Alan West tries to break the habit of a lifetime
When a friend asked me to join his new club, I admit I was a little dubious.
What sort of a club? I asked.
Well, it’s a bit like a Women’s Book Club.
My friend had been impressed by his wife’s book club, which meets once a month for convivial and intelligent conversation, for tea and, obviously, to talk about their chosen book.
A women’s book club?
Yes, but without the women. I’m inviting only men.
Without the women?
That’s right — and without the books.
Let’s think this through. A women’s book club, without the women and without the books. So you are talking about a… a club then?
OK, with no books, and no women, what exactly will we do in this club?
We will think, he said.
Ah, I get it. A sort of Men’s Thinking Club!
I think I prefer “Thinking Men’s Club”.
An image of Joan Bakewell, the Thinking Man’s Crumpet, shot into my head.
So there will be cake, then?
Yes, there will be cake – and tea.
I was flattered to be thought of as a thinking man but still I had my doubts. After all, thinking for its own sake, as a mental exercise, is done by academics and intellectuals, poets and philosophers. For the rest of us, thinking is a means to an end, and it is the end that is the important thing. Indeed there is something untoward and even dangerous about unbridled thinking. Something to do with cultural or class attitudes perhaps. A man’s labour is what defines him and makes him noble. That’s why in Stalinist Russia and Maoist China, intellectuals were carted off to the gulag camps or set to work in the fields.
Then, there are utilitarian arguments both for and against thinking. One school of thought says that the brain has finite capacity and that excessive use is likely to wear it out, rather like a favourite shirt. This argument has a certain appeal to me as I approach retirement; brain conservation, with the possibility of staving off dementia, might be a good idea. Therefore, why not play golf all day long, hang your thinking cap in the closet and get it out only for special occasions?
The other school (the one I think I belong to) says that the brain is a bodily organ and, like any other, it needs frequent exercise. In my case, this involves tackling the most devilish daily Sudoku puzzles that I can find and, once a week, the supreme challenge: getting through the self-scan checkout at Sainsbury’s unaided. My ‘minder’ in this ordeal, is the dour self-scan checkout supervisor. What she lacks in humour, she makes up for with her instant encyclopaedic recall of 25,000 barcodes. Her IQ must surely place her in the top 0.25% of the population and yet, even she hasn’t quite mastered the art of smiling indulgently and gritting her teeth at the same time.
But I digress. Recent research in Canada and elsewhere* suggests that all my mental torture is a waste of time, because the best way to stave off dementia is not by tricky problem-solving but by doing physical exercise. Perhaps the golfers have called it right after all.
Then, there’s the gender-based argument that men are congenitally unthinking anyway, so why break a habit of a lifetime? If there is a question in my title – What men think – my wife would reply, “Very few of them.” Not thinking is a male thing, she says, it is a chromosome deficiency.
I think I know what she means, and it is pointless making excuses. Starting any explanation with the words, “I didn’t think…” is inviting instant rebuttal. It is a sentence you are doomed never to finish. “Of course you didn’t think. That’s the trouble with you, you never think… ‘
I first heard that from my headmaster when trying to explain my role in a broken window, which led in turn to six lashes across my hand with his favourite cane. Over the years, not thinking has been the prelude to many other metaphorical lashings – failed DIY projects, bad career moves, gloomy holidays at the English seaside, disastrous love affairs and worse.
But it is time for reform. Now that I have more time on my hands I have resolved to do much less of it. Not thinking, that is.
For me, the Thinking Men came along at the right time. Over the months we’ve thought and talked about many things: What is the point of marriage? What’s the point of retirement? Do we have too much choice? What should I do before I die? What are friends for? Should I tell people if I’m ill?
Have we resolved any of the perplexing issues of the day? Of course not, but we’ve learned the art of listening as well as organising our thinking. Then, there’s a lot of laughter too and that’s what I call therapy.
So, what is all this thinking about really? We have thought about this too and the conclusion was that it’s actually about fellowship, about being in the company of friends. This is much the same as my other club, the Chefs’ Club, (see Gentlemen Who Lunch) which is ostensibly about learning to cook, but once you’ve cooked something you might as well eat it and have a glass or two of wine and talk about politics. All very convivial. In other words it is another one of those excuses for male bonding. This must be true (the bonding, that is) if the hugging on arrival and departure is anything to go by. That’s another new thing I’ve learned, hugging other men. Having got the hang of it, I seem to do it all the time now. It’s as if we fear, at our age, that one or other of us might not be there next time, so you should give them a hug, just in case.
My conclusion? Men should think more often. Why not set up your own club? It’s free, it’s fun, it’s probably good for you and it’s a great way of making friends. That’s what I think anyway.
This post is dedicated to John Shanahan, fellow cook, free-thinker, friend and consummate hugger, who died on Saturday 7 December, 2013 after a long fight with lung cancer, which never seemed to dim his zest for life. Thank you John for your company, some wonderful plates of food – and for all the hugs.
- Being active a key to preventing some dementia cases.
- Is physical activity a potential preventive factor for vascular dementia? A systematic review
- Thinking man’s crumpet: what or who is that?