December 31, 2009

0 out of 10 for Top Tens

As December draws to a close we are generally bombarded with retrospective looks at the year. There is something natural about this: making sense of how we got here from there is never a bad idea. Yet why this nauseating tendency to make top-ten lists in all kinds of inappropriate categories? I am all for some playful, and personal, top-tenning in the style of High Fidelity, for it does no harm, and represents the ordering of one’s inherently messy existence. But who decides, say, the top ten weather disasters of 2009? Or the top ten celebrity deaths of 2009? This is not a considered or sophisticated way to reflect on the past; it is more like gawking at dead bodies. It is akin to the ‘like’ feature on social networking sites, where reports of exams passed and dogs dying are all ‘liked’ alike, which seems to mean, like, that you acknowledge it, or, like, something. I don’t much like ‘like’, and for the same reason, I don’t care for inappropriate top tens. With wanton inappropriateness, therefore, here are my top ten inappropriate top tens for 2009:

Top Ten Pariahs (Time) – nothing says ‘outcast’ like being on a Time top-ten list.

Top Ten T-Shirt Worthy Slogans (Time) – please. T-Shirts shouldn’t be talked about. Slogans the less so. In combination, celebrated in frivolity in serious news magazines? No, no, no.

Top Ten Breakups (Time) – nothing about celebrity, especially not the bad stuff, should be celebrated.

Top Ten Cryptozoology Deaths (Cryptomundo) – how gutted would the family of a recently deceased cryptozoologist be if they didn’t make it on to the list of top dead cryptozoologists? Or how happy?

Top Nine News Moments of ’09 (CBC) – special mention because doing a Top Nine is so lame.

Top Ten Humanitarian Crises (Medecins sans Frontieres) – imagine being 11 on this list. That would suck. This is surely not list material.

Top Ten Dirtiest Hotels (Tripadvisor) – bottom ten might have been better.

Top Ten Layoffs (Fiercepharma) – newsworthy, yes. Top Ten, no.

Top Ten High Concepts (Greentech) – this list wasn’t one of them.

Top Ten Foreign Policy Blunders (Powerlineblog) – hardly light-hearted ‘ooh let’s make a list’ material.

December 29, 2009

Brace Yourself

I cannot find out whether or not this is apocryphal, but I have long believed Oscar Wilde to have said that clothes should hang from the shoulder, and not from the waist. Whether he did or not, the aphorism rings true. The male trouser is in a sorry state these days. Amid all the medicated bluster about being well-hung, the trouser is a crumpled mess upon the ill-chosen shoe. The nonsense should be suspended. If you want to look well-hung, buy braces.

Can any man recall being complemented on his trousers? Why do we spend such fortunes on every accoutrement of the manly toilet and yet force ourselves into ill-fitting garments of the leg, with complete lack of care and wanton abandon about the location of the male waist? I propose we aspire to the sartorial mastery of Surtees’ Mr. Sponge, whose ‘nether man’ was thusly described:

Mr. Sponge’s trousers… were easy without being tight, or rather they looked tight without being so; there wasn’t a bag, wrinkle, or a crease that there shouldn’t be, and strong and storm-defying as they seemed, they were yet as soft and as supple as a lady’s glove. They looked more as if his legs had been blown in them than as if such irreproachable garments were the work of man’s hands. Many were the nudges, and many the ‘look at that chap’s trousers’, that were given by ambitious men emulous of his appearance as he passed along, and many were the turnings round to examine their faultless fall upon his radiant boot. (Robert Surtees, Mr. Sponge’s Sporting Tour).
Let all those who assert that braces, or suspenders as the North Americans confusingly call them – please let no Englishman hear that I ever suggested a man should wear such frilly feminine fancies – are mere ostentation, give them a try. I would not go out of my way to put them on display. After all, if you are properly dressed, the mechanics of your trousers ought to be concealed. That’s not to say that particularly fine examples might not be afforded a show, but the principal reason for donning them is functional. Trousers look better when suspended from the shoulder, and are more comfortable to boot.

