March 31, 2010

Simple Pleasures

I do not much care for anything contrived. A parsimonious approach to life is my preference. People really do make such an effort to have fun that it becomes difficult to distinguish it from work. The crescendo of anticipation rarely gives way to the expected climax, but rather its opposite. Leisure, in short, is generally not.

This is not to say that I advocate mindless wastes of time. Computer games are typically benumbing of brain and character, and in some cases are akin to large amounts of narcotics, alcohol or gambling. Best avoided. The television is fine in moderation, where the choice of programme is truly an act of volition. I fear, however, that the television is more of an hypnotic device, situated so as to absorb our attention, to anaesthetise us. It is also the West’s answer to feng shui. Imagine your television removed: your furniture placement will suddenly seem quite odd.

So, pleasures fall between these two poles: the overwrought and the mindless. The possibilities are endless, but I shall name one or two (not prescriptively, of course). A good, solid, print newspaper, with a challenging cryptic crossword and decent review section: spend half an hour a day with this and I find I think better; my mood improves; I feel refreshed. I listen to jazz in the mornings as I write: nothing like the sound of other people blowing hard when I am, well, not. I listen to BBC Radio 3 in the evening: one of the advantages to being expatriated across the Pond is that I get the all-night classical marathons five hours in advance. In addtion, a ready supply of Cabernet; a happy mix of good home cooking (yes, it is manly to cook) and edifying (not fast) restaurant fare; and a regular run to keep the heart pumping. All provide the necessary ease – the requisite balance – in an otherwise consuming life of work. They are simple pleasures, but they are all the more pleasant for their simplicity.

March 29, 2010

A Short Step to Eccentricity

Dressing well is not a straightforward matter. Even for those in the know, the difference between classic elegance and ridiculousness is slight, the pitfalls awaiting missteps great. Everyone will tell you to be an individual, to mix things up, to not be too studied, or too ‘put together’. Acquire an air of relaxed formality, they will say. Yet one is to know one’s palette, and work within it. And of course, the basic rules must be observed. All well and good. But to a man without a friend in the know this can be bewildering. Just as watching Tiger Woods videos won’t improve your swing, watching the world of fashion will not usher you into it. The basics – fit, cut, cloth, colour – are not obvious. The ambitious but misguided may feel like they are really cutting it, when in fact they have made themselves into mere caricatures. This is the basis of all those magazine ‘experts’ and TV media hacks who make their living pointing out where the celebs went sartorially wrong. Perhaps the rich and famously stupid can get away with it. The man on the street may not fare so well.

My case in point, so as not to embarrass anybody, is Mr. Charles James Mathews, 1803-78. As an English comic actor, his public appearance may not be thought to have been in earnest. It was all ‘just so’, and yet all ‘off’. I imagine it took quite some considerable skill on the part of Mr. Mathews to achieve such a studiously eccentric and nonsensical appearance, without obviously transgressing any rules of formal wear. A couple of details ground the look: the umbrella is charming, the moustache in keeping with the times, the shoes all too ordinary. The rest, while retaining a clear sense of the English gentleman, does enough to make one question his sanity. His posture accentuates the stomach and narrows the shoulders (too many men stand like this without realising it). His trousers are on the long side, breaking at the knee, the shin, and above the shoe, and giving the impression of limpness. So, no backbone, and no strength. A fop, to be sure. The jailbird reference in the trousers is a screaming faux pas and the jacket, with big metal buttons and plaid lining, invokes a cross between a policeman and a bookie. The hat is as like to produce a rabbit as to be doffed at the ladies. In short, this is a man at whom one would laugh, unless he tried to sell you anything, in which case you would run away. The laughter, from Mr. Mathews' point of view, was sought. Unless you seek it too, be mindful.

March 26, 2010

Pugilistic Encounters: Pierce Egan's 'Boxiana'

Tom Cribb, Britain's finest champion?

