Terence Blacker: Save us from this unisex uniformity

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The Independent Online

It is probably a great scandal, what will be going on next month at the 125th gathering of the Bohemian Grove club. Some of the world's wealthiest and most powerful men will be meeting in the redwoods of northern California. There will be millionaires, defence chiefs, bankers, media magnates, heads of university and, a recent innovation, one or two artists and musicians. In the past, George Bush and Dick Cheney have attended. Richard Nixon was a guest, but found it "the most faggy thing imaginable". Every year the keynote speech is made by Dr Henry Kissinger who, by hilarious tradition, is interrupted by a Mexican band as he starts to speak.

Bohos, as they call themselves, talk about world events, but also are known to run about naked in the woods, get drunk, appear in shows wearing women's clothing. At some point, a Druidic ritual known as the Cremation of Care will take place involving the burning of an effigy, which represents the cares of the world, in front of a concrete owl.

This year, the Bohos have been trying to reach the 1976 Miss Wales Sian Adey-Jones to ask whether she could send a message of support. A poster of her has been on the wall of one of the cabins for the past 27 years. Ms Adey-Jones would not be able to attend herself since the Bohemian Grove Club is all male. How should we feel about the most powerful men in the world running about naked and playing silly games in California? Personally, I rather like the idea. It seems a harmless way to let off steam, and, maybe, their ritual care-cremation in front of the Boho owl has a beneficial effect.

When men get together, they quickly become embarrassing. It is, perhaps, for this reason that the eminently sensible Ruth Kelly will introduce this year the Single Equality Bill, which will be designed to make English, Welsh and Scottish men and women mingle more equitably than at present. Tidying up the fag-ends of prejudice, the legislation will formally grant women the right to breast-feed in public, while clubs will be obliged to grant both genders the same facilities. Post-Kelly, a young mother will have the right to suckle her infant in the Members' Bar of the Garrick Club.

For all its sensibleness, there is something nigglingly interfering about this legislation. The Government has not quite the nerve to take on single-sex clubs but is moving in that direction. The underlying assumption behind the legislation is that it is unnatural for men to hang out with men and women with women. Each gender becomes more evolved and civilised, the thinking goes, when it mixes with the other.

It makes sense, of course, to wallop sporting establishments, notably those drearily backward-looking golf clubs which prevent women from playing when they like and drinking at the bar, but to confuse that issue with social clubs is an absurdity. But unlike a sporting club that has control of specific facilities - perhaps the only ones in the area - a social club offers little more than a choice of company.

Far from being a paradise of equality, the unisex world of New Labour paradise sounds like a nightmare. In a feminised world, some men like to be blokeish just as some women enjoy the opportunity to be girlish together.

Now and then, each sex deserves to be freed from the disapproval of the other, even if the way they then behave may be undignified. Like the naked Bohos in California, they are having fun and adding to the colour and variety of life.

A late (but not a loft) conversion

A change of heart has taken place on a par with Graham Norton announcing that he thinks sexual innuendo is childish. Laurence Llewelyn-Bowen, once the king of TV design makeovers, has confessed that convincing members of the public that a change of décor can transform your life was a con. Having prettier bed linen, he daringly suggests, may improve the bedroom, but it will not improve your sex life.

This is brave talk, and more controversial than it may appear. An addiction to surface change is damaging and silly, Llewelyn-Bowen has belatedly realised. People should be encouraged to make the best of the life they have. Sane and sound, this message will be a tough sell to the fantasy-merchants who run British television.

* As the ban on smoking in public places approaches, there is a whiff in the air of something rather more unpleasant than shared tobacco. It is the smell of publicly sanctioned bullying. Those who enjoy a cigarette, pipe or cigar have, it seems, become emblematic of everything that is wrong with modern life.

Once it was acceptable to take a break from work now and then for a chat; when it was described as "a smoking break", employers banned it. Nobody worried these islands are being submerged under a sea of litter until it was noticed that smokers drop stubs; this month it was announced that they will be hit by on-the-spot fines.

Now it has been revealed that the patio heaters bought by pubs to allow customers to smoke outside will be dumping carbon into the atmosphere. The inevitable rentagob has scolded smokers for their environmental vandalism. What else can we blame on smokers? Big Brother? The decline of the house sparrow? The Iraq war?

terblacker@aol.com

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