Male suicide rates, closed mines and scalding hot water

What makes the men in the north-east of England so violent, both to themselves and to others? British artist Grayson Perry suggests it is because they have a history of doing tough work. But his question may need to be turned around.

In the first episode of his sensitive TV series on masculinity, All Man, currently running on Channel 4, Grayson Perry visits several communities of men: Durham ex-miners, mixed-martial-arts fighters, and the mates of a 30-year-old man who has unexpectedly killed himself. He asks himself why violence plays such a large role in their lives; and in particular, why the north-east of England has the highest suicide rate of England. It’s all to do with machismo. These men are not comfortable talking about their feelings. Nor are they attuned to listen to their own feelings. They bottle up fear, anger, and unhappiness. This explains why the professional fighters whom Perry interviews have a much more healthy mental life than the other men: they have an emotional outlet.

A photo taken in another place of high unemployment and (apparently) machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

A photo I took in another place of high unemployment, and apparently machismo: the south of Spain (Granada, May 2016).

But why the north-east? Because the work the men there used to do in the mines was so tough – the physical exertion, the risk of injury and death, the regular loss of friends and colleagues. Silence was the easiest way to deal with this toughness. And this silence has survived the closing of the mines.

This provides a fairly convincing explanation, except for one thing: the women’s work was tough as well. They lived in tiny cottages or cellars, dark, cold and damp, in most cases working longer hours than their husbands, which work involved things like carrying heavy buckets of water and handling scalding wash and laundry tubs and irons – even more than elsewhere, the men in the mining regions needed a daily scrub and change of clothes. They continued work throughout pregnancy, gave birth many times in their lives in very difficult circumstances, and saw many of their children as well as other family-members and neighbours succumb to disease and accidents. In sum, there is no reason to see their working lives as less tough than that of the men in their communities. And yet, they did not develop the same machismo, the same emotional silence, that Perry sees in men.

The bigger question therefore, is probably not why the men of the north-east are so tough, but why the women managed to stay ‘soft’ and in touch with their feelings. If soft is indeed what they are – they certainly commit suicide less often (three times as little, in the UK). But maybe we need a further explanation for that, one that goes beyond being able to work through one’s unhappiness by talking about one’s feelings: an explanation that includes social roles.

It may have something to do with feeling a useful and valued member of the community; with feeling that your continued presence is necessary for the survival and well-being of the people around you. Social expectations for men and women still differ: working-class men and women in the north of England face different responsibilities. Unable to function as mothers or housewives, when men’s task as breadwinner falls through because of unemployment they may have a harder time than women finding accepted roles in their community.

The cage-fighters have found a marvellous solution to this challenge in their role as knight or gladiator.

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