Star rating *****
Being a Man
Saturday 1st February 2014
What is it to be a man today? What is it to be a real man, a good father, a Black man, a professional, gay or middle class man? These were amongst some of the core issues discussed in a day of stimulating debate at London’s Southbank Centre.
In the first such event held at the Southbank Centre, a venue that has regularly held International Women’s Day events over the years, this day was focused on the men. Not to the exclusion of women though, who were there in fairly healthy numbers though. Not quite sure why, as it wasn’t targeted at or for women.
The opening session featured short keynote speeches from Rapper Akala, Martin Daubney, former Editor of Loaded, Michael Kaufman, activist and co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign and Hardeep Singh Kohli.
Hardeep Singh Kohli talked about men and power, why that is and how different things would have been if women ran the world. He surmised that man don’t talk as much as women, for as holders of power men will have not had felt the necessity to develop negotiating skills. World wars might have been averted. Tensions dissipated. Economic problems resolved. Even Arsenal problems might have been resolved with a female manager! He feels that we’re ready for change and men and women need to talk to each other more.
Men and sexism
Canadian speaker, Michael Kaufman, was very funny on the subject of men and feminism, getting across some very interesting points, with good humour.
Akala was very deep, with his historical references, for instance to the Kingdom of Kush, but as opening speaker, didn’t quite get the tone right. He needed to lighten up in order to get his message across.
Being a Dad
In a panel line up featuring David Lammy MP, Larry Harvey, Seany O’Kane and Charlie Condou, with Writer and Journalist David Aaronovitch, chairing there was plenty of fascinating discussion about fatherhood, how it felt, the panellist’s thoughts on their father’s input on their childhood, rites of passage and role models.
David Lammy MP was refreshingly candid too in disclosing that he’s not a “natural” paternal father, that he didn’t feel a strong bond, outpouring of love on the birth of his first child. He loves his children, just didn’t feel that life changing moment people often talk about. David Lammy has been quite vocal about this for some time.
Sex – Promiscuity and fidelity
Is promiscuity for men built in and inevitable? Are men better at separating love and sex or less likely to regret casual sex?
Lively, funny and frank debate about a perennial subject when it comes to sex. This debate featured Disability Artist Mat Fraser and Martin Daubney, former editor of Loaded, who explored online pornography and the spectrum of sexual desires.
“I’m a wanker”, announced Martin Daubney, by way of bold and hilarious introduction to the audience! It shocked those present and had the audience heartily laughing away and got his talk of to a lively, no nonsense start. No beating about the bush, or should that be meat, when it came to announcing the theme of Martin’s talk!
It was actually quite sad as he outlined the dangers of online pornography to the young who don’t know how to manage it. It has created troubling addictions in many young men and is one of the biggest, newest type of issues facing parents today. One that previous parents never had to contend with in the pre-internet age.
The extent of the problem was expressed most vividly through some examples from his work with addicted people. For instance, working with men such as X who masturbated 28 times a day. That’s right. 28 times a day. It’s tiring just thinking about that! Just how addicted he was, is best demonstrated by an anecdote. When driving X somewhere, Martin was urged to pull over the car urgently. Basically so X could get out and masturbate.
Parents, he urged, need to consider how they manage or control their son’s access to online porn and how they teach their sons about it. To be fair, he admitted that it’s not possible to stop or control it. One can only educate responsibleness in its use.
A further negative impact of this, is in its impact in creating unreal expectations of sex, meaning that regular sex can seem too mundane if one is used to watching extreme sex on computer.
Akala chaired an excellent debate amongst three Black professionals who shared their stories, experiences and challenges about professions that are not stereotypical.
All had fascinating stories to tell. There was Dr Elliot Onochie, the ex-Wimbledon FC player, who is now a Hospital Doctor. Whilst playing he was studying for his medical qualifications. This allied to his strict upbringing set him apart from other players. He even had to learn to swear just to fit in! That’s something he had to keep out of the house though, as his dad “would have done something to me!”
Kevin Bismark Cobham’s story was particularly interesting too. He is a Criminal Defence Barrister, but he didn’t get to become one via gaining an education in the place he grew up, Harlesden. His elder brother left School with one ‘O’ level. His sister didn’t do to well either. Determined that this wouldn’t be the result for another of her son’s, his mother sent him off to school in Ickenham, Middlesex. It was a predominantly white school. This fostered Kevin’s competitive urges and he set out to do better than the ‘white kids at school. He wasn’t interested in coming second or third.
I was impressed by his attitude and determination. He believed that collective action was required to deal with huge societal problems. He believed in the spirit of African collectivism. He surprised the audience with his language skills to, responding in Portuguese to a Brazilian man in the audience who said people make too many excuses in this country. That we have libraries all around. That people don’t have to wait for role models or to be taught, when they can just take themselves off to their local library. Kevin knew Brazil well and said the country is 80% African, yet the popular perception of the country is of it being a Eurocentric nation. He explained that there are systemic factors that can prevent the occurrence of what may seem on the face it quite logical and straightforward.
