Inspired by the most primal Muppet of them all, suppressed modern man Sam Rowe grapples, hacks and smashes his way toward serenity
Read any article about modern men and you’ll be told the war is over. Man has emerged from his Neanderthalic hinterland a moisturised model of modernity.
In many ways, it’s true. No longer do we face scorn for wearing aftershave or making sure our intimate areas don’t resemble Chewbacca’s face. But, for all our strides towards being civilised pillars of society, there’s a dissatisfaction bubbling under the surface. Something is wrong. Could it be that our swan-dive away from manual labour and into the digital, deskbound future has left us repressed or, even, neutered?
As, irrespective of your proud collection of brogues, the genetic make-up of us Y chromosome-flaunting males nods towards a predetermined need to be physical, active, primal. Indeed, the ever-widening gulf in school performance between the sexes – 72.3 per cent of girls got GCSE A*-C grades last year compared to 63.7 per cent of boys – has been linked to classrooms not catering for boys’ physical side; and this can even extend to the workplace.
“Men, on average, tend to be physically stronger than women, and the decline in opportunities in workplaces relying on strength will have had a backwash on boys’ attitudes to school,” says Professor Alan Smithers, director of the Centre For Education And Employment Research at Buckingham University. “The decline in school sport will have hit males harder than females, and the absence of exercise will make it harder for some to sit and concentrate.”
It seems man’s vigour is more than a cliché. A British Heart Foundation study showed a quarter of men do at least 30 minutes of exercise every day, and a Fitness First survey suggested 74 per cent of men find exercise boosts their mood. But by seeing energy expulsion as a mere necessity, is the gym enough to gratify your primal desires, or could it be masking a wider problem – the rise of male depression?
“Diagnosed depression is just the tip of the iceberg – only about half of people who have depression go near their doctor,” says psychiatrist Dr Cosmo Hallström. “Men are less willing to admit to personal failings and are less in touch with their emotions than women, and more likely to drown their sorrows.”
As we all know, despite our newfound freedom to weep during romcoms, the modern man still tends to keep a stiff upper lip when confronting his own issues. Men are three times more likely to be dependant on alcohol, twice as likely to use Class A drugs and account for nearly three quarters of suicides, despite representing only one quarter of diagnosed depression.
What’s the answer? We wanted to attempt to find out. Maybe it’s time to not only merely reacquaint ourselves with the Animal within, but also set him free entirely.
Step 1 - Bang the drums
Where better to start than with Animal’s stock-in-trade? From Tommy Lee to Keith Moon, the rock’n’roll drummer is famed for being a maladjusted, destructive force of nature, earning a living by hitting things very hard to make a racket. Often with no shirt on.
What people may not know about the art of drumming is not only the technical ability required to manoeuvre drums, cymbals and pedals at the same time without jabbing yourself in the eye with a drumstick, but also the fitness benefits (drummers burn up to 600 calories an hour) and Zen-like state it can bring.
“It sounds daft,” says Bastille drummer Chris ‘Woody’ Wood, during a soundcheck at London’s Alexandra Palace, “but when I’m on stage absolutely twatting it, it’s calming. If you’re good at it, you just focus on something else.”
Being skilled is key, as my attempts bruise the drum skin, my ego and my elbow. It wasn’t exactly therapeutic, but at least I burned four calories.
Step 2 - Learn to wrestle
This is another physical challenge, but take everything you know about professional wrestling – the pyro, pantomime and muscle- bound actors yelling catchphrases while wearing tiny pants – and elbow drop it from your mind. Although they do share some moves (arm drag, suplex and powerbomb, to name just a few), as well as the skin-tight outfits that leave little to the imagination, freestyle wrestling is to WWE what football is to falconry. Oh, and it most definitely isn’t fake, as proven by the excruciating pain in my shoulder when placed in a vice-like grip by my trainer/tormentor, Mohsen Eslami, one of the UK’s most prominent freestyle grapplers.
“Wrestling is the toughest, most underrated sport,” says Eslami, after flipping me over his head. “I’d say wrestling is the backbone to every martial art, and now, because of MMA, this functional dynamic training that’s been part of wrestling since the start of the 20th century is coming back.”
It’s true; quiz fridge-sized UFC athletes and wrestling will most likely be the basis for their brute force. And, as primal hobbies go, you can do far worse than a combat sport that dates back to Ancient Greece.
