January 31, 2010

Hunting Attitude

There is a great gentlemanly tradition of killing things for fun. Few people do it now, and even in the heyday of foxhunting, few men would have admitted that they liked it purely for the spectacle of death. To seek brutal death – to chase death down for its own sake – is the purview of the few. Loathe foxhunting as indeed many people do, we have nevertheless had cause in the past to be thankful for the few. This is not by way of a justification, but for a couple of hundred years at least it was thought that one could tell a good military leader, or a good soldier, by his prowess in the field. But the truth of foxhunting, not often told, is that while most men proclaimed how much they would dearly have loved to be in at the death, precious few ever really experienced it. And perhaps it is just as well, for the chasing pack may have been given to lose their hunting breakfasts in the least dignified manner. If there was no chance of seeing the end of the fox, you might at least break your own leg.

In what then, lay hunting’s manly virtues? In courageous riding: to go full tilt at a hedge with ditch of unknown width and depth on the other side was not for the faint hearted. In its rituals of language, procedure, and blood: young initiates had their faces anointed with fox blood, and the fox’s ‘brush’ was bestowed upon the most valiant. In its display, ocular, aural and olfactory: fine figures in cutaway pinks and shiny tops, horns and hunting parlance, hounds – the emblems of human ingenuity in breeding and analogues of aristocracy – scenting sagaciously. In its fair play, for a fighting chance was part of the ethos: death was the end in mind, but woe betide the man who caused the fox to be ‘chopped in covert’. Hunting also had a sociology of its own, based on skill primarily, but not without representing traditional ideals of social cohesion in the bonds between manorial lords, yeoman farmers, the clergy, and tenant farmers. Hunting men knew their respective places. For some, a hunt gathering was an arena for the manly arts; a place to exhibit the masculine equivalent of feminine accomplishments: conversation, politics, lore and friendship. All these were things, according to Anthony Trollope, quæ possunt esse homini polito delectatio.

A life of refined pleasures, indeed, with rough and tumble and a cracking pace for good measure. As early as 1870, MacMillan’s Magazine predicted that foxhunting would soon become ‘a problem for moral archaeologists’; that tally-ho ‘may only live in the pages of some historian of old enthusiasms’. In some ways I regret being that historian, fulfilling a remarkably prescient prophesy. In other ways, I see that it is fitting, modern sensibilities being what they are. That said, the modern debate bores me a great deal. Neither side has been given to tell the truth, and that bleak observation trumps any of the other virtues of their respective positions. It leads me to conclude that the manly foxhunter was an historical figure long before foxhunting’s actual demise. And if that is the case, there is certainly little left to say for it.

January 29, 2010

Only the Wrong Clothes

There’s no such thing as bad weather; there’s only the wrong clothes. So said Billy Connolly, of all people, although he probably didn’t say it first. Today in Boston it was minus 24C if you factored in the wind, which by most standards is pretty nippy (minus 45C was my personal worst, in Quebec City a couple of years ago). But still there are clothes for this kind of teeth-chattering inclemency, and if you’re bundled up, or better still, inside, it need not be unendurable. Most people today were suitably attired; but I see no reason to praise the general public for having common sense. It is, after all, supposed to be common. Allow me instead to dwell upon a little madness.

Today I observed numerous poor miserable slips of girls wearing open-toe shoes, some with heels, some flats. They sported short skirts, and fall jackets. These victims of vanity, had they brought mirrors with them on their ill-advised sojourns, would have had chance to reflect on their teary-eyed, snot-covered blue visages, with pained eyes, cracked lips and general air of quivering rigidity. Just what they were aiming for, I suppose. I also witnessed four different men, independently insane, wearing shorts and t-shirts. Shorts are difficult at the best of times, and I welcome the cold, for it saves the sartorial dilemma. What were they thinking? One, I surmise, regarded the distance between his college residence and the gym – a few hundred metres – as insufficiently far to warrant outdoor clothes. I saw him jogging stiff-kneed on the way in. I doubt very much that he survived the sweat-bathed return trip, which probably marks a good result for the gene pool. I also saw a man with a bald head wearing a coat with a hood: coat unzipped, hood down. Another man, gracefully aged, left his otherwise practical shearling coat unbuttoned. Sporting no gloves and no bonnet, his jaw assumed the set of grim death. Is this machismo? Vanity? Or is just plain stupidity?

Winter doesn’t bite here too much, but when it does its teeth are sharpened. Surely people know this? Where are the boots, the top-coats, the hats? Where are the scarves and gloves? The poor tramp I saw on the way to work this morning bravely wore everything. He knew about winter. How unjust, how insulting, to see the young and the wealthy stumble about wearing nothing but their lunacy. The ladies, frankly, looked dishevelled and sickly, like victims of gin, or a Hogarthian rake. Whatever image they aspired to, it was not this. The men, no doubt proud of their stern masculine resolve in the face of extremity, exposed their bodies and revealed the limited contents of their nigh-empty heads. It wasn’t big; it wasn’t clever; it certainly wasn’t manly.

January 28, 2010

I Like To Be Tied Up

Titter ye not.