December 24, 2009

Affecting Friendship

There is an art to manliness which is affect. I don’t really have a problem with the cultivation of affectations so long as they are thoroughgoing. After a time, the recently acquired affectation becomes a way of being, and adds to the depth of one’s character. Forms come with meanings, and should be thought about along meaningful lines. Smoking a pipe for the mere image of it, for example, would be no good. There are rituals, commitments, and artisanal considerations to weigh before display can properly be carried out. Such things being observed, the image of it conveys a seriousness of character and thoughtfulness that merely smoking would not. Not that I should go out of my way to promote smoking, heaven forefend, but if that’s your cup of tea, may you observe the appropriate ceremony.

On the topic of affectations that belie meanings, one of the most prevalent, and least edifying, is the tendency of Western males to pretend to stoicism, if not mechanism, in their personal relations with other men. Many of us are fortunate to count among our number one, two, or more genuine male friends. These men, with whom we would entrust our fortunes in love and money, are our dearest companions beyond spousal considerations of whatever persuasion. Yet how often do we tell them? How often do we emote, not theatrically, but sincerely, in their direction? What do we fear would be the result? The truth is that many men fight shy of their own feelings, and presume the same of others. In a vicious circle of machismo – the least manly quality, by the way – we bid to outdo one another in the hardness of our countenances, while consuming ever more alcohol and spiralling downwards into the much vaunted, but overrated, ‘cave’ of primal masculinity. Robert Bly and his ilk are welcome to abscond to their dark, dank, dismal corners and grunt together, but I see no reason to turn my back on the light. Male bonding might be found in ritual violence, but I somehow think there is a sweeter, lighter way. Just for once, be honest with yourself and tell your best mate what you think of him.

You don’t have to tell him you love him if that freaks you out. But my guess is that whatever you say, if it’s heartfelt, won’t be ungraciously received. It would be a hard man indeed who would not soften in the face of true feeling. Beat down the least helpful, least thoughtful of your affectations – the need to seem tough – and be true to the nature of the friendships you value. Who knows, you might start to affect emotion more often and, if you give it due consideration, it might lead you to an altogether better place.

December 22, 2009

Firing Up the Ol' Factory

Few of us know the meaning of true manual labour. The ideal manly musculature is now copied from Men’s Health, or worse, and fabricated not in the factory, foundry or mine, but in the gym. But the ideal’s origins were in the chiselled physiques of men whose daily labours would horrify most modern men. George Orwell, in perhaps his most erotic moment, described such men thusly:

They really do look like iron – hammered iron statues – under the smooth coat of coal dust which clings to them from head to foot. It is only when you see miners down the mine and naked that you realise what splendid men they are. Most of them are small (big men are at a disadvantage in that job) but nearly all of them have the most noble bodies; pronounced buttocks and sinewy thighs, with not an ounce of waste flesh anywhere… They may be any age up to sixty or even sixty-five, but when they are black and naked they all look alike. No one could do their work who had not a young man’s body, and a figure fit for a guardsman at that… (George Orwell, The Road to Wigan Pier).
Of course, nothing much else about these lives was worth celebrating, not least the foul stench the men carried around with them in between baths. Orwell, however much he admired the well-cut figure of an honest man, knew that ‘you cannot have an affection’ for a man who stinks: ‘in your heart of hearts you will hate him’. Orwell saw that the English were ‘growing visibly cleaner’, but how many men now really think about the emanations of their unlaboured physiques?

Whereas some women announce their presence through the overpowering musky sweetness that precedes them (men really don’t like this), as many men carry on as if sweat will pheremonically enchant the opposite sex. Orwell wanted us all to take regular baths. This much surely should now be taken for granted. But then what? What does my smell say about me? Does it complement me and project something about my character? Hopefully it is designed not merely to mask my natural odour. Noses, the least-used of our sensory organs, have been ignored for too long. I have fired up my olfactory sense. How pointless to forge a fine figure of a man if nobody wants to go near it!

