Male monkeys

Click to follow
The Independent Online
I'm thinking of going up to the Bell Hotel in Driffield next week to attend the Bishop of Hull's all-male evening. Traditionalists should not worry, this is not an exercise in converting chaps to gay Anglicanism; the Right Reverend James Jones simply wants to talk to us about the crisis of masculinity. The vicar of Driffield has said of the bishop that he "thinks men should be men, so he wants to inspire them".

Good. I for one could do with some inspiration. Whole weeks sometimes pass when I completely forget what sex I am. Instead of being masterful, ruling my life (and my family) with a rugged confidence, and making careful preparations for Euro 96, I find myself looking at the aftershaves in Boots, or softly crying in my study over man's inhumanity to animals.

But why am I like this? Who is to blame? The bishop has been careful not to condemn anybody in particular but has wondered aloud whether rather more men see themselves in the hen-pecked wimps of Coronation Street than in the manly ideal portrayed by Rudyard Kipling in his poem If. Coronation Street, the bishop says, suggests that it is "the women who run the show". The implication is clear. Had Kipling scripted the Street, things would have been very different.

The American chronicler of the masculine crisis, Robert Bly (he of Iron John fame), has a similar analysis to that of the Rt Rev Jones, though he can afford to lay blame where it ought to lie. Men are suffering because of (a) the popular media, where they are portrayed as useless, weak, pathetic and posturing, and (b) feminism (or women), which has thrown out the intuitive male baby with the bathwater of machismo.

Bly's famous corrective to these influences was for men to get together in wigwams in the countryside, beat drums, howl away their pain and rediscover their fathers. I am rather hoping that something similar (though adapted for less extreme British sensibilities) will take place at The Bell. I have always wanted to give a bishop a bear-hug. And instead of howling, we can just have a little shout.

But once we've finished our embrace, what I really want to say to the bishop is that men do not get their notions of masculinity from soap operas. Most of us don't watch 'em. Nor can the crisis really be pinned on other sections of the media. Today I bought the launch edition of GQ Active ("Health, fitness & sport for men") because it advertised a feature entitled "Male Insecurity: Conquer Your Fears Now". Inside, these fears were ranked in order of importance. Were they: "the agonising dilemmas of fatherhood", or "how can one be sensitive and decisive?". Nope. At number nine was "baldness", and number one was ... yes, you've got it, penis size. So if GQ is any guide Driffield's night air will be filled with the noise of zippers being unfastened and men requesting episcopal reassurance on their dimensions. Will the bishop tell each one that, in the eyes of God, all members are equal?

Theodore Zeldin points out, in An Intimate History of Humanity, that crises of masculinity recur constantly throughout the ages. The romanticism of the mid-19th century created one, when marriage as a contract (often entered into without prior inspection) was replaced with the love match. All of a sudden men found themselves open to scrutiny as objects of affection, rather than as random prizes in life's tombola. A period of adjustment was required, as chaps opted for pale and interesting over rich and big bollocked.

So we men are always in trouble. But should we be so concerned? If we judge by our counterparts in the animal kingdom, the answer is probably not. Zeldin cites the case of baboons which, generations of naturalists believed, lived in patriarchal societies. The males were loud, aggressive and had wonderful blue-and-red bottoms. Closer attention to the baboon tribes, however, showed that the females actually took all the important decisions about where they were to live, what they ate and whom they fought. In return, all the gals demanded was a terrific, many-hued bum. So relax, your reverence, all we need is a pot of paint. We'd look the part - and that's what counts.