Time was when the open throat of a man could make a woman weak at the knees. The reason: no one was accustomed to seeing anything exposed below the Adam’s Apple. There is a deal to be said for leaving much to be desired. The Victorians were sexual furnaces, engaging in every manner of depravity one might imagine. This was owed in part to the fact that the social formalities of public and private life demanded a buttoned-up approach to dressing (pictured: George John Romanes, personal hero of mine. No stain of sexual depravity marks his character). Imagine for a moment how the minds of today’s youth would be enlivened if only their eyes were not so readily gratified! In the West we are too accustomed to the sight of skin, and accordingly, the erotic has been lost in the grotesque.

Fortunately, a vestige of the erotic remains in individual experience. One’s mind is wont to dwell upon what lies under the clothes of a person who reveals little, for mystery is attractive, and also contemplative; the scantily clad is subject to the ocular gorge, but the moment is fleeting, the potential immediately reached. The tastefully dressed command a second, a third, a longer look. Consider the heightened ecstasy of the long-anticipated reveal.

For these reasons (not exclusively – there are more mundane ones) I advocate wearing a tie. Cover the male throat and animate it in the imagination. But I could not possibly extol the virtues of the tie without offering some prescriptions as to how it should look, and how it should be tied (although I will spare you the specific instructions – look them up). The rules, much like everything else these days, are more relaxed, and one should follow one’s impulses within reason. Wear a big Windsor knot to portray confidence, but bear in mind that with a cheap suit this knot will make you look like a thug or a footballer. The half-Windsor is often a good compromise knot, but the angle of the collar should dictate how much space the knot should take up. Of course, the thickness of the silk, its weave, and the width of the tie itself will all determine what kind of knot you can get away with. With thinner ties, a four-in-hand knot looks well, and ought not to arouse worries of looking juvenile, despite being known in some quarters as the ‘schoolboy knot’. The tie must never hang below where shirt meets trouser, and should not be more than two inches above it. Your girth will determine what looks best. If you’re overweight, eat less and go to the gym. And ties must be silk (or maybe cashmere and silk). No one fantasises about unpeeling layers of polyester.

Spare a thought also for the bowtie (one of mine pictured), although do not ever wear a clip on tie and expect your dignity and self-respect to remain intact. You can learn how to tie a proper one online, and there is really no excuse. A bowtie, if not carefully incorporated into a whole look, might raise an unwanted smile from the beholder; but thoughtfully deployed you may fascinate the passer by, who will spend the day contemplating that enigmatic chap he or she saw earlier.

I like to be tied up. It adds meaning to the times when I want to look relaxed. And it may elicit a desire in some to go for the throat. Carpe jugulum!

January 27, 2010

On Disappointment

I remember when I was a little boy, I felt a great fish at the end of my line, which I drew up almost on the ground, but it dropt in; and, I believe, it was the type of all my future disappointments (Swift to Bolingbroke).
Does this not describe the nature of most, if not all disappointments? For who has not felt, with good reason, that a positive outcome in some affair or other was likely, only to have expectation summarily dashed against the rocks? To be consistent with my previous animadversions on this head, I shall resist invoking hope and luck, but I feel we may safely identify with the man who feels he has been done an injustice. In these times of difficulty and dearth – I say this with a vagueness such that anyone may identify with it – a fish on the line causes a greater anticipation of its being landed securely on the bank than it might in times of ease and plenty. To lose the fish through, say, a fault in the hook, might be thought by the fisherman to be an injustice, especially if he paid good money for a properly functioning hook. A certain ire is wont to arise under such circumstances, and who could fault it?

The question is, what to do about it? Alcohol provides temporary relief but quickly magnifies the hurt; breaking something in a fit of violence only leads to regret, and does nothing for the problem. The bottom line is that the only cure for missing that fish is to catch another one, and better still to ensnare it on a hook of one’s own fashioning. There is a reason for the platitude “there are plenty more fish in the sea” (although its factual status is increasingly in doubt). Where a chance goes begging, another can be engineered. Perseverance and indefatigability are laudable qualities. Ingenuity and entrepreneurialism, when superadded to the former qualities, make for a formidable character, resistant to setbacks and resolute about the chosen path. Not everyone is blessed with equal amounts of these qualities. But they are to a large extent to be defined in terms of spirit, which can be cultivated, trained, even incanted.

Somebody wise once said, ‘don’t let the bastards grind you down’. That seems to be a sound enough maxim for the disappointed among us.

January 25, 2010

The Gentleman's Club

[T]he Drones, where a certain standard of decency is demanded from the inmate. Ask anyone at the Drones, and they will tell you that it was a black day for the dear old club when this chap Glossop somehow wriggled into the list of members… the universal consensus of opinion is that the fellow is a bounder and a tick, and that the moment he showed signs of wanting to get into the place he should have been met with a firm nolle prosequi and heartily blackballed (P.G. Wodehouse, Right Ho, Jeeves).
In my time I’ve had the good fortune to frequent a number of gentlemen’s clubs. Most of them were perfectly frightful, but anthropological curiosities nonetheless. As a teenager, I watched the awkward sociology of the private golf course club house, not knowing then quite what was wrong. Lower middle-class golfers acting up; upper middle-class golfers trying to be of the people; over made-up women golfers posturing, not realising their hopeless subjection; the odd working-class golfer, spitting old-school venom and being anonymously reported to The Committee. After 8 o’clock, no male was allowed past a certain pillar, upon which hung a brass bell, without donning a jacket and tie. Nothing distinguished the one half of the room ‘past the bell’ from the other, except the haughty stiffness of those who dressed up, looking at the casual slum of monstrous costumes on the other side. Such a bizarre line in the sand, this. Incidentally, the television resided on the formal side of the line. Want to watch Coronation Street with your whisky and water? Get a tie on!

