Christina Patterson : Don't get into the water...


I am allergic to exercise. I've never liked it, but now it's official. For weeks, I've had a nasty, itchy rash. At first, the doctor thought it was scabies.

I am allergic to exercise. I've never liked it, but now it's official. For weeks, I've had a nasty, itchy rash. At first, the doctor thought it was scabies. You can, she said, get it standing next to someone on the bus. I should coat myself in this evil-smelling poison and keep it on for 24 hours. I can't, in all honesty, recommend it.

Last weekend, the mystery was solved. After a rare trip to my gym - four doors from where I live, but still not close enough to warrant a relationship that's much more than financial - the red welts rose up again. The cause? A gentle dip in the pool - the one form of exercise I don't actively dislike. As I slathered on the paraffin jelly my doctor had prescribed, the terrible truth dawned. Swimming had, for me, become a dangerous sport.

Our interest in dangerous sports, according to new research for Sport England, is growing by the day. (I say "our" in the general sense, because my own interest in any kind of sport has always been non-existent. And now, rather gratifyingly, my absence from the gym is practically doctor's orders.) More and more of us, apparently, are skateboarding down volcanoes, jumping off tall buildings and crawling up cliffs. The bigger the danger, the bigger the thrill. Just think of Mark Currie, the British holidaymaker who described his recent brush with a white shark as "the biggest thrill of my life".

Surely when thrill turns to calamity, that's where the love affair ends? Once bitten, you'd have thought, twice shy. You'd be wrong. My friend, Rob, has broken his spine in motorbike accidents not once, but twice. After the second major accident, he spent three days in a coma and six months in hospital. He still couldn't wait to get back on his bike. He also had a habit of leaping on trains. Not from the platform, but from the footbridge. He would land on the roof and climb in through the window.

He may be mad, but he's not alone. Scottish mountaineer Jamie Andrew lost both hands and feet in a storm in the French Alps. He wrote a book about his adventures, Life and Limb. A cautionary tale, perhaps, on the folly of high-risk hobbies? Well, not exactly. In three months, Andrew learnt to walk on prosthetic legs, not in order to stroll around town and meet his mates for a pint, but to get back on that mountain. His current hobbies, according to his website, include paragliding, caving and snowboarding.

They're a strange species, these creatures who can't feel fully alive unless they're dicing with death. And guess what? They're mostly men. Boys, it seems, still like toys that might, at any moment, explode in their face. It stops them feeling bored. It stops them feeling old. It stops them feeling inadequate. Who cares, when you're teetering on the edge of a cliff if you forgot to pick up some Persil or didn't load the dishwasher? This is the real McCoy: you and what the late Dave Allen would have called your God - up on a mountain peak or soaring through the air, staring fate in the face and vowing to outwit it.

According to the Sport England research, we're beginning to eschew traditional sports - football, rugby and cricket - in favour of more complicated options: kite-surfing, for example, where you balance on a board attached to something called a power-kite; or "free running", which involves leaping from one building to another. We're going off team games, with their boring rules and regulations, and going for Awfully Big Adventures instead. Awfully elaborate ones, too.

So, is this the fruit of a crisis in masculinity? Or of a post-Thatcherite culture which has never quite recovered its notion of society? Or of action movies and computer games? Or is it the X factor? Literally? The latest genetic research indicates that the male Y chromosome is weaker and less complex than the X, of which women have a double dose. "We can see", says Steve Jones, professor of genetics at University College London, "what a degenerate mess the Y is. Now it's a shagged out version of the X." All of which makes men, apparently, more vulnerable to mental disorders.

Poor darlings. No wonder their little amoeba brains can't cope with multi-tasking. Jones doesn't specify whether the deterioration of the Y is only across the generations, or whether it's something that can also take a sudden dive with the onset of middle age. If the latter, it would explain so much. A sudden penchant for Lycra, for example, or an urgent need to ski barefoot on snow.

The other day, I chaired a discussion with two middle-aged male writers. One of them had written a novel (a good novel) inspired by his mid-life love affair with a dangerous sport. So, I asked him brightly, was this fiction as male mid-life crisis? There was a pregnant pause. "I don't think so," he replied, a touch frostily. "It's the challenge of the technique; the challenge of mastering a new craft." Of course it is.

Reality finally bites for Woody

Woody Allen's new film, Melinda and Melinda, is, if not a full return to form, a treat for anyone who enjoys watching middle-youth neurotics negotiating the dangerous rapids of their love affairs. In both the intertwining strands, comic and tragic, there are some of those vintage Allen ingredients: gorgeous book-lined interiors, middle-class dinner parties interrupted by a crisis and the usual panoply of failed actors and artists agonising about life, love and burnt sea bass.

But there is one new development. This portrayal of middle-class Manhattan mores includes somebody who's black. Chiwetel Ejiofor plays Ellis, a musician and composer who embarks on an affair with one of the Melindas. He is sexy, bright, charming and seductive. He's also a bit of a bastard - one of those men whose addiction to falling in love leaves a trail of broken hearts. Not a super-action hero. Not a faithful retainer, driver or gardener. Not a trusty side-kick. No, Ellis is something like a real human being. Well, it's a start.

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