Recently, I did something very un-masculine. I cried in public.
This wasn’t just at Avengers: Endgame. Admittedly, my college wife did have to ply me with copious Kleenex on my first viewing. But whilst I found the fates of Iron Man et al. tear- jerking, those were the silly, childish tears of a silly, childish man who was probably invested in those characters to a degree that rather undermines the serious Oxford historian look. Apologies to the late, great Stan Lee, but I was crying at something much more important to me personally. I was crying at the speech my grandfather gave at the celebrations for my grandparents’ 60th wedding anniversary.
It was a low-key speech, at a low-key event, by a low-key man. That’s in no way an insult – my grandfather just isn’t one for the lime-light. He’s one of those wonderful, unshowy men who have kept this country ticking over for hundreds of years. It wasn’t a long speech; only a few lines. But they were the most moving I’d ever heard. OxStu writers and Union hacks take note.
Why was I crying? Well, for one thing, it was a beautiful speech. Grandad, shaking slightly as he tapped his glass, got up, quietly got the Atkinsons’ collective attention, and spoke about my grandmother. I wish someone had filmed it, as they were the loveliest words I think I’ll ever hear. He told us how beautiful she’d looked when he’d first seen her, by the building where they both worked. They were the same age I am now. He spoke about how he’d written to her every day when he’d gone away for his national service in Germany. He told us of how she was his best friend. How he’d been honoured to marry her. How he’d loved her every day, and even more now. Being an Atkinson, at this point he welled up slightly, said thanks, came over all shy and sat down, to our rapturous applause. And hiding in that applause, I wept, more moved than I’ve ever been in my silly old life.
I didn’t just cry because it was a beautiful speech. God knows I’ve never been prouder to say I was related to someone than that moment. My grandfather seemed the most noble, most caring and most lovely man I’d ever known. I cried at the joy of being able to say I was related to him. And I cried because I knew I wasn’t half the man he was. Now, Grandad would dispute that. He’s very proud of his Grandson at Oxford. But I’m not, because I’ve lost myself. He’s the reason why I cried, because he showed me what it meant to be a truly great man, and how I and modern masculinity have lost our way.
By the age of 20, Grandad had gone from humble beginnings, to a job in London, to serving his country in the RAF, to marrying the woman he loved – and has loved ever since. That might seem old-fashioned: masculinity defined as hard work, patriotism, duty and love. It might seem boring, but it’s much better than the modern alternative. Modern “lad” culture is selfish and shameless in comparison. Self-control, commitment and care are out; now a premium is placed on brash confidence, drinking until you’re sick, measuring success by how many girls you can chat up and never daring to mention how you feel. I’m tired of it, because it made me feel like a man I’m not.
I’ve always been a bit of a misfit. I was always the bookish one at school, not helped by being gangly with a crop of silly curly hair. But my parents worked bloody hard to send me to the best possible school, and I love them for it, as it got me here. But I never really fit in. I was the shy, state-school kid at a place full of brash prep-school boys and rugby lads. I couldn’t handle it, and I went through black spots in the very depths of depression. It was my fault, no one else’s, and I got through it, made some friends I loved, and worked hard to get here to Oxford.
But here I’ve felt like I’ve lost myself. I’m still a bit of a misfit, but I’ve got a great group of friends who are the most wonderful people I know. But I let them down. I spent my first term as a hermit, and the second trying to be someone I’m not. I went out constantly, drank too much and tried to show off. I couldn’t handle being here. I alienated myself some of those closest to me, and lost control. I made a massive idiot of myself. I woke up day after day feeling ashamed of what I’d become. I’d thought being a “lad” was what you had to do in this day and age. But I hated what it made me.
Being a man doesn’t have to be about subscribing to stereotypes like that. It doesn’t make you any less of a men to not like drinking, preferring to stay indoors, or wiping away a few tears when your grandad makes a beautiful speech. The pressure to follow a certain set of behaviours or risk being called uncool, or even labelled ‘a girl’ (problematic in its own right) is driving the modern man away from being a genuinely nice, kind human being. Men should be able to live in the way they want to without receiving criticism because they decide they want a quiet night-in, rather than sinking seven points in the Swan and Castles with ‘the boys’.
And so I cried when Grandad spoke, because he showed me the man I wish I was. Not the drunken mess, not the lad, but a decent, loving, hard-working man who didn’t try to show off and be something he wasn’t. As the tears fell down my face, it was like an epiphany. I knew how I had to change – and I knew that I must. So this term I have. There was a big meaningless hole in my life, and I’ve tried to fill it. I’ve spent time with my friends. I’ve relaxed by reading, not drinking. I’ve calmed down, and I feel like a new man. I sincerely hope I seem a better man for it. Nowadays it’s fashionable to lament masculinity. Sure, let’s criticise lad culture. It drove me to despair, and breaking from it’s the best thing I could do. But at the same time, never scoff at the masculinity of a man like my Grandad. He’s never made a speech at the Union or written a pretentious article for OxStu. His values might seem terribly gauche in the modern age. But I’m going to work every day for the rest of my life to be even half as honourable, loving and brilliant a man as he is. I’m sorry, I’ll have to finish there. I think there might be something in my eye.