Posts Tagged ‘Resources’

Orlando by Virginia Woolf: Living out the male-female divide

Apr 27 2012

I’ve known of this novel for years, always had a good impression about it, but it’s a treat at my age to discover a book this brilliant.  Orlando, the hero(ine) of the book, grows up as a boy and man, but in his/her thirties becomes a woman – or almost …

With this simple device, Virginia Woolf creates a deep and entertaining exploration of the differences between the genders.  For example, the newly-female Orlando misses a lot about manhood: “I shall never be able to crack a man over the head, or tell him he lies in his teeth, or draw my sword,…or prance down Whitehall on a charger…All I can do … is to pour out tea and ask my Lords how they like it.”

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Martin Chuzzlewit: book by Charles Dickens. Do older men reap what they sow?

Apr 24 2012

I surprised myself by choosing a Dickens novel for my recent holiday reading.  He’s not even in my top ten novelists, and I haven’t read any Dickens for years, but I enjoyed this book.

Martin Chuzzlewit has qualities I expected from Dickens, plus some pleasant surprises.  It has plenty of over the top, entertaining Dickensian characters, strong story lines, and exuberant narrative style.  It also has some piercing social observations and opinions, and I’ve learned that Dickens visited the USA, and set part of this novel over there.

Many of the key characters are of the Chuzzlewit family, whose two elders are both grasping, mercenary, sceptical men, who suffer because their sons and grandsons grow up with these same qualities, which poison the relationships within the family.

As the rich head of the family, Martin Chuzzlewit senior, puts it: The curse of our house, said the old man…”has ever been the love of self.  How often have I said so, when I never knew that I had wrought it upon others.”  At least one of the family learns his lesson and mends his ways.

One reason I love a lot of Victorian novels is the social history they provide, of a century which laid foundations for modern society, like a shift to the predominance of cities, industry and trade over rural life, aristocracy, and barter.  His descriptions of nineteenth century London are gripping.

His views of the US are even more striking.  I’d guess he’s describing the 1850s: it’s a time when there are railroads, when slavery is still widely supported, and when Atlantic crossings are still under sail, not steam.  Dickens’ hero, arrived in New York, has these kind of observations: ”All their cares, hopes, joys, affections…seemed to be melted down into dollars…The more of that worthless ballast, honour and fair-dealing, which any man cast overboard…the more ample stowage-room he had for dollars.” 

“He was the greatest patriot, in their eyes, who brawled the loudest, and who cared the least for decency.”

“There seemed to be no man there without a title: for those who had not attained military honours were either doctors, professors, or reverends.”

Dickens presents us a vivid picture of a young, raw country in which the founding fathers’ ideals have been swept aside, and where even the authority figures are usually fronting a money-making scam.  We’ve surely progressed since then, but how much?  Bring on the elders!

A Shed of One’s Own: Worth a read? Laughs from a book for midlife men

Feb 16 2012

A Shed of One’s Own is a brand new UK book on men and middle age. It’s an encouraging sign of this topic rising into prominence that the book has just been read on Radio 4, and was actually in stock at Waterstones.

The keynote of the book for me was this comment: you can only take yourself too seriously if you have forgotten how ridiculous you are. It takes a mostly light-hearted and humorous poke at the silliness of middle age: the habits we are stuck in, our righteous indignation about the yoof dropping litter, and lots more.

Many of you reading this will know that I am well on with writing my own book as a guide to life for midlife men, so you may mildly share my anxiety that A Shed of One’s Own might render my lovingly-written volume redundant. I am glad to say the answer is no.

A Shed of One’s Own is written by Marcus Berkmann, a journalist and media man who has only just turned 50. The book cover has a photo of him where he looks about 30, and describes him as author of the classic Rain Men: this is a book which I have never heard of, about cricket. The book cover also says This candid and hilarious dispatch from the frontline is essential reading for anyone over 35…

Here’s an example of the fine insights Marcus offers:

One of the stranger features of the heterosexual male midlife is the sense that there are more attractive women than ever, far more than there were when we were young…

Then I worked out why. When you are, say 20, you generally fancy girls of roughly your own age and slightly younger. This continues throughout life.