December 21, 2009

You Can Keep Your Hat On

Not too many men wear hats these days. Baseball caps don’t count, unless you’re actually going to a baseball game, in which case they might be forgiven. Actually going to a baseball game may not be forgivable, but that’s probably not worth pursuing just yet. You certainly have my permission if you are playing baseball, but then it’s unlikely that you are a) reading this blog, or b) giving two hoots about my permission. These considerations aside, not too many men wear hats these days.

It’s difficult to understand why this is so. After all, Hollywood has always been alive to the trick of putting leading men under a trilby to convey suaveness and cool elegance. People follow the stars in almost every other respect, but not this one. The general reaction of the uncouth to a bona fide titfer, not on the big screen, but actually in their midst, is one of gawking bewilderment. Not long ago, I was crossing the road, sporting a well-fitted brown fedora, when some strip-club going young Americans leaned, en masse, out of their SUV’s windows and shouted ‘Yeeeehaw, Cowboy’ at me, as if I was some exotic immigrant from Montana. The inability to differentiate an urbane, city-going male from Roy Rogers is disturbing to say the least (and I blame Bruce Willis in Die Hard). A few months earlier, at the height of summer, I was wandering around in my sunny panama, when a lady of late-middle age stopped me and told me how much she admired it. I am all for compliments from ladies, but there was something perturbing about the (hopefully unrepresentative) demographic to which it singularly appealed. I would rather think Kit-Cat Club (the eighteenth-century English one. Please.) than cat-food club.

The masses clearly don’t think hats are worth the bother. Judging by the rather poor fare in High-Street shops that sell a variety of head coverings, retail bosses don’t think so either. Resorting to the fineries of gentlemanly shops can hit you in the pocket, but I would suggest they are worth the investment. Otherwise, there is the odd sign that the tide is turning. I noticed that Zara is purveying a range of tall tiles right now, and it has for several years been pushing a somewhat Mediterranean line of jaunty bonnets at extremely affordable prices. Nobody seems really to buy them, more’s the pity, but my own collection is growing and I see no reason to stop. Whatever the uneducated ‘think’, a hat gives a man an air of elegance; it tells the gathered throng that you have thought about the occasion and dressed accordingly; it projects confidence and personality; it lets everyone know you’ve arrived. If you’re a man about town, trying to get ahead, get a hat.

December 20, 2009

Occam's Razor

I like to follow the principle that less is more, and that what there is should be meaningful. People chaotically cope with their lives, doing everything, but doing it all half-hearted or going off half-cocked. How much better would life work if it were simplified? Meaninglessness is avoidable by having less in life to endow with meaning. Parsimony is only the first step, however. What one has left over has to be enriched.

I have become jaded by the way in which male-grooming is marketed to men; actually, it seems to be (ineffectively) marketed to women: all vanity and preening. I don’t aspire to be (or to look like) a footballer. I do not need to think that the only reason to shave is to have my visage stroked by the nearest nubile young thing. I cannot imagine wishing my deodorant to conjure the impression among women that I am made entirely from chocolate. Furthermore, all these magical effects are supposedly reached with minimal effort, a paucity of grace, and a superfluity of razor blades. As such, I am about to take an atavistic turn, for the better.

If one has to shave everyday, shouldn’t the experience be embraced rather than resented? How to make it an enjoyable enterprise? How to make it something to look forward to? I am throwing out the multi-bladed, light-weight, plastic, charge-you-a-fortune-for-the-refills appliance. It is over-blown, over-hyped and utterly joyless. With it goes the shaving gel/foam in a can, taking with it the indignity of having to rub it on with your own hand. Spare me your gadgetry, and your ‘precision trimming blades’; spare me your indicator strips and your second-blades-to-catch-the-whiskers-the-first-blade-missed nonsense; spare me your vibrating fripperies. Spare a thought instead for the styptic pencil, and time-honoured methods.

