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A manifesto for the new man: how the Great White Male can stay relevant

The days of the Great White Male are numbered. So how should men live now? Stephen Fry, Mary Beard, Andrew Marr, Margaret Atwood and others offer their survival tips.

You are invited to read this free preview from Grayson Perry's New Statesman guest edit. To read Grayson's essay on "Default Man", click here.

 

Margaret Atwood

In gender relations, the best guide to preventing Great White Males’ irrelevance is the expletive-wielding blogger Chuck Wendig, who has written about sexism in publishing and gaming, “rape culture” and male privilege:

This world is home to countries where a girl will literally get acid splashed in her face or get . . . stoned or get . . . killed just for showing some skin or having an opinion. I know of no present country or culture where a matriarchy will do the same to men for getting uppity with his ideas or daring to flash a patch of scrotum. That is privilege. And it is woefully real.

The strongest writerly advocates for women are men, because they can get away with being more extreme. If Stieg Larsson’s Millennium series had been written by a woman, she’d have been burned at the stake as a man-hating witch. And so it goes. But are Great White Males really in the Planet Earth driver’s seat? India? Pakistan? South America? Africa?

 

Mary Beard

I’m afraid that the Great White Male will have to leave his future to luck – at least until we decide to slap a preservation order on him. I would like to think that he could save himself by getting in touch with his inner woman, his sensitive side. But I have seen too many blokes trying a superficial attempt at that while remaining completely alpha male underneath. My hunch is that the best he can hope for is to end up in a zoo, as an endangered species. Or maybe we simply have to remember that extinction is part of nature’s grand plan!

 

Rowan Williams

Two fairly obvious remarks. The first is that most men need to discover or rediscover friendship – not the semi-competitive jostling of colleagues, but conversation, shared leisure, exploration of the world without the edge of anxious rivalry or obsessions with power. The second has to do with the number of men who never step up to adult responsibility. At one end of the social spectrum, this is visible in the devastated lives of so many younger men in a lot of communities who have no hope of stable employment or economic security and often don’t know how to approach the prospect of stable relationships.

At the other end, it comes through in the infantilism of many driven and able professional men who can’t, or won’t, take responsibility for building and securing the human environment of workplace or home, creating an emotionally nourishing setting. There’s a need to work at how we create and support a framework of basic trust and affection or affirmation. Seeing this as everyone’s job in a household or community or workplace is imperative.

 

Laurie Penny

The real threat on the horizon for the Great White Male isn’t extinction: it’s evolution. And evolution is no bad thing. It’s what happens when you meet new people and adjust to new environments.

The creatures who will have to live in this society in generations to come are entitled to divest themselves of maladaptive qualities such as intolerance, stuffiness and a fondness for sexist jokes and embarrassing, finger-pointy disco dancing, while preserving more positive traits, such as barbecuing skills and the easy confidence that comes with not being the victim of decades of oppression. Great White Males may never die but if they are not to go the way of the panda – living as confused, captive totems of power in hermetically sealed palaces while the rest of us gawp, giggle and adopt their likenesses as ironic headgear – they might consider adjusting to a future in which women and people of colour are equal players. Feminism and anti-racism aren’t just political movements: they are adaptive strategies.

 

Stephen Fry

I can think of no better illumination of the Great White Male than one of my favourite D H Lawrence poems, “How Beastly the Bourgeois Is”:

Nicely groomed, like a mushroom
   standing there so sleek and erect
and eyeable –
   and like a fungus, living on the remains
of a bygone life
sucking his life out of the dead leaves
   of greater life than his own.

And even so, he’s stale, he’s been
   there too long.
Touch him, and you’ll find he’s all
   gone inside
just like an old mushroom, all wormy
   inside, and hollow
under a smooth skin and an upright
   appearance.

I would add that, as a forlorn and confessed member of that rotten, mushroomy class of white, British, middle-class males, fit only to be kicked over like wormy toadstools, I find my only comfort is in being proudly different in having a Jewish mother and a gaily gay sexuality.

Otherwise, who knows how much more ghastly I would be? It reminds me of Evelyn Waugh, who was known for his crashing rudeness to those whom he held in low regard. “But Evelyn,” someone said to him, “you converted to Rome. How can you be so unkind to people?”

“Just imagine how much worse I would be if I hadn’t converted,” he is said to have replied. Or words to that effect.

 

Kwame Kwei-Armah

The first thing that springs to mind is how much time I actually spend thinking about the grouping. The power they hold; how to negotiate around and with that power; and how annoyed at myself I so often get for allowing such a significant amount of my mental bandwidth to be taxed in this way. I wager I am not alone.

