Belfast Telegraph

Boys keep swinging

They leer and menace from street corners when they’re not killing, or being killed, in car crashes. It’s a wonder so many young men turn out all right. Blame the baboon inside, says Malachi O’Doherty

Young men are horrible creatures, but are they a mystery? You see them huddled on street corners, self-consciously laughing among themselves when you pass them.

Dare to be different to what they expect on that street and they will scowl at you or mock, say, if you wear a hat, or are Chinese, Black, an Arab or a woman.

They give us most of our crime and vandalism. They populate our prisons and, if your car has been stolen and smashed up, if you know nothing else about the offender, it is a safe bet that it was someone male and young.

Nor are they very good to themselves; they die in car crashes in greater numbers than anyone else and they cause those crashes, too.

The simple solution, if you want a peaceful and orderly society, is to do away with young men. The biggest problem with that is that this would do away with older men, too.

Women, who are incredibly vulnerable to young men and walk the streets in fear of them, would not thank us for abolishing them.

The feminist writer Germaine Greer observes that young women like men more than men like women, a point I would debate with her, bringing my love of women to the case, but then I can't speak for all men any more than she can speak for all women.

But you have to admit that practically all of our social problems, from racism to rape, seem amenable to being represented in the image of the young man: passionate, careless, violent.

Look at them on the streets of Ardoyne and Derry, in their hoodies, throwing their petrol-bombs at the police; anyone who can't see that there is a gender and a generational aspect to this problem isn't paying attention.

Look back at the origins of the Troubles and you can see that, in the early years, most of the participants on all sides were young men — as were most victims.

One theory as good as any for explaining the end of the Troubles is that those young men who survived grew up.

It is almost pointless to reflect on this, of course, because nothing can be done about young men. We cannot rid ourselves of them.

We love them; not all of them, but all of us love some of them.

And they are not a mystery to us, surely. We know that they are self-conscious, that they are nervous of each other, that they form into little pecking orders and that they cling to narrow ideas of what is normal and — contemptible word! — cool.

I walk past a group of them and one of them snaps “Homo!’’ at me and what amazes me first is that anyone today can use such an insult without fear of being thought a fool.

Call me Homo any time you like; I have no sense that I would be any less a person — or a man — if it actually applied to me. It would be nice to think that education would transform the young man and civilise him, and it does with some, but it can never be a universal solution.

A routine story when exam results come out, as they will later this month, is that boys are still falling behind girls.

The problem is not that they lack intelligence but that they would nearly always rather being doing something other than studying; academic success does not advance them through their tribes but rather alienates them.

The problem is that they are essentially still baboons at hearts, taking their lead from the chief baboon of the tribe who is likely to be only a little wiser than them.

In the Army, as in old employment structures, the chief baboon is an adult with impressive competencies and experience. When a boy models himself instead on a feckless thug, he's not going to turn out well.

John Venables and Robert Thompson, as 10-year-olds, killed a little boy, Jamie Bulger. This is so shocking that society prefers to understand it as evil, so unlike what little boys do that the killers must be treated as adult criminals, named in court, feared and hunted forever.

The writer, Blake Morrison, who dissented from this simplification, told the John Hewitt Summer School in Armagh last week that he was urged to stay away from Liverpool for his own safety after suggesting we should have understood Thompson and Venables as boys handling their mischief as stupidly and crassly as boys do.

But how can anyone look at the crowds of men milling the streets after a football match, shouting and jumping in the early hours of the morning, raking their cars about, sneering at those they find strange, and say: this is the behaviour of people who would never throw stones at a child; these are normal, decent, human males and the likes of Venables and Thompson are something else? And then look at the men who caused the Troubles and survived. I have personally met and even befriended several men who killed when they were young, some of whom would have killed me if I had chanced across their path.

It is a pedestrian observation that most of them are decent and likeable people, even those who continue to argue that what they did back then was right.

The least we can hope for is that those boys we love and care for will get through the dangerous years without killing someone, or incriminating themselves for it is a simple fact of life that some of the best of them do.

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