To save myself a fortune in the long run, and to re-introduce the sense of ritual into the day-to-day, I have acquired a good-quality safety razor. It is the kind that takes old-fashioned razor blades, feels weighty and substantial in the hand, and works best with a lather worked up from fragrant French shaving soap and a traditional shaving brush. I am saying goodbye to overwrought disposable technology (shaving gear, like computer technology, seems to become outmoded every six months) in favour of timeless quality and an indulgent manly experience. If you need me I’ll be in the bathroom.

December 18, 2009

Make Do and Mend

Worn-out things carry a stigma in our disposable culture. If it's broken or old, throw it out and buy a new one. The new one, whatever it is, will also be despatched when it breaks in due course. Consumer goods tend to come with two design features: they malfunction frequently and they cannot be fixed. If repair should be possible, the price of a replacement puts the cost of renovation in the shade. Why? Things date too quickly. Today's miracle of science is tomorrow's Ark. Nothing is worth keeping: even if it doesn't break we shall throw it out anyway in order to 'upgrade'.

This disposable ritual is unedifying. We are not so much upgrading as degrading ourselves. Long ago, I decided I should wait until the next technological leap forward before investing in a mobile phone, Blackberry, Ipod, TV, stereo, etc. Each time the great improvement occurred I resolved to wait again, and I find myself without all these things and not caring in the least about the paucity of gadgets in my personal arsenal. What I do have is not exactly steam-powered, but things work. I am not often perplexed by technological problems. I make do and find myself better off in mind and spirit, not to mention in matters financial.

I suppose the lament here is that it is impossible to find genuine quality anymore, since the life-span of goods is expected to outlast their technological utility. What surprises me is that where quality is an option, such as with clothing, frivolity trumps it. Instead of aspiring to clothes of elegant cuts and timeless styles, made with durable fabrics, we follow whim and fancy and spend a fortune in the process. Wardrobe staples will pay for themselves because they will stand being repaired. There is no shame in sewing! Even socks, if of good quality to begin with, deserve to be darned at least once before discarding. Shoes, if well-made, can be soled and heeled for years. Invest wisely in the first place and spend less in the long run. Thrift, and an eye for quality, are manly traits. Frivolity is decadent. Fads are empty thrills. Make do and mend.

December 17, 2009

Boars in Cashmere

The idiom du jour is the 'pig in lipstick'. What is most striking about the universal understanding of this uncouth image is the degree to which it incorporates some rather large and unchallenged assumptions. The implication, I think, is that women dissemble. Persona and personality do not necessarily coincide, and we should do well to be cautious when making character judgments of the beneficiaries of makeovers (tax-payer funded or otherwise). Why is this such a female figuration? Are men presumed so straightforward, so bereft of guile, as to be incapable of aesthetic deceipt? Is male character so eminently discernible from the stripes on a suit, the direction of sail derived wholly from the cut of a jib?

We should be foolish to answer in the affirmative. Dressing properly (this is not a prescription, as will become abundantly clear in future posts; I refer merely to deliberateness of choice, not to the weave of one's weskit), is simply incompatible with dressing as if sweeping the dirt under a rug. Clothes do not make the man (so goes the adage), but neither should they obfuscate the character. It is simply dishonest to portray in fabric what one is not in flesh.

Of course, this is not to acquiesce in the other great assumption of the rouged sow image: that 'pigs' cannot be reformed. There is nothing eternal in character, but only what one cultivates and safeguards. For all those boars about to don cashmere on Christmas, spare a moment to ponder the softness, the gentility, which befits it.

December 16, 2009

Re-orienting the Modern Man

Honesty is the only policy.
Happiness lies in the healthiness of body and mind.
Read; weep. Challenge your brain and embrace your emotions.
Good hygeine is a virtue and a pleasure.
Value is not all about money.
Worth starts with self.
Courtesy is priceless, but costs nothing.

Misconceptions of the Modern Man

Male-grooming is a chore.
Feminists hate men to be courteous.
In a fast-paced world, there is no time for civility and self-respect.
Quantity trumps quality.
Gadgets make life easier and better.
Style is a woman's thing.
The sword is mightier than the pen.
Taste is innate, not taught.
Domesticity is not for real men.
Masculinity is brawn, not brains.

All false.
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