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Monday 27 September 2010
In defence of the older man
You may not even know it – but if you are a male of a certain age, you have become the latest target in the battle of the sexes. Enough, says Michael Bywater. It’s time to fight back
You’ve had it. Vile. Buggered, really. Boring, smelly, grunting, boring, droning, snoring, droning... hang on.
Couple of questions. Male? Check. Older? Check. Right. You’ve had it. You can’t cook. You do something terrible and unspecified with your socks. You have no conversation. You may be living longer but is that necessarily a good thing? Or better you die (quietly, without smells, grunts or droning) and reduce the surplus population. You’re just taking up space. Worse, you’re failing to please women. So get lost. NOW. Women insist on it.
You may have thought that was all done with. That a rapprochement had been reached. But it hadn’t. There was simply a bit of a lull. Just like in the Middle East, when you think everything is finally heading towards peace, one side or the other does something startlingly inept or malignantly ill-timed and, whomp, the whole thing goes up in smoke again.
This time, kick-off was taken by the splendid Sally Feldman in the New Humanist, house organ of the rationalist tendency, under the possibly humanist but certainly not humanitarian headline “Men are living longer. But is this necessarily a good thing?” in which Professor Feldman declares that “as women become more assertive and independent, they’re beginning to weary of older partners”, with their liver spots, beer guts, snoring, inability to notice socks strewn on bedroom carpets, and general helplessness in the kitchen. She goes on (pausing briefly to define Sam Taylor-Wood with her 20-year-old fiancé as “very classy”) to announce that “younger men, brought up by feminist mothers, tend to be far more at ease with emancipated women than their fathers ever were. They’ll happily play ‘Grand Theft Auto’ with the grandchildren, think nothing of rustling up a soufflé for supper after a day’s paintballing, and they’ll put in time in the gym to tone those deliciously unwrinkled abs.” And as a final insult, she quotes one of Kathy Lette’s many Tourette-ish puns, that “16 goes into 69 a lot easier than 69 goes into 16.”
Like so many of Ms Lette’s puns, it incorporates a self-contained spanner in the works and doesn’t quite deconstruct properly, but it’s the thought that counts and the thought is rather horrible, as is the list of slightly dated young type activities (paintballing? “emancipated”?) and anatomical misunderstandings (it’s not muscles that wrinkle, but skin).
And then, following on from the initial sally by Professor Feldman’s Private Widdle, come the professionals, in the shape of the Queen’s Own Daily Mail, led by the ineffably strange Liz Hodgkinson, a woman who not only went publicly on a perpetual sex-strike but somehow persuaded her husband to endorse it in public. I suppose one can see his point, but now Ms Hodgkinson is asking “Why are older men so stupefyingly BORING?” See, she’s been on a cruise and the men weren’t interesting. She’s been to a garden party and the men just “went round with bottles of wine in their hands” – where else should they be? – “filling glasses and saying nothing. They might as well not have been there at all.”
I imagine that they felt much the same. The main losers would have been Ms Hodgkinson’s twittering gynocracy, who’d have had to get their own bloody drinks instead of waiting for some chap, who probably felt completely excluded and ignored by the women, but all the same felt it a mere gesture of politeness to make sure the ratbags got their booze.
“When did most men in my age group become so stupefyingly dull?” asks Hodgkinson, and we’ll ignore the former Chief Constable who commented on Facebook that it was probably at about the point they started having to try to talk to her. Coppers. Institutionally sexist. Right.
The cruise was no better. “The men were sitting there as silently as if they’d had their tongues cut out. Yet their wives and partners were talking all the time – to other women,” Ms Hodgkinson says, quite possibly making one of the most ancient of errors in reasoning: post hoc ergo propter hoc, the vulgar misconception that because B follows A, then A must have caused B.
Grim? Yes. True? Not as such, which is fine for the flesh-creeping Grand Guignol of the Mail – the Hammer House of Horror of the media world – but not for the enlightened rationality of the Humanist. Try the racism test – change the word “men” to the word “blacks” and see if it would be published – and both fail.
Yet the singularity of “older men” in this argument is an illusion. Women are living longer, too, as is my understanding, and a good many of them are less than life-enhancing, aesthetically or otherwise, but we keep quiet about it from simple good manners. And, strangely, most of the women I know loathe the men-are-horrid argument with its spiteful ritual humiliation, men presented as useless big babies or, if older, useless, boring, smelly, ugly, slovenly, emasculated babies.
In the middle of my half-century on the planet, I take it personally. I am almost tempted to invite Ms Hodgkinson and Professor Feldman to lunch, to prove a point. But what would that point be? An ancient Jewish story comes to mind, of the man who comes to the outskirts of a village. There’s another man at the well. “What’s this place like?” says the stranger. “Well... where have you come from?” The traveller tells him. “And how did you find it there?” “Awful,” says the traveller, “quite unspeakable. Hostile, stuckup, boring, people, unwelcoming, mean-spirited, joyless, envious and rude.” “Ah,” says the man: “In that case, I’m very much afraid that you’ll find it just like that here.”
We get the bores we deserve. And we don’t get the bodies we deserve. Just at the point we begin to get the hang of it all, things begin to sag. Jowls come. Hair, for many of us, recedes. Joints, I am told, begin to seize up, teeth loosen, eyelids droop, baldness strikes the shins, the abdominal musculature fails and the belly pots, and there is damn all the gym can do about it. Nor is there anything particularly edifying about an older man grunting away on the Nautilus machines, something naff pounding in his ear while women with steroidal acne sneer at him as they groan and strive and heave to hold time at bay.
