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24 April 2000

What men can learn from women

New Statesman Scotland - A lifetime of hard work is long gone. Alistair Moffat wants men to

By Alistair Moffat

Big Boys Don’t Cry, particularly in Scotland. But help is at hand. On 27 April, an Australian is coming to tell us how. Steve Biddulph has written a bestselling book, Manhood and Raising Boys, and is an authority on the emotional lives of men. Or the lack of them. He will give a lecture in Edinburgh at the Wellspring Counselling Centre and, if his observations on the state of the Australian male psyche are any guide, his remarks will be both apposite and illuminating.

As Claire Walker reported (New Statesman Scotland, 22 November 1999), suicide rates among young Scottish men are soaring, and for those who outlive the 25- to 34-year-old age group, the incidence of prostate cancer has climbed by 70 per cent in the past 15 years. These depressing statistics mirror what is happening in sunny Australia. Biddulph reports: “In Australia, we also have a culture of men keeping their troubles to themselves, arising out of depressions, wars and tough times. And we also have a very high male suicide rate, it is our leading cause of death for men under 60. The globalisation of the economy is a disaster for everyone. It especially hurts people who have traditionally worked in manufacturing.”

It is easy to forget how relatively recently in our history people moved off the land and away from physically taxing, open-air agricultural work, and into factories which began to become increasingly automated before many of them closed. In short and in the main, we have stopped making things by the sweat of our brows and with our hands and brains. Overwhelmingly, men do not, in the old phrase, take off their jackets to do their jobs and hardly ever break sweat from one week’s end to the next. Long gone are the days when men ate as much in the morning as their stomachs could hold before spending all that energy behind a plough or hammering rivets, and then sleeping soundly when they were exhausted and dying when their bodies were worn out. It was a harsh but wholesome, and somehow dignified, sort of life. Digging foundations with a shovel or herding a hirsel of ewes off a hill in a snowstorm were hard, hard jobs, but they were straightforward propositions.

Now, listening to management consultants talk themselves into, and you out of, a job can do things to psychological health. And a long working-day with commuting at either end can produce a tiredness that has little do with exhausted limbs and muscles. Apparently, the lack of a physical outlet for male energy and aggression at work can make those elemental things turn inwards, to destructive effect.

A solution to these problems cannot be a Canute-like attempt to reverse or ignore the trends of the world economy. Call- centres will simply go elsewhere if they do not locate in Scotland. Rather, we should try to learn from some of the achievements of the women’s movement. While that might have the temporary effect of making men feel even less macho, it might encourage some positive steps. These might include a few very basic things: to persuade men that there is actually a problem; that to discuss it in groups might help and have the immediate effect of telling them that they are not alone or inadequate; and finally to move some men to understand the cause of their frustrations and attempt to deal with them.

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In turn, that process might lead men to channel their energy and aggression productively, or at least harmlessly. Biddulph has been tritely described as a male version of Germaine Greer, but that is to miss the point by some distance. What he proposes is not some sort of reassertion or reaction to the women’s movement, but that men should try to learn something positive from it.

It may be that the otherwise inexplicable (certainly in terms of quality) and dramatic increase in the popularity of football over the past ten years might have something to do with spare testosterone on the terracing. Perhaps the growling and ungenerous macho atmosphere on a Saturday at the larger Scottish football grounds (the smaller ones have to have a sense of humour) provides a handy safety-valve for all that energy unused between Monday and Friday. With the rise in turnstile prices and the substantial upfront costs of season tickets, the middle classes are now coming in numbers. And, if anything, the massed ranks of bank managers, accountants and solicitors are more aggressive – perhaps their Monday-to-Friday frustrations are greater.

It is to be hoped that Biddulph’s lecture and his book have a positive impact in Scotland. If not, then our emotional role model might have to be Paul Gascoigne, whose famous World Cup tears followed an extremely aggressive foul tackle. Or perhaps not. Surely watching the Scotland football team is enough to make us all weep.

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