“Self-improvement is masturbation. Self-destruction is the answer” – Fight Club (from the unedited film script)
(This is a piece from 2000 that was initially published on the now-sadly-defunct site of Edinburgh writer Laura Hird. I’m presenting it as it was initially published. It is what it is/was. As you can see, I was somewhat sadly obsessed with Fight Club at the time. Ho-hum.)
“Most men don’t have a life” – blurb from Manhood.
So I’m walking along towards the centre of Edinburgh in the pleasant April evening, a Bloodhound Gang line going through my head – “Rip Taylor/Rip Taylor/your girlfriend/we nailed her” – and I’m wondering what the man I’m going to see tonight would make of such funny, stupid, juvenile nonsense.
That man? Why, none other than Steve Biddulph, author of Raising Boys, the million-selling The Secret of Happy Children and Manhood. He is – apparently – Australia’s ‘best known family therapist and parenting author’, and his books have sold two million copies worldwide.
Steve has been invited to Scotland by counsellor and member of MEND (Men Exploring New Directions) Graeme Thomas, and is giving the annual lecture organized by Edinburgh’s Wellspring counselling service. This year’s is entitled ‘Where To For Men’.
Where to indeed. British men are in trouble, and Steve is here to lead us out of the darkness. He would like to see the men’s liberation movement - big in his native country, apparently – take off in our little island of downtrodden males. Under his guidance, of course.
As I arrive at the venue for the gig and pay my £7.50 to get in, I am trying desperately to maintain an open mind as to the whole thing – but I have to admit I am not hopeful. He is immediately approaching the subject of masculinity from the point of view that we need to change, which immediately implies a Victim - or female - mindset.
A lot of guys do suffer from a post-industrial (im)personality crisis, true, and because I know there is an element of truth in his assertions, I am prepared to put my skepticism on hold. Almost. The suicide rate amongst young men is soaring – straight Darwinian survival of the fittest to me – and a lot of guys feel under a lot of pressure from a lot of angles. So I might as well see what he has to say on the subject. Nothing to lose. Apart from my entry fee, that is. Hmmm. Scratch head and enter building…
I hand over
my cash, asking if I can tape the lecture on my dictaphone. I am told that
tapes of the thing will be available after it finishes. Hmmm, not very
socialist or humanitarian – but totally capitalistic. Fine by me. I weave
through the people meeting and mingling in the lobby, noting that there is a
stall selling Biddulph books and paraphernalia. Don’t check to see if the stuff
is any cheaper than at a punk gig before heading upstairs.
I grab a ringside seat in middle of the front row, then turn round and start looking at the people slowly filing in from both sides of the hall. Immediately, the unusual suspects: women (about an even half of the crowd) wearing ethic-and-ethnic-minority-friendly kaftans, guys hugging each other in public to show they are ‘sensitive’ (enough to play to a crowd), and many representatives of an archetype I call ‘earnest young socialist man’. You know the type – dresses in black, wears circular ‘studious’ glasses, ‘listens’ intently to everything being said to him by his fellow brother man, maaaan. All seemingly cut from the same ‘Psychologists R Us’ mold.
Therapy war veterans.
Not a good omen, but much as expected.
Once again I resolve to keep an open mind.
Becoming more difficult by the second, though…
I turn back
round and start scribbling down notes, and have just finished writing
‘psychologist’s day out (of your mind)’ when I pause and look up to my left. To
see something very strange. Biddulph himself – and I mean himself. He has
slipped into the room whilst I have been writing and is sitting alone by the
door. There are several seats empty in every direction round him, and he is
making absolutely no attempt whatsoever to communicate with anybody. This is
very odd for somebody who is supposed to teach men how to relate to other men.
Hmmm, scratch chin, continue making notes.
Conversation snippet heard from behind me from a man and women hugging each other, seen from the corner of my eye: “I haven’t seen you since the seventies.” Thirty years as a trauma voyeur, I think, you must be fucking jaded. I remember something JG Ballard (yep, pretentious namedrop, but it’s true) wrote to me: ‘the titles in the contents pages of psychological journals are more interesting than the articles.’ I can read the titles of the human articles here quite clearly, and these people have no idea I am doing to them what they have done to countless people over the decades. Layman analysis; pap pop psychology. There is no such thing as a ‘mental health expert’.
But less of that. I stay focused. Even when I hear somebody mentioning Freud, insane oversexed cokehead that he was.
I can see
why people worship Freud.
