February 27, 2010

The Perfect Saturday

Let me preface this entry with the disclaimer that today was definitely not the perfect Saturday. Adverse weather and a persistent sinus headache have put paid to that. But two recent compliments have given me pause to think about what the perfect day would look like (and I am presupposing that the perfect day simply must be a Saturday). So, before indulging in the fantastic, I extend my thanks to the Modern Traditionalist and to Bow Tie Guy for their respective nods in my direction. In times of inclement weather, the perfect Saturday would undoubtedly see them included on my morning’s reading list, along with the Telegraph and the following eight:

The Sartorialist
Paper Flowers
Art of Manliness
Older Brother’s Advice
Modern Gentleman’s Blog
An Aesthete’s Lament
Rose C’est La Vie

Gongs dispensed, on with the idealising (with absolutely no mind to geographical impossibilities. Photographs invoke each place as I go, and I publish them with not a little nostalgia).

I have a love hate relationship with sleep. It gets in the way of action, but also provides the platform for action to take place. Presuming the perfect day to be free of guilt, I begin with a sound lie in, to be followed by the weekend papers, a full English breakfast (which I shall have to describe, because it has lost its way), and my favourite blend of imported tea. Mrs. VB suggests that this would be more congenial taken al fresco in the morning sunshine, against the backdrop of the Rockies in Vancouver. I concur.


Contrary to popular belief and low expectations, English breakfasts are not a festival of grease, but a thoroughly delicious and nutritious repast. None of the ingredients should ever be bought in a supermarket. Ever. Black pudding ought to be home made by the butcher who slaughtered the pig that produced the meaty sausages, home-cured bacon, and fried kidneys that adorn your plate. The sausage and bacon must be grilled, not fried. Eggs should be organic free range, not because I’m an eco warrior, but because that’s how hens are supposed to be. It is only to be expected that such things will taste better. Tomato, fresh from the vine, will be seasoned and grilled. Bread, dipped briefly in the bacon fat, should be fried in a hot pan. You’ll find it crispy, not dripping with lard. The finishing touch, for me, is a sliced and well-fried field mushroom. The umami original. This should be followed by wholegrain toast and some good English preserves. Black current will do nicely. Of course, I like it best when I cook it myself, but failing that, I’ll have Marc Cohen of Sparrow in Montreal do it. I’ve never had a finer brunch than there.


Eating over, time for a round of golf with a couple of chums, preferably on a course otherwise empty. So long as I’m fantasising, I might as well dispense will all the hackers! I haven’t played in a long while, but on this fair day in May (for this perfect day will be in that merry month) I will card a round in the 70s and be satisfied. The club house where I used to play, on the edge of the North York Moors, was actually a rather charming pub. After polishing off a couple of jars of real ale – nobody in North America knows what this is, I guarantee – I am homeward bound.

Ampleforth Golf Club

An essential ingredient of the perfect Saturday is the happiness of my wife. How else can one expect to maintain a joyful demeanour if the love of one’s life is not also blissfully at peace? At home I find her just arrived back from a successful outing to the shops with like-minded friends, heavily laden with fine fabrics at a fraction of the fare. She craves coffee and cakes, and we know just the place. Leysieffer is a German chocolatier of international repute, and their cafes are brilliantly indulgent places, but with a firm grip on civilised ideals. My favourite location was at the top of KaDeWe department store in Berlin, amidst the most sensuous and glorious food hall, and with views across the city.


Having gone home to change, we venture out to Les Deux Magots at Place Saint-Germain des Prés, Paris, for some light but deliciously complicated French cuisine, accompanied by fine wine and a literary buzz. Tourists will all have decided to go somewhere else for the evening, and the place will be occupied only by those Parisians exceptionally known for their politesse.

Paris, St. Germain

The Odyssey of Homer: Translated by T.E. LawrenceAn after-dinner stroll in the dusk along the banks of the Seine takes us home in time for Match of the Day, and an exceptional single malt from the Highlands called Tomatin, which I first tasted as an eleven year old. Not inappropriately for such a day, I nod off over the pages of T.E. Lawrence’s translation of The Odyssey.

