Paxo and Rooney's Rutters' Club

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If I were in a mood to be thankful for small mercies, I might take some comfort from the fact that it cuts across age and class boundaries - macho behaviour, that is, which is making a spectacular comeback. Football fans have just been treated to another bout of appalling conduct from Wayne Rooney, during a bad-tempered match between his club, Manchester United, and Arsenal at Highbury on Tuesday, while the Chancellor of Oxford University, Lord Patten, worries that public school "yobs" are deterring bright pupils from comprehensive schools. And it's no good looking to politicians to give a lead, because only last month blokeish MPs forced through a partial return to late-night sittings so they can spend their evenings at Westminster instead of - God forbid! - going to the theatre or spending time with family and friends.

You don't have to be an admirer of that largely mythical creature, the new man, to be irritated by all this macho strutting. At least Patten had the courage to condemn "a bunch of young yobs with more money than sense" in a speech on Thursday - perhaps he was thinking of the notorious Bullingdon Club, whose members trashed a pub last year - and to suggest that "able sixth-formers in Yorkshire comprehensives" might be put off applying to Oxford by their antics. But the Manchester United manager, Sir Alex Ferguson, seems to have a problem when it comes to judging the behaviour of his thuggish young star, arguing that it would be wrong to take the fire out of Rooney, whatever that means. The player has been ominously described as "a spark looking for a tinder box" after persistently fouling opponents, but Ferguson appears to believe that swearing, taunting opposing fans and even physical aggression are integral to Rooney's on- pitch performance.

There is a boys-will-be-boys assumption here, as though young men cannot help but respond to high levels of testosterone until they emerge from what Lord Baden-Powell, founder of the Boy Scouts, memorably described in one of his books as "the rutting season". (Baden-Powell's advice on getting through this difficult stage included avoiding constipation and prostitutes, a piece of guidance Rooney might be well advised to heed.) Sadly, evidence for the proposition that men grow out of macho behaviour is scant, as attested by the latest spat involving the pugnacious Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman.

Paxman, who is 54 if he is a day, has been sending out jokes about dumb blondes to a BBC mailing list, drawing scornful remarks from the programme's political editor, Martha Kearney. She also cited Paxman's introduction to an item on whether women make good scientists, in which he apparently said: "And now our science editor, Susan Watts, has put down her knitting to give us this report."

It has to be said that Paxman has form: a few years ago, when he happened to be presenting Radio 4's Start the Week on International Women's Day, he remarked that the programme was marking the event by not having any female guests in the studio. He thinks this kind of public-school humour is funny, but he is also very sensitive to criticism; when I speculated in this column about his problem with women, he fired off a furious letter to the then editor, denouncing me as a "humourless harridan" ( The Boy's Bumper Book of Sexist Insults, 1965 edition).

There even seems to be a sense around that there is something natural, if not actually admirable, about men behaving blokeishly - and a corresponding tendency to dismiss anyone who doesn't as a wimp. That was certainly the case in the run-up to the vote on working hours at the House of Commons, when MPs who unaccountably failed to appreciate the joys of late nights in the Strangers' Bar were made to feel like Chardonnay-sipping dilettantes. It cannot be long before style pieces start appearing in magazines, assuring us that macho is the new sensitive. It isn't, but it looks as though the rutting season may be rather extended this year.

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