This is our truth, tell us yours
Did you watch Guy Martin on Channel 4 last night? In case you didn’t, essentially, Martin, a kind of anti-Clarkson for men who don’t like spoilt little rich kids playing with big boys toys, set a new world speed record for riding a motorbike round a wall of death.
Now, this is going to be a blog about men, about danger, and as much about Nick Blackwell as Guy Martin, and it’s going to have lots of caveats and asides, so bear with me after that unpromising start.
Nick Blackwell is a boxer; at the time of writing he’s in an induced coma in hospital after suffering a brain bleed, a consequence of his fight with Chris Eubank Jr. Inevitably, the question has been asked about the legitimacy of boxing as a sport, and about why young men like Blackwell, or Guy Martin, constantly place themselves in danger. I’d argue that if you don’t understand men, and danger, and risk, you’ll never understand issues like sexual health and chemsex, as well, but that’s a topic I will come back to.
A small point needs to be made about the risks of casual sexism in such a post, just as it was evident in Martin’s tv spectacular last night. The first world record of the evening was set by Shanaze Reade, flying her BMX bike around the wall of death at 25mph, powered by nothing more than her legs. Compared to Guy Martin’s use of two specially prepared motorbikes, hurtling round on your everyday BMX bike using nothing more than your lungs and your legs strikes me as a comparable achievement, and Reade deserved more time and coverage than she got. Martin’s TV stunts, even though they often involve women, like the gravity racer designed and built by women scientists, are defined by masculinity, and a view of masculinity that Martin represents. That’s what this blog is about, although Reade deserves equivalen rpaise to Martin.
A word too about the wall of death. It’s not that scary, not really. As last night’s show explained, below the speeds that imply high g loadings, it’s the application of science. That doesn’t stop it being a staple of old fashioned fairgrounds, and deeply impressive when a genuine stunt artist like Ken Fox starts doing his stuff. At the speeds that imply high g loadings, of course, it becomes difficult, and that’s where the first part of the attraction of Guy Martin comes in. He’s a truck mechanic; not a poshboy member of the commentariat like Clarkson, but a truck mechanic. He oozes authenticity, and trades on it. He’s often cited as a very English eccentric even though, as he makes clear in everything he does, he’s inordinately proud of his Lithuanian granddad. And he does a variety of motorbike racing, road racing, that is definitely at the dangerous end of the motorcycling spectrum. Simply put, he is a combination of everyman and daredevil that touches an audience who aren’t used to seeing people like themselves as heroes.
Road racing is where motorcycling used to be forty years ago, but with ultra modern bikes. It uses public roads, in Ireland and the Isle of Man, and occasionally in former colonies like New Zealand, and attracts a hard core following who look down on MotoGP and Superbike racing as synthetic alternatives that exist only to fill the gap until the real racing begins. It has, as you would expect for racing on highspeed tracks with a huge amount of street furniture, a higher death toll per event than any other form of motorbike racing. Guy Martin is not the best road racer inthe world, but he attracts a following who see him as being the epitome of the enthusiast racer, their dream of themselves as heroes who face down danger.
There’s a parallel there with Nick Blackwell. He got into boxing not through the tried and tested route of amateur boxing, learning defensive skills with coaches focussed on th Olympic scoring system, where one punch that gets through the net can be the difference between gold and silver, but via white collar boxing, the netherworld where lads who fancy their chances take on their peers in the ring to see who can win a bout under rules analogous to professional rules. Blackwell, on his way up, was the epitome of the lad who works out and fancies himself as a bit of a scrapper. Anyone who wodners about why women’s professional boxing has never taken off needs to address the possibility that many of the audience see the boxers as alternative versions of themselves. Now, I may be comfortable with the idea that there is an alternative version of history where I am female, but I’d wager that the majority of a male boxing audience do not look at the wonderful Nicola Adams and see someone they might have been.