Pierce Egan was out of step. A sporting journalist for the common man (and by that I refer not to matters of class, but to matters of taste), he was cast in sharp contrast to his hobnobbing foxhunting contemporary, Nimrod. Egan celebrated the ‘fancy’, just as the ‘fancy’ went out of style. These were the dog fighting, cockfighting, rat worrying set. These were the prototypes of the modern athlete. These were boxing men. The culture of sensibility that grew up in the late eighteenth century would eventually see to it that these men would look incongruous in a well-heeled empire. Yet this was not mere rough and tumble, even if it was the gutter press. Egan’s love of sports masculine had, at its root, those concerns that motivated his more refined compatriots of the horse and hound, field and stream.

In the dedication to Boxiana, a four volume compendium of English boxing biography from 1829, Egan addressed Captain Barclay, that redoubtable pedestrian:

In viewing you, Sir, as a LOVER AND PATRON OF THOSE SPORTS that tend to invigorate the human frame, and inculcate those principles of generosity and heroism, by which the inhabitants of the English Nation are so eminently distinguished above every other country, is the sole reason of dedicating to the attention of Captain Barclay, the work entitled Boxiana

To those, Sir, who prefer effeminacy to hardihood – assumed refinement to rough Nature – and to whom a shower of rain can terrify their polite frames suffering from the unruly elements – or who would not mind Pugilism, if BOXING was not so shockingly vulgar – the following work can have no interest whatever. But to persons, Sir, who, like yourself, feel that Englishmen are not automata, and however the advantages of discipline may serve for the precision and movement of great bodies, that it would ultimately lose its effects, were it not animated by that native spirit, which has been found to originate, in a great measure, from the fastidious term – vulgar Sports, Boxiana will convey amusement, if not information.

Egan’s argument may be lost on us. It seems that something specific, in fact, has been lost. To be sure, violent sports still exist, and not solely in the realms of illicit gambling and extra-legal gatherings. Ultimate Fighting’s popularity – its usurpation of the boxing fan’s attention – would suggest that Egan’s rough Nature is alive and well. But I see nothing of the spirit that these sports were deemed to activate in Egan’s time. They were to:
Impart generosity to the mind, and humanity to the heart, by instilling those unalterable principles in the breast of every Briton, not to take an unfair advantage of his antagonist.
If they also served to foster ‘the daring intrepidity of the BRITISH SOLDIER in mounting the Breach, producing those brilliant victories which have reflected so much honour on the English Nation’, well, for the men of Egan’s time, so much the better. But what of us? Upon what reserves, and upon what experience, do we derive our mettle? Are we so assured that we do not need it? Will our looking-on at cable television from comfy couches ignite the sparks of generosity of mind and humanity of heart, and do we care? Where is our well of heroism?

March 24, 2010

An Elegant Weapon for a more Civilised Age

Yesterday I was almost decapitated by an umbrella, twice. In truth, the second occasion was more of a narrow escape from having my eye skewered. The first incident caused me to limbo in the most ungainly fashion, and it really wasn’t the weather for limbo. Both assailants were cursed, roundly and loudly. Neither paid the slightest attention.

What is to be done? I regret that I was not carrying my own umbrella at the time, for this would surely have acted as my force field. But I am having umbrella difficulties at present, exacerbated by my having to keep on crossing international borders. The gentleman’s umbrella, for all its dignity and refinement, has a pointy metal bit at the end and looks too much like an offensive weapon for most carriers. This is a gross prejudice. As I have discovered, the crass and wholly unpleasant common-or-garden umbrella, in pastel shades and pretty patterns, destined to blow out and crumple at the slightest puff of wind, is also a lethal weapon! And for all its look-at-me-I’m-compact-and-modern glibness, this is a brute of a device. When closed, it is more akin to a police baton than to a rapier; when open, it bespeaks Medieval torture device, rather than rain shield. With their short shafts and inadequate canopies, they obscure the vision of their carriers, who lead with spokes primed, ready to assail the unsuspecting eyeball. And really, nobody looks where he is going anymore. Walking is just one big imperialist adventure, with territory conceded only at a high price.