At age fourteen I was bemused. Now I see the point, but I confess that this small mindedness was pushing the envelope of pointless snobbery. Dress codes serve a meaningful purpose, but the boundary should have been the club as a whole. It serves no one to stratify a single room, for God’s sake. It might surprise, perhaps, to note that the higher up the social scale one travels, the more relaxed the regulations. Some institutions exclude by reputation. A man who feels he doesn’t belong automatically stays away; for those who assume a place, the door opens (there are always ways around the money question). A brass neck can take you far, if you know where to stick it. As a case in point, a number of esteemed institutions have recently opened their doors to me, and I haven’t parted with a farthing. Jolly decent of them.

The social dancing and niceties aside, I mention all this merely to make an objection. Perform a Google operation on the phrase ‘gentleman’s club’ and you will be appalled to find that the vast majority of institutions listed rather fall short of the description. No doubt, gentlemen have always visited houses of uncertain repute, but the institutions had not the audacity to presume that the presence of gentlemen signified for them a like status. I know that the word ‘gentleman’ has been emptied of its meaning in the last hundred years, but that is no reason completely to derogate it. It is horrifying to think that the drunken hordes who tonight revel at post-modernity’s rather tangible version of the greasy pole will wake up tomorrow and think themselves upright men of social standing. The gentleman’s club need no longer be the exclusive resort of the social drone, but it ought still to be something more than a grotesque projection of the gutter.

January 23, 2010

Down Loden; Or Inheriting Tradition

The strong point of the English gentleman pure is the easy style of his figure and clothing; he objects to marked ins and outs in his costume, and he also objects to looking inspired (George Eliot, Daniel Deronda).
These words still have a ring of truth about them, although I am afraid they indicate that there aren’t many gentlemen, English or otherwise, left in the world. Most people succumb to fads, fashions and phases. I’m also rather afraid that the English have unwittingly adapted their manners in accordance with their exposure to American television. English people were not known formerly to whoop. English men did not even scream for the Beatles; now they unleash their girlish falsetto appreciation for passing mediocrities. This by way of an aside. I would rather focus on the positive part of Miss Evans’ observation.

Adhering closely to classic designs, one can build a wardrobe that will hardly date. To borrow an apt aphorism from the sporting world: form is temporary, class is forever. The seasonal highlights of the catwalk are tomorrow’s reason to bury your head in shame. The avant-garde always look silly, ten years later. They do leave behind little bits of elegance that will endure, but it is probably better to be one step behind. Since the classics are always recycled, one can apparently be a trend setter by simply following tradition. Paradoxical? Perhaps, but tradition will (should) always trump the merely temporary tricks of the trade.

Let us also add thrift into the analysis of the English gentleman pure. Classical elegance and quality can be expensive, but they last so long that they afford the possibility of recycling. The best of men have never shunned quality upon the grounds that a thing is used. A thing demonstrates its quality through its age and ought, perhaps, to lead us to be mistrustful of the new (this is partly why I can’t bring myself to read contemporary fiction, but that is for another time). My latest purchase – a rare find indeed – is to the point: an Austrian Loden coat of uncertain vintage. Such a timeless design can fetch a pretty penny in the finest stores. It will last me a long time yet, and was a snip at $40, don’t you think?

More weightily, from a sentimental point of view, Father has promised me his Raymond Weil watch when he passes – we have discussed it without morbidity – and I await my inheritance with infinite patience, but with certainty that I will myself bequeath the object when my time comes. How fitting that such trust can be placed in a time piece. It marks the hours itself without appearing to age. I applauded his taste as a child when he purchased it, and secretly coveted it for many years. It will be passed down laden with meaning, assured to last, and as a token of a permanent bond. Form is temporary, class is forever.

January 22, 2010

Where's Wallet? Or, Luck Out!

I lost my wallet yesterday. I didn’t actually, but for ten minutes it felt like I did. And then it showed up, in the sleeve of my jacket, having made its way there somehow from my inside pocket. Lucky I found it. Lucky.

I don’t believe in luck. The worst thing a man can do is to believe in luck. It shortcuts work, fastens his attention on false hope, makes him complacent, slack-minded, and liable to curse everything but himself when luck does not last. Luck is for losers, as George Eliot knew well:

She had begun to believe in her luck, others had begun to believe in it: she had visions of being followed by a cortège who would worship her as a goddess of luck and watch her play as a directing augury. Such things had been known of male gamblers; why should not a woman have a like supremacy? (George Eliot, Daniel Deronda).
Gwendolen, the subject of this passage, proceeded to lose everything by the next chapter. And if you care to show me a male gambler who is a talisman of good fortune, I will show you a highly skilled practitioner of this or that game, or a cheat. One can have occasional good fortune – nothing ventured, nothing gained – but nobody is lucky per se; lucky to the core. My luck today was merely relief. And had I lost my wallet, or anything in it, it would have been through my own complacency. Trifles, you say; yet the rule holds good. There is no substitute for hard work. As Jefferson is thought to have said: ‘I am a great believer in luck, and I find the harder I work the more I have of it’. If you are in the right place at the right time, it is invariably because you, and the world you live in, have set a million things in motion to put you there and then. And if you have a rotten streak, then you can find real causes, out of which you may derive real solutions.