So at 20, you will be gawping at pretty women between the ages of 15 and 25. When you are 50, you will be gawping at pretty women between the ages of 15 and 55. That’s 4 times as many. Really it’s a disaster. The more women there appear to be, the less we can do anything about it (either we are unavailable, or we look like hell, or both.)

I think that Marcus’ book, and its broadcast on Radio 4, will have great benefits in raising awareness and active interest from a wide range of men who are in or approaching midlife. His book is a witty and perceptive highlighting of the issues, but does not pretend to be a guide to solutions. My book would be a good sequel or companion to A Shed of One’s Own, offering a deeper look at the issues, and a good range of approaches and resources for handling them.

One thing I have to admit is feeling how young Marcus is: look at the picture! He says he has turned 50, he’s put on a bit of weight, and his hearing’s not perfect… I see the years beyond 50 as a time of major shipwrecks for many men, and it’s clear that Marcus has not yet hit the rocks in any major way: his partnership, health, work all seem pretty intact. I’m glad for him, but don’t expect his book to address the major crises of the maturing years from personal experience. It is worth reading, not only for fun, but also for some good insights, like this one: To replace perfect eyesight, we get perfect hindsight, and much improved foresight. This is not such a bad deal.

Dating Skills for Maturing Men

Oct 28 2011

I am sitting alone at a table for two in Galatea, the smartest of Glastonbury’s informal range of eating places.  Wearing smart casual gear which I hope looks youthful, I am waiting for my blind date, Jackie, to appear.  To look my best, I am not wearing my glasses, which means that people entering the room are blurs to me.  She looked good in the picture she sent me, but how long ago was that?  A rather bulky female blur comes in, and I half rise, then sit back in relief.  Now a slim and rather sexy female blur glides in, and I stand up.  I’ve got it right – it is Jackie.  As she gets closer, I realise she is wearing a gorgeous creamy, linen semi-transparent trouser suit, and a sense of elation runs right through me.

Some years before this scene, I recall one of the single guys in my men’s group telling me how he’d met a girl through a soulmates ad, and had a blind date with her.  It seemed scary and artificial to me, and I declared I’d never do it.  In fact in my 50s, I had numerous blind dates through soulmates ads, and found two good relationships through them.

If you’ve been many years in one relationship, it’s a strange new world to meet in mid-life.  This is one of the biggest re-inventions you may need to take on.  Ideally, before you plunge into dating, you need to sort yourself out more basically.  This means clearing self-destructive habits like depression, anger, addiction (see Chapter 7), and learning the skills of intimacy: see earlier in this Chapter.

Here are some guidelines to get you started:

      • Make the best of yourself.  If you’ve been living alone, or in a long-term relationship, you may be used to scruffiness.  If you’re dating, you will need smart, freshly washed clothes, a good shave and haircut, and fresh breath: this assumes you want to succeed, and are not hooked on being rejected….
      • Screen before you date.  Every blind date is a big emotional and time investment.  Do as much screening as you can before meeting up, to improve your chances of success.  Know the kind of partner you are looking for, and check things out by phone or email.  Understand what she wants, and if you’re likely to suit her.  Ask for a picture, and send yours.  Learn what matters most to you, and the questions that can explore this.
      • Enjoy the journey, not the outcome.  Blind dates are nerve-wracking: you are both accepting or rejecting each other, and it probably happens within the first minute.  I can recall a couple of blind dates with truly gorgeous women, who ticked all my boxes, but were clearly not interested.  There is a gift in all this, learning to value yourself even when she turns you down.  I tried to enjoy the conversations, even when they were going nowhere.
      • Blind dates are not therapy sessions.  If you’re still hurting from a major breakup, this nice woman across the table may seem ideal to pour out your troubles to.  Don’t!  Start with easy topics, go gradually deeper if it suits both of you.  Keep it a dialogue: ask plenty of questions, talk about yourself, but not for too long.  Talk about positives: what you enjoy, what you are looking for and offer in a relationship.
      • Value what you offer.  You may worry about your looks, but don’t be hard on yourself.  You are not in your twenties, that’s just a fact.  Fortunately, most mature women value other qualities more than looks.  If you have learned Intimacy 101, if you offer emotional competence, empathy and dependability, you are a good prospect!


