Man to man

Neil Lyndon joined the blokes down at the Pike and Eel on Saturday. But not to sink a few pints. He was there to witness the birth pangs of a national men's movement - or was it a false alarm?

"This is turning into a council of war, isn't it?" murmured the middle-aged man in the army-surplus pullover to his neighbour at the table. They both grinned with wolfish pleasure. At that moment, the question under discussion was whether it would be easier to organise a hosing down of the Houses of Parliament with farm manure or to picket the parish churches where the Prime Minister and the Lord Chancellor go to pray on a Sunday. Or would it be better, as a dramatic act, to mount occupations of television studios and newspaper offices or to distribute first-aid packs at weddings, warning young men that they were about to forfeit their most essential personal rights?

In the bar, beyond the closed doors of the dining room of the Pike and Eel Hotel in Needingworth near Cambridge, expensively dressed and very proper couples were playing cards on coffee tables, while fat young men were sinking pints at the bar discussing the "natural hardness of women". Around the polished walnut table in the dining room, 20 men with an average age of about 45 spent the whole of last Saturday discussing forms of direct action to reform the inequalities of men before the law and in family life.

Attended by representatives of Families Need Fathers (FNF), the UK Men's Movement, NACSA (the campaign against the Child Support Agency), and the Cheltenham Group, this meeting had been whispered about by its organisers as an historic occasion. Like the first gathering of the Committee of l00 or the Ruskin College History Conference in 1970 that signalled the inauguration of a women's movement in this country, the meeting at the Pike and Eel was billed as marking a decisive moment of change. Until now, it was said, men's rights organisations have achieved little more than to offer a sanctuary where men could discuss their individual grievances, especially over divorce, with others in the same plight. Those organisations have been small, weak and divided. Now the time had come to move onto a national stage of action.

"The men's problem is that men get stuffed one by one and have no communication with each other and no sense of community," said Barry Worrall, a leading member of FNF. Another speaker said, "Men who have been through divorce don't want to talk about it because they want to put the whole experience behind them. Men who haven't been through divorce can't imagine that it could happen to them. It is a boring subject. It is seen as weak to protest about the injustice of the present system."

Everybody at the meeting automatically agreed, seeing it as an unquestionable reality that Britain's judges, court welfare officers, MPs and journalists, as a body, will not admit the existence of inequalities for men. "We're up against a massive wall of ignorance about family law and its practices, not just in the general public but in those who are responsible for its administration." Paul Boateng, QC and Labour spokesman on family law, was described as "a hopeless case, totally hidebound" by an FNF member who had tried to argue with him. Gary Streeter, a Conservative minister in the Lord Chancellor's office, was described as being "extremely limited" in his grasp of the Family Law Act.

One of the organisers, Brian Robertson of the Cambridge Men's Action group, is compiling a blacklist on e-mail of legal and public figures who are hostile to men and fathers. This includes many media feminists - including Polly Toynbee and Suzanne Moore of The Independent - who are seen as controlling public discussion of gender issues and excluding men's interests by a determined act of prejudice. The name of Germaine Greer, predictably, is high on this list though the most fanciful claim of the day came when one man said, "I think I've shot Germaine Greer down, actually." Nobody laughed.

More impressive was a serious, informed discussion of the secrecy of English family courts, led by Dr Michael Pelling, legal mastermind of FNF. Despite the provisions of the European Convention on Human Rights, which require trials to be conducted openly and judgments to be given in public, family proceedings in English courts are conducted in camera.

In Pelling's view, this allows unscrutinised judges and court welfare officers to ignore the claims of fathers or to mutilate their cases unchecked. Barry Worrall said that he wanted compensation for himself and for men like him "who have had their lives and everything that is precious to them wrecked, destroyed by the courts." Pelling was intrigued by the suggestion that 500 such men might band together to mount a class action in the European courts, suing HM Government for its breach of the European convention in using secret courts. "It might work," he mused.

Despite the unanimity of all delegates on the injustice done to to men by British family law, differences of attitude, interpretation and ideology began to surface unmistakably during the day. One man, presenting a polished system for all men to use in divorce proceedings, hit the table as he declared: "We're here for money and property or we're here for our children; I don't give a fart about the public image of men or how they are portrayed in advertising." He was sharply answered by Edward Crabtree from the Equality Squad in Leicester who said: "Some of us are here precisely because we do care about the image of men. We're not married. We don't have children. We're opposed generally to the ideology of feminism."

In their mid-thirties, Edward and his friends Clive from Leicester and Peter from Liverpool, were the youngest men at the meeting. Between them and others, such as the representatives of the Cheltenham Group, was a gulf of belief as wide as the schism over Europe in the Conservative party. The younger men are progressive, libertarian, actively pro-equality; the Cheltenham Group includes men who yearn for the restoration of patriarchy. During coffee breaks, one such man was talking about the natural leadership of men and the automatic primacy of fathers in the household. "Meet the last of the dinosaurs," said Clive.

It was as if an early meeting of the women's liberation movement had included members of the Mother's Union alongside devotees of Shrew and Red Rag. The younger men were disappointed by the absence of ideological argument and, especially, the failure of their elders to absorb any of the key writings in the growing literature of men's issues. "They can't engage in a wider argument because they simply don't read," said one.

Like any marriage of convenience, this union looks certain to run quickly into conflict. If separation follows, however, it ought to be conducted amicably and equitably. The parties, after all, are experts in the practice of divorce if not in its ideologyn

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