Even the things that affect us most deeply cannot be ascribed to luck. Redundancy is not bad luck: it is economy, and so is redundancy’s cure; illness is not bad luck: it is pathological. Its cure is medicine or not, but that is the nature of being a being. We may explain these things by luck, for it makes them easier to handle, and we may be forgiven for it. But in the day-to-day, I hate to see a man rueing his luck. It is not reasonable, and a man should above all else be reasonable.

January 20, 2010

Let's Talk About Sox

All this swanning about in New York does make one fantasise. Yet I find that a pied-à-terre in New York is presently out of my reach, so to keep my feet on the floor I’m thinking about earthly mundanities, namely socks. I apologise for titillating with my titular allusions, but I am of the opinion that the male ankle is sorely overlooked these days. The well-turned ankles of women used to make men swoon, and were to be kept concealed lest the stoic reserve of the robust sex be disquieted in public. The male ankle was once thought a critical indicator of a man’s character. Properly considered, a fine figure of a man with the exception of portly ankles was not a fine figure of a man at all. We can rarely discern this crucial sign of moral rectitude today, as ankles remain covered by the superfluous folds of ill-fitting trousers, and are further concealed by the saggy whatever-I-put-my-hands-on-first-in-the-dark garments that go under the misnomer of ‘socks’.

Men rarely buy their own socks. I cannot think why. They are perhaps deemed unimportant, but necessary, and therefore something to be put up with, like paying the gas bill. Men rely on Christmas and birthdays for their annual quota of socks to arrive courtesy of the ill-taste of well-meaning mothers, wives and children. This being the case, an opportunity to portray one’s individuality is missed, in favour of the slouched anonymity of dark-coloured conformity. Worse still, these nylon nasties are typically ill-fitting. Heels protrude rudely from the backs of shoes, and bare skin can often be seen peeping from between the sock and trouser hem of a seated male. If you are going to flash your pins at people, why bother to get dressed at all? Worst of all, the sports sock with shoes is still seen in abundance (as terrible a crime as the sports shoe with trousers, which is lamentably even more common). It’s time men took their ankles in hand!

Socks really can set a man off to advantage if chosen well, and co-ordinated with an overall look. I am known for the boldness of my choices, especially in pinkish hues. Pink is truly a manly colour if you have the skin tones to cope with it, and I urge all men who shun pink as effeminate to have a second think. Pink shirts are generally a huge hit with the sophisticated eye of the beholder, and I would make a similar claim for the pink sock. But whatever colour suits your character best, I recommend that socks be well-made, be long enough not to reveal any skin when you sit down or cross your legs, and be well-fitting of your foot. If, through a little discernment, your inadvertently displayed ankles portray your individuality, so much the better. And unless you want to be considered merely a novelty, do not wear novelty socks. Cartoon characters do not belong on any item of clothing. At the very least, your socks ought to leave no doubts that you have bought your own clothes, and that you have dressed yourself.

January 18, 2010

New York Inspirations: Manly Monuments

New York is the site par excellence of the manly monument, or, if you prefer, the architectural erection. I can think of no other place where one’s eye is dominated by a masculine skyline. All allusions to stout perpendicularities aside, New York affords some stunning examples of masculine architecture, symbolising an historical and peculiarly male view of the world as it pertains to society, work or industry, and liberty. One need look no further than the Rockefeller Center, beacon of hope in the Depression, for proof of that (also see my prior post). Lest it be thought that I am slighting one half of the population, I must maintain that I adhere to a bald historical truth. New York’s skyline was designed by men, funded by men, and built by men. Given this triad of vision, economy and graft, it should hardly surprise us that the overall effect says something about American manhood. And what it says could not be more profound.

Take the Chrysler Building, for example: an Art Deco masterpiece, for sure, but one that is rooted in male industry and manufacture. It symbolises the motorcar industry in more than just its name, bearing gargoyles under its crown which evoke automobile ornamentation in the late 1920s. Its steely appearance sizzles with strength and elegance, sunrise upon sunrise emerging as its spire telescopically projects, celebrating the spirit of masculine innovation. This building that reaches for the sky is rooted, symbolically, in the steel automobiles of the earth. Statuesque, it is moving.

The association is apt. Viewed from the West, the Chrysler Building seems to emerge directly out of the roof of the Grand Central Terminal. This squat, flat affair of the beaux-arts immediately reveals its commodious innards upon entry from Vanderbilt Avenue. The ceiling represents the heavens, which have not only been attained, but mastered. On the concourse, man is dwarfed by the cosmos; but this is a worldly vision of masculine provenance. From this palatial hub, men of the railway age connected a nation by the steam power of their ambitious minds.

Not least among these manly edifices is the Empire State Building. The 3,400 men that erected this structure represent the idea of America from its most muscular aspect. Built by European immigrants and migrant Mohawk workers from near Montreal, the building embodies American history. That it stood largely empty for a time after it opened is neither here nor there. The style is the substance. For in America, more than in any other place, the medium is the message. In gazing upon this structure one sees not just a prominent erection, but the manly hands responsible for it.

