Chronic boredom is like the dull itch of a pair of Seventies school trousers

Nicholas Lezard's "Down and Out" column.

I have been suffering lately from something very like boredom. “Only boring people are bored,” runs the tiresome mantra, delivered by those tiresome people who consider life to be a glorious cycle of song and a medley of extemporanea. (For those who are unfamiliar with the lines, from Dorothy Parker, they continue: “And love is a thing that can never go wrong;/And I am Marie of Romania.” I do not quote these lines in the main body of my piece because, for once, love for me is not going wrong, touch wood.)

It is the kind of boredom that is actually more like the flu, in that it seems to be caused not by anything visible, but everything you do becomes imbued by suffering. I remember Vyvyan the punk in The Young Ones staggering around, smashing himself in the head with his own cricket bat in an attempt to relieve the tedium.

“Bored, bored, BORED,” Vyvyan would say, in time to the clouts to his own brains. It felt like that – everything was boring. Eating toast was boring. Being on a train was boring. Or perhaps not so much boring as mildly unpleasant, like wearing an itchy suit. (Note to younger readers: it was, until around the late Seventies, the rule for formal wear of whatever kind – whether it was a business, dinner, or school suit – to be made of a material that afforded the wearer the continual sensation of active discomfort, especially about the legs. To feel mildly pleased, or even neutral, about putting on a pair of trousers was considered to be unmanly, disgraceful and effete.)

Things on the horizon weren’t looking any better because the Beloved was going off to see her sister in Durham and I was to be left alone for a few days. Cohabitation has proved to be a delight, with the really rather counterintuitive side effect that the longer we stay together at a stretch, the more affectionate we are with each other, which is hell for other people – but nuts to them. Left to my own devices, though, I rediscover the fundamental meaninglessness of the universe, and plumping up the pillows as I retire to bed on my own becomes a terrifyingly lonely act, like the mysteriously ageing astronaut eating his solitary meals in silence towards the end of 2001.

How strange it is that men are in two horribly conflicted states of mind when it comes to this kind of thing! Those friends of mine who are married and parents would love to come out for a drink but find themselves prisoners in their own home. Do they like it, deep down, or do they chafe, as if wearing vintage trousers? The other day Martin Rowson, the rather wonderful cartoonist, discovered that all his immediate family members had scattered to various corners of the globe, and rather than potter around his house on his own, he came down to the Hovel, bearing gifts.

That was fun and he declared the Beloved THE BEST PERSON EVER (his caps) because she told him how she had been rude to Toby Young without even knowing who he was. (It was a conversation about musical education and he really should have thought twice before engaging with the B on the subject. But then these days poor Toby should think twice before saying anything. I wonder, sometimes, if he has had some kind of accident, which would account in some way for his increasing nuttiness.)

In the end, I found the perfect cure for my boredom: a game of cricket. Playing, not watching. It seems that Vyvyan was on the right lines all along. I have not done this for a couple of years and feared great rustiness, which would lead to some kind of terrible accident with the ball. It’s jolly hard, you know, and some of those people can really whack it. But the whole business of playing, the state of mild alertness you have to maintain on the field, the banter of one’s teammates, the play of the summer sun on the clouds, the trees, and even the picturesque sheep in the next field, put one in a state of something approaching bliss.

It was heaven and even the visiting American, who admittedly spent half the afternoon asleep, declared himself charmed, if baffled. (But not as baffled as the elderly Englishwoman a few feet away. “Why are they moving?” she would ask. “Is he the only one allowed to wear a hat?”) So that was all fine, until I got back and foolishly decided, for reasons that escape me, to check my bank balance. Any emotion I had vanished and was replaced by fear. That was bad. I don’t like the fear. I prefer the boredom.

Dorothy Parker (left) famously wrote that "only boring people are bored". Photo: Getty

Nicholas Lezard is a literary critic for the Guardian and also writes for the Independent. He writes the Down and Out in London column for the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 26 August 2013 issue of the New Statesman, How the dream died

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Is "successful" sperm really the measure of a man's masculinity?

An advertising campaign challenging men to "prove your worth" is being proposed to increase dwindling numbers of sperm donors – will the myth that only "real" men have potent sperm ever die?

Are you a superman? By which I mean, do you have the kind of sperm that would be accepted by the UK Sperm Bank, currently stuck with only nine donors on the books? Laura Witjens, chief executive, is currently launching a drive to recruit more donors. Her secret weapon? An appeal to male vanity.

Speaking to the Guardian, Witjens claims that if she advertised saying, “Men, prove your worth, show me how good you are”, it would be a route to gaining “hundreds of donors”. The implication is that beta males need not apply; this is for “real” men only. And what better way to demonstrate one’s manly credentials than through the spreading of one’s super-strength, 100 per cent proof, ultra-potent seed?