I must make a plea for a return to gentlemanly standards of rain protection (and ladies, for you too there really are preferable options to the aforementioned unfurling truncheons). A proper umbrella will last a long time; it will be too big to forget in every taxi, pub, restaurant, etc.; it will not be so big that walking down the street is an impossibility (golf umbrella wielders take note: you belong on a golf course); it will allow you to see while you walk; it will allow you a companion, with a reasonable expectation of staying dry. Back when we knew how to be civilised, a man would not be without such a device in periods of inclemency. And if the need arose – let’s say, a young oik threatened to encumber your way with his inadequate brolly – when properly furled this instrument served very nicely as an idiot deterrent. The next time I am assailed by walking imperialists with no style and much less manners, I shall give them cause to say touché.

March 23, 2010

Hitting Out of the Woods: Manly Golf

The world of golf has been reeling of late. Tiger Woods’ indiscretions have brought our collective attention to the question of character and we have found the preëminent golfer to have fallen a long way short of respectable. Not that golf in America has a lot to say for itself anyway. Golfwear has become a caricature of itself. Golf fans have become loud and obnoxious. Never was there a less edifying shout than ‘You’re the man!’. Never was there a more crass allusion than ‘Get in the hole!’. Falsetto whooping abounds from fans and players alike, accompanied by contrived fist pumps. The niceties of etiquette (which, by the way, was the major topic of conversation when I started to play golf in the late 1980s) are probably still observed, but not so that anybody would notice. In short, golf’s media image has never looked worse. As Augusta approaches, the most strictly controlled Major for both players and fans alike, it may be apropos to restate golf’s values and its virtues.

Golf is first and foremost a competition with the self. One only needs to have struck one ball well to have gained the knowledge of possibility. Thereafter, gaining control over one’s movements, and the elements, is the challenge. It is frustrating, but breeds fortitude, patience, and temperance. The impetuous golfer is mercurial, and mercurial golfers garner no respect. The refined golfer embodies controlled power. He is never flamboyant.

Now, this ongoing battle with the self, if persevered with, leads to humility. On a golf course, inadequacies are public, failures self-evident. So too are triumphs. It is never wise to indulge too much in the latter, for the former always lurk on the next hole. Moderation is key. The golfing temperament, ultimately, is moderate: courageous where necessary, but sensibly safe where fools rush in. This is why Phil Mickleson has not won many Majors, despite his genius. It is why Sir Nick Faldo won five, despite his flaws.

In the best of worlds, this moderation would trickle down to golf’s ‘army’ of fans. As things stand, a more effete army has never been seen. Knowledge of the game – its ethos – should be the first criterion for a golf fan. There is a wealth of tradition, form and respect in this great game that make it bigger than any one individual, any one event. Those who choose to spoil the professional golfer’s good walk would do well to bear that in mind.

March 18, 2010

Seasonal Misgivings

It is March. Still. Between Friday night and Monday night it rained continually (and I mean it just didn’t stop at all), and temperatures stayed alarmingly in single figures. But then, it is still March. What do we expect? After the storm, the sun came out, and so did the people. Were it September, and similarly sunny, and similarly warmish, people would be wearing coats and scarves, donning hats and brandishing gloves. Umbrellas would be held at the ready, and boots would replace sandals. We would be rushing headlong into Winter, missing our opportunity to embrace the autumnal in our appearances, and exhorting the season to grow-up like we do to children of the internet generation. Likewise, we skip Spring and jump two-footed into Summer. On Tuesday this week it was about 12 degrees (54 to those still on Imperial time), and yet I saw undergraduates ‘sun-bathing’ on the steps of their residences, wearing bikinis. I saw men in tight white trousers, wearing boat shoes sans socks. I’ve seen flip-flops, summer prints, too many pairs of shorts to mention, skirts up to too high, and tops down to too low. And then there are the ubiquitous men who insist on jogging in practically nothing (but perhaps that is not pertinent, since they do that all year round). What, I ask in all seriousness, is wrong with Spring? If trees went straight to fruit and skipped the blossom we would call those trees ridiculous. What should we say of people who do the same?

