Patrick Lenton: A Robust Game of Man-Ball
Hi. I’m Maeve Marsden and you’re listening to Queerstories – the podcast for the LGBTQIA storytelling night I host and programme in Sydney and Melbourne. Next up – Patrick Lenton is an author and staff writer at Junkee. He has published a book of short stories called A Man Made Entirely of Bats, and the upcoming Uncle Hercules and Other Lies.
At the University of Wollongong, in the school of creative writing, as I learned about particularly sick short stories, about the wildest of rhymed stanzas, about the loosest literary philosophers, I also learned about something just as important, about friendship, about the dangers of trying too hard, and about the inherent stupidity of masculinity and men. Creative writing was a weird degree in both purpose and setup, a tight-knit collection of around 20-30 students who were just keen as shit about sentences.
You know the old army maxim of, “Put em’ through hell together”? Well, creative writing kinda worked on the opposite notion: “Put them through something truly absurd, and useless, and fun like studying creative writing, and then they’ll bond out of the shared realisation that they’ll never get a job.”
One weekend, it was announced that a bunch of the girls in our friendship circle would forego the usual pleasure of smashing cheap jugs at the North Gong, or drinking boxes of goon in someone’s share house, or crashing one of the actor’s interminable house parties to have a No Men’s Night. I supported the notion in theory. Men are… terrible.
And it’s very nice for everyone who doesn’t identify as a man to have some peace from them, however, I also realised this left me alone with them. Admittedly, nobody in creative writing was overtly masculine, more poetry reading effetes than football throwing bros, but it was still upsetting. I assumed I’d have to listen to jazz.
I used to see my inability to relate to men and their communities as a fault on my part, as a deficit. I saw their scorn of me and my obvious queerness, and nerdery, and fluttery weirdness as something wrong with me. I used to try and think of ways to fit in, such as the time I pretended to have a favourite kind of truck.
*Audience laughs loudly*
So, on the No Men’s Night, rather than simply enduring a nightmarish evening of high testosterone, of shouted arguments about the relative merits of lit bros like Hemingway and Bukowski, of cheap beer and posturing, I thought instead I’d try to lean in and experience a true boy’s night! I didn’t know exactly what a boys night was precisely, but I had grand dreams of using my organisational skills to foster some kind of deep rapport, a raw emotional truth, like when men go out into the woods and shoot things, or rip copper out of the earth, or round up cattle on a lonely mountain, and… No, that is definitely Brokeback Mountain.
But my theory still stands. You never know: Perhaps I was actually a man’s man, but I’d just never had any male friends to test the theory out on. So, consequently, with great excitement, I put together a party planning team to organise the first-ever creative writing boys night out! We called Mandate.
*Audience laughs and whoops*
It was me and my friend Anna, and she was behind most of the good ideas. “Why was Anna there?” you might be asking. Why was Anna anywhere?
Now, Mandate had everything. The slogan was, “Mandate: Get it in ya.” And we printed it on super cute buttons to give to everyone. We created a signature cocktail for the event too, which we tried to think of a clever name for, but realised the only thing manlier than a cocktail was a “cockcock.” We made canapés. We decorated. We had streamers. We had lights. We even had a playlist! It had It’s Raining Men by Gerri Halliwell… 23 times in a row.
But weirdly, despite my enthusiasm, despite getting a great turnout, the party first stuttered and then failed to launch. People milled awkwardly in the immaculately decorated living room, seemingly too on-edge from my highly curated fun… to sit down and relax. The more alcohol that got pumped into the room, the more somnolent and slow the conversation got. A cute boy I was trying to flirt with just kept calling up the other party seeing if he could go to that. I was pissed off.
Somehow, as the night progressed, the more my failing Mandate turned into a competition. I could only imagine what the Non-Man event was up to, but I was convinced that it was fun and frivolous, and everything my shitty party was not. In desperation, I gathered the party planning committee and tried to brainstorm ideas.
“Drugs!” said Lachie. “Pranks,” said Anna. But then, in a flash of genius, I realised that I needed to provide for the Man Party the opposite of what I wanted to do. All I had to do was think of my own unique nightmare party scenario because then men would be sure to love it. “Mandate!” I announced loudly, interrupting literally no conversation.
“It’s time to play sport. It’s time for Manball.” We traipsed to a local sports field, I believe they’re called, everyone except for Anna who decided to stay behind and organise an undetermined prank.
There was a Friday Night Lights aura to the evening now, the big lights filling us with vigour and patriotism, the hot night making us boisterous and rough. There was jostling, and hooting, and the loud hyena cackles of the young at night, and while normally I’d hate every part of that nonsense, now I was just thrilled, grinning in the darkness. “Yes my simple boys,” I thought, “we’re all in cahoots now, my stupid man-babies.”
Now, having never played or watched a sport in my life, it did take some time to develop the rules of Manball. As far as anyone can remember, there were two opposing sides, a sack of goon, and a lot of running and pushing. Now, if you’d told me before that night that a bunch of pretentious philosophy students, and book nerds, and power-goths would spend their evening running and strategising and pouring goon all over themselves while taking a victory lap of the oval, I would have spat in your face. But, against all odds, Manball worked!
*Audience whoop and clap*
Even I was running all hysterical and red-faced and boisterous, like a sugared-up toddler at the beach. Maybe I’d been missing out, I thought. Maybe my hatred and fear of men and their activities was something limiting, a fragment of another time. If we kept Mandate inclusive and open to everyone – not just men – maybe I’d actually grow to love things like sport, and physical activity, and being interrupted when I talk.
And while I was thinking all of this, I watched a beautiful boy named Dane running along with the goon sack, like a newborn gazelle; all flying tongue and big hooves, and as I watched him, he slipped and smacked his gorgeous noggin against a tap, knocking himself out instantly.
*Audience “Aww” in sympathy*
Halfway to the hospital, the poor concussed twink hoisted on our shoulders like a fallen king, Dane recovered enough to argue that he didn’t actually need to go. He was trembling and slurring, but at that point in the night, with the amount of fruity lexia coursing through our veins, who wasn’t? Instead, we decided to go back to the house, babbling with excitement, sporting Dane and his smashed head like an emblem, like a trophy.
But when we got back to the sharehouse, we actually had to kick down the front door. Anna had pranked us. The prank Anna had pulled was an elaborate fortress constructed from every single piece of furniture piled in the middle of the room, for reasons that we never ever decipher. In the kitchen sink, a fire raged uncontrolled.
Every door and window was barricaded against entry. Anna herself, passed out in the corner, wrapped in a curtain. But somehow, in its absurdity, in its elaborate frailness and lack of any utilitarian benefit, the entire night and Anna’s prank, in particular, seemed a fitting metaphor for masculinity.
It seemed a fitting metaphor for Mandate. Thank you.