(First published in the Nelson Mail and Manawatu Standard, June 20.)
Strange creatures, blokes. Even harder to understand, in some ways, than women.I thought about this recently while driving from the Wairarapa to Wellington. It was a Sunday morning and as often happens, there was a steady stream of motorbikes heading in the opposite direction across the Rimutaka Hill.
A fine Sunday in the Wairarapa has that effect on Wellington motorcyclists. It triggers some impulse deep within them – not unlike a homing instinct, but in reverse. They get up, glance out the window at the leaden grey sky enveloping Wellington, then check the weather forecast – or perhaps text someone they know in Carterton or Martinborough to find out what it’s like over the hill – and before you can say Harley-Davidson, there are convoys of bikes heading north.They’ll spend the day enjoying fast rural roads and lovely scenery, have lunch at a café or country pub – the Gladstone Tavern and Lake Ferry Hotel are favourites – and return home in the late afternoon, tired but happy, like the Famous Five.
What’s striking is that they travel in packs. A solitary motorcyclist on the Rimutaka Hill on a fine Sunday is a relatively rare sight.Having ascertained what the Wairarapa weather is like (hardly necessary, since it’s always better than in Wellington), they phone around their motorcycling mates, agree on a rendezvous point and then all head off together.
Groups of them often congregate at the lookout area on the Rimutaka summit, not so much to admire the view as to appraise each other’s bikes (which they haven’t seen since their last ride the week before) and discuss the relative merits of the inline four as opposed to the horizontally opposed twin.Later in the day you’ll see lines of bikes parked outside the aforementioned pubs, where the riders stand around in their leathers appraising each other’s bikes again and discussing the relative merits of belt drive versus chain drive, a conversation they haven’t had since the last stop at Featherston.
The other striking thing is that they are almost all men. Female riders or pillion passengers are the exception.Now perhaps I missed out on some male bonding gene – my father was possibly the least blokey man I’ve ever known – but this behaviour puzzles me. Men finding pleasure in the exclusive company of other men (unless of course they’re gay, and I’m not suggesting any such thing here) just seems downright odd.
Not to put too fine a point on it, male company and male talk is usually tedious. Give me female, or at least mixed, company any time.But I have to accept that it’s I, not the motorcyclists who swarm over the Rimutaka Hill for some quality time together, who’s the odd one out. Lots of blokes just seem to love hanging out with other blokes.
Freemasonry is the ultimate example of this male quirk. Whatever possesses some men to dress up in strange clothing and indulge in arcane rituals behind closed doors is a mystery. (Yes, I know some freemasonry lodges now admit women, but it’s still essentially a male thing.)You don’t have to look far for less extreme manifestations of the male bonding urge. Rotary clubs used to be very blokeish until women broke down the barricades, although why they bothered is a bit of a mystery.
And think of those clannish supporters’ groups, invariably almost entirely male, that follow certain sports teams around – English cricket’s Barmy Army, for example, or the Wellington Phoenix fan club Yellow Fever. How odd is that? The predilection for male company is peculiar enough, but the vicarious thrill in identifying with male sporting heroes is even more perplexing.Perhaps a psychologist can unravel what’s going on here. I certainly can’t, although I suspect that the members of these groups must lead awfully dull lives if they feel the need to dress up in uniforms, drink bad beer and chant from the terraces (and even more bizarrely, in the case of Yellow Fever, bare their pale torsos when the excitement of watching their idols reaches fever pitch).
On a more benign level still, I occasionally read newspaper columns by men in their 30s, married with families, who get a big kick out of enjoying boys’ weekends with mates they have been close to since school days.This is another phenomenon I don’t understand. When I had a young family I relished the rare opportunities to get away for a night or two with my wife, but a weekend with “the boys” would have had as much appeal as a seminar on endangered arthropods.
Fishing trips, hunting trips, cycling trips … these are all activities that male friends of mine engage in, but which hold little appeal for me. Cycling friends scratch their heads when I decline invitations to go riding with them, puzzled that I should prefer solitude. They probably think of me as antisocial or curmudgeonly, but the combination of testosterone and compulsory bonhomie that often accompanies male group activities leaves me cold.There’s a defining difference here between men and women. I know some women occasionally enjoy a girls’ night out – indeed, have an uproarious time in each other’s company – but it doesn’t seem to be the compelling need for them that it is for many men. Perhaps the traditional expectation that women stay home and look after the kids means they simply haven’t had the same opportunities, or maybe the female bonding gene is more concerned with family relationships than friendships with the same sex.
And speaking of women, I sometimes wonder whether the road warriors I see swarming over the Rimutaka Hill on sunny weekends have partners at home. I wouldn’t necessarily assume all of them do, since many of the riders have the look of men who live alone.But assuming that at least some have left a wife or girlfriend behind for the day, what are the women expected to do while their menfolk cruise the Wairarapa countryside and discuss the virtues of liquid cooling and telescopic forks over a beer at the Lake Ferry pub?
Do the women feel resentful at being excluded from this male ritual? Or are they, as I suspect, secretly relieved at being left at home to do the ironing and watch TV?