Photo by Marc Atkins/Getty Images
Artillery Row

Redemption of the lad

An icon of regressive attitudes needs a second chance

Where have all the good men gone?” cried Bonnie Tyler in her 1984 hit “Holding Out for a Hero”. It’s something I’ve been thinking about recently.

It started when I watched a viral video of a man swooping in to save two commuters from a thief on the Elizabeth Line. After he runs off with one of their phones, they pursue him onto the tube — filming the chase — where they plead for its return. Six minutes into the video, the viewer is informed that a bloke has overheard their exchange, punched the pickpocket and handed back the device to its rightful owners.

Although it’s unfashionable to condone violence, I took a little satisfaction from the ending of this piece, as did many others apparently (the film has 1.9M views and counting). It’s not only that a baddie’s been biffed that’s pleasing to witness — seeing as punishment is now so rare in lawless London — but that it was a macho man who came to help. It’s a narrative so at odds in our current emasculating era, in which Disney heroines rescue princes (or hate them), and Caitlin Moran appoints herself expert authority on the male psyche.

Following the Elizabeth Line mobile phone rescue operation, the commuters’ saviour appears in their footage, emerging as a bit of a geezer who probably works out a few times a week. The friends, once destined to be victims in this common story of London crime, thank this hero, their voices full of reverence. Think Penelope, reuniting with Odysseus after his years at sea. Could it be, like me, that they have suddenly realised why we need macho men? Even the ones who ask for Ant Middleton’s biography for Christmas and burp in Nandos?

Lads seem to be increasingly absent from the streets of Blighty

Despite being originally jubilant about the video, I soon felt a bit reflective and regretful, sad that lads seem to be increasingly absent from the streets of Blighty. For all their foibles — from swearing at the football match to wearing gilets and shoes with no socks on nights out — you often find they’re the good sorts that praise their mum and walk a girl home on the first date. They are, in my experience, the men that come to the rescue when a damsel is most distressed, who swear when it’s needed, and take on big and bulky baddies.

Instead, we are now inundated with men who consider themselves defenders of women but would probably sing John Lennon’s “Imagine” to any dragon they needed to slay for love, tossing pieces of falafel at it as it barks flames in their direction. There’s no end of chaps ready to write sonnets about climate change and put pronouns in their bio because they fancy a non-binary revolutionary at their uni socialist society. Still, you can’t help feeling that if these types had seen a thief on the Elizabeth Line, they would have pretended not to notice — too busy wondering if there’s going to be a Barbie sequel or tuning their ukulele.

The emasculation issue is especially pronounced in the police force, once one of the most testosterone-brimming entities, now weak and unreliable. On the occasions officers do turn up to fight crime, it’s a lottery as to whether they’re Rocky or eat too many Rockys. Other (viral) videos online show them being literally overpowered by the people they are meant to protect the public from, as well as being unable to keep up with criminals on the run. It’s no wonder we are now reliant on hunky tube heroes.

For all the cries of “toxic masculinity” in recent years, it strikes me that we simply don’t have enough “masculinity” full stop to start dividing it into categories of “good” or “bad”. Part of me thinks the problem isn’t too much oestrogen in the water, but that displays of masculinity are increasingly stigmatised. Men end up suppressing their hunter-gatherer ways. When I asked my X followers what stereotypically masculine traits and hobbies they play down, in case they’re perceived as “too macho”, I received all sorts of replies: fighting and watching fighting, martial arts, boxing, Top Gear, believing in discipline, wanting to win everything, problematic movies, eating massive steaks, fishing, as well as the boast “I can, efficiently, kill and gut animals”.

I must say I prefer the transparency of the “lad”, however uncouth (see the Elizabeth Line hero shouting “pussy” at the thief he confronted). We take these chaps too much for granted. Were they celebrated, perhaps there’d be less “holding out for heroes”.

Enjoying The Critic online? It's even better in print

Try five issues of Britain’s newest magazine for £10

Critic magazine cover