As an introduction to this post, I would invite you to read the following article, nattily highlighted because I spent about five hours figuring out how to write a single line of html code. Go me…
This is something I feel really passionate about, so there’s a bias going on: the demonisation of young men, the negative impact of toxic masculinity, and the utter twattishness of the British tabloid media; according to them we are being overrun by a tribe of feral knuckledraggers and our future is doomed.
My latest piece, I hope, serves as a small but impassioned counterpoint.
As a bit of context, when I was at secondary school, by the time you hit sixth form it was vaguely acceptable to have one or two lads who you talked to without wanting to snog behind the boilerhouse, although you weren’t really expected to be seen out in public with them. And God forbid you were friends with a nerd. Me? I was mates with Ian Wilson. He wore NHS glasses, broke his arm trying to do the high jump for the first time by running into one of the supporting poles, and was an absolute frickin’ genius. He knew about astronomy, medieval history and comic book lore and I was taken aside by Ilona Turner who informed me that he was a bit weird and therefore people were talking about us and he also looked like he might smell funny (he didn’t); her advice was that I should perhaps refrain from sitting next to him quite so much. Especially in public.
Yeah. Fuck you, Ilona Turner – I’ve been sitting next to the Ian Wilsons of this world ever since, and I haven’t been bored once. I’ve never really forgotten the subtle courage and quiet determination it takes to be a different man in a world that seems to demand compliance to the norm.
Right. Fast-forward twenty five years. I’d known for a while that Ella had some amazing male friends; some a little younger, most a bit older, but all of them smart, feminist, funny and entirely and magnificently disdainful of any kind of bell curve that might even dare to try and classify them.
Basically when they all get together, it’s a bit like a Hogwart’s social.
So, when Ella’s dad died, this remarkable group of young men stepped forward, stepped up, and caught her. And they did it with such fucking grace and instinct that when I asked if I could use their real names in this piece, to a man they all replied that sure, that wasn’t a problem, but they hadn’t really done anything.
Right, time for some snapshots. In rough chronologial order:
Dom, Oxford theologian and part-time badass Medieval knight (Yep. Really…) had been round on the morning of the day that Kev died. Just few hours later I was texting him and asking him to ring me so I could tell him the bloke he’d been nattering to earlier had dropped dead, and would he mind awfully supporting my daughter in whichever way she might need? Without pause he gave his word that he’d be there. As I write this, he still is. Checks in via Facebook, comes round during the holidays, doesn’t back off.
Three days later, when the fallout was still thick and poisonous in the air and both Ella and I were struggling simply to remember how to breathe and stand and exist in our harsh new world, Dougie, six foot three of gentle genius from – I think – somewhere in the 18th century, turned up on our doorstep bearing pizza, mead and an enviable ability to sit in companionable, easy silence and just Be. He fed us both and then let my exhausted, furious, muted and shellshocked daughter lean into him for what seemed like forever, both physically and metaphorically, as they watched movies and talked and not-talked. For a blessed while, Normal – whatever that might be – returned to visit our diminished house.
I sneaked a photograph of the first time after the conflagration that my daugher let herself relax and trust another human. Even the bloody dog looks chilled…
On the day of the funeral itself, they were all there. Suited, booted, present and sombre and dealing with death when they should all have been dealing with life. Again I watched them step forward to embrace me and Ella, at a point in time when people decades older had no idea what to do.
Sam – a year younger than Ella, a school rugby star fluent in both Elvish and empathy – and Dougie stayed over at our house that night. Ate more pizza, made us laugh, and helped us to celebrate a life that we were loathe to let go. Ella then spent the night sleeping on Dougie, who was camping out on our sofa; she just flat-out planked the lad, needing contact and a steady heartbeat and stability. In return, Dougie simply wrapped his arms around her, remained still, and let her sleep. This thing alone goes a long way to explain my utter disdain at how this demographic is represented by tabloids and the Ignorant Masses in general.
A couple of weeks into the great adventure of ‘How The Everliving Fuck Do We Do This?’ Alex, a deceptively louche linguist and classicist, called with an orchid and a bottle of Amaretto for me, and hugs and fraternal, sparky companionship for Ella. I cannot imagine any situation in my own past when a friend of mine would have brought appropriate alcohol and flora for either of my parents – my guess is that these dudes are constantly upgrading, and preparing for a global takeover. If it involves Amaretto and flowers, I might actually be okay with that.
Two months after D-Day, Ella went to Whitby Folk Festival with Dougie (there as a rapper dancer, because not one of these guys is short on talent or otherness), and camped by herself at a time when I really wanted to suggest that she might want to stay in her bedroom and watch DVDS. For a couple of years, perhaps. Or a decade. Or the rest of her life. I’d like to think that I coped well enough with this particular challenge, apart from that time when I rang her twenty six times in about two hours because she wasn’t answering the phone. It was a blip; what can I say?
Months later, Ella casually dropped into conversation that Dougie’s elder brother Ben (older than the demographic in the article, but still societally bound to be a tosser according to the data) – a sociopathic martial-artist physicist whose brain operates at warp speed on a slow day – also at Whitby as a rapper dancer (see what I mean about that talent thing?), had assigned himself as her Protector-in-Chief with the quiet but heartfelt promise that he would watch over her – both at Whitby and in perpetuity – and anyone who crossed her would get their skull cleaved with a claymore. Cheers, kid – if I’d have known that the man with the best murder-face I’ve ever seen was watching your back, my mobile phone bill would have been significantly reduced.
It’s been nearly a year now and all of these guys have kept some kind of unspoken pledge. They still turn up with love and humour and empathy, and I keep trying to express my gratitude. They keep doing the, ‘It’s what anybody would do’ response, so sod them, I’ve decided to write about what they did and who they are. Because I’m kind of mean like that.
And also because I can now sit back and breathe and predict that the future might actually be safe, thanks to a bunch of weirdlings who’ve got all our backs.
Sleep easy, as long as you’re a good guy.