Role Models and Mentoring
Whilst he didn’t reject the notion of role models, he made it clear he doesn’t believe that mentoring achieves all that much. I would take some issue with that. Kevin’s off the view that mentoring hasn’t helped solved all societies issues regarding young people. Mentoring itself never could – not unless every child in need of a mentor had one. Many children could benefit from mentoring, but sadly there are not enough adults volunteering their time and effort to mentor. That shouldn’t negate the positive impact mentoring can have on a mentee. Remember, if one youth is mentored, they will likely have classmates, siblings and other peers they come into contact with. If they conduct themselves well and are achieving at School and as a decent young person, then that could be inadvertently be having a positive influence on those they come into contact with. Thus a ripple effect can be set in motion.
It’s just as well Jude Kelly, Director of Royal Festival Hall and BAM Event Organiser, wasn’t in the Queen Elizabeth Hall for this talk as I’m sure she would have taken issue with this particular comment from Kevin. For in closing the day her one bit of advice to delegates in a packed Hall was to become a prison visitor. She said that prison is 95% full of men and they need men to go in and talk to them, support them in any way they can.
The night before this they had a speed mentoring session that went very well with a 150:150 ratio of mentors: men ratio.
Andrew Muhammad, Historian and Author of ‘The Investigator’ also spoke well regarding the power of education.
Being a Bloke
The plenary session of the day was an excellent discussion on ‘What do white, middle class, solvent, heterosexual, able-bodied men think being a man is all about?’ Billy Bragg, Nick Hornby and Wayne Hemingway discussed the bits they love, the bits they don’t, they bits they should be in conflict with but aren’t, and the internal conflicts they might not want to admit.’
I loved this final session. All were candid, honest and amusing in their own way. The singer Billy Bragg was particularly articulate on this subject. His coins story was great. Thinking about the theme, he decided he needed to go somewhere where men would be men. So he took himself to the car park underneath Charing Cross station en route to this event. There he found men buying and selling old coins. He’d engage them in conversation and whilst initially men would be individuals minding their own pitches, once he lobbed in the question, “so tell me how old this coin is?” it set off the three men’s competitive instincts to give Billy the correct answer. Each thought they knew and it gave them an opportunity to show off their knowledge. That to Billy was one essence of being a bloke.
All seemed to identify with the sense that boys and men primarily spoke the language of football and music. This is a language fathers would use to bond with their sons. Film also became part of the equation. Billy Bragg mentioned he’d watched war films with his son. This is a strategy writer Nick Hornby said he’d try out with his three sons, whom he admitted he was open to all ideas regarding how best to raise them. I admired his openness and confidence, that although on stage as a panelist, he too seemed genuinely interested to also listen and learn from his fellow fathers on stage.
Billy reflected that the title “being a man sounds like something you put on, like a Santa outfit, cutting turkey or cutting the Sunday roast. As if it’s about doing expected things.”
He observed that, “white middle class white men never face a glass ceiling that black men and women face. The only time they do is when, as father’s they can’t get access their children as the courts have said no to them.
The fathers for justice guys dress as Spiderman, Superman and Batman yet ironically all of them had no fathers!!”
Not sure if that’s strictly or biologically true, but I guess the point is we have not been introduced to that element of their lives. Certainly with Batman and Spiderman, they just seem to have appeared as ready born Supermen. Or maybe Billy Bragg and myself just missed those early years stories in their lives!
I loved Billy’s story re going on Woman’s Hour. His mother called in and chided him for never popping in to see her when he’s doing London gigs! He had to explain that he’s in London working and not there for a social visit! The entire panel in fact had interesting, non 9-5 office jobs. This made for interesting discussion. Fashion Designer, Wayne Hemingway’s comment re what he thinks when he sees a woman on the tube was hilarious. He won’t be eyeing up women in the sense women might assume. No. He’ll be observing what she’s wearing and thinking “that top doesn’t go with the colour of the trousers!” I must try that one!!
All in all this was a great day of good, honest, candid talk from a good number of men from a wide variety of backgrounds – black, white, gay, straight, professional, working class, academics to pop stars all on the same Royal Festival Hall stage. It was food for thought for all present on what it is to be a man. How one can be a better man. For me, in addition it highlighted the positive action of men coming together to talk and listen to one another. Not over football or music, but over even more serious issues such as education, health, fatherhood, parenting, politics, race and relationships. A great set of topics and superb line ups and excellent chairing of all discussions, created a wonderful day of thought provoking conversations.
Review © Tiemo Talk of the Town
Photographs © Belinda Lawley
Fathers feel ignored – Fatherhood Institute
Supporting Dads – NCT
Being a Man – Being a Man Festival 31st January – 2nd February 2014