Three years ago I attended the Women of the World (WOW) festival at the Royal Festival Hall. The aim was to finally empathise with women and their concerns, having deeply despised the bevaginated up to that point. It worked but left my masculinity in crisis. Until WOW, all my assumptions about being a man were safe as overpriced houses. Signing letters with my ink-dipped Gentleman’s Relish, percussing a lady’s buttocks to make a backing track for homemade music, building cars from old computer bits; this seemed to me the quintessence of the male experience.
But now, though I regarded all the feminoids in my life as fully rounded human beings; an observation they really appreciated; life was harder because I couldn’t fall back on those comforting, lazy behaviours; those handy bits of social programming that had hitherto formed the pillars of my identity. I was lost, deeply unhappy and, as you’ll have read recently, approaching a decade without second party genital stimulation; something I assumed to be a direct result of radiating contempt for anything with breasts for so many wasted years.
What I needed was an orientation in how to be a man in an era where showing up and placing your testicles on the counter was no longer enough. My old chum, Katrina, who’d originally insisted that I attend WOW as she could no longer explain to mutual acquaintances why I violently threw up whenever unisex socialisation was mentioned, again gallantly rode to my rescue, in a conscious inversion of the damsel in distress dynamic of yore.
There was a new event at Festival Hall, though complimentary, not a competitor – competition’s the regressive imperative of the caveman. Organiser Judith Kelly, who’d later tell us she loved men despite the WOW 2013 observation that we were all potential rapists, had called it BAM: Being a Man. That’s being a man, as in exploring the condition of maleness, rather than any unreconstructed notion of manning up, drying any tears and thumping the first bastard who ogles your life partner (formally bird).
Why, that being the case, had she chosen a violent sounding acronym; the onomatopoeic evocation of an upper cut to some bloke’s Chevy Chase? Why did the women get something positive and complimentary, “Wow!”, while we were stuck with brutal and loutish – the sort of word men use when recounting a fight to other men after ten pints? Or could the title be an unconscious throwback to the Wham Rap (Enjoy What You Do), when saying wham, indeed, bam, was a prelude to saying “I am a man”, and being proud of the fact, even if the song positioned it as something hedonistic and economically inactive? We’d never know for certain.
So on a cold Saturday in November, Katrina and I once again met at the food market outside the Hall and prepared for re-education. She was looking forward to learning the potential of maleness, perhaps even adopting some of that potential if she liked what was on offer, whereas I was nervous. What if, with each alternative iteration laid bare, I fancied my old way of thinking? What if I was bloke-shamed and couldn’t windmill and use gynocentric insults with the same abandon as before? Katrina, sensing my anxiety, tried to put my mind at rest. “You’re not much of a man, now,” she reminded me, “so whatever happens in there can only improve the situation. Who knows, after this, you might even be able to pull someone desperate, assuming you don’t mind bed sores and drooling!” Good ol’ Kat. She always knew what to say.
Having decided to avoid ‘How to be a Superman’ as neither of us approved of eugenics, our first event was a debate entitled, ‘Language Police: Can Men Say What They’re Thinking?’ This touched on the thorny issue of male expression, and how a changing political climate and new consciousness, sensitive to the arguments and demands of identity politics, had the potential to rob men of their voice. If I couldn’t be misogynistic, crude, boorish, aggressive and imperious, insisting on controlling and dominating every chat of which I was a part, then I might end up with no words left. I’d have to grunt and nod, and even that might be considered a bit much.
Chair Tim Samuels offered up the nightmarish spectre of political correctness as a form of tyranny; a brave position to take in an audience of beards and feminists, who were in no mood to be told that a mass no platforming was potentially unhealthy and might lead to some kind of reactionary backlash, an example of which is fortunately lacking in recent history.
Arguing the case for self-censorship was young buck Ben Norris – a poet, so on the sensitive side of the male spectrum, but also tardy; the seventh man to register his name on Twitter. Norris thought men, free of women’s civilising presence, needed “better jokes” and more self-discipline. He was part of the new generation of metrosexuals that watched their P’s and Q’s on social media – in fact, all ferry companies, and decreed that it was every man’s duty and responsibility to be a feminist, whether female activists and thinkers wanted it or not. He’d made this declaration because journalist Andrew Hankinson, the third man, had recalled being told to “fuck off” when weighing in on the subject by a defensive female comedian who saw any male thinking on the topic as a land grab. I reflected that I was a feminist, and that no one, of any gender-stripe, had the right to tell me otherwise. To do so was tantamount to policing thought; a view that put me both at odds and in agreement with Norris. Man, being a geezer was confusing.
With the temperature in the room rising (the air con was broken) and Hankinson getting a barracking from an angry gay man who took him to task for presuming to legally define hate crime (in a clumsy response to a question on the right to be offended), Judith Kelly, watching from the dugout, now intervened to re-frame the debate. Feminism wasn’t about excluding men, she explained, contradicting some of the evidence given by Hankinson, and BAM wasn’t about pulling men up on their deficiencies, though most of the sessions assumed they were profound, rather it was a celebration of brothers, lovers, fathers and sons. There was no mention of single men without family or a partner, but everyone agreed such a person wasn’t strictly human anyway.