Show-and-tell-time. I switch on the dictaphone in my pocket. I am not paying to hear this twice. Biddulph is introduced by a nervous, starry-eyed Graeme Thomas, and slopes up to the stage, shoulders slumped. He has the weight of the fate of British males on them, after all – even Atlas himself couldn’t handle that gig. He is dressed in a black suit with a deep blue shirt – very symbolic, and not at all positive – colours. If you believe that stuff, that is. Goth psychologist chique. He truly walks like a beaten, tired, defeated man. It is painful to watch. He stands beside a table with orange juice and an apple on it, and I can’t help but cattily think that it is for ‘teacher’. My objectivity is evaporating like mist on a lake at sunrise, and he hasn’t even said a word yet.
Not wholly my fault.
bells are ringing.
So what does the man have to say for himself/us males?
He introduces himself, and informs an awed crowd that he and his ‘partner’ Sharon have just sold their two millionth book. Admittedly an impressive figure – if it’s true, that is. Know anybody who has ever heard of this guy? Didn’t think so. He may be a heavyweight in the Self-Help and Gender Studies (non-violent) gladiatorial arena in his home country, but here he’s less than zero. Except to the couple of hundred people in the hall here, that is.
I try to
multiply the number of people by the entrance fee before remembering I failed
my Maths O-Grade at school (an event which has left me permanently scarred in
the eyes of those very close, no doubt) and go back to listening to what our
man at the vanguard of the sex war has to say. Sorry, not war, (know that
obstacle courses are now called ‘confidence courses’ in the US Army now?) that
would imply (eeewww) violence of some
kind, and I don’t think I’ve ever been in a room full of men more cowed than
They would, of course, call this being evolved as males. I call it – well, I won’t say, but the image of Edward Norton hugging into a ball-less Meatloaf’s tits in Fight Club just won’t go away for some reason. I am Jack’s rising gorge. None of these men has probably ever been in a fight (not that that makes a man, but it certainly tells you something), and would go to absolutely any lengths whatsoever to avoid confrontation of any kind. And these are the disseminators of the word of the new priesthood.
Never was a religious man.
But Biddulph seems like an amiable enough character. A tall, rangy geek in glasses, he is utterly non-threatening. Religious leaders always appear plausible – until their true agendas spring out, that is. And it’s not long before Biddulph’s does. After boasting of his sales, he tells us a little bit about himself. Born in Yorkshire, he and his family emigrated to Australia when he was nine. He and his sister were dropped off at school and, through an error of judgment by a harassed-for-time school headmaster, little Stevie jumped from year four to year six.
“There was a slight age discrepancy. It was the kind of mistake that makes a psychologist,” is how he himself puts it.
become one hell of a lot clearer. What he has just told us explains his walk,
and the way he sat well away from everybody else before the gig. The automatic
response of the new kid on the chopping block who doesn’t know anybody and is
extremely shy: sit away from everybody and near the door. But there’s nowhere
to run. And he still knows it.
So, I think, the core – unwellspring - of this thing is damaged, which automatically makes anything flowing from it totally suspect. Avoid. Evolutionary survival logic. Hmmm. Scratch just about everything.
From the very little Biddulph tells us of his relationship with his father, it sounds like the usual ‘daddy didn’t have time for sensitive little me’ stuff. I would imagine just about every guy reading this could relate to this to a greater or lesser degree. You can’t help feeling sorry for the guy – it obviously scarred his life deeply – but it also got him two million sales of his book about how fathers can give their sons what he never had – and vice versa. His lack of a relationship with his father has made him rich, and king of the psychology industry jungle. Hence him standing beating his chest with his fists – look at me daddy, I did good! Lucky unlucky little bugger. I remember the old truism about those who can do, do – and those who can’t, teach. Sounds about right.
For somebody who wants fathers and sons to bond, he doesn’t even mention if he has children of his own. If he doesn’t, his thoughts on the subject of fatherhood become even more suspect. He talks about good father-son relationships, a subject he clearly has studied up on. His ‘knowledge’ certainly doesn’t come from anything real – virgins always blow it when they talk about fucking.
Biddulph then regales us with a dry, scholarly overview of the history of man, being a man, and man-to-man relationships. He is intermittently funny – he has been called a ‘mix of Billy Connolly and Doctor Spock’ – the old wimpy kid using humour as a self-defence mechanism get-out clause, I can’t help but think. The weak truly have inherited the earth, as one guy I knew put it. It’s absolutely true. Biddulph also been referred to as a ‘male Germaine Greer,’ but that’s a whole different hostage situation.
The women in the audience are
interesting. Whenever he mentions anything about men having problems these
days, they scream in agreement like the gloating audience on an episode of
Jerry Springer. They are truly getting off on this effete shite. A man saying
that men have lost, are lost and have massive problems. The women are getting
back vicariously at every guy who has ever fucked them over in the past, and
can’t get enough of this apologist nonsense.
