I’ve been on Woman’s Hour!

Jane Garvey, presenter of Woman’s Hour, joins the list of heroes I have met who turned out to be just as great in real life as you’d hope – along with the likes of Glen Campbell and Graeme Garden.

When Woman’s Hour called up a few weeks ago to say they were keen to feature me and partner Ros on the programme talking about our book The Gender Agenda I was delighted. I’ve been a fan of Woman’s Hour for years, it’s an amazing example of brilliant radio – that’s why it’s run for so long. And when the producer added that they’d like to dedicate the entire episode of the programme, with it’s listenership knocking five million people, to us and our book I was astounded.

Today was the day. Ros and I headed for Broadcasting House, had our picture taken in front of a yellow screen for some reason (see above), met Jane Garvey and went on air. We gave it a bit of chit chat about the book. Then the great British public phoned in. We’d done our homework the night before, prepared for all sorts of difficult questions and issues that might come our way. We shouldn’t have worried. The Woman’s Hour audience were broadly onside with our agenda (apart from Steven, and Ros gave him what for) and told us about all sorts of examples of the ways children are treated differently according to their gender from a very young age (as if there weren’t already enough examples in the book!) It was inspiring and empowering to hear so many people who are aware of the issues and keen to do something about it.

Listen in here or download the episode –

My beard looking amazing on TV

I’ve been doing some broadcast. Which is interesting if you just like watching me on TV, but also if you should be looking for a pundit or presenter to talk/do politics. If it’s the latter then please get in touch.

First I was on BBC Parliament reviewing the first Prime Minister’s Questions of the new parliament. It was a bit bright so I’m squinting slightly but on the plus side I didn’t need many takes to film it.

Here it is. I’m about 10 minutes in –

And then on Sunday night I was back reviewing the papers on the BBC News Channel alongside City AM’s Rachel Cunliffe. She’s one to watch, I suspect she’s got the drive and ability to go far. We made a decent double act with a wide variety of stories to get stuck in to. I still managed to get some feminism in at the end. (For the avoidance of doubt I said I’d be watching the tennis player we talked about because I hoped she’d win). And I’m not a vain man but I couldn’t help notice that my beard did look good during this TV appearance. Entirely through accident rather than any care I put into it.

Here’s the two review slots.


Terrorism and a fun run. There is little obvious connection apart from perhaps security concerns if it was a particularly well-attended fun run.

But a thought I had at the end of my children’s school’s fun run has grown and meandered in the month since, a month that’s been scarred by atrocities, and finally driven me to write something on a subject I’ve been meaning to tackle all year: men.

As I rounded the last bend on the Peckham Rye running course there was two people in front of me on the fun run. My shins had seized up, I’d not set a satisfactory time. And yet I found the strength – mental and physical – to sprint the last 200 yards and get past the pair ahead.

The folk I overtook thought the small crowd were cheering their effort, in fact they were cheering because I’d turned the fun run competitive for a brief moment.

Now this story is remarkably like one that Grayson Perry tells in his excellent book The Descent of Man. He’s a keen cyclist and recounts a strange urge to catch up and defeat a fellow cyclist ahead of him on a hill.

It’s a stupid masculine behaviour.

And it is stupid. Being competitive or aggressive is not particularly helpful in the game of life if you want to reproduce, it’s not some in built behaviour, as Cordelia Fine so elegantly explains in her latest book. And in the same tome she trashes the idea that men are beholden to testosterone in the way they behave.

Part of me was delighted at overtaking two fellow runners on the final stretch. Part of me was delighted that I’d made them feel silly for thinking the crowd was cheering them when it was me, or at least the race scenario I’d engendered they were hollering about. But more of me was appalled at me, a fully paid up feminist for many years now, falling foul of a daft masculine trope.

In the weeks since there’s been a string of terrorist attacks – in Manchester, London Bridge and Finsbury Park. The attackers of course had one thing in common – they were men. And for what feels like the first time people are beginning to take seriously the masculinity element in terrorism. The links between terror attackers and domestic abuse are being exposed.

Competition and control are bits of the male jigsaw that make an ugly picture.

And there was another element that’s fed into my thinking about masculinity.

At new year I made three new year’s resolutions.

One was to be nicer to homeless people, there’s so many of them now compared to the New Labour years when the problem was all but wiped out. I now carry some loose change in my pocket ready to hand out if approached or if I see someone sleeping rough. It’s a start.

I can’t remember what the second resolution was. Probably something to do with golf.

And third I resolved to make a friend. A man friend.

My partner pointed out that I already have friends. And that’s true. But I responded by explaining that I have a healthy heart (I know this because I had my age 40 NHS MOT last year) but that doesn’t stop me trying to keep fit. My mental and physical health may be fine at the moment (and both have fluctuated over the years), but that only means that now is the time to take measures to ensure both stay that way.

