If you really want to know why men do what they do, ask one
It's a willy thing, an inadequacy thing, a pathetic, treacherous thing, a risk thing
Thursday 27 May 1999
Without any neo-royal nipples of their own yesterday, The Mirror led with an exclusive anti-story. Its reporters had caught up with the Lenny's Australian woman, and she had denied all. It was a no-kiss and tell tale of almost Dallaglian innocence, involving four hours in a hotel room, a lot of champagne, a bit of chat, a glance at the framed photo of wife and child and - at the end of it - a brusque farewell. "He was the most married man I have ever met," said Ms Lenfancier. "I might as well have had a crush on Jesus Christ." I have to say that this version of events corresponds far more closely to my experiences of life, than does the "steamy sex sessions till dawn" so beloved of the tabloids.
But the counter-revelation, inexplicably, came too late for The Mirror's chief domestic slagger-offer, Sue Carroll. If those frosty faced condemners - whose pursed mouths twitch behind lacy curtains all over Britain - have a voice, then Ms Carroll is it. "Rarely has male vanity and arrogance," she fulminated, "been more publicly exposed than by comedian Lenny Henry." There then followed a tedious little diatribe on powerful men, risk-taking, life on the edge, etc, that came straight from the "a-hundred-grand-for- an-hour's-work-hee-hee" school of column writing.
Over in The Sun (beyond the 20 pages devoted to the 10-year-old nipple of the future wife of the youngest brother of the man who will one day be king), a woman agony aunt and a woman psychotherapist asked, "If even Lenny Henry can cheat on his wife, what man is immune to temptation?" "Men who make it to the top are compulsive risk-takers," opined the agony aunt, with the flourish of someone discovering a lost city somewhere north of Croydon and south of St Alban's. "It's part of a man's nature," the psychotherapist added, "that they listen to a niggle in their head saying, `Am I going to die before I do it with anyone else?'"
Over in Adultery News (aka the Daily Mail) such an important tale of misplaced pudenda rated no fewer than three viewpoints. Linda Lee-Potter wondered whether "Maybe he yearned to feel young and irresponsible again, and to spend time with an undemanding, uncritical, adoring girl." And a brace of wronged writing wives debated the issue over two pages further on.
There we are then. Why do men do it? Well, it's a willy thing; an inadequacy thing; a pathetic, treacherous thing; a risk thing. And that is as far as any thinking goes. A woman might do it in reaction to a whole series of complex problems. Men do it because. As ever, we have a tale of male adultery (or not), and no males.
But, actually, this is the bit we really want to know. The male side is now the interesting, untold, important side. We have had Monica's Story, charting her troubled upbringing, her complexity, her eating problems, and - naturally - her lack of esteem, and her self-destructiveness. What I want, however, is Bill's Story. We have had Diana's Story, charting, er, her troubled upbringing, her complexity, her eating problems, and - naturally - her lack of self-esteem and her self-destructiveness. We really need Charles's story. Or something like it.
There is still no conversation about men, comparable with that which continues about women. Unless we join Alcoholics Anonymous, we blokes are very unlikely ever to talk about ourselves. It is, by and large, women who undergo therapy, who dominate gym classes, who lie on acupuncturists' couches and who fess up to the million and one small emotions that make up human beings. Men, by contrast to this outpouring, are constipated.
This is not the fault of women. Well, not entirely. But I remember that it was my woman dentist who first defined to me what being male required. I was 10, and I had to have the nerve from my front tooth removed. This involved the cutting of the gum and a whole lot of rootling around with sharp objects in areas that were copiously supplied with pain sensors. I would not, of course, she told me, be needing any anaesthetic, because I was a "big, brave boy". The blood went everywhere.
I suppose that this agony was some kind of quid pro quo for running things. Not any more. When, earlier this year, Germaine Greer's The Whole Woman was published, I read both it, and a lot of the argument (exclusively between women) that accompanied it. And it just struck me as being not the problem.
In this country we have witnessed a social revolution in the last 20 years. Girls do better at school at all levels and in most subjects than boys; they increasingly beat boys in the jobs market; the earnings gap has closed substantially. We know all this. It's time to move on.
Through the devolution discussion we have discovered that, over the years, Englishness has become lost in Britishness. In the same way, men's story has been subsumed into history. Now, perhaps, we are finding ways to talk about men. It's a justified topic; men are sadder than women realise. When it comes to longevity, nature finishes with us earlier; we are less healthy, and less willing to talk about our health; far less is spent on specifically male health problems than on specifically female ones.
We suffer, die - and commit adultery - in silence.
In a recent excellent book on middle age, Angela Neustatter argues that part of the male mid-life crisis comes when men realise that their children are too old now for them to be the fathers that they'd always promised themselves they would be. On Tuesday, launching a new parenting initiative, Jack Straw said much the same thing. "In the blink of an eye, your children are grown up. It's sad if you miss out."
I agree. The family is the place where male re-connection must, on the whole, take place. Work is likely to be too transient; communities are rarely local now - but rather based on interest and age. And here another media development is hugely encouraging. Perhaps the most successful new Radio 4 programme recently has been Home Truths, in which John Peel - appearing as J Peel, Dad - has helped to place men, alongside women, at the centre of their families. Set beside that, the question of adultery seems less all-important.
The moral, however, is that if you want to know why men do what they do, try asking one. But not, ironically, this one. At least not for the next eight weeks. A strange impulse has come over me, and I am going on a canoe trip round the canals and rivers of England for two months. If I don't drown, I'll be back in August.
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