The Times, 18 August 2007


How do you feel about country music? Do you like to hear a man sing about losing everything: his job, his truck and his girl? How about an anthem to gun control? Or a heartfelt number about domestic violence? Me, I like ‘em all. I want to hear a song about a logging tragedy, and I’m all the happier if it’s by someone called Slaid Cleaves. If it turns out that the logging casualty then haunts the river where he died, muttering about breakfast in hell, so much the better. I even like the camp element – who else but Dolly Parton would do a song about a small-minded school PTA? But it turns out that country music isn’t always three chords and the truth. Tammy Wynette had things wrong when she sang Stand By Your Man. Sometimes it may well be hard to be a woman. But it turns out to be much harder to be a man.

Defra, whose every pronouncement I wait upon, poised like a mountain cat, has this week released statistics suggesting that men aged between 35 and 44 are the most miserable people in society, beating the perennial grumps, teenagers, into a big, fat, cocked hat. It takes them till they’re 55-64 to recover the levels of happiness which they boasted as teens (this time without the adrenalin rush of trying not to get shot, stabbed, or a paltry B at A-Level). This revelation has left me feeling rather sad, although women apparently become happier once they hit 34, so I might just be enjoying the last couple of years of my decade of uninterrupted sulk. What makes men in their late 30s so dissatisfied? Is it the time when you finally realise that you will neither score that winning goal for England in the World Cup Final, nor become an astronaut? Is it because you had kids and are now regretting the responsibilities that came with them? Or is it that all of your teen idols have subsequently turned out to be paedophiles? Apart from Han Solo, whose name always suggested more solitary pursuits anyhow.

I wonder if it’s to do with a relentlessly negative portrayal on British television. Most adverts, soap operas and sitcoms show men in their late 30s to be spineless, worthless saps. They’re always too stupid to see what’s going on around them, and they’re never good enough for their sassy, smart girlfriends and wives. The nadir of this trend is that Brita commercial where a rational man in possession of a water filter is seemingly too retarded to make tea that isn’t covered in a thick scum, as though a major oil spill has occurred somewhere near his cup, and a tragic, grubby seabird is about to expire on his saucer. No wonder they’re flocking to watch Heroes, in which men get to stop time, fly, and save a cheerleader from certain death.

Even the traditional male preserve of DIY is under a feathery threat, as researchers at the University of Auckland have this week released footage of crows using not one, but two separate tools to get a snack out of a sealed box. That’s sometimes more than I can manage when food is in the salad crisper at the bottom of the fridge. Admittedly the tools were two different lengths of twig, rather than a powersaw, and a hammer, but even so – it’s a debilitating to a man. I rang round my male friends (aged 35-44) to find out just how depressed they really were. They were mostly too miserable to answer, obviously, but the ones who could be lured from painting their rooms black wanted to send out a positive message to their brothers. They said there were plenty of things that get better when you get older, so chin up, boys. Here are the highlights:

1 You now buy good wine, and you never have to drink cider again. You have also realised that the drinking unit of whisky is a large glass, not a large bottle. This is lucky, because your hangovers take longer to go away.

2 You find more women attractive. Sure, you still fancy Jessica Alba and Scarlett Johansson, but you also fancy Charlotte Rampling, Catherine Deneuve, and sometimes Lorraine Kelly, when she’s being minxy.

3 You look good in a suit. Young men think they do, but they usually look either like they are on their way to court, or about to dance on an aunt’s shoes at a wedding. You, on the other hand, look hot.

4 You understand your hair. You no longer feel pressured to wear a ridiculous cockatiel-style do, so you have short hair, which may be turning grey. This is no bad thing. Remember when George Clooney became a sex symbol? Not with a mullet in Murder, She Wrote, that’s for sure.