For Pete’s Sake
Why the world needs emotional men
About a month ago, friends and family of the singer Pete Kelsey said goodbye at a modest funeral in Brixham, Devon. Since then, I’ve been thinking about why it is I miss his company so much and why it is so rare for two heterosexual men to have felt such intimacy and affection for each other.
This week, the Church of England – looking less now like the Tory Party At Prayer and more like the Christian Wing of the pre-coalition Old Liberals complete with socks under their sandals – voted not to embrace equality and reject the idea of women becoming Bishops. While from an atheist’s standpoint one would not expect any rational behavior for an organisation devoted to the supernatural with a torture device as its logo, it is still criminally sad that a modern organisation should not wish women well. But it’s no mystery; any man or woman able to read and with access to a library (spatial or digital) has had nearly two centuries of feminist writing at their disposal. Yet, even if one has not read a word of feminism one only has to take note of the lives of the, roughly, 3.5 billion people on the planet that are not male.
My friend Pete, though in many ways a thoroughly unreconstructed man of the old school, was in other ways not at all like other men of my acquaintance. I never heard him say, for example, anything like ‘my girlfriend doesn’t understand me’ or ‘the trouble with women is..’ even if many of his jokes would have made some misogynists blush with embarrassment. Instead, Pete and I actually talked about our relationships; we talked about our relationships with women, with loved ones, family, friends and, crucially, with each other.
For most of my life, such conversations with men have been extremely rare and the truth of the matter is that ‘women not understanding men’ is not really a problem (only men could come up with such a stupid proposal). If anything, it is men not understanding men and men not understanding women that hopelessly skews the heart of our culture’s power-relations with women. My more usual male friends and colleagues have used the expression ‘the trouble with women’ quite frequently and opportunities to talk about one’s relationships, loves, fears, hopes and needs are few and far between. Men (and by extension male cultures) are so caught up in power games, competition, acquisition, domination and the ever-present threat of violent action that they are more likely to go to war than admit to emotional intimacy with each other. Indeed, it is often only through the intensity of war that those valued emotional relationships are allowed to blossom.
But there has to be another way. The social history of men is intimately tied to the history of warfare and, in my youth, history as a whole was taught, almost exclusively, as a series of wars and power plays between ‘alpha males’. And, whether through religion, law or personal relations, male culture continues to dominate even as women become less marginalized in some aspects of our cultural systems. The current crisis in the Middle East, for example, is dominated by the subjugation of one male-dominated religious cult by another male-dominated religious cult. I recently had an interesting conversation on Facebook with the poet, writer and feminist Lucy Lepchani about the extent to which Israel’s punishing blockade and bombing off the Gaza strip was a ‘Holy War’ and, though I acknowledged that the issues were essentially issues of human rights, I couldn’t quite agree that the war not to a great extent wrapped around religion (and thus sexism and racism as personified by a male nationalist patriarchy; I don’t believe in God so that is what religion is to me).
What concerns me here is that humans, so easily the dominant species on the planet, now have the technology to do just about anything we like. Rationally, we could choose to ‘live and let live’ and ‘share and share alike’. We could strive towards population stabilization through ensuring that women and men everywhere had access to descent contraception and that fertility became a valued quality controlled by women rather than a common right exploited by men. Under such rational circumstances, war would be (as it actually is) the most ghastly and ridiculous folly. Instead we could be balancing our planet’s resources with a sustainable and stable global economy; a matter of scientific endeavor rather than violent competition.
But if it is not technology or rationality or practicality that prevents humans from evolving into ‘grown-ups’ as opposed to prevailing as play-ground bullies (and torturers and murderers) then what is it?
Pete’s close friend Wendy remarked that he was the bravest person. It’s true, he was already gravely ill in 2006 when I met him in a homeless hostel in Newton Abbot; cold weather when he was sleeping rough and underlying health problems had taken its toll. When Tom Jones sang Leonard Cohen’s ‘… Willy Nelson coughing 100 floors above me in the Tower of Song…’ it reminded me very much of Pete. Pete continued to sing and occasionally gig until the last two years of his life and I never heard him complain. But what I did hear was his hopes and fears, his love of music, his desire to see his family again and his plans for the future. We talked of and about pretty much everything, particularly when he came to stay with me in Buckfastleigh to get out of the damp basement he was living in.
