The differences between men and women fascinate us all. For me, like depression, it has been one of the absorbing topics in my life. I was introduced to feminism early, by an older lover, in my late teens in the 1970s. It opened up a fascinating world of questions: how different would the world have looked had I been a woman?
I then went to Kenya for a year and my world-view was changed again, to allow for the world rich/poor divide.
By the time I was at University, Cambridge 1979-82, I was in the socialist, feminist, internationalist camp – though nothing too radical; that is where I made many strong friendships and the worldview that has strengthened and deepened since.
Jog on to a weekend a couple of years after Camridge, when I was living in London, where radical views were all the more common. I remember a scarring weekend at the beginning of a counselling diploma course in Kent. After a few drinks we had had a rollocking argument about Jewishness with a strident Zionist, feminist woman. I went to bed feeling it had been a jolly good argument. But over the remainder of the weekend, and then the following term of the course, I had felt increasingly defensive, like everything I say might be taken against me, excluded. At the end of the year, the strident woman left the course and I was so relieved. A year or two later some gossip got back to me. The strident woman had said after that first evening “he represents patriarchy, we’ll get him”. I took away two lessons
- be wary of putting your head above the parapet
- maybe I’m not such a feminist in my style of argument after all
Since then, and over the years as we learnt more and more about how the brain works, in conversations with friends or on the radio, I have often heard that men and women are equal. And I have thought, ‘but what does that mean?’, ‘is the equality premise being used to support a bad argument?’ Often I have concluded ‘yes’, for example in arguments about percentages of women in senior positions in companies. Haven’t many women chosen to commit to family over career for much of their thirties, while men have gone for longer and longer hours, and isn’t that something that we should acknowledge and admire as a choice a strong woman may make? Those percentages are dodgy.
So, except in trusted company, I have learnt to keep my head under the parapet. But as I walk along with my head behind the parapet, what should I do? Plenty of childcare, or course, maybe with a focus particularly on the boys – for the background see Steve Biddulph’s ‘Raising Boys’ (NOT a book that keeps its head down).
When Boris was nine, his best friend and he wanted to play football all the time. Best friend’s Dad, Gary, also one of our best friends, set up Sunday morning football for his son, mine, and any nine-years-olds wanting to play. He supplied goals, referee, whistle and a time frame, and established a following, with games having up to ten boys (and the occasional girl, and sometimes, depending on numbers, some of the Dads, if any had hung around) on each side. As the boys got bigger and faster, the Dads older and slower, I remember some desperately competitive boys vs. Dads games. The weekly fixture ran on til the boys were sixteen.
That was Boris, my oldest. Then came along Raffie, twelve years younger and equally obsessed with football already by the age of two. I waited til he was six, bought him a set of goals as a Christmas present (the old ones were offered, but were dilapidated after six weeks weekly use come rain or shine) and re-established Sunday morning football 9.30 til 11, we’ll be there, come if you can!
It has been thriving since, with sometimes as many as 11-a-side. I have watched the boys (for it is all boys, in a self-selecting way) develop, both in skill and in control – control, for example, in not busting into tears on conceding a goal! I have referee’d almost all the time, with my own little ritual of referee+players warming up, jogging round the pitch and selecting teams. There is a core group of football Dads who are amongst my best friends now, and since cancer, we have set up a refereeing rota, so Sunday morning football runs on. Happily beneath the parapet.
Four years ago my friend David had a Georgian-style fiftieth birthday feast. David loves singing, and the particular variety he loves most is Georgian, with its singular rich deep harmonies. Through singing it and teaching it he has made many Georgian (and non-Georgian) friends. A Georgian feast, at its most formal, has a toastmaster presiding over who should speak or sing next according to complex rituals, with drinking being specified at the end of each contribution and nowhere else; thirty of us crowded in David’s Edinburgh flat around his dining table, things were not so formal, but the framework remained. In one of his responses David had said, “when I was growing up all the other boys just talked about football and I wasn’t interested”, and that connected with being behind the parapet and gave me the material for my toast. What could I talk about? What was I really interested in?
Over the next week or two, my father, my two sons and I had a grand outing to watch Brighton and Hove Albion, the big local team. I reflected on talk – talk, as a means of connecting with others; talk, safe behind the parapet – and wrote the following.
Men who talk about football
Fathers, sons, husbands, brothers,
Men who work, provide and care,
Men who as boys played football
Connected on the pitch, know the offside rule
and (in my day) the full line-up against Germany 1966
and whose women say “talk, talk” but we are not quite sure how
and somehow never do the right kind of talk
Men who want to connect with their fathers, sons, wives, brothers
who want to show love but whose tongues turn to slugs when they try to say it
We are the men who talk about football.
Written 6th May, and published posthumously.