I wait for Biddulph to mention something about the effect of feminism on men. He does – indirectly. He mentions how great the feminist movement was/is, and the history books will recognize feminism as one of the greatest achievements of the twentieth century. Oh, and they will – if you’re a woman. Which I am not. I wait for him to say something about how much many women hate men these days and stick the knife into them at every opportunity (I personally think men have got what could be called a mentally and emotionally abusive relationship with a lot of the media these days – if the media was a woman who kept on going on about how great she was, you’d walk out on her, cursing her delusion and general egocentricity).
I came here partly to see what he would say about men’s relationships with women these days, but he’s too fucking PC to have the balls to say anything that could be construed as offensive to the ‘womyn’ in the audience. He’s quite happy to tear men apart, though. Women love hearing this shite. Beaten men on the ropes. Symptomatic of a wider problem. He mentions men having problems defining themselves these days – and it’s because every single value that can be construed as male and that has gotten us to this point in our existence is now viciously ridiculed.
But Biddulph doesn’t want to upset the wee wifies in the audience. Aye, right. Grow up, pal. They’d eat you alive. Live in the real world for a few minutes, not with your PC-friendly ‘partner’. It’s a fucking jungle down here on the street – and we’re getting shafted from every angle conceivable. It’s not funny – as any honest male reader out there will attest. Legal and mental and emotional and physical blows from women in every arena of life. Grim reality.
Biddulph’s mike stand breaks and falls to the floor at this point. How utterly symbolic. He can’t even keep his mike up. His words fall to the floor – or on (my) deaf ears.
But Biddulph is no new man, oh no, far from it! “I went through my new man phase, but thankfully I’m out of it now,” he smiles, to cheers and roars of laughter from the audience. Stevie boy, I think, would that we could see ourselves as others see us. You’d be freaked out to the core. Better just leave you in fantasyland.
The Antipodean saviour of (wo)men tells us that he is a big fan of ‘50s man’, who apparently spent his whole life (and then some) looking after his kids and communicating with them on cosmic levels. Wouldn’t his own family lineage have included a 50s man raising a kid at some point? If he was so great, how come Biddulph is in this mess, and trying to project his own problems onto a whole new generation? Learned helplessness; the hallmark of those ready to be psychologically dominated by ‘experts’ or ‘life guides’.
and gasps of indignation from the women in the audience (and there is something
not far from sexual in these oral ejaculations) he tells us how, apparently,
men only spend ‘eight minutes’ a day with their male offspring. This is, he
asserts, what destroys them (him) as human beings. Of course, he is not taking
into account the vast difference in attention spans since 50s man was
hunter-gathering in their back garden. Kids’ attention spans are so edited and
sculpted and shaped by MTV and Lara Croft and Pokemon and video recorders and
cyberpets and adverts and mobile phones and the
internet and a million other fast forward past-your-eyes-things that eight minutes would
seem like a fucking eternity to them.
Of course, I know what he is saying, but it’s still outdated shit. This is the stuff that the psychologists here are going to be pumping people full of. Archeopsychic mindsets that will in no way, shape or form fit today’s (or especially tomorrow’s) ‘psyches’. Oh dear. Forecast is for bad craziness and mental devolution.
Into the final (dire) straits. Biddulph warms up for the finale. “This story is archetypal. You might not plug into it at the start, but everybody will plug into it at some point,” he tells us. Hmmm, very presumptious of him to speak for everybody.
Typical priest, in other words. Sorry, typical psychologist.
Never trust anybody who wants any kind of power over you, either physical or mental.
then proceeds to relate us a tale of a village on ye olden days that had a
great hunter in it. The hunter and his son (by the way, this took a full
fifteen minutes to tell – don’t worry, I’ll shorten it as I know that your
attention span isn’t what it was way back in the 50s) go on a hunting trip and
the father kills a rat before giving it to his son to carry.
The son, being only tiny (about eight or nine) can’t keep up with his dad, so he throws the rat away and catches up with the great hunter. They walk for hours until sundown, and the dad asks his son where the rat is for dinner. The kid can only stutter and stumble over his words before, quick as a flash, his dad hits him a hefty blow with the axe.
Pause for dramatic effect.
“Now,” says Biddulph, “every man in the audience felt that blow, knows where it landed. And that position tell you something. Now, I want you to turn to the person next to you and talk about your relationship with your father.”
