ARE northern men sexist? No more than their southern counterparts, I would have said. Indeed, did say earlier this year when, in an article on sexual harassment for the Independent on Sunday ('Do men know when they're doing it?'), I closely questioned 13 men (North and South) to find out if they were aware of what women considered to be sexual harassment (they were: it was just that some of them did it anyway).
'In this part of the world they don't know what it is,' wrote a reader from Scunthorpe. 'Northern man simply does not understand and those northern women who do are regarded as freaks by both sexes. The Radio Sheffield phone-in I overheard this morning has left me incoherent. At first I thought I was listening to a spoof. 'I understand there are even some ladies,' chuckled this BBC employee, 'who object to being called love and darling'.
'The programme mainly consisted of men complaining about the women who had harassed them: 'pulling me pants down', 'rippin' me shirt off, like' and 'rubbin' theirselves up against me. I never objected. I knew it were all in fun'. I read articles in the Sunday papers asking has political correctness gone too far. It hasn't even reached the North.'
This is the North of working men's clubs, Bernard Manning and Roy 'Chubby' Brown, comedians whose acts are so politically incorrect that they are now the true alternative comedy. But does it have wider relevance? I do not ask with a southern sneer. When I returned from the South to my home town of Liverpool, I was struck by what a hard-edged, macho city it seemed, a city where men still spoke of 'going out with me tart'.
'It's a myth about northern men being more macho,' says Kay Flannery at Sheffield Council's Equality Unit. 'I think the majority of men, everywhere, aren't politically conscious, but in the South I feel it's sexism with a smile. What about the Garrick Club?'
Andy Kershaw, broadcaster, calls it 'lazy' stereotyping. 'A woman on her own would feel a lot more comfortable walking into some of the pubs near where I used to live in Leeds than some I know in London. There is a brusqueness and unpolished manner in the North but there's also a gentlemanly code of behaviour. There are enough oiks down here and a production line is turning them out in Essex.'
It was a young woman from Essex, studying in Sheffield, who provided one of the few dissenting voices: 'The men who are building the Super Tram (Sheffield's new transport network) are a nightmare. I was on my bike up there and one of them shouted 'What are you riding your bike for, when you could be riding me?' There may have been this kind of thing at home but I wasn't aware of it.'
Manchester-born poet, Lemn Sissay, says his paean to the unreconstructed hard man (The Invasion of the Mancunoids, reprinted here) is his most requested work, but denies that it is an attack on northerners. Mancunoids are everywhere, he says, a symbol of a generalised socially challenged male: 'I've read that poem in Germany and there they call that type a Hans. The whole idea that this is just a northern thing irritates me.'
If attitudes are changing the beer advertisers would know: 15 years ago to advertise beer you got hold of Arkwright, the flat-capped northerner with the flat-capped dog who stood as the emblem of John Smith's bitter. His contemporary replacement is Jack Dee, who may be the self-styled hard man of comedy, but his jokey ads, accompanied by all-singing, all-dancing ladybirds, is a far remove from the world of dedicated supping where women knew their place - in that refined parlour, the snug.
The successful Boddington's ad features a Dynasty-type couple who let slip their slick facade to reveal what they really crave - a pint of best bitter. 'The Boddington's campaign is a good example of deconstructing stereotypes,' says Adam Lury of ad agency Howell Henry Caldecott Lury. 'Ten years ago the woman would have been an anonymous floozy. Now she winks at the camera. In England we have moved on from the conspiracy to keep women out of pubs. It's undoubtedly true that northerners know their beer but Australians have taken over from northerners as the male stereotype, with the rough-necked, sexist, Castlemaine XXXX man.'
There is little regional research but what there is backs up the advertisers' view that northern men are changing. The Henley Centre for Forecasting asked men across the country whether they thought that a woman's place was in the home: 11.3 per cent from the South-east agreed compared with 10.9 per cent of men from Yorkshire and Humberside. Asked if they liked cooking, there was no North-South divide: 37 per cent of each raised hands. Slightly more northerners - 7.6 per cent - agreed that a real man can down several pints of beer, compared with 6.2 per cent in the South.