This is an excerpt from Alan’s forthcoming book: if you would like to receive further excerpts and information about the book, sign up to this blog as a follower.

Slipping away on the ebb tide: Suicide and men beyond 50

Aug 09 2011

My friend Bob is a psychotherapist in Wales.  He was visiting me for the weekend when he got a text from Davey, one of his clients.  It read, ‘My kids r ok, but can c no reason 2 carry on.  Wd love to slip away on the ebb tide, noone would notice.  Davey’.  Davey is a man of 63, who had retired from Cardiff with his wife two years ago, to a dream retirement home in remote rural Pembrokeshire.  His wife died very unexpectedly eight months ago.

Bob and I sat at the breakfast table, shocked and sad, feeling deeply for this man many hours away from us.  What could we say or do?  Is suicide sometimes the right answer?

Twenty years ago, suicide rates were alarmingly high among young men aged 18 – 30.  This has dropped, but in the past ten years suicide rates have risen among older men aged 40 – 60.  The highest suicide rate in any age group is men over 75.

This issue has a deep resonance for me: my father’s father took his life at the age of 56: his two sons, who found him, disguised things so it looked like an accident, and their mother never knew what really happened.  My father suffered from periods of depression and anxiety throughout his adult life, until his seventies, and I used to worry whether one day I would find him gone.

I asked Bob, “What are you going to say to him?”  Bob read out his text to me as he keyed it in: ‘Away, can’t meet up 4 a few days.  I know this urge will arise.  I’d like u not to slip off on the ebb tide.  I and others enjoy u so much.’  It was a huge relief to receive another text from Davey, a few minutes later: ‘I imagine u here talking with me, it’s a great help.  Won’t do anything to end it.  C u soon.’

I asked Bob if Davey was an unusual case, and he said no: Bob’s experience fits the national picture, with increasing numbers of maturing men committing suicide, and increasing numbers of clients in this group seeking help.  This is true in rural areas as well as cities, and with manual jobs such as farmers.

Whilst I had known about the statistics, this episode made it all real and immediate.  Pooling Bob’s experience of what worked with clients, and some of the ideas in my book, we came up with a few pointers to offer to men feeling suicidal, and the people around them.  For those around them, our key advice is focus on this man’s feelings, and your feelings for him.  Don’t urge him to stay around because suicide would upset his kids, colleagues and others.  Most men have been burdened with calls to guilt and duty since they were boys, and this approach could drag them further down.

For the man himself, we would say:

  • Just focus on the present moment, this day: make the best of this day, find what you can appreciate in it.
  • Don’t always trust your thinking, it may be unreliable, it’s probably too negative, and could lead you to decisions you’d regret: things will probably look different later.
  • Don’t go into the future: if you feel awful now, you risk imagining it will be awful forever.
  • Find a way of giving out to others: even if it is a small action, it can help them and it will help you.
  • Look for new things you will enjoy, here and now.
  • Be compassionate with yourself – take time to feel your sadness, anger, without having to act on them.
  • Find someone you can talk to for support: a close friend, if you have one who can handle this, or a counsellor or therapist.
  • You may hate yourself, feel angry or ashamed and want to punish yourself.  Give yourself a break, be kind to yourself, at least for today.
  • You probably feel that something in you has died, but don’t confuse that with feeling your whole life has to go.
  • Accept that suicide is an option for you, but don’t do it on impulse, really consider it carefully.
  • Find some meaning in your day, no matter how small: you may like to read Man’s Search for Meaning by Viktor Frankl, who writes of finding optimism even in tragedy.

If you are feeling suicidal right now, try one of these:

  1. Contact the Samaritans on 08457 90 90 90 or visit
  2. Contact MIND, the leading mental health charity in the UK and read this page
  3. Take a look at the website of Befrienders, particularly the page about suicidal feelings

The names and details of this true story have been disguised to protect confidentiality.