February 25, 2010

Hunting Attitude, Part II

In days of yore I had the dubious fortune to manage a busy magazine department in a now defunct book chain. There were many worthy publications fighting for a place of esteem. Among the more memorable of the less well known were Bowhunter magazine and its diminutive counterpart Junior Bowhunter. In prime English fox hunting land, these American interlopers were seriously out of place. The overfed white folk of middle America were on parade, with their ripping yarns about bows and arrows. Stag hunting, which to your average Englishman sounds like the search for a pre-wedding pub crawl, was pictorially laid out in all its gory glory, with all kinds of wonderful opportunities to blood your own young. One notable prize competition offered some seriously pointy hardware for the best kill by the under twelves. Photographic proof required.

I must say it was all very gung ho: more Rambo than Horse and Hound, and about as far removed from the manly ethos of hunting as it could be. Where is the sport in a bow with a laser sight? Robin Hood would have been an entirely different proposition had he been so armed. How strange that the country that gave us Bambi, and all the Disneyfied sentimentalism that comes with it, has a hunting culture that does not have a meaningful connection to the animal. Hunting is steeped in historical, cultural and ritual justifications that might be employed to counteract the crass activism of those animated by doe-eyed cartoons, but I can’t see it here. If it is really just point and shoot then what is the point in shooting?

Shooting with guns begs the same question. There will no doubt be objections raised here, but frankly I refuse to acknowledge anybody who goes about with a gun as a gentleman, unless he happens to be duelling, conducting a just war, or engaging in fair play. Hunting in America may be alive and kicking, but bungling about shooting at anything that moves while sporting combat camouflage simply won’t cut the mustard. The battue was decried even in its heyday, and the chaps who partook of that at least had the good grace to wear tweed. Why was it decried? Because it was not fair. Manly men do not stack the deck, load the dice, inject steroids, or kneecap ice skaters. If you are insistent on killing animals, then venery – a term I use because hunting and sexual gratification have always been linked – should offer a sporting chance to the quarry. Hunting, where it is thought worthy, is the pitting of wits: the reasonable against the sly. A hunter struggles for his advantage in a terrain better suited to his target. His success, if he is successful, is the reward for his prowess, not the result of his superior weaponry. Perhaps a sensible reconnection with the hunting ethos, for all those who proclaim their right to bear arms, would be to roll up their sleeves and chase their lunch with their bare arms.

February 23, 2010

Historical Heroes: George Romanes, 1848-94

Now here’s an all round good egg. Romanes embodied that great Victorian dilemma: what to do about religion in the face of all this science? Here’s the standard biography: independently wealthy, he was raised without scholarly rigour and was destined for holy orders. Then he read Darwin and his world turned upside down. In public, Romanes backed Darwin to the hilt, but secretly always wrestled with the possibility of God. Revelling in the elegant truth of natural selection, Romanes nevertheless thought that the theory robbed nature of its ‘soul of loveliness’. He dedicated his life to science – physiology and psychology chiefly – but could not rid himself of the anxiety that it was all pointless. Juggling materialism, agnosticism and monism, Romanes eventually returned to the church. It wasn’t the betrayal of his life’s work so much as it was the taking of Pascal’s Wager. He was dying, in his forties, of a tumour on the brain.

Now, the spiritual ‘better safe than sorry’ approach might seem to lack conviction. Yet a more nuanced narrative would depict a life defined by conviction, even if Romanes himself was never sure quite how to describe the horse he was backing. Once convinced of Darwinism, he was fiercely loyal to his mentor, and never publicly wavered from the theory of Natural Selection. But he was not blindly uncritical or slavishly sycophantic. He wrestled with the immaterial, knowing that Darwinism had not disproved the existence of ‘God’ (the label was merely convenient). True agnosticism, he thought, had to cut both ways. It was not fair of scientists to demand proof of divinity from theists if science itself could not disprove it. Natural Selection provided a new story, but it did not answer all the questions.

What was bold about this was its singular vision. Surrounded by canting Creationists on one side, ranting atheists on the other, Romanes was unique in his attempt properly to understand Darwin’s theory and theology. Most compromisers got one or the other hopelessly wrong. Where black was pitched against white, Romanes risked ridicule from both by preaching complex shades of grey. Unfortunately for Romanes, posterity rather lost track of his work, his ideas, and his intellectual legacy. Had he lived he would surely have been at the forefront of research on genetics, but his untimely death occurred just prior to the rediscovery of Mendel’s work. Death put paid not only to life, but also to relevance. Romanes’ greatest tragedy was the rapidity of his obsolescence.

