Jenny McCartney Jenny McCartney

Looking for a male role model? Check out the silverback gorilla

Plus: in praise of Terry Hall, and the complications of being a medieval female mystic

Silverback gorillas sleep on the ground to guard the females and young while they slumber in nests in the trees. Credit: Saddako

One so often hears about famous people who are horrible when they think no one important is looking – barking at assistants, or snapping at waiters – that it’s heartening to learn of the opposite: kindness in circumstances that promise little obvious reward. The author and filmmaker Jon Ronson had just such a story last week about his pick for Radio 4’s Great Lives series: the late Terry Hall, lead singer of the Specials and Fun Boy Three, and an attractively morose and compelling presence on the 1970s and ’80s music scene. 

The 12-year-old Ronson was at the front of an ‘excitingly feral’ Specials gig in Cardiff when he conceived ‘on a whim’ of the daring plan of pretending to faint, so that bouncers would lift him to watch the show from the side of the stage. They did exactly that, and then things got even better: before the music began, Hall – ‘the coolest man in the world’ – walked over and asked Ronson if he was okay.

One wonders if a pop star such as Terry Hall – modest, droll, ambivalent about fame – could exist today

The vignette shines a telling light on both involved: Hall, who even in the thick of pop stardom was keeping one eye out for those in trouble, and the pre-teen Ronson, already displaying guile camouflaged by vulnerability, a combination that would later serve him well on the human safari of his journalism, stalking unpredictable characters such as Omar Bakri Muhammad and the Reverend Ian Paisley.

In retrospect, however, Ronson thinks there might be a haunting reason why Hall had a protective attitude to ‘wayward children’. Aged 12, Hall was abducted by a teacher into a paedophile ring on a trip to France, where he was abused, an experience that he described on the heart-breaking 1983 Fun Boy Three song ‘Well Fancy That!’. Lifelong struggles with mental health ensued, yet humour persisted: his bandmate Lynval Golding remembers him as ‘such a funny guy’.

Great Lives is a pleasing format at the best of times, engagingly presented by Matthew Parris, but I found this episode particularly affecting, as touchingly melancholic as Hall himself. It pungently evoked what now seems a lost world: the life of pre-internet teenagers, heavily obsessed with bands, books and subversive little plots to escape the boredom of the house. In today’s era of branding and boasting, one almost wonders if a pop star such as Hall – modest, droll, ambivalent about fame – could exist. No sooner did a band of his tremble on the verge of international success than he seemed to want to break it up. Yet he was also in healthy possession of practical courage: confronting neo-Nazis from the stage at gigs, for example, or talking frankly about mental health long before most people did. Ronson puts it nicely: ‘I think he was intent on quietly leaving a good footprint.’

Hall died last year, but he would have made a good subject for the TV presenter Rylan Clark’s debut podcast, in which guests discuss their idea of masculinity – a concept both vague and resonant enough to be conversationally fruitful. ‘Does the average bloke even exist any more?’ asked Rylan, who elsewhere is partly famous for the dazzle of his tan and teeth, and here proves a warm but quick-witted host. First up was Hamza Yassin, the wildlife cameraman, presenter and former winner of Strictly Come Dancing. He fondly recalled his Sudanese doctor father transgressing his culture’s gender norms by serving up coffee when his mother had female friends round, to their consternation. But Yassin also thought he’d been born in the wrong era, because mostly he felt like an old-fashioned gent: on a date, he said, he would insist on paying. ‘Which animal is getting masculinity right?’ Rylan asked. The silverback gorilla, Yassin said, because it sleeps on the ground to guard the females and young while they slumber in nests in the trees. As a role model, the silverback takes its responsibilities seriously. Sadly, it’s also endangered.

If being a man in the 21st century seems complicated, the life of a medieval female mystic was even more politically fraught. In Free Thinking Shahidha Bari talked to two writers, Claire Gilbert and Victoria MacKenzie, who have recently delved into this world in their respective novels I, Julian and For Thy Great Pain Have Mercy on My Little Pain. Gilbert’s novel is narrated in the engrossing voice of Julian of Norwich, a 14th-century anchoress who wrote the first book by a woman in English, Revelations of Divine Love. In it, Julian detailed her ‘shewings’ or visions of Christ, which had started during a serious illness; Gilbert, in turn, found herself consoled and inhabited by Julian’s voice during two-and-a-half years of gruelling cancer treatment in the time of Covid. 

The anchoress’s cell certainly provided Julian with what Virginia Woolf said every female writer needed – ‘a room of her own’ – although rather an extreme version, since its occupant was bricked in. But if Julian was an intense, prayerful presence, her contemporary Margery Kempe – the subject of MacKenzie’s book – was more rumbunctious. A turbulent ‘oversharer’ and mother of 14 children, Kempe’s earthier visions included quasi-erotic experiences with Christ. Yet this was an era when female mystics had to tread carefully or face charges of heresy, as Kempe sometimes did. At one point she even went to visit Julian in her anchorhold, seeking advice and validation. Centuries later, it was fascinating to peer into such spiritually charged, treacherous times, and imagine these two trading confidences through a tiny window.