March 16, 2010

The Hero and the Villain

Who knows any more what is a hero? So-called heroes today are glibly labelled, devoid of heroic qualities, and utterly democratic. If ever democracy should be opposed to anything, it should be the hero. In his preëminence, his strength, his courage, his valour and his deeds a hero commands. A hero does not ‘do what anyone would have done’. A ‘have-a-go hero’, as the Press likes to style him, is generally summed up by the adjective, not by the noun. A real hero does, or he dies. There is no volition, no mind over matter; only pure drive, pure spirit: the complete identification of coming hour with coming man. Nor does a real hero depend on being appointed, or worse, being voted in. These things may happen to a hero, for sure, but a true hero does not depend on them. A hero’s vision, and his modus operandi, will be striking for its lack of conformity, its resistance to accessibility. And for all these things, democracy – that is, we – should hate heroes. And that is why we invent sham heroes and flaky heroes, to reassure ourselves that the hero, whom we intuit to be inherently good, cannot be so fundamentally opposed to the values we hold dear.

Leon Benouville, The Wrath of Achilles, 1847

Let us reconsider. Who is the archetype of a hero? Not Hector, but Achilles. Our tender and sensitive hearts go out to Hector when he turns and runs at the crucial moment, the breaker of horses turned unbroken mustang. But this is ignominy, and in the context of god-like heroes, his death is just. Achilles, for all his anger, for all his tortured railing at an authority to which he does not defer, and for all his violence, is the hero. He ensures victory. He does that for which he was fitted, if not fated. He does it without flinching. He does it all with honour, in the context of the war he wages, intact. Modern readers do not ‘like’ him. They do not ‘identify’ with him. Hollywood has to rewrite Homer and employ Brad Pitt in order to make him ‘appealing’. But why should we like him? Should men who wage war be likeable? Ought professional killers to have qualities, in the midst of battle, with which we readily identify? Would you prefer it if your country’s army was made up of men thought generally to be ‘appealing’, softly spoken, deferent ‘have-a-go’ types? A hero is necessary. That does not mean you’d have him round for tea.

Of course, not all heroes are warriors, but they share the mentality. There is scope for political heroes, sporting heroes, scientific heroes, exploring heroes and even artistic heroes. They do that for which some will thereafter be grateful or inspired. Around a hero myths of greatness will arise that will bathe in reflected glory those who claim kinship, by nation or by ancestry. But heroes necessarily divide as they conquer, and garner hatred as they sow love. The competing narratives of gall will follow. We have countless examples of our historical need for heroes, and we seem to show no signs of ceasing to need them. Yet so long as we insist on the possibility of them being everyman, and so long as we insist on liking them, we shall probably not see their like.

March 15, 2010

Becks' Bottle; or, the Courage to have Grace

We admired his defiance in the face of naysayers. We applauded his attitude and commitment when the media labelled him a sell out. We appreciated his desire to play for his country at any cost. We awed at his thumos, and aspired to his work ethic. We shall never forget that goal against Greece. In many ways, this man’s career was an exemplar of talent turned to courage, petulance resolved to patience, and glamour galvanised to resolution. On the whole then, I think the footballing world has felt a rather large pang of sympathy for Mr. David Beckham’s latest injury. It is hard for us to see a crestfallen, if not heartbroken, man. On the brink of his hoped-for triumph, he has been blighted, literally, by his Achilles’ heel. The Homeric allusion should not be ignored.

Photo: Paul Blank

Beckham had the right idea: work like hell to make the England team; be a part of a winning World Cup squad; bow out with every major honour on offer in the game. Great sportsmen should leave everybody wanting more; retire at the top; ensure the mystique of genius by affording nobody the opportunity of seeing the decline. But now that this master plan has been denied him, what is left but a downward spiral of third-rate games for a third-rate team in a third-rate league? I, for one, do not want to watch that. There is a more graceful option, but it will take courage. The hero has had his day. David Beckham should retire from football.

