About three years ago I started writing my first novel, The Beasts of Belmont Park, inspired by someone I'd seen in the street; a handsome man, pushing two kids in a buggy. I saw him a couple more times over the next few weeks, and each time, he looked unhappy. I wondered why? It made me think back to the times when my own daughter was young enough to be pushed in a buggy and how much I enjoyed fatherhood, even as a single man, co-parenting my child when society assumed the only true course of happiness was to be part of that über -cliché, the happy family. I wondered whether this man was a stay-at-home dad, with a bread-winning wife. Maybe he didn't like his role? Maybe his wife was more successful than him? What issues would that raise for a man?
This scenario formed the basis of The Beasts of Belmont Park, which explores the nature of manhood in this most egalitarian of centuries, not earnestly or stolidly, but very much in a darkly comic vein. Not that I wish to make light of such a serious subject, but I find with humour you can often take your readers on a journey they might otherwise avoid.
Paul, the protagonist, is deeply unsatisfied with his lot, feeling emasculated by his role of househusband and envying his best-selling novelist wife's success. In attempting to square this circle, Paul encounters several strong male characters, each representing a different aspect of manhood, against which he measures himself. Ultimately the answer, for Paul, is to return to work; for that is the only way he believes he can hold his head up again as a man.
Are men expected to play a role that's now obsolete?
Paul’s internal conflict resonates at the deepest level with many men I've met over the years, and is reflected in the conventional wisdom many ascribe to: that a man's role is as a hunter, bringing home the bacon, not as carer, or nurturer, changing nappies and looking after the kids. In the conservative world of football, which I partake in regularly, this kind of attitude is commonplace.
But is there actually any basis in reality for this view of masculinity? I think today, more than ever, this concept is severely challenged by the facts. Women are just as strong and capable as men. Many women, maybe the majority, are, like my daughter, economically independent. What need is there for a man in the role of provider and protector? Nevertheless, many women I know tell me they still prefer this idea of a man, and they still want him to play this role, even if it's a pseudo-role and not actually necessary.
Hud, aged 22...
Many years ago I read The Descent of Woman by Elaine Morgan, written, in part, as a response to Desmond Morris's (at the time) seminal The Ascent of Man. Her view of human evolution opened my eyes, for the first time it seemed, to a far more complex notion of women than I had previously contemplated. But what about men? In Morris’s book he paints a vivid picture of man the hunter and provider, a picture that even then, back in the 1970s, was at odds with the image of the average male I encountered in West London. Yet this atavistic throwback formed the basis for the popular consensus on what being a man was all about. And as a young man myself, I too ascribed to this view.
'I was called a male chauvinist, aged nine'
I had particular reasons to do so. I was raised with my brother by an ardently feminist single mother, who along with her coterie of friends, subjected to me to a tough regime for a young man: being called a male chauvinist aged nine, being taken on a two-week long women's camp in Wales when I was twelve (where I was the oldest male), hostelling with the women and kids from Erin Pizzey’s ‘Battered Wives Home,’ these were experiences that severely challenged my idea of manhood. So in order to right these 'wrongs' (as I perceived them), I developed a relatively macho personality that was in many ways at odds with how I truly felt about myself. But back then, it was a matter of survival.
How many other young men defaulted to the macho paradigm in order to survive childhood? Especially in a culture that did not celebrate the manifold aspects of masculinity, but focused on just a few: strength, power, dominance. It was a cliché that was simultaneously parodied as absurd and declared as fact in every form of media, from fairy tales to adverts. And now, a mere 30 years later, we have the converse: men conventionally mocked as bumbling idiots by the media and by the advertising industry in particular.
In reality, we are of course neither of these extremes, but in fact represent an incredible spectrum of everything that lies between. We have been bracketed and branded by the media for far too long. We are not narrow beings, and we are not tongue-tied lumps, incapable of expressing our feelings. We are every bit as subtle and sensitive as women. Yet I find even some of the most progressive of my female friends still propagate this reductive, emotionally unintelligent stereotype. Often gleefully. It makes me wonder how they expect men to live up to their expectations (the caring, strong, silent sexy, sensitive, emotive everyman we are told women want), when they keep forcing us into these cultural straitjackets.
We have all been guilty, at one time or another, of purveying this cultural narrative. But the time has come for us to stop. Men like Grayson Perry show us how wonderful it is to be a man who is truly himself, just as much as Bear Grylls or David Beckham do. And the army of stay-at-home or single dads shows us just how capable men are at being nurturers and carers. The only thing preventing us from fulfilling our true, wide-spectrum natures are the conventions of society itself. Brothers, let's stand up and be counted for the marvelous, multi-faceted characters we really are.
By Hud Saunders
Innovative publisher The Pigeonhole releases Hud’s novel The Beasts of Belmont Park on the 5th of November. You can read more about it and an extract here