Part of the Guy Martin show focussed on his injuries after last year’s crash at Dundrod, where Martin broke his hand, sternum and back. He shrugged the injuries off on TV, while showing his scars off; they are, as he said, the inevitable consequence of something going wrong at 170mph on a public road temporarily converted to a race track. Nick Blackwell’s injuries, that have left him comatose, are also, arguably, the inevitable consequence of allowing a boxer who hasn’t learned how to defend himself into the ring with a boxer who can punch accurately and deploy an uppercut. Blackwell’s upright stance and high guard spoke of a man who’s never learned to defend himself with his feet and his core strength, putting his head out of the way of danger rather than trying to put his hands in the way of punches. He’s probably never needed to deploy those skills while climbing the ladder, but Eubank Jr cruelly exposed his lack of technique on Saturday night.
Why do men do this? Why do they ride motorbikes in a way that means one tiny variation in road surface or tyre temperature can lead to a life threatening crash? (Martin’s Dundrod crash was a highside, where the rider is pitched off the bike as if by a bucking bronco. Typically it results when the bike suddenly acquires extra grip mid corner or on the exit, because the surface changes, or the tyre grips more, or the rider closes the throttle slightly.) Why do we box? Why do we play rugby? Why do we admire Martin, who admitted last night that he was starting to black out while riding the wall of death at nearly eighty miles an hour, but wanted to go out and try again to see if he could go faster?
By the way, I’m conscious that the plural we does not include all men, but includes a set of men to which I belong,even if my particular subset of queer men is only a part of that set, and may not universally admire the Martins and Blackwells of this world.
There’s a stoicism about Martin and his mantra of ‘when you’re dead, you’re dead.’ It features, too, in his less well publicised addiction to endurance cycling, a sport where stoicism is the core of any performance. Stoicism is also the very definition of Blackwell on Saturday night, plodding forward, hoping for a moment when the fight could be turned but almost resigned to his fate, to a bludgeoning and probably career ending, or at least career defining defeat. Both Martin and Blackwell might recognise Seneca’s view, that the point is not how long you live, but how nobly you have lived. In their determination to face danger, and overcome it, they model the idea of autonomous individuals facing down a deterministic, singular universe.
Both Guy Martin and Nick Blackwell were brought up with this idea of masculinity, the granite jawed, True Grit version of being a man who refuses to be shaped by events, but persists and remains true to his last.
To suggest that boxing should be banned, or that dangerous sports should be banned, is like attempting to cure measles with makeup. A particular kind of masculinity shapes men like Guy Martin and Nick Blackwell, and gives them a view of themselves as autonomous, separate and defined by the unwillingness to be shaped by the world around them. Of course it’s a paradox that the masculinity that defines them is itself a cultural product of a world in which so many feel alienated and powerless, a reaction to a culture of acceptance and compromise, but the idea that Martin, or Blackwell, are different, and exceptional, is an essential component of their attraction to capitalist culture. Like supermodels used as exemplars for femininity, they both set the standard, and remind the majority who wish they were them that they do not reach the standard, and should accept their lot.
Oh, and the bit about sexual health and chemsex that I mentioned above? My view is that you won’t understand chemsex, or hazardous male sexual behaviour, unless you understand that the men involved know the risks they run, and embrace the danger as something private to them, a place where they can be outside the mundane for a while. In that place, for a while, they can be the supreme sexual creature they believe worthy or praise, the slut or the stud who is insatiable and beyond reproach, and for that moment of autonomy, they embrace the risk.
Autonomy is a chimera of course; no man is but an island, but the vision of that island enchants, torments and shapes us. Incidentally, and this is not a digression, the programme that followed Guy Martin was Bear Grylls ‘The Island’ where, guess what, the contestants are placed on an island and requried to function autonomously for a month.
Autonomy and freedom are not synonyms, but in a world where freedom is absent, we should not be surprised if, sometimes, it looks like it.