Martin Newell’s Joy of Essex: If there is a lost masculinity, then it is a concern for us all

Pic. Manning up (left) Adrian May (right) Murray Griffin

Pic. Manning up (left) Adrian May (right) Murray Griffin - Credit: Archant

Sons and fathers stumble towards each other in the dark

saying, who the hell are you? – Dr Adrian May, Essex balladeer

There exists a new crisis, apparently, concerning of all things our “lost masculinity”. The Chief Scout, Bear Grylls, is to present a TV programme on this subject.

The hessian press have been wringing their hands over the matter for some years now, while the tweedier media merely yell, “Man up!” and grumble about our depleted armed forces.

But who, if anyone, has stolen our masculinity? Boys, traditionally, only used to cry when the football team lost, the dog pegged out, or a favourite racing pigeon didn’t return. Five decades ago many of us never even used deodorants, let alone moisturisers or exfoliants. I bet Roy of the Rovers didn’t have a skin-care regime.

When I was a pouting, shaggy-haired 15-year-old, my father cornered me and asked what I intended to do with my life. I replied that since I couldn’t box or play football, I was hoping to join a pop group. I may as well have told him: “Father, I intend to put on a dress and some lippy then go down to the docks and skip.”

As it happens, at that time we were fast approaching the glam rock era and my father’s worst fears weren’t entirely unfounded. “In a glam rock band were you?” they’ll still ask me.

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“Man and girl.” I reply, as if it had been some sort of alternative national service. The thing is that I’d also worked in factories, in a sawmill and on a farm, so I did have some grounding in basic manliness. To this day, if I’m ever in a van with other chaps, I still have to fight a Pavlovian urge to yell at young women, “Wahay! Awlrite, then, Darlin’?” The only difference nowadays is that the young women now tend to be in their fifties.

A crisis of lost manliness, though? Really? As if on cue, Dr Adrian May, musician, poet and creative writing boffin at the University of Essex, has published a new book, Comedy of Masculinity – a collection of poems and songs with an accompanying CD. As poignant as they are witty, the poems and songs attempt to unravel the mystery of the identity crisis felt by a post-war generation of men now in their 50s and 60s. Caught, as we were between the snarling old bulldog of war behind us and the dragon of social change breathing fire in our faces, we wondered who we were now and what might be our purpose.

We could not look to our splenetic, wounded fathers for answers. Yet, many of our girlfriends seemed as baffled by the speed of the change as we ourselves were. Some of us retreated honorably to sheds. Others crept uneasily out of closets. Still more of us, emasculated, maddened or merely embittered, turned to drink or drugs.

Many of our recently-emancipated women contemporaries eventually fared little better, Having, post-divorce, to introduce sulky resentful teenage sons to new partners was one thing. Witnessing their teenage daughters reclaiming the make-up, miniskirts and stilettos rejected during their own revolutionary youth, may have been quite another.

Decades on, with bridges burned in haste, some of the ex-wives, having missed certain aspects of “unreconstructed” manliness, ran off with the builder, or with a hot-blooded lover encountered on some foreign holiday. Others put on comfortable shoes, giving up on men altogether. Still more returned dissatisfied in late and lonely middle age. England is quietly replete with the unpartnered and battle-scarred veterans of an unwinnable “war” between the sexes.

The difference between men and women here, is that it is generally the women who will write the books and reflect upon the subject. Men who attempt such feats, risk being mown down in a media crossfire. On one hand they’ll be derided as reactionary – or just plain wrong. On the other, they’ll be laughed at for being wimps or bedwetters. Here then, is our crisis of masculinity.

Dr May, meanwhile, in true Essex balladeer mode, having rugby-tackled the subject in manly fashion has taken his show out on the road. Last week, I watched May and his musical partner, double-bassist Murray Griffin, perform the Comedy of Masculinity show.

Billed as Face Furniture and augmented by two music veterans, guitarist Martin Donald and drummer John Seabrook, if I’d expected music with a folk-heavy content, I was mistaken. The mixture of toughness, tenderness and Formby-esque music-hall humour was more like an early New Boots-era Ian Dury gig than anything I’d experienced in recent years. I was profoundly glad that I’d attended.

Poetry Wivenhoe had been generous enough to put the show on as a special extra event. The ramshackle British Legion Hall, which is rapidly becoming the town’s stealth arts centre, was packed. Interestingly, about two thirds of the audience comprised women, let us say, of a cherishable age.

Perhaps they wanted at last to hear what a man of their age might say, if such a creature might ever to be permitted to speak. I’m joking, of course. There’s a serious side here. If there really is a “crisis” of lost masculinity, the ramifications concern us all. The chief and abiding fall-out of the so-called War of the Sexes is the very modern scourge of loneliness.

Comedy of Masculinity by Adrian May is published by Wivenbooks,

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