No, I will not "grow a pair"

Men need to admit their vulnerability.

If there's one phrase I'd love to get rid of, it's "grow a pair". You hear it a lot nowadays, not just said by men to other men they wish would grow up, but even from men to women, or women to other women. "Grow a pair", they say, or "strap on a pair", as if a couple of testicles will solve all problems, like a pair of dangly amulets.

As most men know, growing a pair of balls, or having them drop, doesn't really change much at all. You remain pretty much the person you used to be, albeit with a slightly deeper voice. But still, in our culture and language, "balls" and "ballsy" mean courage or courageous; we talk of "cojones" or "having big balls" to mean audacity or power.

It's irritating nonsense, for several reasons. Courage isn't inherently a masculine quality, of course, but there's more to it than that. People often use the phrase "grow a pair" or "strap on a pair" as a way of belittling someone who has shown weakness, or vulnerability - someone who didn't show the requisite assertiveness that apparently lives in the testes.

As well as that, it reinforces the very worst stereotypes of the "man's man": the rush to confrontation, rather than negotiation; a certain headstrong or even bloody-minded quality; the idea of maleness as something that is aggressive, rather than collaborative.

For those of us men who are more team players than the all-conquering alphas we're supposed to aspire to be, it's a tiresome thing. Not all of us are meant to shout and bellow and fight our way to success; some of us prefer other ways of doing things. It's not through a lack of balls, but through a lack of unfeeling uber-competitiveness.

Must we still, in this new century, be talking of men as people who should be nasty, assertive, pushy, unpleasant, in order to be proper men? We're not all Gordon Ramsay (who has a fondness bordering on obsession for talk of "big bollocks" when upbraiding some poor cookery sap on television).

But there's something else, too. The real quality that testicles have is staring us in the face. Human males, unlike many other mammals, have external testicles, dangling merrily away from their undercarriage like a couple of lychees in an old leather purse.

This evolutionary quirk exposes the adult male to extremes of pain and suffering at a stroke. A well aimed kick from an attacker, or punch from a young child (children happen to be at the perfect height to connect with full force), and even the toughest man will be reduced to a quivering foetal position of helplessness. There are no words for the pain, which I am pretty sure is definitely entirely worse than childbirth (THIS IS A JOKE).

How humans could ever have believed that a benign (and in many cultures apparently male) creator decided to place a couple of pain grenades hanging invitingly down as they do is a question for anthropologists. What it means, though, is that men's testicles, far from being a centre of our strength, are our most visible sign of weakness.

Every year, dozens of men die because they decided to "strap on a pair" rather than admit their own weakness. Whether it's shrugging off a niggling illness or feeling unable to talk about mental health problems (young men are at far greater risk from suicide than women, for example), the things we've been told about what it is to be a man can be our own worst enemy. It's not weakness to admit you can't cope; it's strength.

If we can't get rid of the odious phrase "strap on a pair" perhaps it's time it should take on a new meaning. Because it is courageous to strap on a pair - to hang your vulnerability so obviously, to invite a kick in the balls. It's an aspect of masculinity that often gets overlooked, the quality of honesty, vulnerability, and gaining strength through admitting your weaknesses rather than glossing over them with displays of machismo.

So if someone asks me to strap on a pair, I'll take their advice: be more aware of shortcomings; realise how vulnerable we all are; remember that a fall from hubris is just a well-aimed punch in the nuts away. That's real courage, I think.

"Adam's leaf" underpants, invented in 2004, are supposed to keep the testicles ventilated and increase sexual potency. Photograph: Getty Images

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Young people want big ideas – that's why I refuse to dumb down Radio 4

My week, from finding a way through the fog to getting the quarterly audience figures.

I walk to work through Regent’s Park, when possible accompanied by my dogs, which my husband then collects on his bike ride and takes home. If there is time we have coffee together in the small hut just before the inner circle. This is a good way to listen to the Today programme, I find, as I can keep one ear in, achieve a rational, critical detachment and still enjoy the birds, and then add the other ear if a strong interview demands immersion, or take both out altogether when despair creeps up. On the subject of Today, I hope to have some fun with Sarah Sands, whom we have just appointed as the programme’s new editor; it’s good to see an experienced woman brought in at a senior level to the BBC.