With that in mind I raise a glass to an unsung hero. Or rather, just a brave soul.

February 22, 2010

Something to Chew on for Travellers

Given the choice, I would not travel coach, let alone by coach. The powers that be have conspired against a civilised link between Montreal and Boston – flights prohibitively expensive, trains only via New York over two days – so there is little choice. The newer buses, with reliable temperature control, reading lights that work, and wireless connections, ought not to be too terrible. Unfortunately I find the selling points of even the most up-to-date Greyhounds to be defective. On the latest trip it was 80 degrees, my reading light didn’t work (putting paid to the objectionable book), and the wireless was patchy at best. These modern contrivances only add frustration to the general unpleasantness of travel when they do not work.

For all that, it is not so much the bus itself that gets my goat as the other people with whom I have to share space. Other people will always be objectionable, and it is just as well. If we went around instantly liking everyone the world would be unbearable. Still, I would like it very much if the following might actually be observed when in close proximity of strangers over the course of seven hours, with no possibility for escape:

1. When the driver says ‘turn off your cell phone ringer’, do it.
2. Select some food that tastes great but which you alone can smell.
3. Chewing gum over many hours is unsavoury enough. But with your mouth open? Please.
4. I will take it on trust that your music rocks. I do not need to hear it.
5. You are an inveterate snorer. Don’t go to sleep.

I might add, for those travelling across international borders, if your passport or credentials are remotely incredible, please don’t travel at all. Being on a bus that moves is bad enough. Being on one that is parked at the border while we wait for you, possibly not to be let in, is just too much to bear.

Happy travels.

February 20, 2010

Man Flu

With good reason my posting frequency has dropped of late. Principally, I have been busy adopting another nationality, which has been a long time in coming and not without heart ache. That taken care of, I was duly welcomed to Canada by an official procession of microbial Mounties, doing their best to bring my immigrant immune system to book. My red nose looks vintage wintery Quebec, and I cling to dignity by a tenuous thread.

Lest it be thought I complain, I hasten to proclaim my stoic resolve. I will admit to not always being the best patient, but I try to bear illness with fortitude. All that whining and complaining over sniffles is really unbecoming and merits little sympathy. I have been making myself my own-recipe hot toddy (lemon, ginger, honey, cinnamon and scotch), and have otherwise partaken of all my pre-planned Quebecois social engagements, minus the double-kiss greetings. Business as usual has been speeding my recovery, not least because it is a distraction. Taking to a sick bed of self pity is not for me, unless I’m really at death’s door.

Tomorrow I will hop on a Greyhound and, in the best tradition of the finest Canadians, go back to the US. It is a long and boring ride, and no doubt will not be improved by congested sinuses. But I have an objectionable book to read, which will keep my blood pumping. Normal service will be resumed in due course.

February 17, 2010

Tailor Made

I remember the tailor coming to our house in the ‘80s, and fitting father up for his suits. He wasn’t a particularly good tailor, but I gained an early appreciation for fabric samples, and understood implicitly that ‘off the peg’ was synonymous with ‘does not fit’. That is still true, unless you have marvellous fortune, but hardly anybody cares anymore. So much the better for those of us who do, for therein lies our cachet.

It’s taken me years to find a tailor I actually trust. Walk into H. Padar Bespoke Tailor on Ste. Catharine in downtown Montreal, and you will be sized up before a tape measure has been unfurled. After 35 years, Mark H. Padar simply has an eye for fit. He immediately put me into a 36” suit jacket that he thought would work and, while I swooned with incredulity that anything could be that good, he told me he could make it much better. It took a great deal of resolve not to part with $600 on the spot. I have known this man to work miracles on garments that were never meant to fit me, but which ended up seeming as if they were made for me. It gives one a great deal of confidence while shopping to know that ‘not quite’ can be transformed into ‘spot on’.

Bespoke tailoring need not break the bank. It represents great value for money, for one is buying into a genuine skill. Hems are so cheap to do that I cannot fathom why trousers are worn too long. Fake-buttoned jacket cuffs can be made authentic for a small fee. Even quite major alterations fall within the purview of most. I have today converted a rather large waistcoat into a rather small one, which will be some comfort to the person who overestimated my girth when he bought it for me. I’ll post pictures of that at some future date, along with some of my other projects that have brought great garments back from the brink.

