As a species we humans flatter ourselves daily in our washing rituals, our fancy clothes and clever modes of transportation. Look how far we have come, we say to ourselves, no longer chasing down mega-fauna with sticks tipped with stone blades.
But with all these trappings of civilisation we men are still men and would likely be happy to spend time chasing aurochs with our home made spears, a band of rowdy blokes, ululating and screaming at our quarry like the wild apes our ancestors were.
My day job is in construction management, where I get to observe tribal behaviour on a daily basis. The steelworkers will sit in their own hierarchical circle, the oldest male, grumpy and pale will sit with his back to the group, chewing and spitting, ignoring the banter on account of his failing hearing.
The electricians retire to their vans, separately, scrolling on their phones, sometimes laughing out loud, startling passers by. The groundworkers, marked with soil and dusted with concrete eschew the comforts of the canteen and find any space they can where they can eye their trenches and big machines.
Most days pass without incident amongst the hubbub and roar of earthmoving engines, the whine of power-tools and the bellowing of tradesmen calling for this bucket or that truck. Sometimes, however, this pot, this brew of sweat, muscle, deadline and difficulty boils over and I have to step in and turn down the heat.
Years ago I might have fought fire with fire, but over time this has changed. As I have aged I have developed a sense of solidity, of implacability, to put a wall between warring factions and take the heat out of a situation. Men are emotional, violent beings, they shout, they beat their chests, they tremble and rail against each other.
‘No one talks to me like that!’
‘You come here, think you can do what you like!’
‘Who do you think you are?’
‘You wanna go mate? Do ya?’
I have been caught in these situations from time to time, more often now during the pandemic crisis. Men who have been stoic and showing up at the gates of the construction site day after day, despite the rising and falling of the death rate, snap now and then. Something breaks inside, the ape comes out and wants to batter, to beat out the frustration and fear.
The hotel I have been living in since the start of my current project is popular with builders and tradesmen. In the main we are courteous and polite, respecting the shared burden of being apart from family as we work to provide, keeping our distance all the while and smiling behind our face masks.
Yesterday evening after work, a tradesman I had never met before, snapped when I asked him if he wouldn’t mind not sharing a lift with me, in line with Covid-19 rules displayed in the lift lobby. There was another lift, just arrived, next to the one I was in, so, no hardship.
I had no idea that this man was at the end of his tether. I was polite but for him, my request was simply his last straw. He aimed a kick at my knees. Then lunged at my head with his Makita drill box. I did not react. He turned away. Took the other lift. He had let out his rage.
Construction has never been a genteel industry and attracts some rough and ready characters, people who need to be outdoors with the weather rain or shine, who revel in the scent of tar or paint, who want to be able to shout and weigh their strength against a tonne of steel or concrete.
Builders have to be robust, resilient, creative people with the stamina to keep going when things get tough. Their mental health has to be as protected as much as their physical health too, especially all the while Covid-19 stalks the land.
Because sometimes the ape inside will break out.
When it does, we have to be ready.