I’ve always been a voracious reader. Back when I first joined Facebook (I was relatively late to the party in 2009) I, along with a number of friends, completed several of those ‘how many of these top 100 books have you read’ quiz things, and I was always surprised to see how many of them I actually had. I put it partly down to the fact that for many years my family had no TV (we had one, and then it broke, and failed to be replaced for much of my teens) and partly that I have always liked the action of reading, in the arm chair (feet on radiator if cold) or, even better, in bed (my mum tells me she once asked the doctor what to do about my constant evening reading – I gather there was no useful answer).
Not that I am a great lover of the study of literature. I was convinced for a long time, because of the reading thing, that I would go on to study it, but no. My prime motivator as a reader, especially as a young adult and certainly during my twenties, was to escape. Escape from boredom, familial conflict and the mundanity of hard work into a fantasy-land of neatly tied endings (or at least, another novel), derring-do, high romance, mystery and adventure. The only time I didn’t read this way was during my degree, when I read all the time for study, and it was nice to have a break by doing something different (like hanging out with my friends, telling bad jokes or ranting about feminism and the middle ages).
Today, I find myself in a similar position. With so much to read for my professional life, I haven’t much time or energy for reading for pleasure; this year I have read, in total, three books. In the summer holiday The Last Tudor, another in Philippa Gregory’s series of novels about the aristocratic women of Early Modern Europe, and in this one, Mary Beard’s Women and Power and Grayson Perry’s Descent of Man. I’m fascinated by representations of gender, and how people negotiate their lives through the gendered lens, and, to sit curled into the corner of the sofa, a lamp propped up on a couple of boxes to guard against the failing light, has been a luxury, a pleasure.
Much of the two final books have resonated strongly (I can’t say that I have a great deal in common with the women of the Tudor age, truth be told); I fell asleep last night, mulling over what it means to be a woman or a man, today and in the past, and what the insights of Mary Beard and Grayson Perry might mean to me now as a woman and a mother of two boys (as I am no longer a class teacher, I can’t claim to have any influence there). I thought about how, somehow, I am an ‘other’, emotional, illogical and just plain weird (I’m not even a proper teacher any more) and men, in particular the men at the top of the patriarchal tree (that is, white, male and middle class), somehow, are not.
They are, as Grayson Perry puts it, the default position and the baseline, their power invisible unless you don’t happen to be what they are (white, middle class and male). It made me reflect, and I will probably continue to do so, on the debates in education that I read, especially around student behaviour. As he puts it, “When crimes are reported, the causes are invariably said to be the economy, imbalances in society, religious extremism perhaps. Rarely is the main reason talked about – it’s just too mundane. The perpetrator was male.” In an education setting, maybe, just maybe, we haven’t got so much a problem with behaviour as with masculinity and what young people think it means.
I have to say, I loved his book. I loved the emotional intensity of it, the reclamation of men as emotional beings, with their compulsive need to win, and to be right all the time, to be the best. In a satisfying reversal of subconscious expectation, Mary Beard makes a dispassionate, erudite and intellectual argument about the structures of power, and how we need to change them rather than the women who seek to take a share in it (boiled down to, in essence, ‘I want you to take me seriously’), and Grayson Perry ends with an appeal to tenderness, for me, the cherry on the cake in a book born of concern for men and expressions of manliness that no longer make sense in today’s more egalitarian world and which damage and make it more difficult for them to lead fulfilling and happy lives.
He, with his call for men to get off their high horses and get more in touch with their feelings, has acted as a reminder and an encouragement to me to continue to tell human stories, infected and infused with emotion, to act as a counterbalance to popular, unquestioned narratives, and play my (very small) part in resetting the default position.