 

A winter’s tale

The park through the seasons has become something of an addiction, measured out by inspired planting of appropriate annuals, the names of which I note and discuss with the gardeners when I dare interrupt them.

Memorable events occur quite frequently during this walk: I once stumbled upon a proposal of marriage involving a beautiful young woman who once had worked for me; an elderly Chinese gentleman practises t’ai chi regularly at a certain spot and I imagine talking to him about the changes he has seen in his lifetime back home. I have seen a rare green woodpecker on the grass pecking boldly in plain sight, and hopeless ducks, silent, puffed up, marooned in the fountains, unable to find their way back to the ponds, so close by.

At the start of winter, while walking home one day, I got stuck in the park, with a group of other stragglers, as the gates locked with the onset of darkness. Rather than retreating the way I had come, I accepted the offer (from a rather good-looking stranger) of a lift down from the top of the gate. The atmosphere then was alive, exhilarating, with crowds heading for the Frieze Masters marquee. How different it all is now, in 2017. There’s a new mood, a new American president, a new era.

 

Musical interlude

Recently, Roger Vignoles – the glorious pianist and a close friend – was playing, as he often does, in a lunchtime concert recorded for Radio 3 around the corner from Broadcasting House at the Wigmore Hall, with the baritone Roddy Williams. French songs: Fauré, Poulenc, Honegger, with a handful from Caplet (the latter quite new to me). All thoughts of politics fled, giving way to “L’adieu en barque”, set late one summer’s day on the river, a moment to clear the fog, both within and enveloping us that day in London.

I left an hour later in clear sunshine, feeling smug because we have commissioned Roddy’s Choral ­History of Britain for Radio 4 later this year.

 

Power trip

Waiting for coffee to brew, I was discussing Book of the Week with Gill Carter, commissioning assistant on this slot, when my drama commissioner, Jeremy Howe, put his head round the door. “Clarke Peters (yes, the one from The Wire) is here reading The Underground Railroad for Book at Bedtime.” Assured, deep tones rang out from a tiny studio on the third floor. “I have to keep stopping,” he said, as I thanked him.

Who could not be overcome by this story of slavery and bravery at this moment in American history? I am so glad to bring it to listeners this month. “Can you help?” the producer pleaded as we left. “We’re about to be thrown out of the studio.” That’s real power, I thought, as ten minutes later Jeremy had conjured up the extra time.

Clarke Peters will be back in the autumn with a series about the real history of black music in the UK which, he says, is little understood.

 

Culture and anarchy

This is the time of year when we launch the commissioning round calling for big ideas for next year. It’s a humbling thing to stand in our beloved art-deco Radio Theatre in front of hundreds of programme-makers, hoping that they will be inspired to bring “the best which has been thought and said in the world” (my guiding principle from Matthew Arnold).

I try on these occasions to lay out a little of how I see the shape of the world in the commissioning period ahead. This year the Loneliness of the Long-Distance Runner overcame me. Better perhaps simply to outline the way we commissioned the first week of 2017 to catch the mood. T S Eliot, more or less all New Year’s Day, read by the formidable Jeremy Irons, raised an echo of the Thirties, then a factual series of considerable documentaries across the week described The New World, followed by writers around the globe Imagining the New Truth.

Finally, inspired by Twelfth Night and the spirit of misrule, the comedy writer John Finnemore, one of our favourites, took over as the Lord of Misrule himself.

The imaginative world and writers have never been more needed. Whether it is truth or post-truth, I suspect that dramatic, imagined and creative truth when properly achieved is probably the nearest we can ever get to truth itself.

 

Tuning in

It’s the week of Rajar. These are quarterly audience figures for radio. In the past few months, they tell us, over 11 million people have listened each week to BBC Radio 4, setting new records. Just under half are below our average age of 56 and 1.5 million are under 35. At the moment we seem to have over two million weekly visitors to the website and roughly 20 million monthly global downloads.

Who says young people don’t want intelligent content? Who says that dumbing down is the only way to attract big audiences? We at Radio 4 try to be all about smartening up. We mark Rajar Day (whether the numbers are up or down) with cake, so I make my way to Paul for two tarts, pear and blueberry this time.

Gwyneth Williams is the controller of BBC Radio 4

This article first appeared in the 16 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times