How to be a real man without the spewing

Inevitably, women will expect more from their partners. Are the men up to it?

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According to the General Household Survey two of the Spice Girls are not getting any. And poor old Mel C was driven to admitting on television that though she felt broody, she hadn't found a suitable father. She answers to the name Scary, but she is attractive and wealthy. If she can't find the man of her dreams, then who can?

On average, two out of five single British women say that they are not in relationships. Let's assume that as in past generations the majority of them will seek out a Mr Right. But the feminist joke now goes that men are like public lavatories - either desirable but occupied or vacant but useless. Of course we could solve the problem by the more efficient use of the "occupied" - what captains of industry call "sweating the assets". However, I can't quite see polygamy catching on, especially not among young women. Who wants to be on the romantic equivalent of the substitutes' bench?

So let us turn to the vacant but useless. As if by magic, the picture of three young men staggering from a London club swims before our eyes. Lads' icons Danny Baker, Chris Evans, and Paul Gascoigne were splashed across the tabloids this week, bleary-eyed and blowsy after a night's drinking. I can see Scary Spice's dilemma if this really is the face of Britain's young men.

We know that girls are outperforming boys at school, right up to university level, and that the gap is getting wider. Forecasters predict that women will start to catch up in status and pay, even at higher levels in industry. With the decline of manufacturing, men are heading in the opposite direction. Inevitably, women will expect more from their partners. The men just aren't up to it.

Well, maybe not. Let us return to the now notorious photograph. I will for the moment leave Gascoigne out of consideration; until he is cleared of the allegations that he uses his fists against women as readily as he uses his feet on a ball, he need not occupy our attention. Imagine instead that the third figure were Arsenal's Ian Wright, and you have a trio of bad boys - arrogant, mouthy, boorish and overpaid, the worst possible role models.

Baker's moment of madness gave BBC bosses no option but to sack him. Evans' megalomania made him impossible to work with. Wright's volatile temperament, which has now left him suspended for several games, deprived him of a regular England shirt. Whatever little boys are made of, these three and thousands of others like them have it in bucket-loads. The conventional wisdom is that they grow out of it, and that family life will mellow them. There is unfortunately no evidence that this holds true for many young men. These young men may be bad examples. But they are also good examples. Baker is a brilliant scriptwriter and gifted radio performer. Wright is the striker that England should have had through the past decade. Both are affable, intelligent, and not in the least bit loutish in person. I don't know Evans personally, but he is an authentic broadcasting genius. All three are talents in the arena that will help to drive our economy in the next fifty years - entertainment and leisure.

The nation's biggest earner, finance and business services, has been built by exactly the same sort of awkward talent. Snobbish talk of barrow- boys in the City and financial scandals have obscured the fact that deregulation blew away the dead hand of the upper classes and allowed in people without manners, but with huge vigour and inventiveness.

I am not arguing that we should ignore boorish behaviour, stupidity or wrongdoing. Not every lout is a potential Ian Wright. Not every yob in a BMW will be a George Soros. But by dismissing the bad boys we may well be dismissing much of the talent we will rely on in the future.

It's time to pay some urgent attention to our boys. We can no longer knock off the rough edges by war or a turn in the colonies. But we need to know why so many of them are being excluded from school. We need to find ways of being real men that don't involve regular spewing and head- butting. And most of all we need to prepare boys to be decent husbands and fathers.

As much as I resist the automatic importation of American solutions to British problems, the drive in North America for a serious and committed programme of mentoring of teenagers by older men is paying dividends. It works through churches, the armed forces, through schools and voluntary organisations, and it is backed by both state and federal governments. Perhaps it's a task for our next Prime Minister to lead on. And it is cheaper than building new prisons.

Two posters are doing the rounds of the billboards. One, for a new TV channel, features a presenter on the left with the words on the right: "You'll soon be going to bed with this man". The other carries a picture of Tony Blair on the left and the word "Bill" on the right (it's the Tories' attack on Labour's spending plans). The gremlins have got into one of the poster sites which changes messages every few seconds. It is stuck and now informs me that I'll soon be going to bed with the Labour leader. Is this what Labour's spokeswoman for women meant when she said that we'd be more promiscuous under Mr Blair's government? Maybe Scary Spice should think again about voting Tory - Tony could be the answer to her prayers.

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