Privately, of course, men often talk to women about the things that matter but it’s rarely even handed; sexual politics get in the way. And if Pete and I had been lovers, perhaps that too would have mitigated against such an honest exchange of views and feelings. It’s said that comrades in arms under fire develop a bond but why should it be necessary for men to be at war to be able to be emotionally intimate?
Many women, perhaps because they have been so subjugated by male culture (and many other women who themselves have been totally subsumed) have at least a network of other women with whom they can exchange and compare their emotional lives; it has been perhaps a survival mechanism. In the 1980s I was very much impressed with the women’s groups at Middlesex Polytechnic where I was studying science as a mature student. I learned much from the remarkable Dawn Rennie who was, and still is, an active feminist and campaigner. So fascinated was I at the prospect of being freed from the male stereotype by the work being done by feminists that I asked if I could attend one of the women’s groups as a fly-on-the-wall guest. It turned out that, for good reasons (not just crude separatism) that it was not possible so, partly as a result of that experience and partly as a result of being exposed to ‘50s and ‘60s literature from my mother’s bookshelf, I started a men’s group at Middlesex called Gender Agenda. It was a valuable piece of education. The stories of violence and misogyny that many of the men in the group admitted to, and were desperately depressed by, were both harrowing and heartbreaking. Later, I found myself being interviewed in Clissold Park about the group and about childcare by the writer Carol Lee for her book The Blind Side of Eden; her validation of the emotional changes I was undergoing helped shape my personal political landscape.
And if my version of equality was gleaned first through academia and later through life (I hate to think how horrible I was as a younger man) Pete’s was gleaned through raw experience and his capacity for introspection and self criticism that only occasionally became mawkish for both of us after multiple glasses of Whyte & Mackay. Pete was also extraordinarily observant and would know if the people he cared for were troubled. But for all his emotional savvy, Pete Kelsey would not fall into the category of feminist or ‘new man’ unless you knew him very well indeed; his exterior was far too steeped in male rock and roll charisma. He had also been, in his time, a bit of a tough guy, a pub manager, a salesman and a fabulous singer – a geezer in fact. Pete was also the type of man for whom war would never make rational sense and for whom good could be found in everyone. He was the opposite of a sociopath in that he had a keen sense of the vulnerability of others and just how hard life is without the additional hardship of confrontation and violence. And there’s the rub; it’s almost impossible to wish suffering upon people with whom you properly identify and whose hopes, fears and needs you share.
For the Church of England to reject women as Bishops is cowardly and is not simply a matter of religious conviction, it is also a matter of fear: fear of the emotional language of women; fear of their support network; fear of their communicative and nurturing skills that, while open to men if only men would embrace those qualities within themselves, would surely lead to a more cooperative way of doing things. The tendency for men to go to war and hide their emotional and creative lives behind impenetrable barriers, impenetrable to other men at least, is naturally very useful to the power-elite who prefer their soldiers to be mere masks of men behind which lurks violent fighting machines. We see it in fairy tales, the movies, in computer games and in graphic novels.
More horrifically, we see the results of it in the faces of dead children as they are pulled from the rubble in Gaza or from the rice fields in Burma or the villages of the Congo. I’m not assuming that if women ruled the world we might be free of war forever; this is not so much about sex as about gender and it might be that it is a lack of humanity that takes anyone to the top and it just so happens that when men took charge they nurtured other men after their own violence. But I do insist that men must start talking to each other, exposing their emotional turmoil to examination, criticism, understanding and love. We need to create a male language of care and commitment and we must stop telling our sons to be tough guys above all else. I don’t believe in God but I do believe in the people so please, for the love of Pete let’s make some changes.
Nick Nakorn, Devon, November 2012
Reading and watching again. I just miss him so much, and I don’t want to forget anything x