Like almost every other Thursday-night session, this one ended with us tramping the streets at midnight, tired, hungry and drunk, trying to find the way home. We stopped on a street corner and looked at each other. There was a sudden, mutual realisation, a dawning of understanding. This, we saw with blinding clarity, was just no fun any more. It was a bit like the moment in The Wild Bunch when William Holden and Warren Oates suddenly realise their role in American society has finally come to an end, and agree to walk out and die in a hail of Mexican bullets. Only what we agreed was, next time we'd go and have dinner.
It was awkward to start with, our first dinner about a month later. We were clumsy in our movements. Our hands, accustomed to holding pints, fumbled with the stems of the delicate wine glasses. Our voices in the confines of the restaurant seemed unnaturally loud. The choice of menu was more taxing than the usual one of cheese and onion or salt and vinegar.
After a while, though, we got the hang of it. We drank well, we ate well, we talked. Stuff came out, personal stuff. We laughed and slapped the table. And, at the end of the evening, we stood on the street corner, pleasantly but not roaringly drunk, aware that something radical had happened. We'd had a night out as well-rounded adult males. It worked, we'll do it again.
I know what you're thinking: that all this is no more than a sign of ageing. Maybe it is, in a way, because between adolescence and becoming old men, we go through a bit of a blank spot. One minute we're lads, throwing up into dustbins, saying "Look at the arse on that" and telling jokes about camels, next minute we're thinning-on-top antiques collectors whose weekends revolve around Rawlplugs and Polyfilla. There's something missing in- between, some kind of aspirational alternative to Ladness on the one hand and a black-and-white old-age on the other. We cannot be expected to drag ourselves through what are often our most affluent years, dodging the chance to enjoy some of life's more subtle offerings simply because somebody decided that late-teen is fashionable. This is important, because one thing's for sure: There's nothing so sad in life as an Old Lad.
It doesn't project well, does it, laddism? Think of someone with the years, looks and personality of Rod Stewart but only a tiny fraction of his money, put a half-full plastic beaker of lager in his hand and place him on unsteady feet in an emptying suburban nightclub, trying to pick-up a girl half his age with an opening gambit of "Awriiight?" Voila. The walking nightmare that is the ageing lad. And it's a process that's well into its stride when you hit 25.
The simple truth is that a lad life is ultimately a sad life. As a long- term lifestyle, it stunts your growth, narrows your horizons and numbs your intelligence.
We say, enough is enough. We are going to walk into the off- licence of life and buy our bottles of Shiraz. We are going to go and see those first-run Antonioni movies, and we're going to talk about them afterwards. We are going to go to the gym three times a week. We are going to articulate a lifestyle by eating our salmon fish-cakes in a light lemon sauce on a bed of steamed spinach. We are going to do this stuff because we like it, dammit. We have, at the last count, only one allotted lifespan and we have already spent far too much of it wandering the featureless steppes of ladland.
So, no more shuffling of feet and embarrassed coughs. Cast away that bag of damp chips and tuck into the fresh and cleverly spiced meal that is the life of a well-rounded mature male.
GIVE UP LAGER
The lad has been a god-send for brewers who sell them the fuel for the seven-pint lager session.
These beers are known in the trade as "session lagers". The objective is to make a beer that is weak enough to be drunk in large volume without putting the recipient in hospital, explains CAMRA's Stephen Cox. "New lads drink beers that make them feel they can get a lot down their neck. These will be between three and three-and-a-half per cent alcohol. The reason lagers in Europe are four-and-a-half to five per cent alcohol is because it is only at this strength that the beer really starts to develop a flavour. The average session lager tastes mostly of carbonation."
So, whether the lad's tipple is an Australian lager brewed in Reading, an American lager brewed in West London or a Bavarian lager brewed in Tadcaster, the only real difference between them is created by the ad men. Never mind. Most of it ends up on the pavement in the end, anyway.
Men, on the other hand, will understand that when it comes to lager, less is more. A smaller quantity of higher-alcohol beer means real taste without the need for a season ticket to the loos. "For a price not very different from a beer manufactured in a huge factory you can get something very interesting," says Cox. Czech, German and Dutch bottled beers can be high quality, along with newer arrivals, wheat beers from Belgium, French Biere de Gare, naturally conditioned beers, even organic lagers.
DISCOVER THE JOY OF FOOD
What the post-lad understands is that raw chilli, taken late at night on top of a lake of lager, guarantees a night of tortured, red-eyed wakefulness and gastric reflux. Insomnia starts to become a player in our lives as our 20s fade. By our mid-30s, it has adopted a position in the heart of the midfield.
Real food recognises that most of us would rather not end up with a stomach lining like Willem Dafoe's after he gets caught in the crossfire in Platoon. I am not an ulcer, I am a free man. Real food also takes cognisance of the proven link between certain kinds of cancer, and certain kinds of diets. When the stakes are this high, we are more than ready to explore the mysteries of complex carbohydrates.
In the end, though, real food has one massive benefit over lad food. It tastes better. Do the test yourself. Take one gristly kebab, load it into a floppy white pitta, add watery iceberg, anaemic tomato, fire-water chilli sauce and eat it, pissed, while breathing diesel fumes. Now take a starched, white, linen tablecloth and a white china platter bearing a brace of fluffy fish-cakes piled onto a bed of steamed spinach, coated with a zesty, lemony sauce, add a glass of crisp Sicilian white, and compare. I have a feeling the jury's not going to be out too long on this one.
SEX FOR TWO
Lad sex looks fantastic. It is a world of sex goddesses and 36DDs, of legs that go on to Mongolia and blow-job lips, of Pammy, Melinda and the rest. It's a libidinous sweet shop stuffed to the rafters with creme eggs and walnut whips.
Unfortunately, this is a sweet shop where very few of the customers ever get to handle the merchandise. The reason lad sex looks fantastic is because that is what it's primarily about - looking. It's hi-tech auto-sex, into which real sex rarely intrudes, according to sex therapist Sandra Alexander. "Fantasising about alluring goddesses does not really help anyone," she says. "Not too much progress is going to be made towards sexual fulfilment, unless what you really want to do is masturbate, of course. In a real sexual relationship you have to think about the real person you're doing it with." When lads do make contact with the alien species called Woman, the results may be less than satisfactory.
"The obsession with penetration," says Alexander, "increases the pressure to perform. I've had guys coming to therapy the first time they've had a problem - they were at a party, picked up a woman, couldn't get it up. They were probably drunk, the woman was a stranger, what do they expect? Yet they've diagnosed this as impotence."
The main difference between real sex and lad sex is that the real version actually requires the presence of a woman. This may even entail getting to know her first. Words like sensuality will not cause us to snort in derision, foreplay will not be regarded as a thing they do in golfing tournaments, and penetration will be seen as the sexual equivalent of Cantona driving right-footed into the back of the net. All this should add up to a better time being had by all.
Still, for those determined to be real lads, there is always the comforting retreat to the charms of Pammy and Melinda, available and wonderfully undemanding on the printed page. But watch out. It really could make you go blind, warns Alexander. "These are formative sexual years when men are at their sexual peak and they're being presented with false images. Like fetishism, it's a habit that can be hard to break."
Who do lads want to have sex with? Pamela Anderson, Kathy Lloyd, Melinda Messenger, Jo Guest, Dani Behr, Tiffany and Lorraine off EastEnders - and all at the same time. Who do lads actually have sex with? Themselves. The lads' sex aid? A good reading lamp.
Paul Quarry is Editor-at-Large for Men's Health magazine, where this article previously appearedReuse content