February 13, 2010

St. Valentine's Day Mascara

I don’t particularly like it when the calendar tells me what to do. New Year, for example, demands that we have the time of our lives, yet all the social opportunities on offer contrive against that possibility. The build up ends inevitably in anticlimax. Mother’s Day and Father’s Day, Birthdays even, all seem somehow to be mere props for the greeting card industry. Valentine’s Day, loaded with all the expectations of romantic perfection, seems destined to end in tears before bedtime. May I offer a few thoughts on how to keep the makeup in place?

(Feel free to substitute ‘him’ for ‘her’)

Don’t wait until Valentine’s Day to buy her a present. Think about her when it’s not Valentine’s Day, and she’ll think more of you.

Tell her you love her, and mean it, everyday. If you don’t mean it, what are doing?

Romantic gestures don’t have to be saved up for the contrivances of the calendar. Take her out for dinner on a random Tuesday. Florists are open all year round.

Be a generous and considerate lover all the time.

Don’t forget the small stuff. Helping her on with her coat; holding the door; telling her how she looks before she asks. All these things demonstrate that you don’t take her for granted. Being considerate only for a day just won’t cut it.

Do these things, and when Valentine’s Day comes around the pressure won’t seem so intense. Sure, go do something nice, but don’t invest your entire relationship in it: Valentine’s Day might just end with a climax.

February 11, 2010

Emulating Pheidippides

It’s 490 B.C. The story goes that having run 150 miles in two days, Pheidippides ran back from Marathon to Athens (over a distance uncannily similar to a modern Marathon race) to announce the Greek victory over Persia, at which point his heart called it a day and Pheidippides died on the spot. It’s hard to believe this has become a popular feat to emulate, but then I figure most people who attempt it do not reckon on it being their last act. And probably nobody does the 150 mile run in the two days prior to a race.

It has long been my intention to run a marathon. I watched the various degrees of insanity in the London marathon every year when I was growing up, and always vicariously felt the sense of achievement when the amateurs with ‘respectable times’ were finishing. I don’t much see the point in being a professional runner – I can’t access that psychology – and I’ve no desire to put on a monkey suit and schlep about in public like an idiot. I respect those who do it for charity, although I suspect that for many this is an after thought. 26 miles is a long way. People aren’t generally given to putting themselves out too much unless they are somehow directly implicated in the cause. But the truth is that it’s pretty difficult to get a place in the London marathon without signing up with a charity. The fund-raising obligation is not small.

The primary mentality, therefore, is that which wonders if I can. It is not dissimilar to those climbers who are plagued by the mountains simply being there. All kinds of qualities are at stake, but they can be boiled down to two: physical fitness and mental toughness. In an age of obesity and apathy, to be athletic and focussed sets one apart. There is, in addition, the not inconsiderable sense of achievement inherent in completing such a venture. Fortitude, self-reliance, endurance. How many know, for certain, that they possess these qualities? When the dial says empty, can you keep going?

I will be running the Montreal marathon this September. I promise not to bore you all with a training diary. I am not, after all, doing it for anyone else.*

*But I might raise some cash all the same, since people seem determined to give it.

February 10, 2010

Solemn Associations: Vir Beātum

Tom Roper, in a moment of divine inspiration, has let it be known that yours truly, or my name at least, puts him in mind of Psalm 112, set by Monteverdi. Far be it from me to argue with such associations. Without further comment, I leave you with the King James version of Psalm 112, and a performance of said piece by Monteverdi, conducted by Jean Tubery.

1 Praise ye the LORD.
     Blessed is the man that feareth the LORD,
     that delighteth greatly in his commandments.
2 His seed shall be mighty upon earth:
     the generation of the upright shall be blessed.
3 Wealth and riches shall be in his house:
     and his righteousness endureth for ever.
4 Unto the upright there ariseth light in the darkness:
     he is gracious, and full of compassion, and righteous.
5 A good man showeth favor, and lendeth:
     he will guide his affairs with discretion.
6 Surely he shall not be moved for ever:
     the righteous shall be in everlasting remembrance.
7 He shall not be afraid of evil tidings:
     his heart is fixed, trusting in the LORD.
8 His heart is established, he shall not be afraid,
     Until he see his desire upon his enemies.
9 He hath dispersed,
     he hath given to the poor;
     his righteousness endureth for ever;
     his horn shall be exalted with honor.
10 The wicked shall see it, and be grieved;
     he shall gnash his teeth, and melt away:
     the desire of the wicked shall perish.

