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Saturday, 10 November 2012

Men in packs not the best way to find adventure

Anything could happen.
I've been reading Stella Rimington's memoir, Open Secret, which chronicles her years working for MI5 beginning in the 1960s. Rimington would go on to become head of the organisation but in the early days it was a place with clearly demarcated roles for men and women. Women were considered unfit for the "tougher" aspects of the work, such as agent running, and were relegated to clerical and support work. The organisation was also dyfunctional, with a lengthy cohort of ex-Foreign Office employees who liked to take long lunches and who often did little actual work. It was a cosy arrangement for the blokes at MI5 until the efforts of people like Rimington to achieve more equality paid off and the service began to professionalise. Merit, rather than just your gender or your friends, became the rule by which promotion was awarded.

Dysfunction in male-only institutions is evident everywhere, not just in the rarified haunts of British spooks, however. Year after year, month after month and day after day the news is filled with stories - often only surfacing decades after the fact - of abuse, violence, bastardisation and sex crimes. In the Catholic Church, in exclusive university colleges, in the military. The story is the same, even though the locale may change. If you put men together within a hierarchy and exclude women anything can happen, and probably will. The dynamic is different if women are present. The tone changes. Things get better.

I grew up in all-male institutions, from my primary school through secondary school to a year spent living at an all-male university college. I had some great friends, often foreigners like the talented sportsmen Pipi and David, and the well-read and articulate Anthony who introduced me to the Beatles. I gravitated to the unusual, often the exceptional. There were wonderful teachers and fabulous friends. When I went to university I started to change how I related to the world, and the school tie was exchanged for a blue glass bead in the Greek fashion, to ward off the evil eye. Given the enhanced access to knowledge that university naturally afforded it was hard to sustain the fiction that an all-male institution could supply what I actually needed to develop and after a year at St Paul's I left to go and live in a studio apartment in Glebe. Thus began a fruitful period, a time characterised by the sound dictum of Virginia Woolf, that the creative soul requires for its fulfilment a room of its own.

I had never participated in the long, sodden drinking sessions that the men at St Paul's used to create the bonds that they wished for, so I did not miss that part of college life. In fact, there was not much about the college that I missed once I went off on my own to live the bohemian life. Outside the college I got involved with a small publishing venture for poetry written by young people. I also met new people, such as Tony and Michael, Neil and Paul. There were girls, too, of course. Why not? But the important thing for me is that things started to happen at university that could not have happened elsewhere. Things remote from the ritual hazing of freshers and the prolongued consumption of strong alcoholic beverages. Things that brought me into contact with interesting people who had radically different views of the world from those of my parents, or of my teachers and classmates at high school. This was intoxicating stuff in its own, unique way. All those hours spent rummaging through the shelves of Fisher Library looking for the unusual, the odd, the curious. And those visits to the bookshops which resulted in finding things that you could actually buy and take home to keep, that were made in the USA, in Europe, in the UK. Famous names made more so by one's fond regard. Bukowski and Miller, Michaux and Faure.

I lived in an all-male household of one surrounded by my mates who spoke to me through the written word. Names grew off the back of names. Titles spawned yet more titles as I read my way through the 20th Century pantheon of the amusing, the intelligent, the wise, and the just plain different. Solitary communion with other minds from other times did not stop me from graduating and it did not even stop me from going out after study was finished, to find paid employment. Sticking with the pack is not the only way to get the most out of university, in fact it may just be the least interesting way. There are other voices and, for me, when they called, I answered.

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