You think most men don’t know this? We do. Philip Larkin’s terror of ugliness and death (try reading Love Again without a shudder) speaks on men’s behalf, as does Betjeman’s Late-flowering Lust: “Too long we let our bodies cling, / We cannot hide disgust”.
Men, too, are trained (by their mothers?) to be agents in the world. It is the price of our survival, and when that agency begins to fail, any man will find himself diminished. That foolish fond old man, King Lear, is just an everyday example on a vaster scale – the central trick of tragedy: confusing the PR with the reality. The PR says men are confident and in control but, like most PR, that’s balls. We are obliged to look as ifwe are, but men take more drugs, commit more suicide, and dessicate inwardly for lack of intimacy. We just don’t talk about it.
The old man may not be a beautiful sight with his kit off. But nor is the older woman. She too sags, blotches, sprouts wayward hair, liver-spots, withers, crags and outpouchings. Neither men nor women can hope to retain the beauty which is the prerogative (and often the only quality) of youth. And never mind that “I-love-a-manwho- makes-me-laugh” routine. Laughter is the product of desire, not its precursor. GSOH? Don’t make me laugh.
A man who is silent may simply be shy. A cruise lecturer puts this to Ms Hodgkinson who responds “How pathetic,” a seriously vacuous remark. A silent man may simply not be having much fun. He may wonder what he will unleash if he asks Ms Hodgkinson about herself. He may not understand why she shares a common belief among women that men are there to entertain them. We are not. If I love you, I will dance you a hornpipe; otherwise, I expect reciprocity.
An older man may simply be knackered. He may spend his whole working life advocating one damn thing or another and wish to be quiet for a while. He may be quiet simply because he has nothing much to say. An old chief sub-editor – my first – once told me “There’s no such thing as a boring person. There’s only bad interlocutors” and, within reason, he’s right. Everyone has a story. Or he may just be that unforgivable thing, a man. We don’t, on the whole, work like women.
Look at a group of women and they’re looking at each other. Look at a group of men and they’re all focused – literally or metaphorically – on something else: a football team, a gadget, a plan, art, music, guns. (Seldom women. Locker-room smut is what women do, not men.) This talk-at-one-remove is what we do while women talk about each other, or about random babies. We don’t have receptor sites for that. A man who talks about himself is considered a bore.
In brief, all men are more or less autistic; all women, more or less fluffy. And we become more so as we get older. But the idea of the silent, boring, incompetent, sock-strewing, ugly older man simply won’t do.
I suppose there comes a time when many men stop weighing up women in terms of leg-over possibilities and haven’t a clue where to go from there. That’s what lies behind the Kingsley Amis Proposition, that if it weren’t for the possibility of sex, women would be in for some serious block-knocking-off from men, the way they carry on. Amis was, of course, a controversialist, a drunk and a sod, but there’s a tiny grain of truth in it.When sex goes out of the window, a harsher judgmentalism creeps in through the door.
And, yes, there are plenty of profoundly unappealing old men around. You’d not want to wake up next to W C Fields, Charles Hawtrey, Sylvester Stallone, Silvio Berlusconi, Churchill, Charles Laughton, Heidegger, Philip Larkin, Hindemith or Rab C. Nesbitt. On the other hand there are plenty of women who would by no means rule out, even in their age, Sean Connery or Paul Newman, Bill Clinton, Ken Stott, Peter Finch, Ben Kingsley, Erwin Schrödinger, or indeed Laurie Taylor, eminence gris of the New Humanist and the intellectual girls’ object of desire for many decades now. Sixty? Sixty is nothing. I don’t only say that as it heads ineluctably down the road towards me; hell, I’m not even gay but I’d hop into bed with, say, Ian McKellen or the conductor Nicolas McGegan if they asked.
Wit, too, increases with age. Ms Hodgkinson’s boring men may have been boring all along (or may have become it, or had it thrust upon them by, among other things, the demands of women). Inherent bores may get away with the cloak of youthful beauty but it presently appears as youth fades. Can you imagine dinner with Bosie, or Hugh Hefner, or any of those men who comment onthe BBC Have Your Say website? On the other hand, imagine dinner with Messiaen, dinner with Einstein, Quentin Skinner, Philip Larkin (again), Howard Jacobson or the Pope or Richard Dawkins or Eamon Duffy or Aeschylus. Special cases, all of them, but not that special. Any man who has had any sort of life will do.
Time, I think, to praise older men. Time to accept the truth that we may not have ripped abs – we may indeed have the odd scar – but don’t confuse us with our age. Age has nothing whatever in its favour. We, on the other hand, do. We’ve had plenty of sex so aren’t going to go mad hankering after it, unless we’re very, very insecure. We know things. We aren’t obsessed with ourselves. We’ve realised we’re no oil painting. We cook like gods. We know where to take you, and how to get in. We think “Grand Theft Auto” is for losers and abs are for narcissists and girls under 22. We notice your ideas as well as your underwear, and enjoy your achievements as well as the way you smell of sugarcane and honey-of-rose. We’re better in bed and out of it, in both cases because we’re more interested in what’s happening to you (we’ve seen it all before). Actually, we’re better at most things except producing more testosterone than we can usefully channel.
We don’t expect women to fancy us or fall in love with us. But nor do we expect to be the target of bigoted vieux jeu populist insults because we’re too good-mannered to return them. Don’t accuse us of saggy ugliness; it’s a boomerang, dears. And if you want to see beauty in action, have a look at the YouTube videos of the 90-year-old Günter Wand conducting Bruckner. If you don’t see beauty there, perhaps you would be better on a cruise ship, in the Jekyll & Hyde Entertainment Lounge, waiting. And waiting. And waiting.
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