I often wonder, however, if there is a collective realisation of the fear evoked? And if so, is there a white, male equivalent to, say, me crossing the street at night at the sight of an elderly, white female approaching, or pitching my voice five octaves higher to signal, “You are safe with me”? Is there?

 

David Baddiel

Number one thing: challenging the primary sexism in the media, which is not porn, or page three, or sacking newsreader females as they get older, but employing images of women as decoration. This happens all the time. Check the front pages of all broadsheets and magazines, from the Times to the Mail. It is often, I think, unconscious, or just a reflex economic imperative, based on the idea that images of women sell. It should be resisted and men should – this might sound weird but I’m serious – join with feminists in calling for more men to be in these photographs.
David Baddiel’s musical, The Infidel, opens at Theatre Royal Stratford East, from 4th October

 

Jon Snow

Spend less time with other men. Relish the company of women. Exercise regularly with a dash of yoga. Bike to work. Stand on the head to fertilise the blood corpuscles to prevent baldness. Wash the system through with lashings of music. Cry when genuinely moved. He should laugh, and get in touch with his sense of humour – and if he can’t find it, crawl under a stone until
he can.

 

Alastair Campbell

The Great White Male has spent centuries buttoned up about his emotions. He needs to open up and lead the fight to win parity of understanding – and services – between mental and physical health. Stigma and taboo have to go. The so-called alpha males can help kick the doors in.

 

Kathy Lette

Now that we women are economically independent and can impregnate ourselves, if our vibrators could kill spiders in the bathtub would we need men at all? If the male of the species doesn’t want to become obsolete, he should:

1) Realise “mutual orgasm” is not an insurance company. (The trouble with married sex is not women faking orgasms but men faking foreplay.)

2) Cook. Do you know what a woman really wants in bed? Breakfast.

3) Talk. (A woman often feels as though her small intestine communicates with her more often than her bloke does.)

4) Do a little light housework. It is scienti­fically proven that no woman ever shot her husband while he was vacuuming.

 

Matthew Parris

For heaven’s sake, Great White Males, stay there. Stay strong, stay white, stay straight, stay boring and stay plonked slap-bang in the middle of that big, fat bell curve. Otherwise, what have the rest of us got to stand out from? When all are different, nobody will be different.

 

Andrew Marr

Be brave and be kind and if the two collide, choose kindness. What else is there to say? Granted, it’s not applicable particularly to a dying class of old, straight, white, middle-class men; but if any human being asks how to stay relevant, it’s the only place to start.

More than that, it seems to me, it’s about knowing when to let go and when to clench tightly. The world will be a better-run and kinder place when there are more women in charge, so let go of all that. The crimes my class are attacked for are mostly failures of kindness – greed, selfishness, homophobia – and of imagination.

So, as we try to be kinder, we have to remember that almost everything we believe will be shaken, challenged and eventually overturned. It’s called being alive.

But, knowing that, there’s also a lot to hold on to stubbornly – the old git culture I was brought up with. No one’s going to take away my old git reading habits: Proust, Tolstoy, Dickens, Joyce. Or my old git music tastes: Bach, Beethoven, Shostakovich, Wagner. Or my old git drinks: IPA and Talisker. Or, certainly, old git trousers: the gigantic ones with braces that look hilarious and feel alarmingly comfortable. Keep your hands off those. Then, finally, there’s old git art – an elitist love for things well made with craft and skill, which look beautiful and carry a punch. And, yes, clearly that includes the work of Grayson Perry.

 

Jon Savage

Just relax. No need to be uptight. The world is set up for you. But maybe that’s the fear: that if you drop your guard, all these other people will rush in to claim their rights, their power and their time. Which means you have to give up something.

But what, exactly? The conventional, straight definition of (white) masculinity is so constricted, so narrow – beer, lads, footie, birds and top bants – that it looks like a total nightmare to those of us who cannot and would not subscribe to it. You don’t have to be black, gay, lesbian, female, trans or whatever to know this. Sensitive straight men, rise up and flower! You have nothing to lose but your chains.

 

Tony Parsons

What has the Great White Male ever done for us? Shakespeare and Dickens. Picasso and Matisse. Morrissey and Marr. Jagger and Richards. Tim Berners-Lee, the inventor of the worldwide web. Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, the inventors of the new century. The men who stormed the beaches of Normandy. The warriors who protected us, the fathers who held us. Hemingway and Fitzgerald. John F Kennedy and John Cooper Clarke. Bob Dylan and Dylan Thomas.

White men, eh? What a waste of space!

I am not convinced that the Great White Male desperately needs a new male manifesto – the past thousand years have gone quite well for us without one. Here’s to the next thousand years, man!

