Fathers and Bisons


In the Olden Days it was simple. At the age of 14, your father led you out of the village into the wild wood. By day, you hunted bison by the shining big-sea water, and threw your ceremonial harpoons at the great white dog fish. By night, you sat around the fire and he explained to you all the mysteries and secrets of manhood.

When the 40 days and 40 nights were over, he circumcised you, tattooed mystical symbols on your chest, or at any rate took you across his knee for a damned good slippering. The initiation over, you removed your loin-cloth, and he opened his ceremonial medicine bag and presented you with your first pair of long trousers. You limped back to the village, bloody, muddy and with sweaty towels in your Adidas hold-alls. Your little brother was envious, and you looked at the girls with strange, new eyes. Everyone knew that you had entered into your manhood. You could finally ride your own charger into battle, join the elders in the saloon bar of the Rat and Hedgehog, and drive a motorcar although not, of course, an HGV.

Now, it is far more complicated. Despite Swampy’s best efforts, they have cut down the wild wood, and people rarely walk down main street with their six shooters these days. We tried for a while to replace shamanic initiation rites with the rituals of Grammar Schools and compulsory National Service. These too disappeared from the scene, and were replaced by the University. Getting smashed on Merrydown in freshers week fulfilled roughly the same function as being hazed in the showers by the NCOs. Now, Universities are increasingly being replaced by Vocational Youth Opportunity Fast Track (Lap Top) Skill Acquisition Training Centres so even this has receded. Exams are our only token that we have passed from childhood into manhood: a mental ordeal has replaced the physical. And even their initiatory function has been severely dampened by the fact that most people nowadays have to sit them three times a month from the age of six. Even worse, given half a chance, the gurls do better at them than we do..

It may not always have been true that Men were Men, but most of them were damned sure that they weren’t children. At midnight on your 12th birthday, all your freckles would spontaneously disappear. You would lose all interest in the The Beano and start to read The Eagle. At sixteen, your desire to know what happened to Dan Dare would also vanish. You took off your school cap and your satchel for the last time and began work (the following Monday) at your father’s company. The other employees would paint your testicles black and role you around the factory floor in a barrel, so as to make sure you would stay there for life. Walking home with your first wage packet in your hand, you would be ceased by an uncontrollable desire to read the newspaper and to smoke a pipe. 10 years later, you would be bouncing your own son on your knee. 20 years on, you would have become addicted to rocking chairs and be introduced to your grandchildren. Fathers and Sons, the Old and the Dead knew what they had to do at each point in their life. Immunised by this against the ravages of Time, their life was as ideal as Eden. And probably just as mythical.

Freedom is bloody scary. Forcing people into structured roles does nobody any good, and if I had had a short back and sides and school cap at the age of 12, then you can bet that by the age of 17 I would have grown my hair long and become a hippie. Yet our freedom to define our own roles, to find our own path through life can create feelings of vertigo, of agoraphobia. You wake up at 2.00AM thinking ‘What am I doing? Where will I be 10 years from now?’ It also creates large numbers of men in their 30s who or spend their wage packets on expensive Star Wars memorabilia. (The Micromachines action fleet TIE fighter with removable Darth Vader is pretty cool, though, isn’t it?)

I feel profoundly guilty that no one ever told me the mysteries and secrets of manhood. I feel profoundly inadequate because I never stopped reading comics and playing with boy’s toys. I feel ashamed because I missed the ‘macho’ canoe. Why have I never once got so drunk that I vomit on my shoes? Why have I got to the age of 31 without ever having urinated in the street? How did I get through childhood without picking a fight, smashing a window, getting a thrashing, being picked up by the police, running away from home or having a serious talking to about how I was not the sort of son we had hoped for? Why, I short, aren’t I the sort of person I completely despise?

This sort of guilt and anxiety is, of course, about as constructive as worrying about the size of your penis, which is something else I’m told that all red-blooded young men do. If I was a New Lad, you can bet I wouldn’t be clever enough to articulate these sorts of thoughts.

Some people deal with this sort of insecurity by reading books about Wild Men and going off on Rediscovering Your Manhood camping holidays. The Common Man can invent his own rituals in the rugby changing rooms; Homo Middle Classus has to book into a conference centre and set an agenda. Neither would do me very much good: I muddled through adolescence in a state of ignorance and am living with the artsy-fartsy amatuer-writing-in-confessional-mode consequence. But some repressed part of me longs to be 14 again, and for my father (a man of great wit, intelligence, erudition and sensitivity but not, it must be admitted, a great hunter of bison) to teach me the Secrets and Mysteries of Manhood: those things which all the other boys knew instinctively, but no-one ever told me. And since you can’t very well ask, most of them remain mysteries to this day.

In particular, old father, old artificer, I wish you had been there to tell me:

  1. How can I ever dare to tell the other boys that I don’t have the faintest idea what an 'off-side' is?
  2. How can I ever dare to tell the other boys that I don’t have the faintest idea what an inside leg measurement is?
  3. Are the other boys lying when they say that they enjoy going to discos?
  4. Are they lying when they said that getting the cane doesn’t hurt all that much?
  5. What am I supposed to say when the barber asks me what I want doing?
  6. How do I shave without leaving little dots of blood all over my face that look very much worse than the actual stubble?
  7. What are the financial pages for?
  8. Why does the knot on everyone else’s tie look neater than mine?
  9. Is there actually any difference between ‘briefs’ and ‘Y-Fronts’?
  10. Who actually wears a vest?
  11. What is it that gay men actually do?
  12. What about, er, you know, the women?
  13. Do red headed men have red pubic hair?
  14. And, you know, girls?
  15. What does the word ‘ponce’ mean?
  16. What are fruit flavoured condoms for?
  17. Even the one’s which say ‘not to be used for protection’?
  18. What is it on the ceiling of the gents toilet that everyone else is looking at?
  19. Just how do you do that shaking thing so that no droplets get onto the inside of your underpants?
  20. All right: what actually is an 'off-side'?
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