Tim Samuels: 'Men lack a way of living that is good for them'
Tim Samuels’s book about the uncertain state of masculinity takes in porn, fatherhood, mental health, violence and the trouble with monogamy
Tim Samuels: “You’ve got to be grounded in the reality that men are dominant as a gender but individual men are having a hard time.” Photograph: Anthony Harvey/Getty Images
As we sit down in the corner of a London pub, Tim Samuels shows me a text. A friend has spotted his new book, Who Stole My Spear?, in his local bookshop and gleefully messaged him to point out that it is included in a “buy one, get one free” offer.
Despite spending six months hermetically sealed in his apartment writing it (“not good for the serotonin levels”), Samuels seems a little stunned to see his book on the shelves. As for what section it should sit in – lifestyle/humour/factual? – he has no idea.
So what is it then? A Caitlin Moran-style guide for men, a self-help book or a manual? “It’s part journalistic inquisition, memoir and meditation with hints of how-to,” he says.
Writing a book about masculinity was a “natural extension” of what Samuels has been doing on his BBC Radio 5 Live show, Men’s Hour, which covers everything from crying and cooking to how to survive polar bear attacks. He has had a patient literary agent waiting in the wings for years, but only recently decided there was more to say about what it means to be a man today than could be covered in an hour of live radio.
Through the prism of men and masculinity, Samuels saw a way to tie up the threads of his journalistic career to date, including fatherhood, monogamy, ageing, porn, violence and mental health.
Samuels started out as a reporter on BBC’s Newsnight. He won Royal Television Society’s Young Journalist of the Year award, before moving into documentary making. He made Power to the People, a triptych of TV shows about giving the most disenfranchised groups in our society (including the elderly) a voice.
He tackled pornography in Hardcore Profits and more recently stuck a pin in some of the overinflated headlines about millions of Romanians swarming to Britain when EU border controls were relaxed, in the documentary The Great Big Romanian Invasion.
He is clear from the outset that his first book is not a plea for more rights for men, or men whingeing about their plight. “I think it’s really important to recognise the strange position that men are in, and to just paint us as victims is to miss the point and will turn people off.
“You’ve got to be grounded in the reality that men are dominant as a gender but individual men are having a hard time. I don’t think men lack rights, I think they lack a way of living which is good for them.”
In Ireland, the rate of suicide among men is generally more than four times higher than in women. (From 2000 to 2013, the average rate for males was 19.1 deaths per year per 100,000 of the population; the average for females was 4.5 .) Most murder victims are male and the vast majority of the Irish prison population is made up of men.
Samuels cites statistics about boys lagging behind girls in school, worrying heart disease statistics for men, homelessness (which disproportionately affects men) and courtroom decisions that deny men access to their children.
Although the book’s subtitle is “How to be a man in the 21st century”, Samuels was cautious of too much how-toing. “I’m wary of self-help; it’s more to do with provoking thought and challenging the way people looks at things.”
Excuse for philandering?
Drawing on history, biology, and psychology, Samuels looks at the 42 per cent divorce rate in the UK and questions whether men are made for marriage and monogamy. He mischievously suggests, by comparing the relatively large size of a man’s testes to that of, say, a gibbon, that we find a clue as to how men are biologically wired when it comes to sex. Interesting, but doesn’t that argument come dangerously close to a “hey, this is just the way I am” excuse for philandering?
“I think I tried to head that off by saying, ‘Good luck to the fella who tries to tell his wife he cheated because of the size of his testes compared to apes’.”
On a more serious note, he adds: “If every thing was going really well and divorces weren’t running at around 40 per cent, then there would be less reason to have this conversation, but for me it was useful to shine a light on what men are up against, how we’ve lived, and to open that conversation. If you are planning to be monogamous, it’s useful to know the wiring you are up against. That’s not saying it’s a blank cheque for fellas to shag around as much as they want to or shirk their responsibilities.”
The book also offers practical suggestions to make manhood better. (This was harder to do than the chapter on monogamy, he acknowledges, unless you include his “playful” suggestion to establish a National Stray Day.)
Samuels isn’t calling for revolution, but asking for a “good masculinity”, but what does that actually mean? “It’s how to connect with that wiring – those impulses, the way we’ve lived for 200,000 years – without rolling the clocks back to some boorish 1970s sexism. How can you vent your masculinity . . . but not at the expense of other people, not at the expense of women, or your kids?”
Aware of the possibility that talking about men’s issues might be construed as whingeing, he knew he would have to go further. “If you want to influence policy, or shape a debate, particularly around something like this, where people’s first reaction is ‘What do men have to complain about?’ then you have to make the case to back it up. I don’t think whingeing gets you far.”
He believes governments, businesses and the media can all do more when it comes to issues such as mental health, fatherhood and work. “It’s harder to come up with solutions than just criticise politicians. But if I was Minister for Men”, he asks himself, “what would I do?”
Samuels himself is a prime, or even primal, example of 20th-century man – a handsome Northerner from hard man Manchester who loves Morrissey and sleeps with a yoga mat next to his bed but still has a bit of Gallagher swagger or, as he puts it, “not a hyper-masculine meathead”.
Is he a feminist? “Feminism is a loaded term, but I’d say I’m totally opposed to discrimination and [I] champion equal rights. I have no problem saying I’m a mainstream feminist.” Does he think it is possible that some men are struggling because things are changing, albeit at a glacial pace, for women, and they simply don’t like it? In his answer, he references the US presidential campaign. He talks about blue-collar workers in areas of the US where industry is dead; where men feel they no longer bring anything to the table.
Economically empowered men who are happy and fulfilled at work are better equipped to cope with changes, including when it comes to women, he posits. It’s the ones who are “struggling to make ends meet, can’t find work and have lost their identity” that make up “the spine of Trump support . . . The guys lapping up everything he says about women”.
Oddly for a book that has dedicated sections on dating, fatherhood and porn, there is no chapter on the thing we are told men think about most: sex. “In the hands of a woman, it’s seen as sexually liberating to write about sex, because you are dealing with centuries of sexual repression, whereas for a man we haven’t dealt with that. We’ve been the dominant group, we’ve written the rules in our favour, so I’m not sure it would be liberating for me to write about sex. It would probably come across as smutty.”
Who Stole My Spear? includes a disarming account of Samuels’s own mini mental-health meltdown. Did he worry about what friends, family and colleagues might think of him after reading it? “I feel exposed. I do. I wonder if people will view me differently.”
Even in 2016, he says men are up against some serious conditioning. “But with every role model, sports figure, politician or pop star who puts their hand up and says “I’m struggling”, Samuels believes, it makes it easier for the next guy.
Discussing his own mental health was hard, but he says the greater good is for more men to be open about how they feel and let themselves be vulnerable. “If I’m saying that I’ve got to walk the walk as well.”
- Who Stole My Spear? is published by Century