Topless men. What does that mean, then? I was opposite one on the tube the other day, heading north from Finsbury Park, and I just couldn’t stop -staring.
In terms of sheer comfort, I was quite jealous. There was me, sweating in my shirt and suit trousers, and there was him, open to the air in shorts and nothing else. He was sweating too, of course. As I watched, a rivulet of the stuff ran from his neck and through the thicket of his chest to hang as a globule from a thatch of hair above his right nipple. Frankly, that globule made me anxious. Any moment, I knew, our train would burst into the overland sunshine of Arnos Grove and I feared it might function as a lens, perhaps even setting him alight.
Men are stripping off. There’s no point in denying it, because it is definitely happening. Nor, really, even decrying it. The naked hordes of Oxford Street, alas, are not going to read a strongly worded column in The Spectator and put their shirts back on. It’s been coming for a while, but now it has incontrovertibly come. Male flesh has been set free.
The Panglossian in me wants to see this as a good thing. I was rewatching Zulu the other week. My God but a British man used to be expected to wear a lot of clothes, eh? Out there in the baking sun, facing an African army clad mainly in leaves, Michael Caine and the rest of them are trussed up like Beefeaters.
This is pure class, and I don’t mean that in a good way. A topless woman has connotations of a different sort, but a topless man has always suggested manual labour. Backpacking in India long ago, I remember reading guidebook advice that I ought not to wear shorts, because such things, to the respectable Indian, were a signifier of low caste. Naked chests in Britain are something similar. Or at least they were.
So what changed? Is it nothing more than a sweeping dissolution of decorum? Maybe, but it’s swept quite far. Stroll out across Hampstead Heath and the rich are just the same. You can tell they’re rich because their tattoos are smaller, and they wear linen drawstring trousers rather than tracksuit bottoms, and they tend to be shouting at an identifiably higher class of dog. Indeed, it’s swept even to women. Earlier this year, the New York Police Department circulated a memo reminding officers that women are as entitled to be topless in public as men; a law tested last week in a Lower Manhattan bistro, to the delight of tabloid newspapers, by a model called Cheyenne Lutek. I can’t decide if that’s political correctness gone mad or finally gone sane. But it must be one or the other.
In a way, it’s actually a lot easier for women, because they have a choice. If you like, you could see the soaring trend for male toplessness as the lecherous patriarchy, of which I am a part, shooting itself in the foot. Women, objectified for ever, have learned to glide through the summer in shift-dresses and chiffon. We’ve got nothing like that. For us it’s full truss or nothing at all.
Still, times are changing and the gender wars are drawing to a close. Male nudity could be only the first step. Maybe one day I’ll trot along to The Spectator’s wonderful summer party and come across the current mayor of London sipping champagne while cooling in the breeze in hotpants and a bra top. Yes, I know it’s not everyone’s dream, but it’s mine.
I mean, look, it’s not like I ever doubted the word of J.K. Rowling. The woman is a modern-day saint and does no end of good for charity and the horribly disadvantaged, even going as far as being actual friends with Gordon Brown. So if she says she wanted to keep it a secret that she was writing books as Robert Galbraith and is sad that the world has discovered this, then I believe her.
What I struggled to believe, though, was that somebody, somewhere, wasn’t pulling a fast one. I mean, sure, Rowling herself doesn’t need the money. But were we really supposed to believe that a publisher, having snared a women whose last Harry Potter book sold 44 million copies, was going to be content with one that sold 43.9985 million fewer?
Apparently they were, at least for a while. Inasmuch as one can make out, Little, Brown was planning a big reveal in a book or two, and is now rushing to reprint, having been utterly caught on the hop. I don’t know why I take so much pleasure in knowing this. I suppose it’s the hack in me. I thought, at first, that this was the triumph of spin over journalism. Whereas actually, happily, it sounds more like the reverse.
Hugo Rifkind is a writer for the Times.