Why we should feel sorry for lads

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With lad culture showing no signs of waning, former Nuts magazine editor (and Stylist’s editorial director), Phil Hilton, explains why the poor oafs deserve sympathy, not scorn

I think I finally understand lads. I think I have at last worked out what makes them gather together drunkenly, fight, strip and make that noise that sounds like “Ooooayaaaah!” regardless of their place of origin.

I think I know what makes men become these public nightmares of cartoon masculinity. And I’ll explain… but first let me describe the problem, with the help of my wife.

So she returns home and she’s just travelled through London’s Camden Town station. There she met around 20 young men. They were chanting to the rest of the passengers – it was like a football chant but consisted of only two words, “F*** Off”. Stretched out, “F***ck Oooofff, F*** Oooofff”, to create the necessary sing-song quality.

They gave the finger to everyone who made eye contact. They were effectively asking a major transport hub if it wanted to step outside. It was 4.30 on a Saturday afternoon.

So the Camden shoppers, the parents, the children, the goths, the tourists, the hipsters, all felt slightly worse, slightly sadder, intimidated, by these men and their collective act of bullying. Their pleasure, everyone else’s discomfort. A day out for the lads.

As my wife tells me this I think, ‘they’re my lot: men’. Impossible not to feel some collective shame: what is wrong with us? Also, they were my lot in another sense, the sense that I earned my living for years entertaining them in my capacity as a men’s magazine editor. I have in my time worked on at least four ‘lads’ mags’. Understanding young British men was my job and I drew on my own past, but also on research to work out what made them tick.

The extent to which I helped create or learned to exploit lad culture is a debate I still have with myself, but I could never excuse or abide the male habit of cruel and deliberate public offensiveness.

I’ve hated it all my life, but now, older with a family of my own, I realise just what a disaster that particular breed of lad behaviour is – for women, for society as a whole – but also for young men themselves. And so the resurgence of this dark side of male life in websites, on Twitter and in our public spaces is depressing beyond belief.

Good Lads?

In January last year, the Good Lad programme – workshops in appropriate behaviour – was started by sports captains at Oxford University in the hope of teaching male students how to have a good time without crushing the sensibilities of everyone around them.

A gloomy reminder that ‘lad’ – that weird persona – can emerge in any social class. The workshops teach ‘positive masculinity’ and anyone who has shared a union bar with a rugby team wearing their trousers round their ankles would welcome this attempt to change old habits.

The lad is a character which really found its clearest expression in the Sixties and Seventies. Obviously there have always been the Falstaffs, the Byrons – drinkers and hedonists – but the kind of behaviour that leads you to tell a tube station to f*** off, comes from post-war comfort and boredom.

John Wayne and Errol Flynn portrayed tough but essentially moral heroes who defended the women and children when needed. It was after the Second World War in times of peace and prosperity that we met anti-heroes – Marlon Brando’s Wild One, Michael Caine’s Alfie – who had drifted away from the old rules.

My relationship with the modern lad dates from one iconic character who I think may have unwittingly launched our stag industry, Jackass, a million Friday nights and set the pattern for group, male mayhem – John Belushi’s Bluto in the 1978 film National Lampoon’s Animal House. He was the student who lived to destroy the smug world around him for his pleasure. He’s imitated by people who don’t even know they’re imitating him.

Watching Belushi/Bluto drink, belch and break things in Animal House was a revelation to me as a teenage boy. He was proud to be a moron, happy to be disgusting. Everyone outside his gang existed only to be humiliated or slept with. He seemed both repulsive and hugely appealing – appealing because he didn’t care. Contrast this with my own teen introspection: would Michelle McLeish ever fancy me? Would my face ever stop producing cystic boils? Would I be kicked to death by the boys from the neighbouring school? Would my parents finally divorce? Did my hair smell of crisps?

Bluto wasn’t worried about anything much, he was immune to pain, injury, insecurity and, well, everything.

It was after the Second World War in times of peace and prosperity that we met anti-heroes – Michael Caine’s Alfie – who had drifted away from the old rules.

And this takes us to the core of lad. He has a heart but he doesn’t want one, he’s trying to replace it with something hard and cold made of compressed beer cans. Men have trouble with feelings. I can now admit that I have on occasion experienced, you know, emotions, but it’s a tricky business to this day. Male discomfort with our own inner emotional reality can be seen in the way entertainment is marketed.