New York Inspirations: Convention Centre

Strolling briskly around mid-town Manhattan, one cannot escape the style-savvy well-cut thirty-somethings who populate the place. More than any other city, perhaps, in New York there is no compunction about fine tailoring, and no reticence about showing it off. Yet, strange to report, it is by-and-large pretty conventional; where it isn’t, it stands out.

Standing out, as The Sartorialist is wont to show us, ought to be a good thing. A man who knows who he is ought to be applauded for following his heart. But I must admit I received mixed reactions from the conventionally clad over a moderately daring pair of plaid trousers. My nether man was perfectly attired in the well-fitting, English-designed, Italian-stitched, product of Scottish sheep. Never did such a sheep turn so many heads! Looks of admiration were welcome; looks of confused bewilderment were confusedly bewildering; exclamations of ‘oh boy, oh boy’, replete with shaking heads and expressions implying moral transgression, were rather vulgar. A woman rudely exhorted me to stop as I helplessly ascended an escalator in Bloomingdale’s, in order to ask me where in the world I bought such ‘pants’. In the same store, a member of staff eyed me up and down, particularly down, and commended me on my ‘very nice plaid’. Workmen in sweatshirts and jeans (blue collar is an outmoded image), smoking cigarettes, called after my lithe legs, partly to ridicule, partly as masculine recognition. In short, my lower half has never received so much attention… in public.

I had not intended to shock. I had not sought the limelight – God knows, Broadway has enough people clamouring for that – or any semblance of notoriety. I merely wore what I thought were rather spectacular trousers. It seems that I am not the only one to have an eye for the spectacular, but the jury is still out on whether I am the only one to have a taste for it. What I take away from the experience is a deeper knowledge of what constitutes acceptable behaviour on the part of strangers as they encounter me in that haphazard manner wrought by urban living. It is rude to stare. It is more rude to stop and stare. It is more rude still to stop, stare, point and gawp. And it is rudest of all to stop, stare, point, gawp and declaim aloud the ill-made decisions of others. A man should have enough about him to be able to take what he sees in his stride; quietly to acknowledge good taste where he sees it, if it is appropriate so to do; and discreetly to go about his business without comment or any outward sign of recognition where he disapproves. Nobody was hurt by this particular pair of trousers. Some even found pleasure in them. But whatever one’s inner reaction, there is no real need to risk offending the sartorially splendid stranger, or the victim of fashion, by sharing those feelings in crass and conspicuous ways.

January 16, 2010

New York Inspirations: The F-Word

Fine dining, as aforementioned in these pages, is perhaps not what it was. It would be remiss of me, therefore, not to point out the exceptions to this rule, as and when I am lucky enough to experience them. In New York, culinary Mecca, who else might be expected to provide such an experience, but a rather shouty fair-haired Englishman, televisually famed for his furious temper.

Fortunately for me, the only F-word to consider on this august occasion at the London Hotel, W. 54th St., was ‘food’. For the frugal fine diner (and who isn’t these days?), Mr. Ramsay offers a $65 repast for early birds, and the three-course menu turns out to be a seven-course delight, once you factor in all the little amuses bouche along the way. I am told this particular establishment has two Michelin stars: clearly I have been ill-raised for I could not possibly fathom how on earth it could have been finer. The forks were really all lined up. Food, service, atmosphere, attention to detail, but especially the food, were all exquisite. Whomsoever Mr. Ramsay has employed as chef du cuisine really ought to feel justly proud.

Despite the fantastic food, perhaps the foremost factor of this experience was the license it gave to the diners to behave as manly men and womanly women. Knowing how to sit; how, and what, to order; how to eat; and, most importantly, how to converse. It is rare to be afforded the opportunity to have one’s good graces aired and appreciated, and in an environment befitting the effort. A few awkward customers had clearly swum too far out, but for the most part this exemplary experience allowed for feelings of formal, yet relaxed, friendship to be fostered. In a small pocket of New York, polite men and women knew how to feel, and did not feel out place.

January 15, 2010

New York Inspirations: I Believe

Since I’m in New York for a few days, I thought it would be germane to offer some words inspired by the history of this great city, or rather, by one of its great men. I presume John D. Rockefeller Jr.’s ‘I Believe’ speech is well-enough known so as to require no extra exegesis from me. The lines typically quoted, and which sit at the foot of the Rockefeller (GE) building in New York City (pictured), can still serve as a guide for young men in a world which hardly ever stops to think about what a man is:
I believe in the supreme worth of the individual and in his right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.

I believe that every right implies a responsibility; every opportunity, an obligation; every
possession, a duty.

I believe that the law was made for man and not man for the law; that government is the servant of the people and not their master.

I believe in the dignity of labor, whether with head or hand; that the world owes no man a living but that it owes every man an opportunity to make a living.

I believe that thrift is essential to well ordered living and that economy is a prime requisite of a sound financial structure, whether in government, business or personal affairs.

I believe that truth and justice are fundamental to an enduring social order.

I believe in the sacredness of a promise, that a man’s word should be as good as his bond; that character – not wealth or power or position – is of supreme worth.

I believe that the rendering of useful service is the common duty of mankind and that only in the purifying fire of sacrifice is the dross of selfishness consumed and the greatness of the human soul set free.

