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Boy to Man

23 Dec
David S Littlewood, Dad, just before I was born – Kano, Nigeria 1958

As a boy I always dressed as a Cowboy, but identified as an Indian (North American Native). Henk on the outside but Sioux on the inside if you get my drift.

This role confusion manifested itself in many ways, not least the absolute adherence to bow and arrow as weapon of choice rather than pistol.

My younger brother, Tim, was all cowboy from an early age – he always wore a pair of six shooters slung around his toddler hips when we lived in Africa.


My first ever proper pal, Alan and I invented a game in which we would coerce Toddler Tim to chase us round the garden whilst we held a pair of cheap plastic binoculars the wrong way round to our eyeballs. Steven King could not have invented a more terrifying scenario than being chased by a tiny blond homunculus in nappies with a cloth comforter in its mouth, firing paired cap guns. Bumping into each other and into tropical vegetation (full of snakes and other nasties), being unable to judge distance, laughing hysterically. Cool!

My parents separated when I was 6, and when we came back to the UK, my mum was a single parent. She had to work as a needlework teacher to support us.

As the eldest boy, I was given responsibilities. I took my brother too and from school, did a fair bit of the housework, helped with the budget and shopping, and most onerous of all, listened to all my mother’s tribulations, moans, frustrations, worries and political theories at the end of each and every day.

As I grew up, my role at home became gradually less cowboy and more Cinderella. Independent laddishness was discouraged in me, yet indulged in my younger brother.

In retrospect I was, not to put too fine a point on it, a pretty good wife. Many of my mother’s friends were a bit concerned by the time I went to Grammar School that I had become ‘a bit of a mummy’s boy’.

My mother was dismissive of their concerns, “Don’t be ridiculous, he’s just sensitive”.

Additionally, because my mother had made it difficult for my father to get access to his sons (once in a blue moon if we were lucky) and lived and worked in West Africa, we had no resident male role model. My mothers thesis of “I’m better than any man I know!”, could not be tested.

So what should a secret Sioux do?

At 13, I went in search of a father, in search of what it meant to be a man.

Playing rugby helped – I played every weekend and never missed a training session. The physicality was invigorating, as was the mindless swearing, mockery, laughter and opportunity to knock seven shades of shit out someone quite legitimately in the mud.

But, I discovered that my team mates were not much help as manly role models – they were as poorly formed as I and, besides the girls hockey team were much more scary.

My first strong male role models, or father figures, were a couple of middle aged blokes who ran a motor repair garage in Darley Bridge near our cottage. Colin, the owner, let me help in the workshop on a Sunday morning – sweeping up, making tea and doing odd jobs about the workshop. Over time, they introduced me to simple engine repairs and car maintenance. Best of all, they were just themselves – strong, taciturn, patient, humorous and very generous. They took the piss out of each other, and me all the time and that made me feel part of something masculine.

By now my dad had returned from West Africa to live in England. I was able to visit my father, who was running a news agent and post office shop with his wife, Mollie, to support his growing second family in Devizes.

I loved that time and being with them – not least because they lived in the flat above the paper shop and he had a splendid stock of ‘top shelf’ men’s mags for sale.


I helped Dad out in the very early mornings to sort out all the newspapers for delivery and in this way I got my first insight into how my father was as a working man and husband: Generous, humorous and popular with people from all walks of life.

It was great to see how he was as a father, too with his daughter Abi, and son Nathan, my half siblings – he was easy company. His youngest son, Simon was yet to arrive.

Just being with him for a while was an eye opener, I became aware of his deeper qualities as a man. More importantly, I could see myself in him.

Remembering these times I think of the song by Johnny Cash – ‘A boy Named Sue, about an absent dad who gives his son the name ‘Sue’ to toughen him up. ‘Toughen up lad’ was always the mantra boys heard as they grew up.

It has made me think about male identity and the roles men are expected to play in society. By inference then, there must be a dire need for boys to find good male role models in an increasingly confused and demanding society. I know a couple of teenagers who now identify as the opposite gender from their biological sex at birth.