 

Christiane Amanpour

While mulling the perfect manifesto for the survival of the Great White Male, I strolled into my newsroom’s kitchenette for a cup of tea. And, yes, seriously, like all good manifestos, there it was, staring out of the cupboard, printed on a large white mug:

World exclusive: unassisted MAN attempting washing-up. Family rally round: “We Know He Can Do It!”

I was thrilled. I’m a working wife and mother who believes passionately that what keeps a couple close is sharing . . . domestic chores. In a world where women are the sole or the main breadwinners in 40 per cent of (American) households, what more can we ask from the Great White Male?

As I left the kitchenette feeling smug, I bumped into my colleague Nick. “Look!” I shrieked, waving the mug. “See!” “That’s a bit sexist, isn’t it?” he said. “By the way, I brought in my own Thai green curry today.” Go figure.

 

Bonnie Greer

One of the characteristics of the Great White Male is the assumption of complete attention. This manifests itself in various ways but the most common is the loud voice that rises above all others. And its opposite, too – the soft voice, with its assumption of reason, calm and control: “I am the one in charge. I am the one who knows.” This creates, over time, that peculiar characteristic – a resistance to change, and along with it protection of the status quo.

Given that this condition is acquired, not inherent, it can be eradicated in the following way: make the potential Great White Male understand that he is not the sine qua non of human existence; that he can, in fact, take a back seat. And no one will either notice or mind.

Potential Great White Males who consider taking this path in order to avoid becoming extinct must expect resistance not only from their own fellows but from some women and minorities who calibrate their lives in relation to the Great White Male. In other words, some of the members of this species (women, minorities) might not find a reason to exist if the Great White Male becomes extinct and may fight his desire to shift. This strange behaviour is because their opposition to him actually defines them.

 

Melvyn Bragg

I’m coming to the end of writing a novel about the 14th century, so everything looks good from that perspective. The Great White Male may now be the Beached White Male but that’s rather better than living at a time when plague halved the population in a matter of decades.

Ten per cent is not a negligible quantity. It has often been quite enough to start revolutions, recast industries, devastate large areas of the planet, redirect the trajectory of art, remodel world leisure . . . Like it or not, the Great White Male shows no real sign of extinction. Yet. 

All photos by Getty, except Laurie Penny, photographed for the New Statesman, and Matthew Parris, courtesy of the BBC. Grayson Perry's guest-edited issue of the New Statesman is on sale on Thursday 9 October. Visit newstatesman.com/subscribe to get a copy

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2014 issue of the New Statesman, Grayson Perry guest edit

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The Last Wolf: Robert Winder's book examines the elusive concept of Englishness

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could this mean there is no such thing any more?

Is there anything more tiresome than debating the essence of “Englishness” – or any other national identity, come to that? Millions of words must have been spilt on this fruitless quest over the past century, generating gigatonnes of wind that could have been usefully harvested for energy. Each time, no “essence” is to be found, and everyone goes back to the beginning and starts again.

That’s how it used to be, anyway. More recently, in the wake of the Brexit vote and the divisions it has laid bare, the debate about who “we” are has become fraught and urgent. England, and Britain more widely, is hardly alone in its soul-searching. Arguments about belonging, culture, nationhood and identity are flooding across the Western world – and beyond – because people are increasingly unsure about who or where they are. The sweeping changes unleashed by hypercapitalism, technological change and unprecedented levels of migration are making rootlessness the norm, and the more people feel rootless the more they want to know where they belong and where they come from.

British politicians often respond to this by attempting to formulate some notion of our collective “values”. Here’s who we are, all 65 million of us, they say, and then proceed to read out a list of uniquely “British” things that only “British” people do, like valuing democracy, being tolerant with each other and standing in queues politely. These attempts at top-down unity are always failures, largely because, with the possible exception of the queuing, all the “values” asserted are pretty much universal. There’s nothing uniquely “British” about valuing the rule of law or freedom of speech (regularly clamping down on freedom of speech is a more reliably British virtue, if history is anything to go by). The failure of anyone to produce a list of “values” that are uniquely British – or English, or Welsh, or Scottish – suggests that they don’t exist. The island is just too teeming, diverse and disconnected now for much to be held in common at all.

So what, if anything, might define that elusive “Englishness”, the subject of Robert Winder’s new book? Cultural quirks, perhaps? I can confidently assert that the English know how to make a good cup of strong tea better than anyone else on earth (with the possible exception of the Irish), and we’re also world champions at dog shows, proper beer and indie guitar bands. But I’m not sure that these are things I would encourage my children to die patriotically in a trench for.

