5 min read

Well, what about men? Caitlin Moran’s love letter to masculinity

Krish Kandiah is a social entrepreneur building partnerships across civil society, faith communities, government and philanthropy, He is the founder of The Sanctuary Foundation.

Gender writing that’s gracious and full of hope. Krish Kandiah reviews Caitlin Moran’s What about Men? Part of the Problem with Men series.
Four men stand silhoutted against a sunset, One stands apart on their phone.
Meilisa Dwi Nurdiyanti on Unsplash.

The first time I met the award-winning Times columnist Caitlin Moran, it was in her home, and she cooked me soup. She couldn’t have been more hospitable, which was particularly appreciated as we had met to talk about advocacy and hospitality for refugees. I found her personable, funny, helpful, and extremely well-connected.  

Despite my deep respect and appreciation for Moran and her writing, I have to admit to being sceptical about her latest book What about Men? published by Ebury Press. It’s a brave thing for a woman to write a book about men. As a married Asian man I wouldn’t dare to even consider writing a book about what it means to be a woman, or white, or single. Yet somehow Moran has done the impossible: she has written a book that is both feminist and masculinist, both refreshing and disturbing, both gracious and frank.  

For a start Moran makes no apology for being a woman, or for writing a book aimed squarely for white straight men, or for dropping the “F bomb” on almost every page, or for speaking explicitly and frequently about sex, genitalia and orgasms. She delves into thorny and controversial issues such as toxic masculinity, rape culture, false allegations, and pornography, as well as giving her opinions on men’s health, communication, loneliness, friendships and fear of death. Moran writes with unshockable candour and yet somehow does so with a lightness of touch, humility and generosity. 

Moran shows us that we don’t live a zero-sum game:  in order for women to win men don’t have to lose and vice-a-versa. 

Here are the five main things that I appreciated about this book: 

1. It is laugh out-loud funny  

There’s no denying it, Caitlin Moran is a brilliant writer. Some of the chapters read like observational comedy resonating rather too accurately with my own experience. Moran has made great use of her large Twitter following and wide male friendship group to provide testimonial and anecdotal evidence for the issue in question, inserting their stories with the perfect comic touch.  

2. It is uncannily resonant 

Despite being born in Des Moines, Iowa, Bill Bryson has become a national treasure in the UK, writing not just one, but numerous books about the English. His outsider perspective helps us Brits to see ourselves through the eyes of those around. Similarly, Moran’s book about masculinity is so brilliant exactly because she is not a man. She cuts through what others would overlook, asking more interesting questions, and pointing to wholly different ways forward.  

3. It makes peace in the gender war 

Moran’s honesty and humility offers us a model of how to transcend the culture wars without avoiding the difficult conversations. Her book suggests that men and women can bring the best out of each other by celebrating our differences. Moran shows us that we don’t live a zero-sum game:  in order for women to win men don’t have to lose and vice-a-versa. She offers a vision of a different way for men and women to relate to each other. As a firm believer in the power, possibility and pursuit of peace whether in the Russia-Ukraine war or the politically-driven culture war or the subtleties of gender war, I sincerely appreciated her efforts.  

4. It celebrates good masculinity  

Moran believes our society will be happier and healthier if men and women find ways to celebrate and appreciate one another.  It was this line in her book that struck me as a vital perspective:  

“There should be no shame in being a man. Being made to feel shame for how you are born is something every other progressive movement is trying to remove and trying to impose it on the one group that didn't until recently feel shame; straight white men, benefits no one.” 

5. It is hopeful 

It’s been a long time since I have read something about gender which was as full of hope as this book is. Sadly, many books in this field are written in a bid to fight one’s corner, including those coming from the church. Moran’s posture offers us a much-needed challenge. If an outspoken feminist, who claims to have only stepped inside a church once in her life, (apparently for Rev Richard Coles’ last service in his parish) has no fear of showing support to men and their rights, or of promoting a Christian sexual ethic of commitment before sex, or of seeking to find a peaceful resolution to the gender wars, how much more should Christians be willing to do the same? 

My one and only issue with the book was when it tended to lapse into stereotypes. Being the sort of man who doesn’t like to fix things (I wish I did and I could), and who doesn’t find it hard to express emotions (have I overshared already?) and who does care about my appearance (check out my latest charity shop find!) I sometimes felt a little misunderstood. Or even worse, unintentionally pigeonholed as not really being Caitlin’s idea of what a man is. This is one of the biggest challenges of anyone writing about gender, how to do so without either reinforcing stereotypes or ignoring genuine difference.  

My overall impression is that this book reads like a love letter to masculinity. Take this powerful paragraph from Moran’s last chapter: 

 “I wish for any man, or boy, everything I have wished for my daughters: that they can be proud of who they were born as; that this will never be a burden to them; that they can appear as they like; that they understand both their own pain, and that of others; that they can love out loud with their whole hearts, because they understand that love is a verb – a doing word; and that they never belittle or destroy what they envy, but recognise it for what it is: almost certainly, a future you wish for yourself.”  

That quote reminded me of St Paul’s defining of love in a letter to Corinthians. It sets a high bar, but I believe it is both aspirational and achievable. I would love to see sentiments like this coming out of the church too, with similar books that can transcend the cultural flashpoints and offer great hope to all who need it. 