The proposed campaign approach serves to remind us of two things: first, the male ego is ridiculous, and second, reproductive ability is still treated as an indicator of whether or not one is a “successful” representative of one’s sex. However much we claim that biology is no longer destiny, certain expectations linger. “Real men” have high-quality sperm and want to see it distributed as widely as possible. “Real women,” on the other hand, only end up unable to reproduce if they have “left it too late” (that is, spent too much time in what is still seen as the world of men).

That fertility is primarily linked to luck rather than sexist morality tales is something we’d rather not admit. After all, far too many cultural edifices have been built around the idea that the opposite is true.

For something that resembles runny PVA glue, sperm has done well for itself. Throughout history, men have been obsessed with their precious seed and what it means for their status as the dominant sex. Since it is women who get pregnant – women who perform the actual task of gestating and birthing new human beings – there has always been a need to inflate the importance of semen, lest men should be sidelined completely. Whereas for women reproduction is a continuous process, for men it is more disjointed and conceptual. Hence it is important to have something to rely on. In sperm we trust.  

Otherwise can a man ever be sure – really, really sure – that a baby is his? For biological mothers, maternity is never in question. For biological fathers, paternity needs to be established. There are various ways of achieving this: heterosexual marriage, compulsory monogamy, the policing of women’s sexual choices, the withholding of material resources from women in return for sexual exclusivity, the threat of an appearance on Jeremy Kyle.

And then there are the various myths regarding how magical and special your own sperm is. It had to be you, didn’t it? He shoots, he scores. How else would the phrase “Who’s the Daddy?” have come into its current usage? The “skill” of impregnation is linked to manliness. If you’re a real man, the implication is, then you’ve nothing to fear.

The “superman” theme proposed by Witjens harks back to the various ways in which men have sought to position themselves and their sperm right at the centre of human reproduction, believing, for instance, that it already contained human beings in miniature, or that women merely provided the passive matter that would bring their active principle to life.

The biology I learned at school still played on the narrative of the hardy, valiant sperm battling against all odds to reach the passive, if somewhat capricious, egg. Sex education met gender indoctrination; it even seemed to be implied that the egg, in closing off entry to all other sperm once the “victor” had penetrated her boundaries, was being a bit of a tease (she’d already set off down the fallopian tube, what did she expect?). Pregnancy itself, we were led to believe, could never match the creativity, risk and drama of that one initial shag.

To respond to such myth-making with “but it’s only sperm and actually it could be anyone’s” seems positively mean. Women are supposed to worship it. Our effluvia – vaginal discharge, menstrual blood, breast milk – might be seen as disgusting, but when it comes to a man’s cum, it’s considered rude not to want to swallow it. People who respond with outrage when a woman suckles her baby in a crowded café think nothing of the idea that a real woman should want to gulp down semen with gusto. Patriarchal semiotics tell us that what comes out of men is life-giving and hygienic; women, on the other hand – popping out babies and sustenance – merely leak. It takes a brave woman to say, “hang on, is semen really all that?”

In the UK at least, it would seem that it isn’t. According to Witjens, getting one’s sperm approved for the UK Sperm Bank is exceptionally difficult because of how strong the product needs to be to survive the freezing and thawing process: “If 100 guys enquire, ten will come through for screenings and maybe one becomes a donor. It takes hundreds of guys.” Meaning most men don’t actually measure up to “superman” standards (without even considering what this approach says to men with a low sperm count, of whom it is suggested that the manhood test has been well and truly failed).

Her advertising strategy may be one that works. But it would be nice if, in a society that increasingly favours a politics of acquisition over one of care, we could be a little less focused on the potency of the mighty seed, looking instead at this particular form of donation as part of a broader process of creating and caring for others. Perhaps appeals to male vanity just work better than appeals to altruism. Even so, it’s a pity that it has to be so.

The aftermath of sperm donation can be complicated. Once one gets beyond the cash and the ego trips, the process can lead to real children with a real need to know the identity of the donor. Whereas in the past social convention allowed men to define ownership of children on their terms, nowadays globalisation and reproductive technology have led to a splintering of roles. Is it care or biology that makes a parent? What is it that shapes an identity and makes a person?

For most of us, the humane position is that nurture – the act of being there – must trump any biological contribution. To think otherwise is unfair on those who devote years of their lives to the raising of children. But for many donor-conceived adults, the donor is still needed to complete the picture of who one really is. And he will not be a superman. He will be a person who gave something small that nevertheless contributed to the creation of something miraculous: a life. And shouldn’t that be enough?

Glosswitch is a feminist mother of two who works in publishing.