Fresh in from far out - Galloway

<em>New Statesman Scotland</em> - Who wears the dress in your house?

In the past few weeks, the first winds of autumn sent a scatter of leaves into our doorways and, with them, came the realisation that our opportunities for frock-wearing have gone. I'm referring, of course, to us boys. In May time, in frock time, a report from the London-based Centre for Language in Primary Education claimed: "Encouraging small boys to dress up as girls could improve their reading [and language] skills." The director of the centre reasoned that "boys want to be all things boyish, and reading isn't".

Reams of educational research now pour forth with this or that reason why "all things girlish" should be propelling girls ahead of the lads in almost every sphere of human endeavour bar power-lifting. Still, from up here, where the manly ghost of Sir Hector stalks the land, we do wonder how the research was carried out and how the letter seeking parental permission was worded. Could one, for example, supply one's own dress if one wished? And if so, did the boys become connoisseurs of designer dress labels?

This is not to question the research results. In Anne Fine's gender-bending Bill's New Frock the eponymous hero, waking up one morning as a girl, dons a pink frock and notices the benefits immediately. "Bill wrote more than he usually did. He wrote it more neatly than usual, too. If you looked back through the last few pages of his work, you'd see he'd done a really good job for him." Not enough, though, to satisfy his teacher that he'd reached girly standards of neatness.

For myself, I have often thought of a boiler-suit as good writing apparel, as is worn by Gabriel GarcIa Marquez. But, when I'm in the world of work and the summer sun turns the school into a furnace, I find myself glancing at my colleagues and yearning for something loose and sleeveless with floral patterns. A psychoanalyst would spot that what I want to wear is the kind of frock my mother wore in the fifties. But that's edging a tad too close to Norman Bates for comfort, so I'll choose something else, something strapless, something daring, something circa 1974. Oh London, 1974! - that was the place for a boy to hothouse his reading skills. Ziggy Stardust ruled; the Tube was packed with chaps like exotic butterflies in make-up, wearing designer dresses with frills and epaulettes. They looked at you as if they knew how a lifetime of trousers had inhibited your reading.

But now the world of opportunity is almost beyond us once again. Within a month, the boys and girls will have a wardrobe that is muted, serviceable and sadly indistinguishable . . . Ah men. Everywhere you look, we are an idea running into the sand. "Men have daddified themselves," Milan Kundera observes in his novel, Identity. "They aren't fathers, they're just daddies, which means fathers without a father's authority." Now it seems research has shown that if we cry more, we're more likely to be potent. Why fight all this? What I want to know is, who wears the frock in your house?