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4 min read

De-coding the hidden messages in Christmas carols

Ian Bradley is Emeritus Professor of Cultural and Spiritual History at the University of St Andrews.

Beyond the festive imagery, some carols hint at rebellion and even revolution. Ian Bradley tells their stories.
Dressed in Victorian clothes, a group of carol singers stand and sing amid Christmas foliage.
Mario Mendez on Unsplash.

Carols are one of the best loved features of Christmas celebrations and one of the most effective means of spreading the good news of the birth of Jesus, the Saviour of the world. In addition to their clear proclamation of the doctrine of incarnation, that God has taken on human form and come to dwell among us, some of our most popular carols may also have been written to convey further hidden messages. 

Take ‘O come, all ye faithful’, for instance. On the surface it seems a straightforward hymn of adoration to the newborn Christ but in fact historians suggest that it may well have been written in its original Latin form, ‘Adeste, fideles,’ as a coded message to rally Jacobites to the cause of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the eve of his rebellion against the British crown in 1745. The man generally reckoned to have been its author, John Francis Wade, was a fervent supporter of the Jacobite cause who seems to have written it while he was plain-chant scribe at the English Catholic college in Douai, France where a weekly Mass was celebrated for the return of the Stuarts to the British throne. 

Half hidden Jacobite images, including Scotch thistles and the Stuart cypher, appear in the earliest manuscripts of the carol. Its call to ‘the faithful’ may have had a double meaning and been intended to alert the supporters of the ‘King over the water’ to Charles James Stuart’s imminent arrival in Britain from the  continent. Similarly, its reference to ‘Rex angelorum’, translated as the King of the Angels, could also be taken to mean the true king of the English in contrast to the Hanoverian incumbent, George II. In its original Latin form, the carol seems initially to have been sung only in Roman Catholic places of worship, notably in the chapel of the Portuguese Embassy in London and its tune was long known as the Portuguese Hymn. 

Another well-known Christmas song may contain similarly coded messages. It has been suggested on the basis of letters from Jesuit priests attached to the English college in Douai, France, that that ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ was written to teach the elements of the Roman Catholic faith to children during the period following the Reformation in which it was officially proscribed and suppressed in the United Kingdom. In this reading, the twelve drummers drumming are the articles of the Apostle’s Creed; the eleven pipers piping the faithful apostles; the ten lords a-leaping the ten commandments; the nine ladies dancing the fruits of the Holy Spirit; the eight maids a-milking the beatitudes; the seven swans a-swimming the seven sacraments of the Catholic church; and the ‘five gold rings’ the five wounds of the crucified Christ.  

A hidden message of a rather different kind may be lurking in another popular carol, ‘Angels from the Realms of Glory’, which first appeared in a radical Sheffield newspaper entitled The Iris on Christmas Eve 1816. Its author, James Montgomery, the paper’s editor, was twice imprisoned for his support of the French Revolution and reform riots in Britain. The original last verse, which described Justice repealing the sentences of those sentenced to imprisonment and Mercy breaking their chains, was regarded by the authorities as too polemical and subversive did not find its way into any hymn book when the carol was taken up and sung in churches.  

A carol with a more overtly contemporary message is ‘It came upon the midnight clear’. Its author, Edmund Sears, who claimed descent from one of the original Pilgrim Fathers, was a Unitarian minister in Massachusetts with a deep commitment to social reform and the promotion of peace. He wrote it in 1849, following the violent revolutions in Europe and the bloody and costly war between the United States of America and Mexico in the previous year. These conflicts were undoubtedly in his mind when he wrote ‘O hush the noise, ye men of strife, and here the angels sing’ and expressed his heartfelt longing for a future age of gold ‘when peace shall over all the earth its ancient splendours fling’, sentiments which we can certainly echo this Christmas. 

The German carol Stille Nacht (Silent Night), which regularly tops the list of the world’s favourite Christmas song, underwent several adaptations through the twentieth century expressing the changing political mood in Germany. A Socialist version entitled ‘The Workers’ Silent Night’ which circulated widely around 1900 highlighted the prevailing poverty, misery and distress and ended with an appeal to wake up to social action rather than sleep in heavenly peace. It was considered subversive and banned by the German Government before the First World War. During that war, German soldiers on the front adapted Stille Nacht to express a sense of homesickness and in the period of rampant inflation that followed in the 1920s Weimar Republic a social democratic version asked plaintively: ‘in poverty, one starves silently,/When does the saviour come?’. A 1940 Nazi adaptation turned the song into a celebration of the fatherland and traditional German family values. More recent parodies of the English version have tended to focus on the commercial aspects of the festive season, like the American author Chris Fabry’s send-up of last minute Christmas shopping:  ‘Silent Night, Solstice Night, All is calm, all half price’. 

The tradition of adapting traditional Christmas carols to contemporary events has a long pedigree in Britain. ‘Hark, the herald angels sing’ has proved particularly appealing to parodists. During the abdication crisis of 1937 a version circulated which began ‘Hark the herald angels sing, Mrs. Simpson’s pinched our king’ and a group of journalists (of which I was one) heralded the birth of the SDP in 1981 with ‘Hark The Times and Guardian roar, Glory to the Gang of Four’. It is rarer to hear parodies of carols nowadays. Perhaps in our troubled times we just want and need to focus on their message of the coming of the Christchild and of God’s kingdom with its promise of a more peaceful and joyful world.  

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