Rom-coms and dramas for the girls and action movies and thrillers for the boys. Films for women are driven by emotion – they involve love, relationships and friendships. Even the most formulaic light romance starring either of the muscular Ryans has something to say about our most profound desires.

Now think about typically male films: action-adventure, martial arts, sci-fi. Jason Statham kills bad guys – he doesn’t find love or develop closer links to his best friend/ mother/anyone.

Compare Jeremy Clarkson and Davina McCall. It’s impossible to imagine Clarkson crying or laughing with joy – he is permanently flippant, behind a screen of humour and irony. I’m certain the real man experiences human emotion, but TV Clarkson – so entirely distant he hardly has a first-name anymore – will never be troubled, insecure or depressed. Davina (first name only) is all empathy, we feel she is always fully engaged and entangled with the people she’s interviewing and her vulnerability is part of her appeal.

This is both the temptation and the nightmare of lad culture for men. It’s an attempt to deny our weakness, to turn away from all of life’s complex psychological challenges – and lose ourselves in booze, in the crowd and that noise “Ooooayaaaah!”

Alan Percy, head of counselling at Oxford University, says this denial of our frailties is dangerous: “The internal anxious worrier is usually around somewhere. If he’s denied and suppressed, that part comes out in other ways – often in violence or alcohol misuse.” He reminds me that men are three times more likely to commit suicide than women.

“Not acknowledging emotions, the importance of relationships, not accepting and coming to terms with depressive feelings is dangerous. You can find yourself in a crisis with no way to manage it."

One of the lads

Derek Swan has been a secondary school teacher for decades. He sees the damage the lad persona can have on boys at school: “Educationally, they have always been the hardest group to reach. Stereotypically, the lad is a white working-class boy who under-performs.

Ambition is a big issue. One of the brightest kids I have ever taught wanted to be a car mechanic. I tried to say he should be going to university to do mechanical engineering – but no, he just wanted to be a mechanic at the local garage.”

The Lad Code dictates that you take nothing seriously – education, career, relationships – and this is the disaster for men who let it take them over. Almost certainly the car mechanic was playing to his friends. One of the young, female students on the Good Lad website brilliantly defines the persona as, “A mask some men wear to make themselves more acceptable to other men.”

Lad behaviour is a group phenomenon – even the most enthusiastic rugby player is unlikely to walk into a bar alone and remove his trousers.

I think this is why crowds of men so often feel the need to comment on passing women. A woman walking by any loud group outside a pub is almost guaranteed to hear unwanted appreciation or worse, abuse – behaviour echoed horribly on social networks. Not about sex, or really about women at all, it is about a craven need to belong, it is about affirming the lad value system before other lads, taking the pledge.

Of course, I’m talking about men, as though I’m beyond lad culture myself. But having grown-up in a white working class environment in north east London, I have, in the past, shared pubs in the company of other men and lager. Although never one for shouting and singing (or that “Oooayaaah!” noise) I had friends who were.

I felt the pull of the group and desire to be included and to pretend that I, like Bluto, cared about nothing.

In fact, probably the laddiest moment of my life was around that time. Once a friend and I found ourselves in an exchange with some other young men that quickly led to violence. As the group walked towards us, it became clear that we were hugely outnumbered. I’d never been in a fight, hadn’t really heard what had sparked the incident, and had little idea what was going on. My friend turned to me and said, “Don’t run Phil.”

And it was for him, and to feel accepted and to come out well when the story was told later, that I followed his advice. The doctors at the hospital said it wasn’t the bottle broken over my head but the bike helmet they hit me with that caused the worst of the concussion.

Now, years later, I understand that the lads who hit me were working to the same rules, not wanting to stand out, making sure they took part, didn’t show mercy, empathy or any feelings really. All forbidden by the Lad Code.

I don’t know if there’s any equivalent for women, but I’ve honestly come to the conclusion that ‘lad’ is one of the most damaging and empty philosophies available to men.

Before boys learn to be lads, it would surely be worth an attempt to counter that secret language some men use when away from women? This language is taught and reinforced, passed down and updated through generations. It is the unacceptable turned into the compulsory. Homophobia and misogyny produced as evidence that you are one of the gang.

Finally, I think the ageing process, forming real relationships, having children is, on the whole, the best way of at least loosening the grip of lad culture. After all, that gang of blokes outside the pub,screaming their unfunny abuse at passers-by aren’t really heartless morons, lost to humanity, they just want you to think they are…

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Stylist Team