And my Man Friend Project is about mental health largely. I want to interrogate what it means to be and have a friend and why men are so bad at making new ones.

One of the best ways to inoculate yourself against poor mental health is to have a support network, inevitably made up of family and friends. The evidence suggests that men with the widest support networks enjoy the best mental health. (Caveats apply of course, having lots of friends does not mean inevitably you won’t get depressed for example).

Again, referring back to Grayson Perry’s book he suggests men accumulate friends in a different way to women. While women pick up friends at school then add more at college and more at each job they have men drop friends at each stage. So when they leave school they will join a new circle at friends at university or work and take only one or two friends along with them through life. That’s certainly been my experience (but yes I know that doesn’t make it science) and when I talk to other people about this that’s backed up by their lives too.

Now, there is one reason why male mental health is a particularly tricky subject. It is something that is used by the so-called Men’s Rights Activists (MRAs – it sounds like a disease, they are one) as a trojan horse to undermine women’s rights and attack women. MRAs are broadly hateful and stupid and they regard human rights as a zero sum game – so the fact women have won more rights in recent decades means men must have lost rights. And when they are called out for the misogynists they are they respond by shouting ‘male suicide’. Because suicide is the biggest killer of men aged under 45 in the UK. That’s terrible and each one is a tragedy. But part of that statistic is to do with the all-round improvement in healthy lifestyles reducing the death toll from other causes. Male mental health is an issue that needs to be looked at carefully and considerately, not by people using it as a way to shut down debate about their motives for setting up dodgy organisations that peddle lady hate.

And what the MRAs don’t tend to flag up is that more women attempt suicide than men. It’s just men attempt suicide using different, more fatal methods. Even in this grim area there are gender differences and like in every other area they are not the product of biology.

So while MRAs tend to suggest male mental health is affected by feminism not allowing them to be ‘real men’ any more I come at the issue from the other end of the telescope. That it is the straitjacket of masculinity that causes mental health problems. That stops men reaching out to each other to become friends.

I ought to define masculinity here I guess – I suppose I mean competitiveness, aggression, a lack of empathy and emotional intelligence or at least a belief that such behaviours should not be displayed, disrespect for femininity. (And if that sounds like a list of negative characteristics that’s because it is. I’d likely define femininity in negative terms too. Both are ways of artificially simplifying the complexity of the human condition.)

And since we’re on definitions I probably ought to define friendship. But I’m still working on that one. Is a friend someone you can call up and go for a pint with? Is a friend someone you’ve known a long time? Is a friend someone you go for a pint with and know that you could tell them you were having a mental health crisis, you know, if you HAD to? Is a friend someone you’ve met and liked and they like you but you don’t know each other that well?

This is relevant here because by coincidence a few weeks ago I bumped into Julianne Marriott. Is she a friend? Or an acquaintance? We met for professional reasons, our paths have crossed since and we always enjoy each other’s company over a coffee or a drink. Though I did once stand next to her on the tube for an entire journey without recognising her so that suggests acquaintance.

Julianne is involved with the Jo Cox Loneliness Commission. Here’s something bringing together two themes: terrorism and mental health – the mental health of people alone not the mental health of Jo’s killer, who was of course a man who was wicked rather than ill.

The Commission, led by Tory MP Seema Kennedy and Labour’s Rachel Reeves, is focussing on different aspects of loneliness. In our increasingly atomised society it’s a growing problem that needs to be addressed. Being alone is fine, being lonely – having no-one you can reach out to – is not.

The commission’s most recent topic has been male loneliness. When I was talking to Julianne about The Man Friend Project she invited me along to an event in a men’s shed. Not just a man’s shed, that would be really weird. The Men’s Shed movement has grown in recent years. The idea is that men, particularly middle-aged and older men get together to do something. Because men do stuff. Invariably it’s woodwork or metalwork or something like that. The theory is that while men won’t discuss their problems to another man’s face, they might do so if standing shoulder to shoulder over a lathe. If a lathe is an actual thing. I know nothing about practical things which is part of the problem with the men’s shed movement. By assuming that all men are handy and like doing stuff it panders to stereotype and seeks to treat the symptoms of the problem rather than the problem itself. But there’s a strong case to be made that you have to deal with the world as you find it so to that end it’s admirable.

And its success speaks for itself.

The men I spoke to at the shed on an estate just north of King’s Cross clearly benefit hugely from it.

A chap called Kevin told me it gave him a reason to get out of bed in the morning. Another bloke said he’s spent most of his life being drunk but the shed had turned his life around. But I was still a bit afraid when he said he was going to batter me for being a Crystal Palace fan because he was a West Ham follower, luckily he followed that with a toothless laugh.