Tallyho, I say, pick up those six shooters if it suits you! But, who, or what are you going to use as a masculine role model? You don’t become a man by calling yourself Sioux.

How do we raise good men, cis trans or otherwise, without defining the key qualities needed? The presence or absence of a penis should be no impediment in this endeavour.

I have always had a problem with aggression off the pitch, and I understand why many women find it repellant. My father kept his temper always firmly control. He never ever raised his voice or was aggressive to me.

Rugby and the martial arts have suited me as an outlet because one can be aggressive in a controlled arena, without hurting innocent bystanders. You can ‘get it out of your system’ – like venting steam.

We can all be aggressive in an uncontrolled way, so here is the dilemma: Aggression per se is one of the primary tools of oppression in a male dominated society:

“The first act of violence that patriarchy demands of males is not violence toward women. Instead patriarchy demands of all males that they engage in acts of psychic self-mutilation, that they kill off the emotional parts of themselves. If an individual is not successful in emotionally crippling himself, he can count on patriarchal men to enact rituals of power that will assault his self-esteem.” Bell Hooks.

I would argue that the training of young men demands the active involvement of older men in order that they develop emotional intelligence and healthy self esteem.

I would also argue that in order to dismantle the old patriarchy we will have to identify the best male role models for our sons or male-oriented girls to emulate, and endeavour to emulate them as fathers. Women must help with this, but they cannot substitute themselves into the equation I’m afraid.

Perhaps we also need to persuade some mothers to stop treating some of our boys like little princes.

In my view, a vaulting sense of entitlement is the toxic bedfellow of uncontrolled aggression in men AND women.

Less hubris, more humility please lads and lasses.

I was still searching for a good role model in my very early twenties when I chose J.Gordon Blower to do my PhD with. He was grown up with children, a family man, he was widely respected as a lecturer and an academic in the field of Zoology at Manchester University.

Although, he never achieved a doctorate himself (he was content with a Masters in Ecology) he told me:

“I’ve done my bit for Queen and Country, Henk, I have nothing left to prove. In fact I am responsible for the deaths of millions in the second world war I’m ashamed to say.”

As an entomologist, Gordon served as a Naval Officer in front line raids on Mosquitoes in the tropics. DDT was the weapon of mass destruction in this theatre of War.

He smoked No.6 filter tipped continuously, and, consequently was the colour of nicotine, he drove a gorgeous maroon Ford Zephyr, drank sherry in the afternoon and was an absolute genius scientist and thinker. He was a real man.

To me, Gordon represented worldly experience, strength of character, modesty, patience, wit and great generosity – like my real father.

When I told him in my final PhD year that my girlfriend was expecting a baby, he rummaged about in one of the Ecology Lab cupboards, located a bottle of Madeira, cracked it open and poured us both a stiff measure each in 100 ml Pyrex beakers.

His toast: “Congratulations Henk! You are going to become a father. Marvellous news”

…..put steel in my spine, and I finally discovered the man in myself.

My mother’s lone parenting had almost succeeded in emasculating me by denying me access to my dad. I don’t blame her, I still love her memory, partly because the best lessons I have learned have been the hardest ones. “Would you rather be brought up by a teddy bear or a tigress Henk?” A rhetorical question if ever there was one, you don’t argue with Shere Khan.

Fatherhood requires all the qualities I have described above, and many more but most of all, it requires a man to let go and allow his children to make their own mistakes and discoveries.

Here are three of The Greatest Fathers I have known as role models:

David Stuart Littlewood

Joseph of Nazareth

Nelson Mandela.

Two carpenters and the Father of a Rainbow Nation.

The man himself.
Joseph holding infant Jesus in Brian Fell’s Sheffield Steel Nativity, wearing his carpenter’s apron.

“To be the father of a nation is a great honour, but to be the father of a family is a greater joy.” Nelson Mandela

So if you think you’re a man, show me, I’ve learned from the best.