vegetarian, but haloumi and vegetable shiskebabs are just fine on a barbie, and I’m not so purist that I’d refuse to cook sausages for others, as long as they’re free range). What I object to is the ‘menfolk’ being expected to want to stand around them, talking about footy, while the ‘womenfolk’ are expected to want to do other things like prepare salads and discuss children. We’ve discarded the after dinner ritual of women adjourning to the drawing room while men have port and cigars, so why can’t we get rid of the sexual stereotyping around barbecues and lawns?

A reasonable response to my lawn complaint is that lawn mowers are jolly heavy, and the average man is stronger than the average woman. It is reasonable to expect the stronger partner to do the heavy lifting, and that’s usually the male, as it is in my house. Fair enough, but why does that mean we have to be expected to enjoy it, as though it were some precious male ritual?

I think I could have tolerated the whole lawnmowing debacle without complaint, if it weren’t for a comment I heard Stephen Fry make, several years ago, on some television show or other. It was something to the effect of that he never mowed lawns and wouldn’t know how to start if he were asked to do it. That comment really stuck in my craw. A generous interpretation would be that he was being self-deprecating, meaning to imply ‘What an ineffectual, impractical klutz I am – don’t even know how to mow a lawn!‘ But that’s not how it came across. How I received it was ‘I am not like the hoi polloi, who obsess over the trimness of their lawns, regard the summer Sunday lawn-mowing as a male middle-class rite of passage, and have no interest in culture and the finer things of life‘. It’s a bit like claiming to know nothing about footy.

Now I don’t mean to say that Stephen Fry is an intellectual snob. He often pretends to be, but I usually get the sense that he’s not serious and that he is more mocking his own effeteness than the deficiencies of anyone else. But for some reason, on the occasion of this particular lawn-mowing comment, I thought I detected just the slightest hint of disdain for men that care about their lawns and like lawn-mowing. It would be very hard to be Stephen Fry and not occasionally feel disdain for others, given his planet-sized brain, seemingly endless store of knowledge, and razor wit. I love Stephen Fry and can forgive him the occasional glimmer of disdain.

But I just wish he wouldn’t lump me in with his imagined underclass of lawn-trimming morlocks. Yes, I mow lawns, but that doesn’t mean I enjoy it, or regard it as anything other than an irritating chore!

Not that it matters if somebody does enjoy mowing lawns! There’s absolutely no good reason not to enjoy mowing lawns. After all, it’s good exercise and it’s constructive – creating a pleasant environment to which people can then go to enjoy the sunshine, lie on the grass and maybe even read Proust or some other author of whom Stephen Fry would approve. It becomes a problem only when one is expected to enjoy mowing lawns because one is a man. If I did enjoy mowing lawns (which I don’t, have we got that clear yet?), I would like to do so in spite of being a man, not because of it.

So I suggest to any men out there that actually do enjoy mowing lawns, Be Not Ashamed of your love, but fight against the sexual stereotyping that expects you to like it, solely on account of your gonads. Wear a skirt or a flowery hat as you mow, and give a little skip every few steps. Of course, skirts, flowery hats and skipping are as noxious a stereotype of women as barbies, beer, footy and lawnmowers are for men, but perhaps if we mix all the silly stereotypes together, the enemy (whoever they are – presumably the people that invented these stereotypes in the first place) will be confused, and will have to retreat.

And lastly (a pity to add this, because I thought that last sentence was a neat way to end. But it’s too late now), what about Zen monks eh Mister Fry? They don’t come much deeper than Zen Monks, yet they are famous for making a powerful spiritual practice out of the most banal activities – particularly making tea and raking pebbles. Now I have never seen a Zen monk mowing a lawn, and the self-help bestseller Zen and the Art of LawnMowing has yet to be written, but surely it’s only a matter of time, and then you’ll be feeling pretty foolish not knowing how to mow a lawn, won’t you?

Yes, I probably should have stopped at that earlier opportunity.

Sensei Rishi Andrew Kirk

Bondi Junction, October 2015