Ray explained that men are hit harder when they are left on their own either by divorce or bereavement and they find it harder to ask family for help. The occasional woman stops by the shed and Ray explained that kept the swearing in check. He said the people there aren’t racist, sexist or ageist which all seemed true. But they weren’t feminist either.

I also spoke to Seema Kennedy and Rachel Reeves about the whole issue. It was noisy in the shed but here’s what they had to say:

But the men there baulked when I tried to discuss friendship and feelings. They told me I was over-thinking things. They may be right.

But there is an issue here. The Jo Cox Commission on Loneliness have identified men as a group that requires special attention. (Seema Kennedy in the clip says there are only two groups of people, inferring men and women but she’s either being daft or disingenuous or, my preferred option, simply didn’t understand my clumsy question. The other groups I was referring to are older people, teenagers, mothers etc.)

The MRAs have sprung up because toxic masculinity is being challenged like never before, and to me that is all for the good. Others have written more persuasively and cogently than me on this topic – see Grayson Perry, Rebecca Asher was ahead of the curve with her book Man Up and look out for Chris Hemming’s forthcoming Be A Man which might be interesting coming from someone who has turned their back on lad culture.

And analysts and commentators are drawing a very short and straight line between terror and gender.

I don’t really see the need to entertain any idea that it is sex rather than gender that drives these behaviours. Cordelia Fine has driven a coach and horses through the silly ‘pink brain/blue brain’ analysis. My own book The Gender Agenda out next month that grew from the @GenderDiary Twitter account provides a wealth of examples of the way children are directed into certain behaviours from a very young age.

So toxic masculinity is being assaulted from different angles. Mine is friendship – how men make friends, how they can make more friends, how that can help with coping with life because we all need help coping with life.

I don’t know exactly where the project goes next. Get in touch with suggestions.

When I tweeted my new year’s resolution a man tweeted back to say he’d be my friend. Which was nice. But weird. But then a lot of thinking and acting around this subject feels weird, in part precisely because I’m a victim of the masculine straitjacket myself. Should I go on man dates to make friends with strangers? If I did there would be something false about the situation. Should I identify male acquaintances and look to develop them into friends? I can only do that once I understand exactly what friendship is. (It’s the old newspaper editor’s infuriating demand: ‘I don’t know what I want but I’ll know it when I see it.’)

I met a friend earlier this year for a drink and started the conversation by saying “John, are you my friend?” He spluttered into his pint glass. But he agreed that he was my friend (phew!) and we kicked around the idea that I could do podcasts with friends and non-friends with the starting point of the same question: “Are you my friend?” If you’d like to hear that then encourage me and I’ll do it.

I wonder about joining groups too. My parents generation were in all sorts of clubs like Rotary and Round Table. That certainly meant they had company, but how many of those people were friends? It’s hard to say but when my dad was in hospital recently a string of Rotarians came to visit. Even if they weren’t his friends they were a support network. But nobody has the time to be in such clubs now do they? Women do. The WI is expanding at a rate of knots suggesting younger women recognise the issue of an atomised society and are doing something about it. Why is it so much harder for men to do the same? If the Women’s Institute can regenerate why isn’t the Rotary Club a hip activity for men? And I only put this out there as a question but is it because they let women in? Such clubs were bastions of the old boys network but was it the case that they couldn’t evolve into something more modern and male because masculinity is so brittle?

So there’s the Man Friend Project. Its genesis has been wide ranging. It’s future is likely to be similarly woolly. But thanks for reading. Please get in touch with suggestions, criticisms, and ideas on how to take it forward.



New Podcast: Scottish Labour’s top man gloating at SNP defeat (& Tory wins?)

Ian Murray returned to the podcast this week. For two years he was Scottish Labour’s only MP and he talks about how “singularly unpleasant” the SNP were to him in that time. He’s honest and open about how pleased he was to see certain SNP MPs lose – Alex Salmond in particular who he says was “awful” to him albeit he didn’t inflict an actual wedgie on Ian – and I feel for him on that front. It was a tough time for Ian, he’s a decent chap and it’s pleasing on a personal level that he’s got Scots colleagues again.

However, a listener got in touch to point out that in many seats – including Salmond’s – where the SNP lost the Conservatives won and it jarred to hear a Labour politician appearing to welcome a Tory gain. That’s a fair point and I accept I probably ought to have challenged Ian on that.

Instead Ian and I and Lindsay Razaq from the Press and Journal – always an insightful contributor but listen out for her particularly smart spot in the Queen’s Speech – talked about fish, sending Derek McKay to the moon and how to stay cool in the summer.

Listen in here

New Podcast: the election predictions are in

This week’s podcast features some people who really ought to know better making their general election predictions.

Three wise men – former Lib Dem spin doctor Matt Withers, deputy political editor of the Independent Rob Merrick and Birmingham Mail political editor Jon Walker – take on two small children to see who can most accurately predict the outcome of the election.