It's Snow, Not the Blitz

9 a.m. Departmental email informs everyone to leave by 3 p.m. because of the impending Great Storm. I’m bravely heading downtown. Total snow accumulation: 0.

10 a.m. After an entirely precipitation-free commute, I arrive downtown, only to be informed that the building is closing at 1 p.m. because of the Great Storm. Total snow accumulation: 0.

Noon: Daycare centres close as a precautionary measure, causing anxious parents further worry. Total snow accumulation: 0.

12.30 p.m. Forced out early, I consume a beery lunch, where I chat with a Canadian about the mysterious extent of the Great Storm. On the way to the pub, I notice several gigantic snow ploughs touring the streets, assured that the white stuff is there, somewhere. Total snow accumulation: 0. Some drizzle.

2 p.m. Bussed back to Cambridge in remarkably English rain. Streets eerily quiet. Stores emptied by panic buyers. Total snow accumulation: 0.

3 p.m. Light snow! Melting into the puddles. Am assured by great authorities that the Great Storm is still pending. Weather forecasters are predicting something like 4 inches in the night. The horror! Total snow accumulation: 0.

5.15 p.m. I give up for the day. As I leave the library, I see that Harvard Yard is barely visible under an immense white carpet that has completely obscured the footpaths. Or rather:

Total snow accumulation: a dusting.

7.30 p.m. Everyone is no doubt safely at home, having left four to six hours previously. Snow turned to sleet and washed away the dusting. Total snow accumulation: 0.

I know everyone has been watching the scenes from D.C. recently, but the hysteria over the weather here is in poor taste. It is true that even Londoners are slowed down by an inch of snow, but at least they do not stop in advance of its occurrence. I hear in D.C. that it costs $100 million per day when government offices are closed. I wonder how much has been lost today for no good reason? All of this complaining, scare-mongering and, frankly, workshy malingering, makes me wonder about the resolve of Bostonians. It is, after all, winter. Snow is to be expected. Why all the fuss? For God’s sake, put your wellies on and get back to work.

February 08, 2010

The Buzz On Barbers

As a boy, I had my barnet barbered by Mr. Frank Shakespeare. He was among the last of a dying breed of local men’s hairdressers, with a large clientele of men who had never patronised any other cutter. He was desperately old fashioned, and as a child I hated going there. He knew two cuts: short back and sides, slicked back with a side part, and the crew cut. The place reeked of oils and treatments, old men and old leather. He knew all the talk, but then, he knew everyone inside out. No appointment necessary – everyone waited his turn – Mr. Shakespeare did a good trade. On a Saturday, you might have waited for two hours. I reminisce with a faint nostalgia. I don’t think he was a good barber, but he was certainly better than the all those who followed, with the buzzed bonces they created. Shakespeare lacked drama, but he had character.

Most men couldn’t care less about their hair. Many of those who do so spend hours making themselves look like a sticky greasy mess, except for at the back, which gets no attention at all. Well-groomed men top their image with an incongruous ‘messy look’, and elegance everywhere is confused with ruggedness. The occasional individual pulls off a look, but for each of these there are ten who labour under the misapprehension that mullets, pony tails, and clipper-art still look good, if in fact they ever did. My hair is the least likeable thing about me (I think). It is limp, straight, unruly, and seems deliberately to confound all attempts to make it neat. It does these things despite the treatment I furnish upon it, and despite its bespoke tailoring by the best barber I’ve ever had.

It’s not his fault, it’s mine. My itinerant nature means that I am in his neighbourhood far less often than my hair requires, but I am fiercely loyal. For the last four years I have had my hair cut only by Anthony, who now has his own salon – Metropolar – in the Montreal plateau. This despite the fact that for three of those four years I have lived in Berlin and in Boston. Yes, that’s a long way to go for a trim, but when you find your man, it’s hard to go back to the run of the mill.

