Jobs for boys and girls

5th April 1996 at 01:00
A MAN'S WORLD: From Boyhood to Manhood 1900-1960, By Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon, BBC Books Pounds 12.99. DOWN COBBLED STREETS: A Liberties Childhood, By Phil O'Keeffe, Brandon Books Pounds 6.95.

Julia Thorogood reads personal accounts of growing up and rites of passage. Bald description of A Man's World could make it sound suitable to be taken into the woods for an all-male weekend.

Structured around six "icons" of masculinity - The Boy, Rites of Manhood,The Soldier, The Worker, The Lover, The Father - it focuses on the days when childhood "was boys for boys and girls for girls and never the twain shall meet". As the boy grew up pressure to behave as a "real man" was intense. Steve Humphries and Pamela Gordon set out to uncover some of the resultant insecurities and suppressions.

"Well, what if you saw a policemen crying? You'd think he was mad, wouldn't you? I'd go to do the job I was being paid for and I didn't want to disgrace myself." This man was concealing anguish at the death of his baby daughter. Eventually he had to resign his job and suffered a serious nervous breakdown and divorce.

Almost 1,000 men born between 1890 and 1930 were contacted in the course of research for this book. Extracts from the reminiscences of 25 are quoted at length and others briefly. The balance of minoritymajority representation is good (a boy with muscular dystrophy, a lover who was homosexual, a father who believed in alternative parenting) and the social class mix is probably fair - though the only interview that seemed totally unsympathetic came from the most overtly "gentlemanly" respondent. A Man's World should appeal to a wide readership independently of its television series.

The section on The Soldier is particularly moving. Anyone suffering from First World War compassion fatigue should read John Laister's account of an unarmoured cavalry skirmish - and then his ordeal in a firing squad forced to execute a "kid" for "cowardice".

A significant number of men were so disturbed by their experiences that they inflicted great pain on their families. One child of a Great War veteran describes himself as a victim of the war "almost as much as if I'd been in the trenches myself". A father returned from his 1939-45 service to find himself totally rejected by his six-year-old son. Perhaps similar dislocations in fatherson relationships are among the factors that have persuaded late-20th-century men to reconsider aspects of their masculinity.

The girl's world evoked by Phil O'Keeffe in Down Cobbled Streets is one where continuity is all. One of six girls growing up in 1930s Dublin, she is vividly aware of previous communities and the traces they have left behind.

Her language is bright with slang and Irishry and her fancy alive with Celtic legend. An inquisitive middle child, she remembers her father begging her to stop "moithering" him with her questions. She was "a right heart-scald", he said, and her imagination "was as good as physic to a fool".

Two areas where curiosity was particularly discouraged were sex and religion. Her Aunt Mary on the farm in County Wicklow would not tell her why having no cockerel meant they had to fetch "setting eggs" from elsewhere for the broody hen. The birth of a foal was "not work for women" and in common with many other children of her generation she believed that her baby sisters had arrived in the midwife's bag.

Churchings and christenings were work for women and the value of this book for an English reader is the entry it gives to a settled Catholic world where choice of school meant choice of convent; where first confession was a seven-year-old's rite of passage followed by first communion and confirmation: where Saturday meant preparation for Sunday and Sunday meant fasting and Mass and activities according to the Catechism. Both days progressed "as had been ordained for my mother and father and their families before them, and if the old order should ever changeth, it would not be in our childhood. Of that we could be certain".

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