At last - men have become interesting

IT WAS a normal pre-match gathering at a summer football tournament, 11 guys chatting about the sort of things which guys chat about when there are no women around.

One of us was sharing a wonderful way of brushing new potatoes with dill and lemon. Nearby there was a discussion about the limits of acceptable dishonesty in a modern relationship and whether men ever positively want to get married rather than accede to pressure. Someone lowered the tone with details of an unusual social disease he had once caught. Eventually, and a touch reluctantly we moved in fist-clenching, competitive mode ("Pride, lads") and took to the pitch.

Interesting, you see. We may be battered and beleaguered. Most of us are dizzied by conflicting demands made upon us - soft, child-caring hands at home, sharp elbows at work. Yet the angry buzzing confusion all about our poor, spinning male heads has had one surprising effect. Men have become rather interesting.

The cut and thrust of every new round in the great gender debate, so earnestly discussed in the media, tends to pass us by. Last week we learnt that the female brain is incapable of grasping how maps work. That was meant to be news! For years, most men have known about this and have accepted that an occasional 20-mile detour is small price to pay for the pleasure of female company.

Then yet another survey revealed that while, for most days of the month women gravitate towards feminised men (that is, gentle, kind domestic types), they change while ovulating and, in spite of themselves, are attracted to "masculine men" (that is, randy, heartless bastards).

Again, where was the surprise here? Men frequently undergo similar changes, the sweetest, gentlest nappy-changer becoming at certain moments - office parties, sales conferences, the Frankfurt Book Fair - a rough and ravening sex machine. The difference between men and women is that, while they complain loudly that to reduce their emotional life to some Darwinian genetic programme is demeaning, we accept the conflict within us as part of our fascinating complexity.

Of course, it is upsetting that, however accommodating we become, the response from the other side of the divide tends to be either foot-stamping rage or leering triumphalism. Once the anti-male sneer was restricted to Cosmopolitan's regular "21 Ways to Dump Your Man" columns; today, it has become intellectually acceptable. So, in a middle-brow Sunday tabloid this weekend, the gender warrior Suzanne Moore was to be found furiously denouncing slurs directed at her map-reading abilities or genetic tendencies during ovulation. Men, in her view, were "sullen apes who can barely communicate", people, who from an early age, were provably inferior to women in their language skills.

To most men, all this bile and graceless, generalised complaint is tedious and old-fashioned. We do not need reminding that salaries are still biased in favour of the male as are positions of power in government and the media, where Birt, Blair, Brown, Bragg, Bland, Cook and Dyke lord it like a clan of Anglo-Saxon chieftains. Nor do the revelations by Fay Weldon, Maggie Gee and Rosalind Coward that in 1999 it is incomparably easier to be a girl bristling with ambition and certainty, than it is to be a boy come as any surprise. Anyone who has contact with men under 25 will know the problems.

Rather than anguishing over these sterile arguments, men are looking to their own lives in order to work out a new role, In fiction, Nick Hornby, Hanif Kureishi, Tim Lott and Tony Parsons explore changing male attitudes towards marriage, success, women, children and careers. While confusion and resentment may be found in some of these accounts, there is rarely the gender-wide rage which so many women writers seem unable to resist. Even Kureishi's novel Intimacy, widely attacked as misogynistic, was essentially an attempt to understand the spiritual emptiness of the footloose, lost middle-aged man.

So men blunder on, faltering and falling by the wayside. Ron Davies, Nick Leeson, Screaming Lord Sutch: only the scale and variety of the modern crack-up changes from day to day. Of course, there are instances of female self-destructiveness, too, although somehow Tara and her coke habit or Sarah Kennedy going slightly bonkers on Radio Two lack a tragic grandeur.

Not that our team would have been brooding on the gender subtext as we took up our positions against a local pub side. Hammered? Of course. But we're men, we know how to take it.

Arts and Entertainment Musical by Damon Albarn


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