There are things that we may want to gloss over in the life and career of David Beckham – the empty celebrity, the tattoos, the lack of pace, 1998 – but whatever your view on the man, there are three things beyond dispute: 1. On his day he was as good a footballer as anybody; 2. His work rate is greater than the majority of his peers; 3. He has become a fantastic ambassador for the game. In combination, these afford him lasting respect and opportunity. He can best put those to use by getting off the pitch. Beckham has already done an enormous amount for football – giving youth an opportunity, and giving the sport a fighting chance in America – but he can do so much more if he takes on a full time role as an ambassador for football, promoting the game and the best of its values. His name is known the world over. It is surely time to put it to best use. It’s time to quit for all the right reasons.

March 12, 2010

Historical Hero: Walter B. Cannon, 1871-1945

In 1913, Walter B. Cannon, Chair of the Dept. of Physiology at Harvard Medical School, made a courageous address concerning the ‘Ideals of the Man of Science’. First, his vision; afterward the context that made this courageous:
Through the long history of the extension of civil habitation there runs a record, often imperfect, of a brotherhood of venturesome men who have served as the world’s explorers and pioneers. For such men the zest of life lies in discoveries and conquests in the unmapped wilderness. To stagnate in self-satisfied contemplation of things accomplished is for them intolerable. Their restless spirits demand the stir and eventfulness of fresh endeavour. Of this ancient brotherhood the man of science is a member… He sets out from the frontiers of knowledge and he attempts to penetrate the unexplored realms of reality – treasures of new facts and explanations. Then the unfailing charm of novelty and the allurement of further search seize upon him and urge him day and night to go forward. Hardship and privation he can bear, if only he may be foremost to enter that unexplored territory, foremost to behold with his own eyes its undiscovered wonders. It is the spirit of the explorers and pioneers, ‘conquering, holding, daring, venturing as they go the unknown ways’, that is the moving spirit in the search for truth.

All this is noble enough, and easy to say for a man at peace. But this was a man at war; a man whose worldview was challenged by a powerful lobby that would have seen him incarcerated before it would see another discovery in the name of science. Cannon, as chairman of the Council for the Defense of Medical Research, championed those who would conquer diphtheria, rabies, smallpox, tuberculosis and syphilis. To do so, he had to fight off swathes of well-funded quacks and cranks whose moral outrage at vaccination and vivisection, borne on the backs of misinformation, paranoia and fanaticism, threatened permanently to shut the door on scientific research. Cannon fired back at them in New York, in Boston, in Philadelphia, and in Washington. Over forty years he did not tire, nor shirk from what he knew was his responsibility. Yet he did not do so with empty rhetorical propaganda. He did not stoop to the level of his assailants. From the first, Cannon believed in the integrity of the public, of its willingness and preparedness to learn. He was assured that people could be educated, if only given the chance. He fought bluster with substance, closed-mindedness with vision, and facetiousness with cutting severity and sincerity. In 1915 Cannon coined the term ‘fight or flight’ to describe the ways in which animals responded to threats. As sure as this was a man of moral fibre, this was a man who stood and fought.

The Toothpick and the Symphony

Rules and good form not being what they were, you can pretty much wear anything to the symphony these days. By and large people do their best to doff their personages (few have a hat) out of respect for the institution. Being affordably seated myself, I togged up a couple of levels under the nines (I could dwell on the etymology here, for the internet is sorely lacking in an explanation of this phrase. My own guess is a contraction of ‘nigh on’, as in ‘dressed to nigh on perfection’). Still, I was collared and tied, and happily shod in my newly refurbished Bruno Maglis.

Imagine my surprise, among the eccentrics and kooks, to see just how far the finery has fallen for some. Across the aisle, a white-haired and potentially elegant couple had chosen to don anoraks, Reeboks and, much to everyone’s eternal pleasure, were handing out the toothpicks. Obviously their pre-symphony caviar was lodged in the odd molar, and nothing else would do. Having thoroughly scraped and scoured the deepest regions of their oral cavities, the toothpicks were then thoroughly chewed until grey and soggy. Charming. Obviously the ideal preparation for Rimsky-Korsakov’s Scheherazade.


