One of the exhausting things about being a woman is that there's no brief answer to that social stalwart: "How are you?" In the workplace, maybe. In the street, maybe. Even at a party, maybe, but only if you don't know the person asking you well. But with a friend? With any, in fact, of your 20 close friends? Not a chance. There's no way out. Over a glass or 10 of chardonnay, or a slice or 10 of chocolate cake, you'll have to start from the beginning and work your way grimly through to the end.
The "beginning", by the way, is the moment, on your last meeting, when you said goodbye. The "end" is this, here, now. The wine, or coffee, or cake, is but the accompaniment, the stage set if you like, of the grand narrative that you're morally obliged to deliver. Deviation, repetition and hesitation are just fine. What isn't fine is omission. There'll be no skipping, no shirking, no executive summaries. The unwritten contract of any female friendship is the truth - and the whole truth. Every nuance, every action, every word. Every evening with a female friend is a gallop through War and Peace.
Evenings between male friends are, as far as I can gather, rather different. Rather more like Herman Van Rompuy's favourite literary form, the haiku. Conversation, should such an outlandish thing be considered necessary, is compressed. Economy is paramount. And so, it seems, is sport. Evenings like this (apart from the sport bit) sound rather relaxing. No wonder men are desperate for that lads' night out. No wonder they're rushing to start up men's groups.
"Have you got balls?" asks a leaflet at Oxford University. "If you have, how does that make you feel?" Probably, one is tempted to answer, like most of the other people who have passed through its hallowed portals over the centuries, and most of the people who run it, and most of the people who have been educated in it, and who have gone on to run the legal system, and the education system, and the financial system, and the country. But, hey, none of us is unique.
The leaflet is for a new group, for male undergraduates, called Man Collective - Oxford. Its very existence has provoked outrage. "Discrimination against men on the basis of gender," said the NUS national women's officer Olivia Bailey, "is so unusual as to be non-existent, so what exactly will a men's society do?"
Well, Olivia, perhaps they'll get some nice chardonnay and some nice chocolate cake and sit down for a nice chat? What the leaflet asked, remember, wasn't whether they experienced discrimination, but how they felt? Not as in that slightly blocked nose which probably meant they had pneumonia, or swine flu, but as in, you know, feelings. Happy. Sad. Ugly. Scared. Spotty. Inadequate. At sea.
And why shouldn't they? Lots of young men clearly are at sea. So are lots of middle-aged ones. It's a tough time, it really is a tough time, to be a man. Feminism told men they'd been part of a patriarchy that had oppressed women for millennia, and they'd better shape up.
Some of them tried, but found that women didn't fancy gentler men. Some of them didn't even know how to try. They could see the alpha males around them doing fine, as usual, but they weren't alpha males, and suddenly there were all these scary, independent women, wanting intellectual stimulus, and fabulous sex, and romance, and material success, and all they wanted to do was slump in front of The X Factor, or read Dan Brown.
So let the darlings talk. I don't know if it will make them feel better. I don't know if talking ever makes anyone feel better. But at least they'll understand why women are often so tired.