Step 3 - Destroy a car
I’m not an angry person. Yes, I’ve sworn at faulty printers, but my experiences of ‘losing it’ are restricted to just two occasions: one a school playground scuffle, the other a drunken row that resulted in an apple being thrown at a wall. I assumed this was healthy (the lack of wrath, not fruit throwing), as what is rage if not a lack of self-control?
Anger therapist Mike Fisher disagrees. “You’ve lost it twice in your life? Dude, I lose it every other day,” says the 56-year-old South African, who claims ‘imploders’ (those who suppress anger) are a bigger concern than those who explode with rage.
My foray into destruction therapy – an anger-management technique from Spain – is a funeral pyre of pent-up aggression. Each chorus of shattered glass as car meets sledgehammer is a release.
Afterwards, the gruelling workout mixed with a heady dopamine rush leaves me satisfyingly fatigued, similar to a heavy gym session or – to be frank – frenzied bedroom encounter. And, don’t tell my girlfriend or personal trainer, but I think I’d sooner smash up a clapped-out Subaru Impreza.
Step 4 - Conquer bushcraft
Out of wrestling gyms and glass-strewn scrapyards, men are looking for primal release in more natural surroundings. Intrepid adventurer, SAS reserve and accidental poster boy for drinking your own wee, Bear Grylls is leading the charge, here. Deep in the heart of the Guatemalan rainforest – sorry, Surrey woodland – I’m being schooled in the most fundamental tasks on offer in a Bear-style survival training course: starting a fire and building shelter.
Sporting a heat-retaining jacket, a helmet adorned with the word ‘CAMP’ (a tad harsh?) and a Rambo-inspired muddy face, I make a bedroom floor of fir tree leaves before stacking big hunks of wood for my shelter’s base. As long, thin branches are laid on top for the roof and errant twigs are sliced to prevent them ripping my sleeping bag, I’m struck by how small and coffin-sized my sleeping quarters are. “Claustrophobia or cold?” offers my survival Sherpa, Don Fletcher. “Take your pick.”
Next, Fletcher empties a random assortment of items from his pockets on to the floor, for the fire. Among them a nine-volt battery and a Brillo pad, the combination of which can create an instant inferno, particularly when adding an unfurled tampon and some lip balm – both surprisingly effective firelighters. Combined with dry wood kindling, this kooky collection of things creates a roaring fire. It’s an undeniably good feeling and I make a mental note to never again leave the house without a tampon. Like a real man.
Step 5 - Smash a guitar
Turning up to a studio late, hungover and brandishing a guitar, I can’t help but feel something of a rock star. But, despite the acoustic in my hand, that’s where the similarities end – what I’m embarking on has its roots in art, not rock’n’roll.
The Who’s Pete Townshend popularised this act, and the inspiration for his antics was, in fact, German artist Gustav Metzger, famed for creating ‘auto-destructive work’ by spraying acid on nylon sheets in protest of nuclear weapons.
As for me, I opt to channel Townshend rather than Keith Moon – who once laced his drum kit with explosives, setting alight Townshend’s hair and partially deafening himself. Luckily, as I thwack the guitar into the studio floor, flailing strings whipping my legs as penance, the only injury I suffer is an irritating splinter which, you’ll agree, is pretty rock’n’roll.
Step 6 - Sculpt steel
Banish all images of Patrick Swayze modelling clay; it doesn’t get more manly than imposing your will on something solid in a sculpture class. Seriously. Inside London Sculpture Workshop you’ll find man and machine crafting rugged art. Or, in my case, a metal dog.
After guillotining, rolling and folding 1mm thick steel, I’m given a plasma cutter by LSW director Giles Corby and told to “be careful, this will slice fingers like sausages”.
Nervously guiding the plasma jet around the metal, I’m surprised at how easy and enjoyable it is.
Finally, after blowtorch braising and sanding, my metal pet dog sizzles in a bucket of water as I reflect on what I’ve experienced, I’m certain I’ve found the place where carnality meets creativity. Even if my creation is rather dainty.
With thanks to Legion Fitness; legion-fitness.com, British Association Of Anger Management (angermanage.co.uk), Jap Performance Parts (japperformanceparts.co.uk), Bear Grylls Survival Academy; beargryllssurvivalacademy.com and London Sculpture Workshop; londonsculptureworkshop.org; Bastille’s album Bad Blood is out now
(Images: Disney/Chris Brock/Sam Armstrong)