What makes this the place and him the man? It’s like Shakespeare had a re-vamp. Vintage cutting chairs and an environment that screams character are mixed with cutting-edge style, techno-savvy presentation, and sharp skill with the scissors. It’s also genuine. There’s no faddish, up-to-the-minute, but wafer-thin, veneer. What you see is substantial, and it breeds confidence. It’s backed up by profoundly engaging conversation. Anthony is the barber philosopher extraordinaire. Best of all, it’s never rushed. I could cut my own meagre mop in fifteen minutes, but Anthony takes his time. An hour or more is not uncommon, and the time should not be underrated. A barber has a social responsibility – he doesn’t just cut your hair, he takes you out of yourself. A haircut is a holiday from your daily grind; a moment of luxury for, and indulgence in, yourself. Only a great barber can facilitate that. I only wish I could get there more often.

February 07, 2010

Handling Unmentionables: Shopping for Her

Today I bought a dress. It is in rather beautiful fuchsia silk, and was made by Carmen Marc Valvo, New York. I also bought two brassieres and five pairs of panties in varieties of black lace. This, you may have surmised, is not by way of confession. I might add that the only true unmentionable among this veritable hoard is the price. Shopping with a lady can be joyful; shopping for a lady is an unmatched pleasure.

It is always more rewarding to give than to receive, and all the more so when the reception is rapturous. In my experience, and contrary to popular opinion among men, women do not like to shop. Nothing fits properly; designers have other body shapes in mind; mirrors do not flatter. Their feet hurt. And to top it all off, their male companions drag their feet, look like wet weekends, and cannot muster a sincere comment, either because of fear or because of boredom. This, dear men, is all your fault.

Engage with a woman’s shopping mission. Take an interest in what she wants. Empathise with her desires. Offer input before she gets to the changing room. Make suggestions yourself, based on considered judgments of her style. Don’t be afraid to dare her, but don’t cheapen her. Tell her if something doesn’t suit, and tell her why. Be honest above all things. And if a garment just does it, for God’s sake don’t mumble that it’s ‘alright’. Allow your internal expression to paint your face. If your eyes light up, she will have the pertinent information. I promise, if you do these things then you, the male companion, will not be bored, and she will thank you for all of it. The mutual bad mood can be avoided.

Now, as for buying ladies’ underwear, let me reassure you. Women wear their finest delicates when they want to feel good; when they want to feel confident. A woman preserves her best for a job interview, for a business meeting, and yes, for a date. Her French frillies are not for us men, however much we may like them. Therefore, when shopping for women’s underwear, think about what she would like, rather than going off the deep end with your own Cabaret inspired monstrous fantasies. And take that stupid look off your face, like you’ve turned up naked to a black-tie ball. A man who can confidently handle, and mention, intimate lace in a shop will surely not falter when it comes to handling it in intimate situations.

I bought a dress today, and man did it feel good.

February 06, 2010

What's Afoot? Shoes, Silly.

Time was when buying a pair of shoes was a delicious experience. A clerk in a shoe shop could expect to be treated as a respectable white-collar worker, an expert consultant, and an authority on quality. My childhood memories of being taken to buy shoes – walls lined to the ceiling with boxes, ladders on slides, metallic foot measures, shoe horns and the intoxicating smell of fresh leather – might as well be from the Edwardian period, and I cherish them. I’m not sure what happened to that kind of shoe shop, but it disappeared at some point in the 1980s and was replaced by something entirely tasteless, the quality and the knowledgeable salesman with it.

Now one has to work hard to find, and probably pay a fortune to own, decent shoes. And by decent shoes I want immediately to discriminate against designer shoes made by labels not fundamentally known for making shoes. Cobblers to them! I balk at shoes that cost a fortune but which come with no obvious assurances of quality manufacture. One wouldn’t buy a watch made by Armani, and shoes are no less objects of artisanal craftsmanship. In addition, shoes used to be made in different widths. If you’re anything but average, you probably have a hard time finding shoes that properly fit. You have my sympathies.

Providing you have struck it lucky and found the ideal shoes, I’m afraid I have bad news. You now need to strike it lucky another four times. Yes, a gentleman needs five pairs of shoes. Any fewer and you will wear them out too fast, and be inadequately prepared for all occasions. As a minimum, I would suggest Oxford or Derby shoes in black and brown, for everyday wear; dress shoes for best (one should relish the chance to wear patent leather); penny loafers for lazy Sundays; and either brogues or boots for gadding about in the country (or lounging around in cafes, depending on the way you ride). Of course, there are a million options besides, but I find it hard to imagine not having at least this much in my arsenal. Of course, winter wellies are a necessary extra, and a difficult one to boot.

