LONDON — By accident, almost the first thing I do when interviewing Tim Samuels is to give him an opportunity to demonstrate his masculinity.
For the writer of “Who Stole My Spear?” — a highly entertaining book on how to be a man in the 21st century — it was the possibility of demonstrating recording technology on this reporter’s phone when it seemed that a digital recorder had died. (It hadn’t.) But the tall and handsome Samuels, a thoroughly affable and thoughtful 40-year-old, fixed the problem with a smile, leaned back, and said: “I think I’ve just lent you a spear. I feel very manly!”
Samuels is an award-winning broadcaster and journalist, the maker of numerous documentaries including one on Tel Aviv’s Gay Pride movement. He is also the convenor of a hugely popular geriatric singing group, The Zimmers, who made it to the top of the UK charts and whose existence is credited with giving renewed life to a group of older people, who had all but given up trying to make their place in society.
But for “Who Stole My Spear?” Samuels has reached down and deep into his own personal life and leaves little untold, from his difficult childhood to his problems in meeting women who don’t drive him crazy; from his wrangles with depression to the absurdities of “mansplaining” and politically correct societies.
Unusually for a non-fiction “how to” book, Samuels has no compunction in littering the pages with Jewish input and touches on his own bar mitzvah in south Manchester, time spent in Israel on kibbutz in his gap year, and learning Krav Maga with a bunch of hard men in northern Israel.
“The mantra of the book for me was male honesty and candor, no matter how uncomfortable that might be for me, or make me look a bit vacuous or superficial at times,” says Samuels. “And in the spirit of candor, even if you are an atheist Jew, a cultural Jew, that Jewishness still runs through you. Inescapably, if I was being honest, that Jewishness would come out in the book, even though I don’t walk around feeling like a big Jew most of the day.”
Nevertheless both in the book and with Samuels face-to-face, there is a certain degree of wistfulness when he talks about religion. He spent much of his teen years active in the Jewish youth movement RSY (Reform Synagogue Youth) and, though he admits that within moments of entering a church or a synagogue, he begins to fidget, he acknowledges that there are things within religious life which he slightly envies.
“The alchemy of on-tap community, the framework of rules and the inner feelings of faith and purpose seem to produce enough benefits as to make people live longer and have more stable mental health,” he writes.
He’s quite keen, he suggests, on drawing some lessons from observant Judaism to apply to mainstream life, such as a Shabbat-lite “national day of unplugging” in which people put down their electronics to eat, drink, and reconnect with loved ones.
Part of Samuels’s introspection into the challenges of being a man in today’s Western society may be ascribed to his chaotic home life when he was young. His father Sefton was a well-known art photographer in the north of England. But when Tim was seven, his mother Helen died. In a painful passage in the book he recalls some lovely memories of her, the only thing, he says, which can make him cry today.
By the time Tim was 12, Sefton had remarried — a woman he had known for just six weeks — and subsequently divorced after two and a half years of marriage.
“My brother and I both agree the experience fired us into a headlong hurry to make our mark,” Samuels writes. As a graduate of one of Britain’s top schools, Manchester Grammar School, Samuels was in a rush to prove himself. After university he became a BBC trainee and went on to win numerous broadcasting awards for his films and reporting.
There is a glorious scene in “Spear” in which Samuels ponders the attitude to violence for 21st century man. Unexpectedly, it comes as he is addressing a Friday night event at a synagogue.
As he records, he had been asked by his hosts to speak for 45 minutes about his journalistic career but found he was losing his audience halfway through. An aggrieved Samuels sat down at the end of his speech, cross at his reception about giving up his Friday night.
“Some schmo wanders over to my table and asks if he can have a word… ‘I’ve done a lot of best man talks,’ he tells me. Which is nice for him. ‘The thing to do is to keep them short… and, you know, yours went on too long, it was boring.'”
“‘Are you a professional broadcaster?’ asks Samuels. “No,” replies the man, “but I’ve seen your work — and I think it’s shit.”
The massively irritated Samuels grabs the man by the tie and offers to take matters outside. Fortunately for all concerned — Samuels included — the verbal insults do not escalate into a full-blown fight, but it leads him to report on “ten days of being punched, kicked and strangled” in his Israeli Krav Maga course. After those ten days, he writes he “felt some intangible undernourished roots of masculinity come back to life.”
Samuels says the genesis of the book lay in discovering “a common thread” running through male challenges today, from violence, to sexuality, to mental health. The latter, Samuels says, is “masculinity and men’s ability to vent it. This is not a cry for help, because what have men got to complain about? But it is a question over how one express oneself as a man today.”
He is not advocating, he insists, a return to Mad Men days, when men were men and women were compliant. But he thinks it’s possible to “tinker” with modern life, to take the best of what was, and apply it to what is.
‘How would it be if the people in these offices were told, “No, we don’t want you in on Monday morning, we want you to do some manual work and build a playground?”‘
Samuels waves his hand around the Westminster park where we are sitting, surrounded by the towering buildings of corporate London.
“How would it be if the people in these offices were told, ‘No, we don’t want you in on Monday morning, we want you to do some manual work and build a playground?’ I don’t think that the world would come to a halt. I think the workers would be more productive, probably healthier, and certainly less stressed,” he says.
And what about Israeli society, which he knows well, where masculinity manifests itself with latent violence channelled into military action? Responds Samuels, masculinity is expressed in Israel in many layers, not least in its status as the most gay-friendly country in the Middle East.
“It’s a country which can produce a TV drama set around a therapy session each week [B’tipul] and have Gay Pride and also celebrate military ideals. It’s a fascinating, complex exploration of masculinity,” he says.
To set the record straight, Samuels emphasizes that women aren’t the enemy for men today. Rather, he believes, the biggest enemy is “work and job security and the economy, and work stress.”
At the end of “Who Stole My Spear? Samuels offers a checklist of not-quite-jokey recommendations of “Weekly Spears,” one to be awarded for each task. They include mastering or improving a skill that has nothing to do with work, spending more time with family and friends, exercising or playing sport. There are also “Bonus Spears” for expressing emotion and building an honest relationship with a partner.
Actually, Samuels’ witty guide is less “how to be a man” than “how to be a mensch” and should be required reading for every Jewish prince.