Miles Kington Remembered: There's a whole world of difference between the sexes

4 September

Although not much read these days, the French writer Anatole France is responsible for at least one famous line. He is the first person ever to have said, "Vive la difference!"

At least, he was according to a book I once read that related how, some time in late 19th-century France, he found himself sitting at dinner next to one of the new emancipated women of the time. She couldn't resist preaching at him...

"You know, M. France, women and men have now come so close together in performance and status that there is virtually no difference between us!"

To which M. France said, "Madame, vive la difference!"

I cannot remember where I read that. And I have often looked up the quotation in reference works since then and never been able to find any verification of that story. In fact, I cannot remember ever having found the remark itself quoted in any book of quotes, with or without a source. I once asked Nigel Rees, who has made a career out of things other people said, if he knew the origin, and even he didn't.

A woman, of course, would raise her eyebrows at my desire to know. Women don't have the same kind of compulsion to collect quotes – or toy trains or anything – that men do. It is one of the many differences between men and women, that we men like collecting things, and women, on the whole, have more sensible things to do. Men are far more given to hoarding than women are. I met a man once who collected as many different milk bottles as he could. A woman would think that sort of thing crazy. He would be thought a little odd by most men, but only a little.

Because men collect jokes, and they collect people's business cards, and they collect stamps and lots of other things, and women groan and clear up behind them. Men tell jokes and women don't tell jokes, because women have conversation instead. Women remember other people's birthdays and men forget them. Women drive cars safely and men are very good at parking. (I have often suggested to my wife on long car journeys that she should do the driving, and I will do the parking at the other end, but women have too much common sense to agree to things like that.)

Common sense? When I was still a struggling freelance writer, I was asked by Peter Dickinson at Punch to contribute to a series called "My Next Wife", in which different men were asked to speculate on whom they would marry next. It was followed by another series called "My Next Husband", in which women similarly speculated on their next mate.

"The difference in approach was startling and illuminating," Peter told me. "All the men – all of them, without exception – refused to treat the subject sensibly. They all retreated into fantasy and humour. None of the women did that. Not one. They all spelled out exactly what they wanted from their next husband, described him accurately, and in several cases named him and said to whom he was married at that moment. There was a huge gulf between the men and women ..."

All these things are generalisations, and, like most generalisations and clichés, they are pretty much true. I remember Rachel Billington sighing in print once over the way that men read war books and women read romances – things against feelings – and you may groan over what she says, but you can't deny it.

You do deny it?

Then I'll give you a stunning modern example of the way men like things, women like feelings. There have been two recent stage shows in which the human genitalia were the star. One was Puppetry of the Penis and the other was The Vagina Monologues. In the male show, the men manipulated their private parts into different shapes and went for laughs. In the female show, the women talked about their sexuality and the feelings that this aroused in them. Do you see the difference? To put it another way, can you imagine a show called "The Penis Monologues"? Or "Puppetry of the Vagina"? And if not, why not?

I'll leave you men and women to argue it out. But don't forget one thing. Men argue to win the argument; women argue to get at the truth.

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