When we bought our house last December, the garden had been neglected and used as a rubbish dump for at least three years. Not only did it need a lot of work just to make it vaguely atlookable, but we fancied converting the back end of it into somewhere to park the car. (There's access to the back. Obviously. We didn't just want to keep an ornamental car in our back garden.) So one hell of a lot of work impended.
Now, I have a desk job, and I hate exercise. That's not to say that I hate using my muscles: I hate using them just for the sake of it. I used to cycle a lot, but can't stand to go on an exercise bike for more than a minute: if it's not moving, what's the point? Moving huge items of furniture up and down stairs is frustrating but worthwhile; lifting weights is a pointless waste of time. So, the garden was an opportunity. I resolved not to use any power tools: no chainsaw, no electric hedge-trimmer, no pneumatic drill, no cement mixer. This was one of the few times in my lifetime I was going to get any exercise.
So I've cut down a tree, uprooted a hedge, cut back another hedge and a couple of trees, built a patio and a huge pergola and a fence, lugged God only knows how many tons of earth and rubbish and old rotting carpet and sand and gravel and cement and paving slabs and cobbles and rocks from A to B and then on to at least H, mixed loads of concrete, laid another patio, and smashed up a reinforced concrete path with a pickaxe. And, this weekend, I realised that it's worked. I was, yet again, buying bags of sand and cement at Homebase, when it suddenly dawned on me that they were a lot lighter than they used to be. I could practically juggle with them. And, later, as I was swinging the pickaxe, Vic confirmed to me that my arms have actually got bigger in the last few weeks. Result. Of course, now the garden's nearly finished, I either give up programming computers to become a professional gardener or revert to my old skinny yet paunched self and I can't be bothered learning botanical Latin.
Anyway, a thought occurred to me. (It happens.) Once upon a time, the criminal justice system used to force dangerous criminals to smash up rocks with pickaxes throughout their sentences. Hard labour. Now, I can see why that would be a worse punishment than sitting in a cell "reading" back issues of FHM for a few years, but, still... what were our forebears thinking? They took the worst, most dangerous, most amoral, most violent criminals, gathered hundreds of them together into one place where they no doubt outnumbered their guards, and then spent years building up their muscles and stamina and improving their aim, and armed them with pickaxes. To whom did this look like a good idea?