Terence Blacker: The only real bloke in a line of androids

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The Independent Online

For those of us for whom the merest dab of aftershave is the start of dangerous slide into effeminacy, there comes grim news from the other side of the world. In the land down under, where, according to popular song, women glow and men chunder, the bloke is on the way out. The Australian larrikin -wild, beery, the ultimate in unreconstructed maleness - is becoming a threatened species.

A former leader of the Australian Labour Party Mark Latham, a man who once expressed his disapproval of his government's support of President Bush in Iraq by describing them as "a conga-line of suckholes", has sounded the alarm bell in a new book. "One of the saddest things in my lifetime has been the decline in Australian male culture, the loss of our larrikin language and values," he writes. "Australian mates and good blokes have been replaced by nervous wrecks, metrosexual knobs and toss bags."

Few could deny the essential truth of this claim. Ever since Germaine Greer taught her fellow countrywomen the value of assertiveness, something for which they quickly discovered they had a talent, their menfolk have become aproned ninnies, nervously flipping prawns and making small talk around their barbecues. Thousands of Australian women are thought to have emigrated simply out of desperation for a date.

But there are lessons here for the rest of the world. There is more to being a good mate or a bloke than simply breaking the arm of a taxi driver while disputing a fare, as Latham once did. David Beckham, with his ever-changing hairstyle and penchant for wearing his wife's underwear, would seem to qualify as a metrosexual knob, yet his courage on and off the pitch outstrips that of more showily thuggish players. Mark Oaten, the heroic and dignified Liberal Democrat, might appear, on the basis of events in his private life, to be something of a toss bag, and yet he has shown more personal fortitude than any other politician this year.

It is not a simple choice for a man to embrace larrikin values or be a wimp. Shane Warne, the tubby little spinner, is celebrated by Australians as exemplifying traditional "ocker" values, having rucked with the authorities, drunk beer, smoked and allegedly slept with a thousand women. Yet his hair is as carefully dyed, quiffed, teased and spiked as that of any metrosexual.

But, even if ideas of masculinity are changing, Latham's lament for the lost larrikin will have resonance in Australia and beyond. The gentler that Australian men have become, the more potent has been the myth and image of Crocodile Dundee or Steve Irwin. When a song was released containing the lyrics, "I'm a bloke, I'm an ocker/ And I really love your knockers", it was a huge hit. In his fantasies, the drippiest toss bag, the knobbiest metrosexual, remains an old-fashioned, knockers-loving bloke.

Here surely is an explanation of the strange events taking place in Manchester. The party's favoured candidate for the Labour leadership has the air of the ultimate nervous wreck. The conga-line of androids lined up as possible rivals - the Milibands, Milburns, Huttons and Johnstons - all lack a certain blokeish warmth and normality.

There is, fortunately, one man with larrikin values in contention, a man whose bull-headed presence was enough this week to sway some members of a focus group who had never even heard of him. John Reid just has to break a taxi-driver's arm for the leadership to be his.

Listen to the pleas of the child

In his new book on the Royal family, Jeremy Paxman is bewildered by the cruelty of Mr and Mrs Windsor to their boy Charles when he was at boarding school. Persecuted day and night, Prince Charles sent desperate after desperate letter home, complaining of the "hell, literal hell" of his school Gordonstoun. Paxman notes severely, "How any parents could have ignored such a letter is a mystery. But ignore it they did."

Sometimes one worries about the sheer unworldliness of Newsnight presenters. The fact is that letters like this arrive every morning at the homes of parents whose children are at boarding school. They are invariably deemed to be part of a full education. Unless these parents want their children to grow up as confused and unhappy as Prince Charles did, they should listen to the pleas of their children, and take action.

* There is more worrying news for those who fear for the safety of our young folk. Within days of Cherie Blair being the subject of a police investigation after she pretended (she says) to cuff a 17-year old making a bunny-ear sign behind her head, another public figure is in trouble.

The Bishop of London, visiting a church and needing the lavatory, was startled to find that he had to be accompanied by two chaperones. A school party was nearby and, according to his hosts, there were "child protection issues".

When even the Prime Minister's wife and a bishop are deemed to be potential suspects, then the dangers to childhood must be even greater than assumed. Surely the only sensible step is to ensure school parties are given an armed police escort with sharp-shooters on rooftops to look out for "danger strangers" lurking in the shadows.

terblacker@aol.com

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