I believe in an all-wise and all-loving God, named by whatever name, and that the individual’s highest fulfillment, greatest happiness and widest usefulness are to be found in living in harmony with His will.

I believe that love is the greatest thing in the world; that it alone can overcome hate; that right can and will triumph over might.

The words were spoken in a radio broadcast in 1941, in support of the Selective Service Parents’ and Neighbors’ Committee (of the United Service Organizations), of which Rockefeller was Honorary Chairman. They are extraordinary words, in and of themselves, but I might take the opportunity to dwell upon another part of the speech, which I presume to be much less well-known. In times of war and fear, it strikes me that these words are needed as much now as they were in 1941:
Those who say that the man who is tough makes the best soldier, know little of human nature. He who carries on when physical forces are exhausted is the man who is buoyed up by the spiritual force called morale, who is fighting, not for the lust of killing, but for a principle, a great cause, dearer than life itself. I certainly do not want my son made tough by his military training, nor do you. I do not want my son just because he is a soldier, to be abandoned by those influences that make for character. I want him to come back home, whatever his military experiences may be, still a man with ideals, holding duty and honor above life.

January 13, 2010

Man at Table

‘You must sit up straight at the table, like a little prince, until everybody else has finished’, said Mother. This comment was typically met with an irksome visage, expressive of frustration at seemingly pointless rituals. I was a boy, brimming over with surplus energy, and with plenty of rigorous derring-do with which to be getting on. Sitting still in a chair, waiting for the lazy mastication of my elders and betters, was a trial. The key to being released from this polite obligation was the observance of another one, in the phrase: ‘Please may I be excused’. Rough and tumble resumed with alacrity. And kids never suffer from indigestion.

These were valuable lessons. There were many more besides, reinforced daily as the price of home cooking. The end in mind was never convincing to my child mind: ‘One day you’ll be invited to business dinners, or job interviews, and you wouldn’t want to be judged for the way in which you hold your fork, would you?’ The emphasis was always negative. There were no points for doing things correctly; only penalties for getting it wrong. It has not exactly turned out that way. Mother vastly overestimated what kind of courtly instruction was being doled out in the other homes. As the social playing field has levelled, one’s boss is as likely to hail from dung-heap stock as he is wont to stutter for the silver spoon in his teeth. I know this only too well, and Mother foresaw it. But she expected things to level up, and I needed to make the grade. It rather seems, lamentably, that things levelled down.

Behaving with dignity at table is much more likely to be noticed as exceptional these days. You may be applauded for it, but you may also be mocked. The cut and thrust world, so it seems, has superseded the more delicate manoeuvrings of the knife and fork. One is lucky ever to see a soup spoon (pictured), let alone a fish knife. And why do so many places expect me to recycle my cutlery from an appetizer and use it again on a main? Would you pour white wine into a drained glass of red? Well, so it seems, perhaps you might. Cutlery is symbolically important, as well as being functionally integral to the process of nourishment. Leave your knife and fork in a certain way, and you declare to the room that you are finished. Plates should not be cleared away until everyone’s irons are likewise arranged. In restaurants this rule is dead. Why won’t wait staff actually wait? As I am forced to fidget in my seat by the constant interference of intrusive servers, they occasionally moot the words ‘excuse me’. Well, for once, no you may not be excused.

January 12, 2010

French Kissing

Growing up in working-class England, a cuff was typically best known metonymically in the context of adult hand brusquely encountering the auricular appendage of impertinent child. As a consideration of style, an integral part of the male shirt, it was barely given a thought.

In other echelons, confusion reigned. Barrel cuffs and link cuffs, single and French, each with prescriptions concerning what clothes went with which. Thankfully, rules have relaxed. Working-class kids, their ears intact, might receive a decent education; the cuff link has become everyday wear, at least for some.

I rarely see single linked cuffs. The French variety, fastened in the ‘kissing’ style (inside pressed to inside), are more common, although still a minoritarian preference compared with the boring old button. Disturbingly, many of the cuff links I see on the nouveau riche wrist are truly awful, tasteless, and cheap. The cuff link is an elegant but ultimately functional fastening (pictured: solid silver squares on a Ben Sherman cuff). It ought not to be ostentatious. Male adornments are risky things and, without proper care, jewellery can make a man look vulgar and crass. Nothing conveys a baseness of character so well as ‘bling’. All that glisters, etc. To avoid such unwholesome projections, keep one’s French kissing discreet.

January 11, 2010

My Compliments

In an office cubicle today, somebody I do not know personally, but with whom I had to deal, paid me an effusive compliment on my scarf as I came in from the cold. It is, admittedly, a fetching scarf, which is why I wear it; not overly useful as protection from an Arctic squall, but perfect for Boston’s not too serious winter. It is Scottish wool, and hails from Liberty of London. Set against a grey tweed with small flecks of the same yellow, it bespeaks an ‘I like winter’ attitude. Which I do. There are so many more sartorial options for the gentlemanly winter, and never a fearful deliberation about shorts. Long may the season last.

I was immediately buoyed by the compliment and offered hearty thanks, after which the compliment was repeated, with embellishments. I was genuinely surprised and cheered by this unsolicited fillip, and later it gave me pause. I dress only for my own sense of self-worth, rather than to garner the plaudits of others; but as a dear correspondent of mine has pointed out, one must consider the pleasure afforded oneself by the admiration of others. Moreover, I can only presume that the compliment was an expression of pleasure in the observer. What to make of all this?

