The column: The consideration of men

Surrounded by women, Howard Jacobson should count his blessings. Instead, he yearns for the special male bonding of the poker table
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Indy Lifestyle Online
Suddenly I'm homesick.

It's beginning to get uncomfortable here. The wet's coming. Season of floods and murderous humidity. Already you walk out in the morning and there is a moat of moisture around your dwelling. Buildings are starting to weep. People who don't have to be here all year are looking for house-minders and drifting south. And yesterday a crocodile was sighted in the bay.

I don't know whether there's some psychological explanation for it, but crocodiles always make me homesick for Manchester. Could be that crocodiles were the only peril my mother never warned me against when I went out to play by the Ship Canal.

For the most part, people in the Kimberley are cool about crocs. Come the wet there's every chance you'll find one swimming down the high street, or waiting behind you in the queue for the automatic bank teller, but he'll be a freshie, and freshies aren't dangerous unless you surprise them. If a freshie locks his jaws on to you at least you'll have the consolation of knowing it's not malice. He's as unhappy about it as you are. Yesterday's croc, though, was a saltie - a 12ft adult male saltwater crocodile - and a saltie will have you for breakfast, no worries.

Hence my hankering to be home.

But it's not only a temperate climate and safe streets I'm missing. It's men. The consideration of men.

There are no men here. That's a preposterous thing to say, I know, since this is reputed to be man's country, and I do read of men piloting light planes over the Bungle Bungles, putting out fires, fishing for barramundi, driving camels, pearling. But they're not where I am. Where I am there are only women - women writers, artists, critics, gallerists, teachers, administrators, fortune-tellers, reflexologists, basket-weavers - and I'm at my wit's end with them.

On paper, I know, it doesn't look as though I have much to complain about. I am shipwrecked on the Fortunate Isles. The sirens sing, Penelope cooks, and the Hesperidean nymphs dance circles round me: Arethusa, the Ministering One; Erytheia, the Blushing One; Hirsutia, the Bristly One.

I was at a dinner party the other night in honour of Elizabeth Durack, a distinguished artist embroiled in unseemly controversy, late in life, with the gate-keepers of Australian culture, than whom few are more sanctimonious, even in these sanctimonious times. We sat at a table in the red sand behind her daughter Perpetua's gallery - "my little gallery", the nymph Perpetua calls it - washing down fiery chilli shepherd's pie with iced champagne and watching rare Siberian waterfowl leave town in their thousands, wave after wave of them, a translucent silver against the sky, like the guileless souls of angels.

After dinner it was photo time, Elizabeth attaching her camera to a tripod, composing, focusing, setting the delayed-action timer, then running to join us at the table before the flash went off. "Us" being the Hesperides and me. "Cluster around the man," one of them said. And they did - they clustered around the man!

I know, I know, I should count my blessings. I'm in Lotus Land. But you can have too much of a good thing. Remember Ulysses. The long day wanes, the slow moon climbs. A man's a sword and it's not right for him to rust unburnish'd in his scabbard.

Besides, the women can get rough when they have the place almost entirely to themselves. They tumble and scratch. They upbraid and abuse.

It's the soothing male companionableness of darts and pool and poker I'm feeling the want of. At the risk of sounding metropolitan, I'm missing the understanding a man finds at the Chelsea Arts Club and the Groucho. Those velveteen nights, sitting swapping troubles at the mirrored bar, or falling in from some party somewhere else, man wrapped around man in the old love-and-death embrace, Coriolanus and Aufidius, unable to remember when the clock strikes 12 whether this one's your friend or your enemy, but what the hell - you'll take him in your arms anyway and suffer the self-hatred and the beard rash in the morning.

Do you lose the trick of it? Afraid that I would no longer know what to say to a man should I ever again encounter one, I persuaded the only woman I've met in Broome who has a husband to lend me hers for half an hour. Just to practise on.

It was all right. Nothing to write home about, but not a disaster. I didn't put my hand on his knee or blow him kisses. I didn't call him sweetie-pie or lambkins. I wasn't completely at my ease, though. His fault, partly. He didn't know how to behave around a man either. "So what do you do when you're up to here with women?" I asked him.

"I go into the desert for a couple of months," he told me, "and prospect for water."

"On your own?"

"Oh, you're never on your own in the desert. There are snakes, birds, lizards ... "

Too drastic for me.

And then I heard that a number of famous tri-athletes were flying in from all over Australia to contest an Iron Man competition on Cable Beach. Men in Broome - at last! I turned up in time to catch the final of the tug-of-war. Darwin Killers versus Premier Security. A man short, the Darwin Killers turned to me. Would I?

Would I! Ha!

We spat on our hands, dug our heels into the soft sand, and took the strain, all for one and one for all. "Heave, men, heave!" And when we pulled Premier Security over the line, with what innocent, selfless, manly joy did we fall into one another's arms! "Well pulled, men!"

I'm lying. Premier Security won. And Darwin Killers never asked me to join their team. I merely watched from the sidelines with my sandals in my hand.

But I'm allowed to dream. "Heave, men! Heave!"

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