Glossing over the differences

4th February 2005 at 00:00
Former Radio 4 newsreader Patrick Muirhead gives youthful stereotypes the brush-off as he describes his new life as a trainee painter and decorator

I declined my mother's loan of her Tweetie Pie rucksack to take my packed lunch on the first day at college. Wise move. These days an unarmed mummy's boy skipping into class with novelty hand luggage is liable to find it (and his Pepperami finger snack) forcibly jammed down his oesophagus at break-time by an acne-encrusted teenager in a Kappa tracksuit.

Such were my fears as I enrolled a month ago to learn painting and decorating in the construction faculty of Chichester college in West Sussex. I tried to swagger and walk tall, but it's not easy when you're 5ft 5in and possess the bearing of Charles Hawtrey.

My anxieties, it seems, were unwarranted. Attending college has thrown open a window for me on an extraordinary tableau. At the age of 36, a washed-up broadcaster in the throes of a premature mid-life crisis, I am acquiring a manual trade alongside tough, working-class boys born in the late 1980s. I am learning from them, about them, about the world beyond the media and about myself. I am getting rather good at cross-hanging lining paper, too.

The Foundation Construction Award is a year-long introduction to a three-part vocational training. Those who study on block release one day a week from suitable employment get the award and may qualify for an NVQ level one. Full-time students attend two days a week. I attend four days a week and am, consequently, almost breaking speed records in completing the modules. But then again, I don't have much to contribute to conversations about Destiny's Child, popping "whizz" and last night's telly.

There are three lecturers - good natured professional decorators who've swapped the stresses of chilly building sites for the stresses of the classroom. They demand and achieve staggering results with thinly-spread resources and a ludicrously limited teaching space. In college, every wall, door, window frame, staircase, nook and cranny is a legitimate target for our fledgling talent with paint and paste. The place reeks perpetually of renewal.

On my first morning, I found myself sitting in a classroom between a bonehead former heroin addict and a 17-year-old father-to-be. Each sported an incomplete set of front teeth and a fondness for nylon sports apparel - though I suspect their tracksuits had never seen athletic endeavour of a wholesome kind. A few metres away two grinning brutes threatened each other with Stanley knives, just for a laugh. This was Grange Hill - the director's cut. Only the Burberry chav caps and the absence of the toweringly formidable Mrs McClusky distinguished fact from fiction.

Teenage boys are funny. The things they find funny are funny. During a lesson on health and safety, we were posed a multiple-choice question about how to deal with an unidentified but potentially hazardous solvent discovered on a building site. Should one tell the supervisor, discard it or to give it a good hard sniff? You know instantly which answer the class chorused before collapsing into gales of laughter.

Later, as I scraped away at some recalcitrant woodchip, I fell into conversation with a boy who cited boxing and "shagging my boss's daughter" as favoured recreations. A deeper truth gradually emerged as the shreds of wallpaper peeled off. He had been excluded from numerous schools until, eventually, he had been disgorged on to a building site at the age of 15.

There, a spell as a labourer had introduced him to men with trades. He had been inspired and had come to learn a skill of his own. "I wanna be a one-man band. With my own van," he said earnestly. He looked up at me - for approval, possibly. I nodded hopefully and made a wish.

We have nothing to fear from today's teenagers. In conversation laced with F-words, they tell of settling disputes with their fists, make wild claims to sexual congress and discuss filling their bellies with beer. Reality and ambition are often far apart. Fearless, boastful, bashful and loyal, they talk tough. But beneath the braggadocio, they are unsure of themselves and are eager to be accepted. They are likeable, and need encouragement and protection from their unformed selves.

Maybe my classmates are adolescent oddities but I have found them gruffly polite, constantly cheerful, desperately eager to lend a hand, and genuinely enthralled by a good tale well told. Perhaps we should all adopt a teenage diet of fags, Quavers and Dr Pepper, and transform society for the better.

In my first few weeks, not one of these rough diamonds has confirmed Prince Charles' assertion that young people these days aim only for pop stardom or TV celebrity. They know manual work can be ennobling; it is the zenith of aspiration for many. They talk passionately about paintbrushes and wall coverings and accept trade as their individual destiny.

It is easy to see why trades are proving increasingly seductive to people from a broad range of backgrounds. You see absolute proof of your skills; there is no margin for political partisanship, no space for self-doubt to take root nor rivals' mischief to be made. And if you are good with your hands you can be certain of fair reward.

I have been accepted, as far as I can tell, because I am proving myself worthy of my newly chosen trade. I laugh with the boys, listen to them and help them where I can. They call me Pat (without enunciating the "t"). No one has ever done that before. Perhaps construction college would be a safe place to carry a Tweetie Pie rucksack after all.

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