Pictured, with apologies for quality, are my Derby browns by Gruppo Forall, Bruno Magli Oxfords, dress shoes by Moreschi, and John Fluevog boots. Suede loafers are away for winter, but I’ll update in the future.

February 05, 2010

The Manly Mind; or, Sex on the Brain

Forgive me for presuming to thrust upon you some thoughts on an ongoing academic project of mine. I have mounted the task of revisiting the Victorian debate on the inherent sexual nature of the brain. I am not seeking to proselytise – far be it from me to assume the Missionary position – but simply to enlighten. Historiographical orthodoxies present themselves to be undressed, and it would be unmanly of me not to oblige them.

The Victorians were under the impression that women ought not to be educated for three simple reasons. First, female brains were thought to be universally smaller then male ones, based on some rather skewed statistical evidence. The brains of leading male intellects who died with healthy heads were compared to a motley collection of female brains pulled from the bodies of the insane, the infirm, and the indecent. Second, nature had fitted women to be the bearers of the stock of human instincts that were manifested in civilization, and it was a female duty, if not a privilege, to pass these on to the future of the race. In short, women were to be mothers. Third, this repository of human evolution was necessarily limited: women were presumed incapable of abstract or original thought; they were incapable, physiologically, of leading politically, artistically, technologically or philosophically. Those cognitive abilities were the preserve of men, who would in turn pass on their bold developments, stored up as newly acquired characteristics of the stock of human evolution in the next generation of mothers. The female mind was conservative; the manly mind was dynamic. The over-education of women was therefore useless, but moreover it risked damaging or distracting from their primary maternal purpose. All this was enshrined in Darwinian or neo-Lamarckian science, and as such has been justly called to book by feminist historians.

So far so good, but the story begs a question. If genuine worldly accomplishments were the sole remit of the manly mind, what did that say for the majority of men who in every respect failed to contribute any philosophical, artistic or technological advances, and who in most respects blindly followed, or ignored, their political leaders? On this, Victorian science had a lot less to say. With a total disregard for critical reasoning, scientists talked of the male and female mind as if all men were of the type of Socrates, Michelangelo, Brunel, or Pericles; as if all women were mere damsels in distress. If anyone had bothered to point this out, it would have been clear that the scientists’ portrayal of the gendered brain was practically worthless, for they surely would not have agreed that manliness was available only to the remarkable, only to the exceptional, only to genius. It cut against the grain of the majority of vernacular thinking on the meaning and definition of manliness, and yet it was held up by the new priesthood as the new law; or rather, the oldest law: that of nature.

We can rest assured, however, that if the Victorians were wrong about sex in the brain, they nevertheless had sex on the brain. Darwin himself was pushing fifty when he and Emma had their last child. The fact that nobody talked about it only added to its excitement. As I’ve said before, being buttoned-up only adds vigour to the unbuttoning.

February 04, 2010

Historical Heroes: Grantley Berkeley, 1800-81.

‘Who?’ you ask. Rightly so, for this was not a preeminent man. He was, however, a man who stood up for the preservation of bluff English tradition in the face of reforming sensibilities that to him just seemed all too bloody French. He was a living atavism; his life a lament more than a triumph. Yet the spirit of the times never conquered his own esprit de coeur. This was a man who recollected feeling manly from the age of six! I celebrate his life not by way of condoning his actions, but rather by way of advertising his strength of character.

Berkeley cut his teeth in the Regency period; he was what you might call a no-nonsense Renaissance man. Not averse to a bare-knuckle box (he was taught the arts of pugilism by Gentleman Jackson, who also taught Byron), he was at home in the study, at court, and in the company of ladies. As Member of Parliament for Gloucester in the Liberal interest, he backed tradition over innovation, stoicism over effete sensibility. As a writer of political broadsides, novels, and sporting adventures in the American wilds, in addition to his extensive autobiographical pomp, he was irreverently proud. He pursued options closed to us ethereal scribblers: upon receipt of an unfavourable review of his first novel in Fraser’s Magazine he beat the proprietor of that eminent journal with his hunting whip, and fought the reviewer in a duel. Hang the law for honour’s sake!

Berkeley’s chief love was cockfighting, unless it were hunting (he was Master of Fox Hounds and Stag Hounds). The latter was entirely seemly in his age, but the former was criminalised in Berkeley’s prime, causing consternation among those who fancied the sod. Berkeley decried the prohibition as ‘un-English’, and carried on regardless, remaining unapologetic even in the dock at Uxbridge Magistrate’s court.

