It's funny how we can discuss drug taking and paedophilia on day-time telly; women can burst into print every day of the week with intimate details of their treatment for breast cancer, and yet a disease which afflicts more than 30,000 men a year can't be talked about openly for fear of offence.
The pompous Radio Advertising Clearance Centre is perturbed by Ricky's witty ad for the Prostate Cancer Charity in which a squishy noise occurs during a rectal examination. They have banned its use between 6am and 9pm. How dumb is that? It means that men at work in offices, men driving cabs and lorries, men working in garages and men in factories will never hear it. That's about 85 per cent of the male population.
Britain's top comedy star was only trying to engage his target audience with a spot of humour. What's the harm in that? Prostate cancer, diagnosed early enough, can almost always be treated successfully, but most men are simply too reticent to go to the doctor for a quick examination or too ignorant to be vigilant for tell-tale symptoms. And men over 50 can't afford to ignore a disease that currently strikes one in six in the United States, and a similar proportion here.
Aids and breast cancer have inspired articulate and impassioned writing, performance and drama. It's hard to think of any branch of the arts that hasn't been enriched by people expressing their reactions to these modern plagues. But even though Nelson Mandela, Stirling Mossand Robert De Niro have all spoken eloquently about overcoming prostate cancer, most men over 50 think it will never happen to them.
It only takes one breezy comedy star to show just how hypocritical the people who run the media really are. I'm quite sure that the radio advertising bigwigs would have no problem with ads full of smutty innuendo to sell everything from holidays to breath freshener. But a disease which develops close to your rectum - that's another matter.
Look at television ads for booze if you really want to see smut on a massive scale. Or such on-screen promotions as for More4, Channel Four's new digital channel. The invitation to the launch of this new venture consisted of a black box inside which were two really nasty black satin blindfolds, which I was ordered to wear to gain admission. No thanks.
Men feel comfortable being portrayed as sporting heroes, hard workers, breadwinners or intellectuals. We are surrounded by images of men reinforcing their cheekiness, their wit, their toughness. Cancer can affect everyone, not just role models, and prostate cancer is no different. All Gervais tried to do was show that prostate cancer needs to become a subject that men are not ashamed to talk about. Instead it's been demonised and banished into the same time slot as the dubious offerings on More4.
We are used to stark fund-raising images of women who have undergone mastectomies and those who have lost their hair through chemotherapy. But male nudity is still very potent, something with which, despite reality television, on-screen sex and constant innuendo on the airwaves, we feel uncomfortable. And so prostate cancer can be mentioned as long as it's not linked to the anus.
* * *
One in three women in their twenties will spend their middle age single, according to a government forecast. To the Daily Mail, this means that the Bridget Jones generation is facing decades of loneliness, with one in five never experiencing the delights of marriage. The right-wing Centre for Policy Studies blamed the Government for not making marriage more attractive in terms of tax and benefits. A spokesman said: "Many will be unhappy because they turned their backs on marriage ... women risk losing the companionship of family and the financial security marriage used to provide".
Yet as women who are now 65 can expect to live to be 89, I am not at all sure that being an unmarried woman in your forties is such a bad thing. More women want to have success on their own terms and surround themselves with material things they have chosen and they own. Increasingly they are happy to live with men but just as content spending time in the company of friends.
The old idea of marriage lasting forever is inappropriate today. If you make this commitment (and the words are almost the same for homosexuals signing up to a legal partnership) with the phrase "as long as we both shall live" - do you really mean that? Surely it would be better to be honest and say "as long as I am able". Sex and humour may be the glue that sticks you together at the start, but after a few years it is the ability to accommodate the other person's shortcomings. Men over 30 change so very little, but middle-aged women are constantly finding new friends, new interests, new ways of dressing. When 40-plus husbands seek out a younger female who is uncritical and passive, then I hardly think the spurned wife will be sitting at home being "lonely". These days we don't get mad, we have fun.
* * *
Patrick Caulfield, who died last week, was a formidable artist. A strangely incoherent man - sensitive and quiet - he was a prodigious drinker. I remember eating at his house and not being able to understand a word he said. He let his work do all the talking. A few years ago he had a retrospective at the Hayward Gallery in London, confirming that he towered over his contemporaries on the British art scene. To call Caulfield a pop artist is to demean a prodigious intellect: he was a one-off.Reuse content