There's only one thing that men want from women. And that's everything
Celebrated novelist Howard Jacobson's most recent novel is Man Booker-nominated 'J'. He has also written 'The Finkler Question', published to great acclaim in 2010. An acerbic critic and broadcaster with a passion for literature and art, he is known for his ebullient wit.
Saturday 04 December 1999
It doesn't serve the cause of understanding to go on ascribing hatred of women to men, as though there is only ever one reason we go off the rails. Whoever is familiar with the turbulence of men's hearts will tell you, anyway, that too much love, not too little, is the problem. Every man I have ever known has been an adorer of women, a votary, a worshipper, an idolater even. Sometimes a worshipper of too many women at one time, and sometimes a worshipper of women not his to worship, but a worshipper none the less. If he is unable to think straight as a consequence, that is because the heat of his idolatry burns up his brains. In which case spare us your adoration, I hear you fairly insist, but what are we to do? We must love something and we have chosen you.
Call me a sentimentalist, but I am never more reconciled to humanity than when I see a man's face illuminated with love for a woman. And if you are in need of such reconciliation yourself, let me tell you where to go to get it. Harrods. Forget your principled objections to the owner, forget the crowds, just brave the escalators, head for the evening gown department, and stand outside the changing rooms. Don't appear to loiter, otherwise humanity will not be reconciled to you.
And don't look at the women going in or coming out. Look at the men. The husbands, the partners, the lovers, whoever. Look at the expressions on their faces when the mothers of their children, the companions of their earthly labours, reappear from the cubicles like so many Cinderellas transfigured for a celestial ball, in gold and silver, in beads and sequins, feathered, flounced, and if the husbands and lovers are really lucky, slit from ankle to navel, coccyx bared, both nipples out, the whole shimmering shebang held together by that pin on whose head angels are said to dance.
I anticipate your objection. I dare to give the name "love" to a man's ambition to see his wife accoutred like a showgirl from the Crazy Horse? Speaking of horses, hold yours. I have sometimes been accused of having the soul of a pimp, of wanting to clothe the woman of the hour in outfits so gaudy they would not look out of place in a Turkish seraglio, and so insubstantial they could be whiffled off in a picosecond by the breath of a house mite. My defence has always rested in ethnicity. 2,000 years ago my ancestors traversed the desert on the backs of camels. From them I inherited a love of glitter objects, things you can easily find should you lose them in the sands of the Negev. So don't blame me, blame my culture. To which the stock reply is, "Who has ever seen a Bedouin woman riding a camel in six-inch bakelite stilettoes and a one-inch PVC thong?"
And that is invariably enough to silence me. OK, I have a trashy imagination. I am a maker of whores. Better for women I had never been born.
Then, a few weeks ago, I ran into an old school friend and his wife at the pork counter in Harrods Food Hall. Shlomo and Sandra - grey haired, maniacally monogamous, overflowing with grandchildren, down from Manchester for the weekend to celebrate their thirty-fifth wedding anniversary, to shop for pork, and to buy something wonderful for Sandra to wear on New Year's Eve. Having nowhere else to go, I accompanied them to evening gowns.
It is Harrods policy not to let a man join a woman in the changing rooms. Some Egyptian thing. Waiting with Shlomo I had the feeling this was the first fifteen minutes he had spent out of Sandra's company since 1964. He began to pace the carpet and chew his nails. Other men were behaving similarly. We exchanged shy glances. Occasionally a ripple of bravado would run through us. "Could do with a bar here," said a giant German dressed from head to foot in animal skins. We all assented. "And a telly for us to watch the rugby," put in a Welshman. We assented again. Rugby, yeah! A bit of male stuff instead of this panysing around waiting for tarts to try on party frocks.
But as one by one the women emerged, tugging down hems and pulling up straps, all masculine solidarity evaporated. "Ah, you look lovely!" exclaimed the Welshman. And truly it was an exclamation, an involuntary cry of unadulterated pleasure and pride. From Shlomo, too, a gasp as Sandra, hands folded across her chest, made her appearance, more lambent than Shirley Bassey. "Wunderschon!" bellowed the chamois German, the husband suddenly of Ute Lemper.
And me, while I fell for the women I wept for the men. Such tender devotion. Such ardour. Such comprehensive fidelity - loving in the one person the friend you respect and the houri you hunger for. It's said to count against us men that we don't know what we want from a woman. What's wrong with everything?
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