Plus there’s my prediction. And bear in mind while the pundits and the children on my 2015 election prediction episode all said Ed Miliband would win I called it for the Tories some way in advance. So I’m confident of repeating that success this time out.

Listen in to our predictions. Laugh at us all on Friday when Jeremy Corbyn wins..

Broadcast: The Papers, BBC News Channel, June 4

Not an easy night to review the papers given events in London on Saturday. Inevitably there was only one story, interestingly none of the newspapers had really moved the story on 24 hours after the attack took place.

My fellow guest last night was Jo Phillips, one time aide to Paddy Ashdown. She twigged that we’d been invited on because the Question Time featuring Tim Farron (her department) and Nicola Sturgeon (my department) had been scheduled for early evening yesterday. In the event it got bumped to tonight.

We offered what insight we could and I called the leader of the free world a silly name.

Watch here  –

NEW PODCAST: Election special 3

The third and most likely final podcast from the pub for this election campaign. This week we convened in the glorious surroundings of Catford, most famous for having a huge papier mache cat on its shopping centre and for being the butt of many of Spike Milligan’s jokes.

I was joined by Birmingham Mail political editor Jon Walker again and, after touring some of the most glamorous spots in the UK, Matt Withers the former Lib Dem spin doctor also dropped in again.

The horrific events in Manchester have overshadowed the election campaign quite rightly this week. While respectfully nodding to the tragedy there we stuck to what we know best: politics. So we reviewed how the main parties are getting on, what’s gone wrong for the Tories, why Tim Farron is like Richard Nixon and the Lib Dems are like a boring version of The Young Ones and whether Jeremy Corbyn can really win the election.

Visit the podcasts section of my site or listen here:

NEW PODCAST: Election special 2

Back in the pub this week but with a different panel and a working mic. So the podcast is a bit longer than usual given I had three guests but they were all good guests – Julia Rampen, digital news editor at The New Statesman, Jon Walker the political editor of the Birmingham Mail and, halfway through the recording, Martha Gill turned up wet and bedraggled having taken a very odd route to get to the pub. She’s just started up The Spoon morning email so we talked about why the world needs yet another email to start the day.

Plus of course we analysed the latest election goings on. How each party is faring, what’s going to happen to the Labour party after their inevitable defeat – and Jon had some good intel on that – and a discussion on whether Theresa May has really read the Harry Potter books and a surprisingly heated argument about which ones the best.

And there’s some nonsense about a nuclear dog, Nye Bevan and why rich people are ludicrous.

Listen here

New podcast: Election special 1

So the plan was to generate some atmosphere by recording the next few podcasts in the pub. There’s no MPs around, there’s no MPs in fact – technically they all lost their job when parliament was dissolved. So I hoped to gather together a brains trust each week to mull over events on the election trail.

The plan kind of worked. Jon Walker, friend and colleague and political editor of the Birmingham Post and Birmingham Mail got on board and Matt Withers, a witty and erudite chap who I knew when he was a Lib Dem press officer and who has since gone on to greater things, responded to my Twitter invite for guests.

The brains trust was in place, we met in The Dartmouth Arms, Forest Hill, one of my favourite hostelries.

Unfortunately two things went a little awry. First, because it’s a good pub The Dartmouth Arms was busy and so there was quite a lot of background noise on the podcast. That wouldn’t have been such a problem had I remembered to check that the Yeti mic (that’s actually what it’s called, google it if you don’t believe me) was connected before I started the recording. That’s the trouble with recording in pubs. There’s beer involved. I did spot the problem halfway through the recording and with some judicious editing I managed to pull a decent episode together. As long as you don’t mind hearing anecdotes about Tim Farron told by a man who sounds like he’s on an old mobile phone, and underwater.

No matter the standard of the sound, quality will out so there’s some excellent anecdotes about meeting a senior politician at the darts and two vital questions are answered: Who is the biggest diddy of the election campaign so far, and do hipsters have pets?

Oh and I got a new logo.

Listen here: 

Latest Podcast – the parliament in review

Before MPs stopped being MPs and before they went back to their constituencies to campaign I caught up with a few SNP members to talk about their experiences over the last couple of years, what they liked about being an MP, what surprised them and a bit about what they are expecting from the election ahead.

By the magic of editing, and with the help of a brand new jingle, I’ve cut together bits of my conversations with Kirsty Blackman, Chris Stephens, Marion Fellowes and Deidre Brock. There’s some strong criticism for the Tories but also some cross party praise for their fellow MPs.

And I called on Westminster watcher extraordinaire Tony Grew for a longer chat discussing what he’s called the ‘traumatic parliament’. Among the reflections on some of the momentous events of 2015-17 Tony also picks his MP of the parliament.

Listen here