White Heat: Richard Benson Discusses Outdated Attitudes
Taking your teenage daughter to a pop concert can be a lovely experience, but to be honest, it can also get a bit awkward. If you happen to be one of those middle-aged men who chaperone their teenage daughters at concerts and festivals, you will already know how it is.
From the outset, you feel the wrong size – 25% bigger than everyone else, like the human version of a promotional packet of biscuits, constantly blocking other people’s views. When her mate says her mum and dad let her drink cider, you fall for it and buy them halves of Kopparberg, only to get told off for being naïve by her mother when you get in. And then when the singer actually comes on, you try very hard to not think, in a twattish, middle-aged-bloke way, that some modern pop singers really do make one catchy single stretch a very long way, and maybe you could try getting her into football again.
Britain’s gigfathers can recognise the slight, shifty awkwardness in their peers as they look around the auditorium. After all, we’re not hard to spot in our Vetra chore jackets and Breton shirts: we stick up in the crowd like bearded unlit lighthouses, occasionally glancing at each other through thickets of young, downy, phone-wielding arms. “No, it’s not ideal,” say our expressions, “but at least it’s something we can still share with her now we’ve outgrown Peppa Pig and we’ve admitted we’ll never really understand TikTok.”
I had a moment of particular personal awkwardness when I took my daughter Violet (13) and her mate Agnes (14, liberal Scandi parents, hence me falling for the cider story) to see Mahalia at the Roundhouse. Mahalia, if you don’t know, is a young black British R&B singer who, between songs, tells stories about her life, ie “ribald” anecdotes about useless blokes and brilliant girlfriends. She’s basically Leicester’s answer to Lizzo, and she’s great. Halfway through the Roundhouse set, she stopped to deliver a lengthy, impassioned (ie lots of swearing) attack on the music industry, specifically on all the useless bloke-executives who told her, in the days before it was OK to be outspoken, to stop being lippy. “If I had a pound,” she told her adoring audience, who were cheering her on, “for every time a white, middle-aged man tried to tell me I’d never make it as I am, I’d be a fucking billionaire!”
The audience, Violet and Agnes included, roared, and over my head a huge, flashing neon sign appeared, saying, “HERE’S ONE OF THEM, BURN HIM”. I know that, in reality, the entire audience probably wasn’t side-eyeing me and thinking, “What the fuck is he doing here?”, but for a few seconds (OK, the rest of the gig), it felt like it. It’s hard to know what to think or do at moments like that. It’s good that Mahalia gets to tell her audience that story – I don’t doubt that record-industry blokes treated her badly – it’s just that I wonder what the right way to act is. It’s not so much a problem of the first world as of the zero world, ie NO ONE CARES, MATE, but still, you have to do something while your demographic is being called out. Cheer? Too self-loathing. Wry grin? Smug. Look neutral? Risks looking like an angry gammon who may turn into a serial killer.
What I’d like is some way of booing the kind of men she was talking about, but from my own side. I don’t want to make out I know what it’s like for anyone else being mistreated by them, but on the other hand, I think there’s a certain kind of bloke whose behaviour is 100 years past its sell-by date, and it’s about time he got called out by the millions of other men who are sick of him. By “behaviour” I don’t just mean the bullying, groping and aggression, I mean the complete lack of self-awareness, and the zero interest in seeing themselves as one variety of human being, rather than the default “normal”.
These days, most people who aren’t straight white men understand that your gender/ ethnicity/sexual preferences make you a member of one or more groups, and those groups are just some among many. Most gay men can and do talk about what it’s like to be gay. Black men can and do talk about what it’s like to be black, and so on. But with straight white men, it’s different. To be fair, a lot of them do now talk about themselves without sounding self-important, but loads haven’t even thought about it yet.
It’s one reason that gammony blokes get so angry – they hear different groups of people talking about themselves, and it feels to them that ordinary white blokes like them get left out (this is why they ask questions like, “When are we going to have a Straight Pride?”). Their real problem is that they haven’t worked out how to join in the conversation now that they don’t have it all to themselves any more. To join in you need humility, to do a bit of reflecting and to see yourself as one of many. However, that can be quite difficult if your race-gender combination has been in charge for the past 2,000 years. It’s like being a king who lives in a tower: you might think you’re the guardian of common sense and good taste, but in fact, you’re the only one who doesn’t know how weird and out of date your house looks.
And there are a lot of things that straight white men do that seem quite weird when you think about it. Incels. Jordan Peterson. Most stag nights. The desperate attempts of corporate execs to act smooth and powerful. Having the sleeves of your suit cut too tight because you think it makes your arms look bigger. Wearing your tie so long that it seems to point to your genitalia. All of these things would be OK if the culprits had a sense of self-mocking humour like women do about Botox, say, but mostly they don’t. Worse, they assume their instincts are always right, and that everyone else, such as young black female singers from Leicester, will be better off if they do as they’re told. If you tell them that they’re pompous idiots in badly fitting suits, though, they get hurt and sulk like Tommy Robinson or Donald Trump does. Being touchy and easily hurt while simultaneously mocking other people for being oversensitive may be this kind of man’s very worst characteristic – which is saying something. It’s an example of slightly sociopathic tendencies dressed up as virtues, in this case selfishness dressed as honesty.
My mate Billy, who co-organises Pride week in a city up north, and does a lot of talks at schools about sexuality, thinks all that might be having an impact. “I go into some secondary schools and sixth-form colleges, and when I ask kids what they identify as sexually, I’ll sometimes find 20 or 25% of boys saying they don’t want to identify as straightforward heterosexual,” he tells me. “There’s an infinite number of reasons why that might be, but part of it seems to be that a lot of the behaviour associated with conventional masculinity around [old industrial areas] just isn’t very appealing to a lot of people. So you get lads who just don’t want to subscribe to that. Not just the alternative type, but mainstream boys. I think that wanting to be more open sexually can be a way of distancing yourself from that basic knobhead attitude.”
Distancing yourself from that basic knobhead attitude! There’s a lot of talk in the media about the various challenges facing men in the 21st century, but for me that would probably be in my top three ambitions. It’s not a question of never being a knobhead; we all are sometimes, occasional knobheaded-ness being a part of the human condition. The knobhead attitude is not knowing when you’re being one, and never trying to curb your worst excesses. It’s about time it disappeared, if only to relieve the embarrassment of gigfathers.
In the end, my awkward feeling was dispelled by (true story) a fistfight breaking out next to us. It was between a Tory and a Corbyn supporter, both in their late twenties: Mahalia had been making remarks that sounded vaguely anti-Conservative, and the young Tory was making his shock and annoyance at this loudly known (yes dear, strangely enough, Mahalia seems less than keen on Boris Johnson. INCREDIBLE). In the car on the way home, the fight was one of the things that Violet and Agnes were keen to talk about. “Why do people get all annoyed like that?” Violet asked.
Some of them get very emotional when it comes to politics, I suppose,” I said.
“I get emotional about things, it doesn’t mean I want to beat someone up.” “Maybe they were just knobheads.” There was a little pause, and then I said: “Do you remember the bit when Mahalia was talking about men at her record company telling her what to do?”
“Not really. Why?”
“It doesn’t matter,” I said. And then we put Lizzo’s “Good As Hell” on because it’s our favourite song, and the three of us sang it all the way home.
“Baby, how you feelin’?” we asked each other in camp accents. “Feeling good as hell,” we replied.
Illustration: ‘Misfits (Double)’ by David Lock. Taken from Issue 51 of 10 Men – GENTLE, SENSUAL, FANTASY – on newsstands now.
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