Winder offers a better answer, and it’s one that anyone brave or suicidal enough to pitch in to the contemporary European identity debate should consider. It offers a path through the horrible, thorny maze of arguments about race, ethnicity, migration and the like, towards something that, potentially, could unite people rather than divide them. What makes and forms a “people”, says Winder, in England as elsewhere, is the one thing they all share: the place itself. If there is an “Englishness” it is formed from the nature, literally, of England:

If we really wanted to search for the national identity, I thought, the real place to look was in the natural heritage of hills, valleys, rivers, stones and mists – the raw materials that had, over time, moulded the way we were. Landscape and history – the past and the elemental backdrop – were the only things we could truly claim as our own. Just as some plants thrive in sand and others in clay, so a national character is fed by nutrients it cannot alter.

Early on in the book, Winder quotes the novelist Lawrence Durrell, who makes the same case more provocatively:

I believe you could exterminate the French at a blow and resettle the land with Tartars, and within two generations discover… that the national characteristics were back at norm – the relentless metaphysical curiosity, the tenderness for good living and passionate individualism.

Durrell goes on to suggest that “a Cypriot who settled in London would in time become English, simply because human customs owe just as much to the local environment as to trees and flowers”. I’m in a position to test this hypothesis, because my grandmother was a Cypriot who settled in London. Did she become English? Well, she wore English clothes, lived in a bungalow, cooked roast dinners, won endless rosettes in endless dog shows and had her English friends call her Doris, because they had trouble pronouncing Demetra. On the other hand, she never lost her accent, her language or her connections to her homeland, and until the end of her life she made a mean baklava. I don’t know what any of that means, other than that labels can get confusing pretty quickly.

And that is Winder’s point: forget the labels, look at the land below your feet. That’s where your “identity” comes from. Take the last wolf in England, which gives the book its title. Allegedly killed in the 1290s by a Shropshire knight named Peter Corbet (the king had tasked this “mighty hunter” and other nobles with ridding the land of predators), the wolf’s end freed up the English to transform their landscape – in a way not available to many other European countries, whose wolf populations were too large and interlinked to kill off – into “the biggest sheep farm in the world”. This turned England, in the Middle Ages, into a wealthy wool economy. It was an agricultural revolution, shaping everything from land ownership to diet to class structures to the architecture of the Cotswolds, and it happened not just because the landscape was now wolfless, but because “the country was made for grass”.

The same soil and climate that made growing grass so easy did the same for wheat – which, mainly in the form of bread, has been the staple of the English diet from the rise of agriculture to the present day, when we eat more wheat than ever. Add in the later discovery of coal, which was found in rich seams across the country, and which gave rise to the Industrial Revolution and the British Empire, and Winder suggests, only slightly playfully, that the English national character can be summed up by way of an algebraic equation: e = cw4: “Englishness equals coal x wool, wheat and wet weather.”

The book’s central case – that “natural history might be a branch of political science” – is a necessary corrective to a public debate in which we are increasingly instructed to believe that virtually every aspect of our character is a “social construct”. Winder wants us to understand that much of it is actually a natural construct, which means in turn that our development is not entirely under our control. It’s not a message that many people want to hear in an age of selfies and consumer choice: “Just as each vineyard (or terroir) produces its own unique wine, so human beings are conditioned by their local landscape. We move around more now, so the lines are blurred, but the underlying skeleton of English culture – the bare bones of the national psyche – may have changed less than we think.”

I couldn’t help, as I read, wanting more detail on this “underlying skeleton”. Where are the folk songs, the rhymes and ballads? Where is the mythology? Where are the grainy details of the lives of the people who, throughout English history, were probably shaped by the landscape most of all, and who shaped it in turn – the peasantry? There are glimpses of all this, but there is also too much school-textbooky history of inventors and their inventions, of revolutions and wars. A book like this ought to start at the bottom – in the mud, in the mulch on the forest floor. I wanted an earthier, messier story.

Despite this, there is plenty to chew on here. The question that remained when it was over though, for this reviewer at least, was: is any of it true any more? It may once have been the case that human customs were formed by places, but is it now?

When people in England, or anywhere in the modern world, have more connection, via their handheld screens, with the mill race of global consumer “culture” than they do with the landscape around them, and when only a handful of us work on or really know that landscape, what chance does it have of forming the basis of our cultural life?

If English national character is so hard to pin down, could the reason simply be that there is no such thing any more; that the English, like other denizens of techno-post-modernity, are shaped not by their natural environment, but by the artificial one that is rising to enclose them like a silicon cocoon? When the heavy metals in your smartphone are mined in Indonesia, not Cornwall, what equation defines you – and do you even care? 

Paul Kingsnorth’s books include “Confessions of a Recovering Environmentalist ” (Faber & Faber)

The Last Wolf: the Hidden Springs of Englishness
Robert Winder
Little, Brown, 480pp, £20

This article first appeared in the 10 August 2017 issue of the New Statesman, France’s new Napoleon