Nobody seems to lose in this rare cycle of happiness. There is no symbolic violence. This is no potlatch. Nothing is ventured and plenty gained. If I am to please somebody through no device other than through being me, and if that somebody is to reflect my inherent pleasingness back to me, and to please me through alerting me to it, then I see no reason for complaint. The key is sincerity. I was in half a mind to go and ‘pay it forward’: find some random person and tell them something nice. But disingenuousness tends to cycle the other way and I thought better of it. I did resolve to compliment the next person who pleases me in such an unintended fashion. And then changed my mind.

You see, paying people compliments isn’t as easy as all that. Compliment a woman your age or younger and you might be considered indiscrete. Compliment a man of practically any age under geriatric and you might be considered all kinds of indiscrete. Of course, indiscretions such as these have their place, if played properly; but a slap in the face or an embarrassed blush doesn’t exactly herald an ever ascending cycle of mutual bliss. The moment must be right, spontaneous, and uncontrived. I can’t exactly pinpoint what makes such a moment, but today I had one, and I saw that it was good.

January 10, 2010

Letters Never Sent

Every day I receive and send ethereal sacks full of ‘email’ (the very word sticks in my craw: it so denigrates French enamel). In days of yore I would have been considered a man of letters, and would have welcomed the duty of daily correspondence; but since everyone sends electronic communications in large quantities the distinction seems to have been lost, and I confess that I find such e-pistles a chore. A hand-written letter could never have been considered ‘junk’, but I am afraid that many of my well-intentioned missives now end up being lost in, or fetched from, invidious ‘spam’ folders. I have never had a close relationship with processed ‘meat’, and resent being implicated by association. Opening an email is to opening a letter what buying a book online is to buying a book in a shop. It lacks the richness of experience: the simple sensual pleasures of touch and smell; it lacks a sense of personal connection.

I have tried to write letters, but in vain. Those I have sent are met with thanks or response by email, which rather short-circuits the intention. To keep my hand in – and everyone should, by the way; penmanship is a sophisticated art that used to be taught in schools – I write with a pen whenever I can. Professional writings, I admit, begin life in some hideous word-processing software (has anybody else noticed that Microsoft has appropriated the abbreviation for manuscript?), but all the editing – all the writerly work – takes place on paper, with pen and ink. The crossings-out map processes of thought otherwise eliminated by the backspace key. I annotate the books I own. Some would no doubt argue that this is a mortal sin, but I find the marginalia of others fascinating, and leave my own marks just in case some future researcher ever thinks me interesting enough to study! Besides, I have always found my notes to be interesting reminders of past cogitations: they are autobiographical in the most surprising ways. And I scribble bits and pieces, these thoughts for example, in a timeless black jotter.

People have forgotten – those a little younger than I never have known – about the smell of ink. It really does imbue the written word with a certain je ne sais quoi. A good pen (do not trouble me with ballpoints) puts one in touch with the elegant tool use of our most literate forebears. And, unlike the altogether temporary tools that comprise our computing arsenals, it will last forever if properly maintained. I had the great fortune of receiving mine (pictured) as a gift, and I could hardly think of anything better. Yet even if you are not so lucky, I would encourage the investment: it will put you in touch with yourself in such a way that your computer never could. These days the white-collar proof of labour, not to mention its malingering excuse, is RSI of the wrist. Such effete complaints would truly have shocked and appalled the clerks of yesteryear. I propose that it is preferable, and never unbecoming, for a man accidentally to betray his labour by the ink on his hands. An inky finger, after all, suggests an active mind.

January 09, 2010

One to Blow and One for Show

Of handkerchiefs let Othello set out our stall:
‘To lose’t or give’t away were such perdition / As nothing else could match’ (Othello, 3:4:67-8).
The only thing more overblown than the noses of influenza sufferers is all this bunk about sneezing and coughing into one’s elbow or into a tissue that should immediately afterwards be discarded. These two options, seen side by side, beg an awkward question: if tissues are to be incinerated with haste, lest the evil germs fester therein and, God forbid, infect somebody, then what are we to think of the aggregate of viral nasties dwelling in the crooks of our collective elbows? Are we also to eject our clothing at the first opportunity? I have not seen any inordinate queues at the drycleaner, so I can only assume that so-called ‘polite’ sneezers bear hazardous arms. The days of romantically linking arm in arm are over, for in such friction, danger lurks.

The reality is that nobody who remotely values the clothes on his back would want to sneeze into his elbow, any more than he would wipe his nose on his sleeve. And tissues? A loose agglomeration of dust! Anyone who has accidentally left a tissue in a pocket to be laundered will readily tell anyone who cares to ask why such expensive, wasteful, papery frivolities are to be avoided at all costs. Let us instead remember the handkerchief. Confess – handkerchief! – O Devil!

Nothing is more elegant than a fresh linen hanky, neatly pressed and folded, and placed in a trouser pocket. If one has to sneeze or terminate an unwelcome sniff, and even the most refined of us do, then the handkerchief is a welcome resource. No one could frown on such a thing. In my experience, it’s best to have two on your person. One for your personal use, and one unused one, just in case you come across a damsel in distress. In addition to this washable, sanitary and elegant device, I recommend sparing a thought for the dress handkerchief. The one that is blown ought only to be seen when, well, when blowing. But there is also one for show.