Think what you will about his pursuits: chacun à son gout. His defining spirit, however, was one of fair play in all things. State interference in morality was absurd; a careless libel was unjust; the intervention into what he saw as fair sports was ‘improper’ and ‘underhand’. The Hon. Grantley Fitzhardinge Berkeley, MP, MFH knew with great self-assurance what it was to be a gentleman in all things.

February 03, 2010

Keep Your Trousers On, Ladies!

A little while ago, Rose C’est La Vie made mention on this site of her interest in female masculinity, and lamented the demise of trousers’ significance as symbols of feminine defiance. One of the lamentable things about throwing out all the rules is that it becomes much more difficult to act subversively. Absolute freedom might, so it seems, come at the price of being dull.

I’m not actually sure I buy that last thought, for complacency is the biggest risk to the freedoms attained. We must remain vigilant. Last night I saw some BBC News footage from Banda Aceh about the stiffening of Sharia Law in that unfortunate place. It is a story of gendered segregation, invidious policing, and a slew of strictures that prescribe what it is moral and immoral to wear. Naturally, the BBC took a left-leaning – or should that be Occidental – perspective, and sought out those brave womanly souls refusing to don headscarves, who cling desperately to long pants. Indeed, the new clamp down includes a ban on women wearing tight trousers. A bewildered trouser seller exclaimed: ‘what we wear doesn’t reflect our morality’. No, but in that setting trousers remain politically dangerous.

We are not given to think about these things any more, but that is a sign of how far we have come in the West. It is worth reminding ourselves from time to time that the matter-of-fact ubiquity of women in ‘men’s clothing’ is an emblem of our liberality. These things are matter-of-fact only after significant struggle; they represent other struggles of greater weight, about which we are also now dangerously blasé. Indeed, trouser wearing is the thin end of the wedge. That is precisely what the Aceh authorities are afraid of. And it is precisely why we should not cease to celebrate the history embodied by all women who don their slacks without a second thought.

February 02, 2010

Class Act

On my way home today I observed a street scene that might have come straight from the pages of Henry Mayhew. A somewhat dishevelled man wearing an eye patch was engaging in toothless japes with a hunched, walking-stick wielding man wearing rudimentary ear muffs. I expected to see a mudlark and a crossing sweeper at any minute, as our omnibus swerved to avoid the itinerant costermongers. But then I remembered that everyone in America is middle class. And then I thought of England, where society is supposed not to exist. Silly me.

In the introduction to Arthur Marwick’s The Sixties, the author reluctantly confessed that his education, the fact of his professorial status, had made him upper-middle class. Marwick assumed that the democratization of social opportunity had nevertheless left the old social framework intact, but following contours of intellect rather than wealth. His was a class system based on merit, but a class system nonetheless. His reality no doubt gave him good reason to think this, for he was among the first generation of modern levellers, and assumed a place that assuredly looked, felt, and smelled very much like the upper-middle class of yore. Yet the idea was becoming unpalatable. Those scholars who followed him might have expected to be ridiculed, if not stoned, for asserting their implicit social superiority, however reluctantly. In fact, they actively cast off the mantle and quickly swapped white for blue collars. Marks of distinction disappeared among the distinctly Marxian. Elitist aspirations, including those founded on intellect, became an outmoded embarrassment. Now we find it appropriate only to be ordinary – such an unpalatable collective – or else ‘public opinion’, like a Leviathan Bounderby, will point a chubby finger and accuse us of wanting to be fed turtle soup and venison with a gold spoon. Hard Times indeed. Intellectuals should know their place: a dark, underpaid corner of unimportance, diminutively apologizing for not being of the ‘real world’.

Actually, the haute cuisine and lustrous utensils sound rather appealing, taken metaphorically. The truth is that we still sort ourselves out, even though social deference is dead, and humility is an endangered species. As I sat watching the Victorian apparition today I knew that for all the world I was not of that scene, and to a like degree those characters were not of my intellectual commute. This does not signify any sense of entitlement on my part, nor any social chagrin on theirs; merely that worlds apart are not wont to meet. Were not these distinct orbits more inclined to overlap in days before our undoubtedly noble motives led us to deny that difference exists?

I pose the question sincerely: how does one be a gentleman in an age that looks poorly on distinction?
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