11 APRIL 1998, Page 21


Molly Watson looks at her

male flatmates and sees advantages for women

I HAVE uniquely privileged anthropologi- cal insights. For many months now, I have shared the life of a savage tribe whose members live by a barbarous code and are subject to extraordinary mood swings.

It does not live in the rainforests of Brazil but in Battersea. I have been shar- ing a flat with young men — boys — 22 and 23, mostly Old Etonian, all Oxbridge, who are apprentice barristers or merchant bankers or accountants. They are clever boys; no doubt they will be helping to run the world in a generation or two. Anyone who dropped into our flat at the tight moment might also conclude that all Was right with the world — or certainly with England. He would encounter two charming young men wearing well-cut suits, who call anyone over the age of 40 'sir', and who look and act as if they were serving in a smart regiment. But the impression of normality is deceptive. As soon as the grown-ups are out of earshot, the boys are quite likely to be saying, 'Bang, bang, you're dead.' The other day, they set off to their tai- lors in Savile Row, but they spiced up the Journey, One took the wheel of a Volkswa- gen Polo, while the other sat in the middle of the back seat. The hope was that fellow motorists might suspect them of being a Mafia henchman and his getaway driver. Another friend, Sam, dropped by on his Way to a law school interview complete with a pricy new suit and demanded a hair- cut — but not any old haircut. He pro- duced an ancient pair of nail scissors and asked me to give him a Henry V-style ton- sure so that he would look 'really clever'.

All across the country men in their early twenties are duping their elders into believing that they have reached maturity; Whilst reassuring themselves that at any time they could be mistaken for, or even become, Cool Hand Luke, the Godfather, James Bond, the Hustler or Batman. In the way that they mastered Latin and Greek as small boys without an inkling as to what the ancient poets were driving at, so today's male graduates set about their allotted tasks with delightfully pre- pubescent mind sets. They don their City uniforms and read their FTs on the tube, While secretly fretting about how the Star Wars sequel will handle the troubled father-son relationship between Luke Sky- walker and Darth Vader.

Sport dominates all. Naturally, my boys enjoy shooting weekends; they are already boasting about the number of invitations they have had for next season. But my impression is that they would be at least as happy playing cowboys and Indians as shooting pheasants.

Anyway, half their pleasure comes from style and swaggering. The boys smoke as if they are still behind the bike sheds, blowing rings and inhaling mightily. Omar Sharif tends to dominate matters of style, while Bond is adhered to as the arbiter of what qualifies as adventurous play. Thus Robin, a fellow member of a Mediterranean house party last summer, at present deciding between a Foreign Office career or a fel- lowship of All Souls, packed a tuxedo and flares on the grounds that 'Omar would approve'. He also invested in a state-of-the- art harpoon. Sadly it never got wet, due to his fears that if he brandished it in the shal- lows Jaws would get him.

The strain of maintaining the charade of serious, sober youth is becoming too much for many of my male friends after less than a year on the corporate ladder. They tend to buy claret but are usually to be found dining on boiled eggs with dippies and Ambrosia rice pudding. A great university friend working as a solicitor has just spent a fortune on a sophisticated Italian gas- powered coffee-maker on the basis that it might pass as a Bunsen burner. Pete, a fel- low journalist known to have read The Intellectuals and the Masses on the bus, has also come a cropper attempting the stunt boarding on a double-decker.

Heavy intellectual discussions and doom- filled predictions of where our careers will be in ten years' time nearly always end in a game. When we play Risk, the boys interject historical arguments about Russia's defeat of the Nazis with mouthing the boom of the heavy artillery as their toy armies advance. This male reluctance to grow up could be good news for the women of my generation, who are hungrier than ever to break into the executive world. Over the next ten years 1 million of the 1.4 million new entrants to the workforce will be women. By 2000 they will account for over half of all doctors, lawyers, bankers, consultants, accountants and entrepreneurs. What these number- crunching, careerist young women need in order to have it all is a jolly home life and decent, guilt-free childcare. Who better to provide this than their male contemporaries? After all, what most children really want is a bigger child to look after them, one with a driving licence and money, who can polish off their homework and has arms strong enough to push the swing sick-makingly high. Amidst the ranks of bright young things currently inhabiting the first rung of the Establishment is an army of such chil- dren, all of whom are male.

For all their good cheer and attempts at outward professional sobriety, I would be nervous if the day comes when the enchant- ing infants of my generation start running the show. But with any luck it will never arrive. These men do not seem chauvinistic or ruthless enough to stick it out in the rat race once they acquire high-earning wives. Besides, they are too entertaining to grind their way to success. Employers take note: if his girlfriend is half as good as the young man you have such high hopes for, in ten years' time he may well be lolling around at home with his offspring rather than boosting your profits. She, on the other hand, will be winning the bread and worrying whether her brood have burnt the house down. The age of mass role reversal could be upon us.