I found the intervention strange, and by extension indicative of the fact that the longer a conversation on men being able to say what they wanted persisted, the uglier it was bound to get. Yet letting it go where it would was, I thought, the difference between a truthful exchange and one that made you feel better. What did Katrina think? “I want to talk to you about this but we’ve got to get on” she said. Denied a voice. Again!
Next was a session entitled ‘Youth and Young Manhood’, ostensibly a discussion on “how youth and subculture is used in men’s fashion” but actually a group of Grime artists and writers, including Grant Brydon and Halfbrother, who I obviously knew a lot about, talking about their music and influences. Comparisons with punk were fallacious apparently, as Grime had not yet been co-opted by the mainstream, and its appeal lay in men who liked to go out, fuck and whatever, recounting their experiences, as such things were otherwise never discussed. I learned that something called The Flatbush Zombies existed, which sounded great, and from Katrina, an artist called Skepta, that didn’t. We left after a man channelling Steven Toast asked if the gang were aware that the organisers of a Brighton music festival had been worried about booking them because they were black. They didn’t know that and, one sensed, didn’t want to.
‘Shy Guys’ was a discussion around, er, shyness and introversion, which though celebrated in women, as no one likes a loud and familiar lady, ‘cause it’s vulgar and unvarnished, was considered a real handicap if you had a wang. Successful men, goes the old thinking, are assertive, voluble and confident. Those that have these traits get on, not to mention being revered, hypocritically, by women attracted to the qualities they are themselves encouraged to suppress, and which patriarchy in its wisdom has coded as male.
Joe Moran, chairing, turned the heads of the assembled inside out, articulating the thoughts of those in the room, male or female, who found this idiotic veneration of extroversion and brio both suffocating and anathema to their constitution. Shyness, we all understood, was a nuanced and ever shifting phenomenon that plagued you at certain times of life and varied according to context and company. That it was debilitating could not be denied, but only, one realised, because it was not understood (particularly by those of a different temperament) and had never been celebrated.
Alan Bennett, recalled Moran, was one writer who saw shyness as a virtue, signalling a thoughtful and refined mindset. I wasn’t going to be the one to say that when stumbling on my words and unable to make conversation I’m usually thinking of bare breasts clashing like symbols. Still, I left happy that as a shy man who often avoids social contact, because the prospect’s overwhelming, and who often makes mistakes when live, on account of feeling uncomfortable and self-conscious, I was normal, and it was those who shouted louder and made better connections who were attention seeking freaks just as I’d always suspected.
At this point we were due to see a session on Pornography, in which we expected to be told that it was about power, control and the crude, guilt-free objectification of ladies. The debate was to centre on how porn was warping male sexuality, normalising fantasy, ruining the act for women, not that I needed a primer on that, and retarding a generation. But when we got there we hit a tell-tale queue of men anxious to learn about something they’d never consumed, and knew only from media coverage. I imagined this less as a debate, more than an open invitation to therapy, but unable to join in, we left it behind, and perhaps the last chance I’d ever have to find out if joining a bukkake circle was a reasonable pre-condition for library membership, or just the twisted wheeze of my local council.
Following a lecture on masculinity by Grayson Perry, which I don’t recall in detail as I was focused on his shoes and how I’d love a pair just like them, Kat and I topped out our day with a debate on gender quality, imaginatively titled ‘Equal Rights’. This was the nub of the matter, how men could not only find it in their cocks to embrace a world in which they were no longer unconditionally dominant, but help the women in their life rob them of the power and privilege they’d worked so hard for since birth.
Judith Kelly was once again on hand to offer advice on maleness, as were a panel, who tackled thorny subjects like men checking out of feminism between ejaculations of activism, what the average man could do to expedite the revolution, and why expectations related to maleness, like being a father, earning a crust, were cruel constructs that had the potential to ruin lives. I listened hard and emerged with this simple five point guide to being a man.
- Being a man is giving yourself permission to fail at everything, especially your write up of BAM.
- Alpha males are indeed twats as we’ve always known, and can be ignored, as one day, a few centuries hence, they’ll be regarded the way we look back on slave owners today.
- Having a penis is a licence to have fun with your hair and clothes but it’s also a responsibility.
- A man who listens is much more likely to hear his name being called, and;
- Real men know women aren’t the enemy, just a critical friend who hates your guts.
As Katrina and I left Festival Hall, forever changed, she turned, daring to look me in the eyes for the first time that day. “Just so you know,” she said, “I’ve never thought of you as a man. I wouldn’t pigeonhole you.” And we made our way along the riverside, with enlightened tears of gratitude streaming down my bestubbled face.
BAM was at the Southbank Centre from November 25th-27th 2016. If men survive, it will return. #BeingAManFest