The column: As Australia becomes overrun with youthful contenders for the tennis Open, Howard Jacobson finds the only real women around seem to be men
This being the International Year of the Older Person it behoves us to make the effort to withdraw our fascinated gaze from the young. I know it's genetic. I know we are compelled by deep unconscious impulses of race preservation to look longingly and protectively on the carriers of our seed. But wouldn't it augur well for a human future free of blind impulses if we sometimes told the carriers of our seed to go hang, go spill, go pump their blood-filled lips in the direction of someone else?

The young are swarming all over Australia at the moment, their numbers swelled (oh God, swelled) by the world's top 10,000 tennis players come to compete in the Australian Open in Melbourne, the first Grand Slam event of the year. I am not proud to know that the Australian Open is the first Grand Slam event of the year. Ignorance of the doings of the ravening young is a bliss to which I vainly aspire. And "Grand Slam" is such a horribly entre nous expression. But when the young swarm there is no hiding place for the old.

They are on every radio and television channel, talking about their form, their physical well-being, their state of mind. They are so self-engrossed it doesn't occur to them that when we ask how they are we are only being polite. They are all called Sabrina Appleseed or Nirvana Cornucopa. And they are all girls. Even when they are men they are girls, maybe not as iron-willed as girls proper but softer-voiced, more extravagantly bejewelled and by and large prettier. Pat and Karol they are called.

Now that tennis has come to town the cardboard cut-outs of cricketers in their whites have been removed from the windows of chemists and fashion accessory shops to be replaced by Pat Rafter - self-effacing, pony-tailed, looking at us from under his fluttering eyelids like Mitzi Gaynor, and flashing his flat girlie chest. Apparently, a girlie chest sells Ray-Bans as effectively as a baby face sells videos. When it comes to merchandising, Pat Rafter is to tennis what Leonardo da Capriatti is to sinking ships. When Pat Rafter changes his shirt on court grown women scream. Presumably the same thing happens when Mama Capriatti changes little Leonardo's nappy on the set.

I would like to say it's a mystery to me, but it's probably better for us all if I come clean and acknowledge what I suffered recently in Melbourne when I rounded a corner and suddenly saw, at the far end of a long arcade, a larger than lifesize photograph of Pat's chest. For a hundredth of a second - allow me, in my own defence, to reduce that to a thousandth of a second - I felt a twinge of the old disconcertment, imagining this really was a girl's chest I was seeing, flatter than a man likes a girl's chest to be, but naked, that's the point - shamelessly bared - and if a girl is going to bare her chest and let you see her nipples, for God's sake, it doesn't matter how flat she is. Did I go inside as a consequence and buy a pair of Ray-Bans? No I did not. But I needed, once I'd realised my mistake, to sit quietly for half an hour, drink strong black coffee, and take stock.

I am all right about it now. I am not aroused by Pat Rafter: period. I am annoyed with myself at my age for still being susceptible to what I erroneously, and from a distance, took to be a girl's chest, but that doesn't make me a willing party to the universal effeminisation, which is itself an offshoot of the universal infantilism, of our times. The grown women who vote the ever-so-slightly lisping Pat the sexiest man on earth, and the as yet-to-be-bar mitzvah'd Lepidopterous di Capulet the second sexiest, may not know what they are about genetically, but they know what they like. They like those characteristics of the girl child which you can no longer find in girls. Shyness, sweetness, pliancy, coquettishness. The modern woman is in love with the image of her son in her husband and with the image of her daughter in her son.

Rich, though. Rich is important. Entrusting your cells to the care of a creature that resembles a baby koala for cuteness is one thing, but you want to know that they will have a secure future. Where's the point of coddling your genes if you can't be certain they'll be able to afford Ray-Bans?

No wonder, then, that the sexiest men on earth must be as effective with regard to making millions as they are apparently ineffective with regards to everything else.

So it's goodbye to the brooding, self-defeating heroes of romanticism. No more black-hearted Heathcliffes or growling Rochesters or sharp-tongued Mr Darcys. Of course those men were all no less fantasised carriers of the genetic payload than the effeminised tots of today. They only brooded so that women could awaken them to the felicity of female company. They only growled so that women could break their spirits, smash their teeth, burn down their kennels, and lead them, passive, emasculate and grateful, into a lacy boudoir. No point, therefore, in men of my generation wondering what's become of the idea of masculinity in which we were schooled. It was never truly ours in the first place.

But I refuse to believe we were sold a dummy. It was good for us having to aspire to a rugged maturity, believing that women would love us only in proportion as we were battered and wise, had travelled, had suffered, had peered long into the abyss. Yes, yes I know - the truth is a woman will fall in love with a cardboard box if she thinks that's the safest place for her genetic cargo. But in this International Year of the Older Person, I salute the grand outmoded ideal of bruised experience.