Oh, I get it. It’s a kind of psychological mindtrap thing. Supposedly. I turn to look at the guy next to me, an old guy in his sixties with hair growing out of his ears. I think about what Biddulph has just said, about his talk, about how men keep their problems to themselves, about how they just clam up and let things fester inside. I think about my relationship with my own father. And I know this is the moment. If I open my mouth to speak now I will let it blurt and everything will just come rushing like a river of wired words past my teeth and I will finally say all those things to this old father-figure I could never say to my own dad and I open my mouth and say to my old man:
“I couldn’t relate to that story at all, could you?”
he says, small flecks of spittle landing on my face, “not really”.
We are repressed and depressed. Oh dear. We are as sick and sad as our saviour points out to us. Our ancient role models were much better than us. We are Damaged and Victims. Oh shit. But I’ll tell you one thing. No way was I going to talk to some old guy I’d never seen in my life about my fucking dad. That’s private. I’d be as well running up to some tramp in the street and laying all my shit on them and running away before they can say anything. Same shit, different name. Why burden anybody with my problems? I can survive without constantly whining about my lot in life. Mostly. Guys just get on with it. We are not like women like this. We have a different agenda. We are not women, dammit! Are we not men?
My old man and I turn away from each other, listening to the confessional buzz of voices of poor psychologists in the audience unburdening themselves to each other. It is fucking nauseating. People bumping their gums over nothing for the love of the sound of their own petty problems. Biddulph has stated that having women in the audience causes men to sanitise their real thoughts on subjects. Somewhat old-fashioned – he obviously doesn’t realize women are much more graphic in conversation than men. Then again, he is a fan(atic) of 50s man. I am wondering how he hopes to achieve anything for the men in the audience with an audience full of women in the old ‘clam up’ stakes and how this affects the ‘group dynamic’ when he kicks back in to the final part of the story.
The kid is
not dead, obviously. Hurrah! Biddulph asks a couple of the guys in the audience
where the blow landed and they tearfully confess to some shite or other. I feel
like shouting “carotid artery”, but restrain myself. Rip Taylor/Rip Taylor/your girlfriend/we nailed her. He gives a
couple of cod psychological observations and then tells us the rest. The kid
wakes up and, disorientated, wanders off in the direction away from his father,
still groggy from the blow (I had the little fucker dead) and comes to a
I am not making this up.
Wish I was.
He enters the castle and sees a king on a throne, surrounded by sleeping people. He tells the king he has lost his father. The king thinks this is great because he had a son who disappeared some years earlier and he can pretend that the kid is his long-lost son. There is a slight age discrepancy, but he reckons they can pull it off.
discrepancy, hmmm. Rings a Pavlovian bell somewhere. “Was he in the wrong year
at school too?” I shout out, the eternal annoying heckler. Biddulph focusses on
me and points the mike, which he has been holding since the stand stood down.
“Thinking a bit too fast there mate,” he says, knowing I have rumbled him, and
moves swiftly onwards and downwards.
The king adopts the kid as his son and they live happily for ten years. Then, one day, the hunter comes looking for his son. He has been tearfully searching for ten years and the kid recognizes his father. The king, hunter and kid go out into the forest to sort this shit out. The king gives the kid a sword and says to him “if you want to stay with me, cut off your father’s head. If you want to stay with your father, cut off my head. And that,” Steve smiles, “really is the end of the story."
What a fucking rip-off! £7.50 for that? I still feel all unreconstructed and everything, damn it! The Great Psychological Swindle!
I want to enquire about the ‘workshop’ that Biddulph is giving for ‘men’ a couple of days later in Edinburgh, and ask Graeme Thomas about it, telling him I am a freelance journalist and would be interested in covering it. He frowns and tells me it’s not for the public. Hmmm. So much for spreading the good word. I see Biddulph and debate seeing if I can speak to him outside. I want to know what he thinks of feminism. Of the lost males of the world. Where he sees everything going. Whether he’s ever had a one night stand or taken drugs or been riotously drunk or in a fight. Whether he ever saw Fight Club, a film that probably did more for males the world over than he ever will.
But I finally fully admit to myself something that has been niggling at me since even before the gig:
This man can teach me nothing about being a man in the 21st century. I have nothing to say to him. Never have had, never will have. I resolve to erase his lecture from my Dictaphone as soon as possible.
And he definitely wouldn’t like the Bloodhound Gang…
I leave without speaking to anybody. On arriving home that night, I find my next-door-neighbour Peter sleeping outside his door, so drunk he has been unable to open it. I take him in, give him a cup of tea and start to watch the Charles Bukowski film Barfly with him until he starts to nod off. I wake him up and he thanks me and leaves, finally sober enough to get his key in the lock. He said something to me a few weeks before that rings about as true as anything I heard tonight: “we waste each others’ heads.” Yep.
Helping Peter out is enough male support for me.