But when confronted with the statement 'I loathe doing any form of housework', fewer northern men - 29.5 per cent - were averse to donning a pinny and putting their heads down the toilet than sensitive, caring men of the South-east - 35.5 per cent (a difference repeated in the answers women gave which may show no more than that southerners of both sexes are more housework-shy).
Nor are the statistical findings on sexual harassment conclusive. A Mori poll commissioned by the producers of the television programme Making Advances found that there were fewer complaints of sexual harassment in the North. But maybe there is an easier climate for complaining in the South.
BACK THEN, to the Sheffield DJ, Rony Robinson, whose phone-in on sexual harassment had so outraged our Scunthorpe reader. Radio Sheffield agreed to hold a second phone-in, this time asking whether northern men were more sexist than their brothers in the South. Rony Robinson is Sheffield born and Oxford-educated. He describes himself as a 'newish man' who untraditionally lives with his partner and their three children and writes plays, novels and children's books for Faber, though, he concedes 'I don't clean the lavatory, normally'.
One of the first callers was John, a 'househusband': 'I used to be a bus driver, my wife earns about twice as much as I did so I stay at home. It's not a pickle by the way; it sounds like hard work and it is hard work but it's very, very rewarding. It's a cliche: women's work is never done and I'm beginning to find that out. My neighbour's a househusband as well.'
Rony asked: 'Where abouts does this go on, this strange political correctness?'
John retorted: 'If I told you that, we'd have the women queuing up.'
But Rony was on to him: 'Now is that a sexist remark, I ask myself?'
John wasn't having any of it: 'What do you mean sexist remark? Women make sexist remarks about men.'
One such aggrieved caller said: 'I've been a victim of sexism. I went to visit a pal of mine in hospital only a couple of weeks ago. I opened the door for this lady. I said 'Come on love'. She said, 'I'm not your love and I can open my own doors, thank you very much'. So I thought, chuff off. They're the type of people who if they had their own way would have a totally genderless society. They don't even like the word manhole, they want personhole and Manchester would be Personchester. Even Nelson Mandela would become Persondela, if they had their way.
'I don't whistle at women in the street. I look at them though. I were filming with Granada with an actress - she's very classical, she's at the Royal Shakespeare normally - and one of the extras was walking past, beautiful, she was a hump-front, gorgeous, and of course I said, 'Look at the walters on that' and the actress said, 'You pair of sexist pigs' and she got up and left. We were only admiring her beauty.'
Is there less sexism in the North or are women themselves less aware of it, and more complicit in harassment, as our reader complained? Laurie Taylor, who has taught sociology at York University since the late Sixties, argues the complexity of class as a factor: 'There's a way in which the northern middle class feel a generalised affinity with the middle classes everywhere.
'In working class areas the loutishness is very evident and I think that this is constructed against the middle class. It's a sort of ironic enjoyment of subverting what's PC. In northern towns at night there seems to be very much more evidence of the hunt. In Soho I'm aware of how mixed the sexual games are. In the North, male working class culture has no work to go to. There isn't the sense that one's going to get married and have a house and kids and a job. There doesn't seem to be any end point to all the carousing, with no money. A 25-year-old seems more like 17 or 18.'
Just before jumping into the radio car, Rony revealed where his heart lay: 'It's damned easy to blame working class people. My sympathies are entirely with the fact that if sexism is institutionalised, it's the bosses who should be blamed.'
VERSES FOR THE SOCIALLY CHALLENGED
They've got shoulders you
could mistake as hume
Chins as square as the white
cliffs of dover
Pants as tight as a packet
And thoughts as clear as beer
fight and sex
Eye contact. A weird psychotic
Because in their heads a bell
I wear what's known as designer
And socks at fifty pounds a pair
I've got a bloodproof jumper
just to stand the test
I'm a manic mad macho
So don't mess. . . with me
And the other fifty behind
Pint of beer John. What did
It goes flaming well up every
She's alright what do you
I bet I could screw her if I buy
her a drink
from The Invasion of the Mancunoids
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