The Times

December 17 2000

If Neil Lyndon expected to provoke feminists with his renewed attack, he has failed. Pity is the order of the day, writes Lesley White

Sisters of mercy: feminists such as Joan Smith and Julie Burchill see Lyndon's latest salvo as an outdated argument. The women's movement has moved on, they say, and the days of vilification are dead

Poor, the girls

Lesley White
The Sunday Times

'Whose penis did I say was small?" hoots Carmen Callil down the line from France. "Never heard of him!" You know, I tell the legendary feminist publisher, that bloke who wrote a book saying feminism was rubbish. "Come off it. No-one's asked me about that for 25 years. Is he mad?"

Neil Lyndon's contention for the past decade has been that feminism got it all wrong: men are subject to inequality and discrimination, not to mention ridicule and insult by carping viragoes. Expressing this view in a 1990 Sunday Times Magazine article and a subsequent book, he believes, made him a despised and outcast heretic.

His work dried up, two marriages failed and he lost custody and - temporarily - touch with his son. A one-time consort of Nobel prizewinners, he was reduced to writing about cars and drinking with non-Olympians.

The man has suffered. He blames the monstrous regiment for his tribulations, and I wondered if they were sorry or still angry. Sadly for Neil Lyndon, the feminist hounds of hell could not be roused and merely swatted away his latest challenge as if it were an irritating dung beetle.

One of them told me I must be mad to have my name on the same page as his - but a girl has to buy her own dinner these days, and, besides, I need the cash for the chemical castration kits I'm buying the sisters for Christmas.

"Poor little man," sighed Catherine Bennett of The Guardian, another of the vengeful coven. She told me she refused to dignify the deluded maniac with a response. If a nutter tells her he's Jesus, she doesn't bother telling him he's not, right? In fact she wouldn't comment at all, and was too busy writing her column . . . in which she suggested that Lyndon, who prides himself on his allure for women, gets a job as a strippagram.

Julie Burchill thinks poor diddums could be better employed pinning plastic Santas on Christmas cakes. Sympathy from the girls all round, then. But then when you're going for the sympathy vote, recounting your bankruptcy and emotional wounds as a corollary of vindictive reviews, you can hardly complain when people feel sorry for you. And does it matter?

Laughter, scorn or pity; this man will take it all as persecution. What he really wants is a ding-dong battle. Round Two.

The women he imagined would be gunning for him groaned rather than snarled at the mention of his name. Most of them seemed to think he had been driven to the edge by never having being taken seriously as a heavyweight savant, and by the miserable personal events that befell him - perhaps as a result of his obsession, not of their witch-hunt. "Saying that the achievement of women's suffrage was a tribute to men is just mad," says Kate Saunders, who wrote the reply to his original magazine article. "He's attempting to unravel the whole of feminism, and it's so dated. It's like going back to one of those dreary school debates: do you or do you not believe women should burn their bras? Please."

She is right: the debate has moved on. While Lyndon is raging over yesterday's sex war, current feminist thinking addresses how to re-engage men in family life, promote responsible fathering and achieve more fulfilling ways of sharing a life and a family. Advertising might still be cheeky about blokedom, but the days of fish-on-bike vilification are gone.

All the women he regards as man-hating bigots would agree that fathers have a role to play, that the poor performance of boys in school needs attention and that men's health deserves the same impetus as women's. Indeed, as Jenni Murray, another of his bêtes noires, points out: "It was programmes such as Woman's Hour that picked up the Bob Champion testicular cancer story, and women's magazines kick-started the campaigns for awareness."

Even the thinkers have gone pro men. Susan Faludi's last book, Stiffed, was a plea for the understanding of men and their problems; Angela Philips's influential The Trouble With Boys insists that young men must be instilled with pride in their gender to progress. Women are still paid less than men, and only 9.6% of British companies employ a female executive, but not one feminist of my acquaintance has any warped desire to tar and feather Neil Lyndon for it.

The letters we received from readers, however - overwhelmingly male and supportive of Lyndon's position - told quite a different story. They came in bundles, old-fashioned pleas for men to have more of a say, sometimes knotted with a misogyny you wouldn't want to meet in an alley after dark, sometimes with heartfelt stories about the poor deal fathers get in custody proceedings.

Though some were apoplectic, more letters were infused by a general sense of displacement and powerlessness. This might be the depression of the ousted leader, but it was also the confusion of those reared to run the show, who now find themselves two testicles short of a cultural identity.

But if our correspondents seemed genuinely moved by his plight, not so his evil tormentors. If Neil lost friends, explained one old mate of his, "it's because his only subject of conversation was his book. He could never accept that people didn't rate it - there had to be a conspiracy against him".

I asked the writer Joan Smith, whom Lyndon accuses of barbaric sexism against him, if she agreed. She laughed: "If you are going to be a polemical writer and attack beliefs people hold dear, of course you are going to be attacked in return. What did he expect? He was lucky to get all that publicity."

The disparity between the responses of women journalists and male readers suggests that professional media women feel more secure at home and work right now than ever, which Neil Lyndon would no doubt consider proof of his argument.

It also tells us that some men feel angry and ignored, that they are labouring behind the times with very thin skin and wounded egos. "If I knew who it was you meant, I'm sure I wouldn't want to hurt his feelings," offers Carmen Callil in best P G Wodehouse manner.

Me too. I'm sorry for his pain, but I can't imagine that he could ever have expressed it in a national newspaper without feminism's insistence that men also have a right to a big emotional scene when they feel like it.

Copyright 2000, Times Newspapers Ltd.