George Szirtes is a poet and translator. His translation of Metropole by Ferenc Karinthy is published by Telegram.


Girl, don't kill the boy racer

Art school. Gifted, earnest, polite, she had been sent to me to elicit some special knowledge or insight I, as a poet, was supposed to possess concerning mythology, and particularly gender-based mythology. She was researching primitive societies, farmers and hunter-gatherers, and she wanted to know whether there were any ancient myths of women-only communities. This was, she explained, because her thesis was what a society might have been like without men. How much better it might have been. She smiled. I smiled back. I wondered whether she would have come to me if I had been African or gay, or Muslim or Jewish, and asked the same question regarding that group. I continued smiling. Ideally, of course, I would have been dead. Or never born. Not me particularly – she continued smiling and polite – just my maleness, which problem she was willing to put aside for now. I said I was not sufficiently versed in mythology to help her. Nice girl. No, really.

You can tell it stuck with me since it was about a dozen years ago now. It was soon after I had gone into the local One World Shop and browsed through their greeting cards. Cartoons. The usual jokes. What do you call a man with two brain cells? A genius. Two girls discussing some war, one saying to the other, I don't know whether I'm for or against. I mean there'll be fewer of them. Another of a young boy and his elder sister. Boy: Guess what I want to be when I grow up? Girl: You won't. It had been a heavy week.

When we first moved into our current house there was a small motorbike that used to come roaring down our narrow street. A quiet street. It was late and it was noisy and it was annoying. The rider was a boy of about sixteen or so. My daughter concocted a plan to behead him by stringing piano wire across the road. We did not put the plan into operation, but occasionally, just occasionally, the temptation did arise.

Boy racer, we said. Then his family moved or someone else used the piano wire trick and he was gone. The street was quieter without him.

I have lived through thirty years or so where it has grown worse and worse to be an average boy. The jobs have been disappearing, the self-respect of earning your way has gone with them. The boyish impulse to rebel has not been channelled into anything useful. Schools want results for league tables and exams reward very un-boylike values. They no longer reward the stored then loosed energy, the obsessive rush: they reward the steady accumulation of brownie points. They no longer value the continued whole picture which boys require as their sense of the world, but ask for more touchy-feely local virtues, such as empathy here and there. Boys are always going to come second in that.

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