I’ve never been comfortable with real men

I never played football as a boy. I wrote poetry on Saturday afternoons. I wore pastel-coloured clothes and I had long hair

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell

Michael Harding at Lough Allen, Co Leitrim. Photograph: Brian Farrell


Last weekend I was in an exclusive Dublin nightclub where real men talk to real men, and women hang on; a very masculine world, and a place I associate with celebrities or people who long to be celebrities.

I clung to the bar and drank shots of vodka until my eyes were out on sticks and I hoped that the glory of real men might reflect on me too.

By dawn I was stretched on a sofa in the lobby of some hotel, as my new friends continued to drink. I didn’t know where I was, but I felt safe enough. I did my share of all-night drinking in the old days, burning up that sour machismo residue that lingers in a man’s gut when he feels rejected.

Back then we drank until the girls in the high heels began to cry and real men began to think of rashers and sausages in the Manhattan; a cafe that used to stay open all night like a clinic for damaged egos, healing the broken revellers with big pots of tea and ferocious breakfasts.

But I have never been comfortable with the idea of real men. I never played football as a boy. I wrote poetry on Saturday afternoons. I wore pastel-coloured clothes when I could get them. In summer I’d wear shorts, and sleeveless T-shirts, and I had long hair.

Dress in Venice
As a student I went to Venice, and I was on a train one day when I felt that the other passengers were watching me. Perhaps I was showing too much flesh or didn’t look masculine enough. Perhaps I might have been less conspicuous if I had been wearing leather trousers and a white shirt, like boys I had seen scooting around the piazzas in the late afternoons, displaying themselves like buzzing bees to girls who sat on walls and dangled their sandals.

I was bored in the heat of Venice, with its flaking walls and cool marble floors beneath my bare feet. So I decided to visit the mountains up north. I sat in my short trousers and yellow vest with a rucksack on my back, as other passengers boarded the train. I guessed they were peasants; all the men wore dark suits and the women were wrapped in blue dresses and cheap anoraks. It struck me that poor people must be the same everywhere. They don’t embrace the sun. Although, even from the beginning, I felt they were taking a bit too much interest in me and my rucksack.

The thought occurred to me that perhaps these poor unwashed people think I am an American, in my state of undress, and if I left the rucksack aside they might go through it when I was at the toilet and steal my money, or all my other coloured vests. So I sat with the bag strapped to my back for the entire journey, and leaned forward; a painful position for four hours on a train.

Poor and unruly Italy
Italy at the time was poor and unruly. Middle-class students like me had always been advised in our sheltered cocoons of Irish adolescence to stay away from people who were rough – although we were happy to take advantage of poor countries such as Greece or Italy during summer holidays, as we lay on beaches and talked poetry, and lived on bread, tomatoes and olive oil.

The sun stopped shining, and the train carriage became extremely cold. I could see freezing fog on the distant mountains and I realised why they had been staring at me since Venice. We were in the mountains and I was dressed for a beach.

There was an old lady opposite me with a tobacco-coloured face, a tiny mouth and no earlobes. She had waxy black hair parted at the centre and bunned fiercely at the nape of her neck. Her hands were gnarled like the twists of a whitethorn bush, and she grinned at me as if she considered eating me.

Eventually she leaned towards me and put her withered hand on my bare shoulder, and I could see that her brown eyes were not sneering. She was concerned about something.

She had a cheap string bag stuffed with useless things, and from the bottom of it she dug out another anorak. A cheap, poor man’s anorak, that reeked of masculine sweat. But she insisted I put it around my shoulders. I did.

And eventually I let go of the rucksack altogether, and I wore the anorak as far as Tisoi, where Dante is revered, and I thanked her, because I was very glad of it.

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