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To Be Perfectly Frank | Dirty old men?
There was a time when falling in love and male and female roles meant something different than they do today.”
This caught my eye a few weeks ago in one of the plethora of free newspapers that find their way into our letterbox each week. (Subscribing to Post Danmark’s ‘nej tak’ scheme does not prevent these from being delivered, despite the fact that they are entirely financed by advertising.)
The reason this phrase struck a chord with me was because it was the introduction to an article on the veteran Danish actor Jesper Langberg, well known for a multitude of roles on stage and television in a career spanning over 45 years.
He was born in 1940 so is a contemporary of mine and still lovingly recalls, as do I, a time when women were figuratively placed on pedestals and one didn’t just meet a girl and take her straight to bed.
The fact that there actually existed girls willing to be taken to bed after a fairly brief encounter (something most lads found out relatively late in their sexual development) did not automatically lead to an assumption that this should be the norm. On the contrary, such behaviour was, as our parents and other authority figures had drummed into us, something to be looked down on and avoided. ‘Nice girls don’t’ was the watchword, and most of us took it at face value.
The late ’50s and the ’60s were, of course, times of profound social change, though we in the UK didn’t realise it as such at the time. Oh yes, the music changed, and the fashions. There were mods and rockers, and teddy boys on the streets and rock festivals (especially on the Isle of Wight, my home territory). But we never went as far as the student unrest in Paris and Berlin (eagerly copied, though perhaps not entirely understood, by certain factions in Copenhagen). No, we just gradually acclimated to a different lifestyle, especially those of us who were young and welcomed the freedoms that it brought.
The author agrees with Danish actor Jesper Langberg (left) that contemporary women have no experience of genteel behaviour (Photo: Erik Aavatsmark)
And the change in sexual mores that went with this social revolution was also welcomed, though, as I’ve suggested above, not necessarily with alacrity by any means. This was before the widespread availability of the birth control pill and, in Britain at least, getting hold of a condom was no easy matter. There were as yet no vending machines and, as far as we could make out, these items were only proffered by men’s hairdressers in a manner best compared with that of vendors of dirty postcards: “Something for the weekend, sir?” And this offer was reserved exclusively for gentlemen who were known or assumed to be well and truly married. (The allusion to the weekend was the presumption that sex within marriage took place on Sunday afternoons while the kids were at Sunday school.) No chance for a lad of 17 or 18.
But to come back to Mr Langberg. The actual emphasis of the article was on the fact that he was brought up to behave politely towards others, and especially women. “Nobody holds a door or pulls a chair out any more,” he ruefully remarked. “As a man, it’s nice to be a bit elegant with the ladies”. But in this day and age, women often have no experience whatsoever of such genteel behaviour and, as a result, are immediately suspicious. “And that’s sad,” he said. It’s not that he has anything against equality (read also ‘equal rights’ and ‘parity’ – the Danish word ligestilling can have any of these subtly different meanings), but he insists it’s essential to preserve la différence, as the French are wont to put it. Flirting is essentially a lost art, and society is poorer as a result. “The games played between men and women are such a positive thing,” he continued. “The world of women is so exciting and we mustn’t play down their greatest asset – being women.”
The title of the article reflected the sadness of its contents very aptly: “Women think I’m a dirty old man.” And just for wanting to flirt! To think that we have come to this: that it’s more acceptable to have sex with a virtual stranger in the nearest public lavatories than it is to explore the endlessly intriguing differences in the make-up of the genders by social rather than sexual intercourse.
‘Manners maketh man’ is a 14th century English motto (‘man’ in this context can be freely interpreted as ‘the human condition’). Perhaps some of the time spent showing young prepubertal kids how to put on a condom might be better used encouraging them to reach for higher values such as human dignity, self-respect and consideration for others. Then they might not begin their lives assuming that youth and sex are everything, and that those they deem to be past it are just dirty old men!
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