A neatly arranged silk handkerchief is rarely seen in the top pocket of men’s jackets these days, but I cannot for the life of me think why not, since the pocket universally remains. A well chosen silk will lift any outfit, and given the current scarcity of such items, will set you apart as an individual with a strong sense of style. No novelties please (if you click this link, you should go forward to about the three-minute mark), but an idiosyncratic mix of colours and patterns is at the discretion of the wearer. It makes me smile whenever I see one; conversely, each time I see a sharp suit or blazer bereft of adornment I lament with Desdemona:
‘Sure, there’s some magic in this handkerchief: / I am most unhappy in the loss of it’ (Othello, 3:4:101-2).

January 07, 2010

A Valiant Draw

Cricket is thought a chivalrous activity, laden with codes and laws, courtesies and knightly grace. The copy-book drives and cuts evoke the thrusts and parries of expert swordplay; the mode of delivering the hard ball conjures the long-bow and the javelin at once; and the sound of leather on willow is deemed poetic, in and of itself. Spin, in this game at least, is honest. These things are true, but they are not the whole story. Those readers who come from non-cricketing nations, bear with me. For if you are stumped by talk of googlies and doosras, you will certainly be able to understand blood, sweat and grim determination. Cricket provides an object lesson in manliness: it presents the appearance of a dignified contest in good form, but is really a brutal encounter requiring courage, nerve, skill, stamina, and a high-tolerance for pain.

A cricket ball, fabricated from cork and leather, is hard as stone. It is bowled at speeds approaching 90mph from a distance of 22 yards at a man with nothing but some padded fabric and a blade of seasoned willow to defend himself. If it hits fingers, they break. If it hits thighs, they turn blue and purple. If it hits heads, not properly protected, then skulls fracture. Should it hit you in what cricket commentators politely call the ‘midriff’, all you can do is pray, and then hope to be able to count to two. Facing a lumbering, sweating, stinking confusion of arms and legs that is a fast bowler is akin to staring down an angry bull with nothing but a red rag for your defence. On the part of the bull, witness the sheer effort; on the part of the matador, regard the picture of concentration.

In a sequence of events that can last up to five days, this display of brute strength, violence and courage goes on, as one team determines to be victorious over another. Yet, strangely, the game often ends in a draw (not a tie, and not for merely semantic reasons). Honours are determined to be even. A concerted, protracted and genuine attempt to wear down the opposition, if not to hurt them acutely, frequently ends with a hand shake, a public appraisal of the other team’s character and moral qualities, and an affable statement that the indeterminate result is of no consequence, because the game is the true victor. What does this mean? It refers, I think, to the spirit in which the game is played. It is played to be won; it is played with no punches pulled, and with no apologies for its occasionally violent consequences; the endeavour employs great depths of character and resolve which, made manifest, display the measure of the men involved, and by which they are to be judged. Found to meet the mark, the result does not matter.

When Henry Newbolt penned the immortal lines extolling England’s youth to ‘Play up! And play the game’, he did not mean for us to forget the second verse, which defined his meaning of the word ‘play’. It is not in winning that cricket finds its importance, even if one endeavours to play to win. Nor is it in the taking part. Merely to take part is passive, and an insult to any game. The importance lies in the complete abandonment of other considerations – including one’s skin and bones – for the spirit of manly inclusion gained through whole-hearted commitment to a shared cause. Honour is just ‘a name’. Cricket is a proving ground of manly character, not to be gained through noble appearances alone, but through noble deeds.

January 05, 2010

The Face of Adversity

Last year was difficult for many, if not for most. Whatever has happened that shouldn’t have; whatever didn’t happen that should have; in whatever position you found yourself, prostrate and disquieted; whatever occurred, the trials of last year should not lead us into morbid depression. I do not suggest that a manly approach to adversity is to smile in its face, for if it is not a genuine smile I for one do not want to see it. Let us reserve that facial configuration for things that make us happy. Instead, I suggest that a manly approach is to set one’s jaw and meet the trials with grim determination. You have been knocked down; getting up and staying up will be all the more to your credit, not to mention your sense of satisfaction.

I will not bore you with my own trials, for harping on about hardship defines boring. I will not feed you platitudes about how hope was left in the jar (whichever way you see Hesiod’s myth about Pandora, I’m not convinced that hope is good for anything). Hope has no material effect, and leaves alive the prospect of hopes dashed. I will not tell of comforts found in superstitions; nor will I seek sympathy or, heaven forefend, pity. Suffice to say that the trials have been many and that they have been borne with difficulty. But they have been borne with the foreknowledge that they could be met. There are, in hard times, no substitutes for hard work, indefatigability, industry, creativity, and a determined idea of what the outcome will be.

Wherever we fall short, we stand tall. Wherever we are unexpectedly turned in the road, we find a new route. If injured, we mend. We do not mope into our milk, or trudge morosely into the wind. If you see the face of Adversity, slap it with all your might and march over its body. I do not advocate an abnegation of tenderness, for it has its place of importance in any manly life. Yet I doubt that your emotions will be up to scratch if you are soundly beaten down by circumstance. Lest it should be construed that I hereby advocate a positive attitude, I state clearly: I advocate defiance.
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