I might have hoped that the offending articles were miniature batons, bought in some kitsch souvenir shop, but no. One had simply to look away. Unfortunately, also in my midst were first-time symphony goers who quelled their apprehensions though intermittent chatter. Perhaps it is a symptom of our times that the young cannot survive for more than five minutes without opening their mouths. All around me there was tension, wrought by not knowing what to do about these uncouth whisperers. Incredulous women, appalled at the ignorance, were furrowing brows and shooting daggers with their eyes; men attempted to suppress the tension by shutting their eyes and wishing themselves elsewhere. The offending couple, of course, did not have the requisite social graces to intuit that they were causing offense, and yet nobody did anything to stop them. This was vapidity par excellence.

After several repeat offences with no checks, I took matters in hand. Reaching a little awkwardly past a few people, I did the job of those more conveniently placed and poked one of the novices in the shoulder, thereafter giving him a finger to the lips and a condescending scowl. It was fascinating to witness the process of emasculation at this point, as the ‘fashionably’ bestubbled victim shrank into his seat. It was just the trick; not a peep more was heard. So, after a symphony of whispers and an unpleasant assault on the eye with a toothpick, I was finally afforded the opportunity of listening, at ease, to the music. Nothing like a rousing bit of Orientalism to round off a manly evening of high culture!

March 09, 2010

Diffident Dealings; or, Cobblers!

I would not want to convey the impression that Daniel Deronda is the only book I know, but it is the book on my nightstand, and since my library currently resides in another country I find myself returning to it often. Nor should I complain, for George Eliot is by no means a meagre resource on matters manly. Today’s errands caused me to look up a certain passage, as I reflected on my reserved disposition in the face of compound annoyance:

…a great deal of life goes on without strong passion: myriads of cravats are carefully tied, dinners attended, even speeches made proposing the health of august personages, without the zest arising from strong desire. And a man may make a good appearance in high social positions – may be supposed to know the classics, to have his reserves on science, a strong though repressed opinion on politics, and all the sentiments of an English gentleman, at a small expense of vital energy. Also, he may be obstinate or persistent at the same low rate, and may even show sudden impulses which have a false air of daemonic strength because they seem inexplicable, though perhaps their secret lies merely in the want of regulated channels for the soul to move in – good and sufficient ducts of habit without which our nature easily turns to mere ooze and mud, and at any pressure yields nothing but a spurt or a puddle.
The supermarket, no doubt suffering under Barack Obama’s socialist grip, had run out of food. Men and women harangued the long-suffering staff: ‘where is the food? Why is there no food here?’ A delivery, so they were informed, was awaited (actually, they were told that a delivery was waited on, instead of for, but I will hold back my ire over such grammatical bagatelles in the spirit of general diffidence with which I confronted my day). Faces of incredulity were shot back at the redundant shelf-stackers. ‘Has it come to this? Has America come to this?’

Yes, we have no bananas.

I only wanted some bananas and some Greek yoghurt with honey, but there had been a rush on these staples and the shelves lay bereft of nourishment. I left the acrimony behind, as if by some strange Lamarckian process my soul remembered the Blitz. Wailing and crying does not rebuild one’s house. Reserve allows for the necessary welling of strength and courage, and with these qualities, and with uncomplaining graft, one rebuilds one’s house.

Off to the cobblers for me. My Chelsea boots were worn to the quick. I thought a place I’d seen in Harvard Square would be reliable. I should have known not to judge a book by its cover, even though it does have a lovely art nouveau shop front, in wood and plate glass, dating to 1913. First of all, the door was locked. More socialist cutbacks? I waited, diffidently. When the cobbler appeared, he unlocked the door and then waved a cursory finger at me to come in. Not sure why he didn’t open the door for me, but I pressed on. Within 45 seconds he had talked up the price for soles alone on the Chelsea boots from $47 to $80, with all kinds of nonsense about having to ‘build up the toe’. With the heels on top I was looking at $110 for repairs to shoes that had cost me $90 (half price, of course). I tried not to sneer, and told him rather plainly that his quote was ridiculous. Telling me to suit myself, he tossed my shoes back at me across his tasteful counter, and I quietly left his tasteful shop, wondering if the real cobbler was bound and gagged in the back. Perhaps this was a narrow escape.

Retreating to the library, I simmered gently within earshot of an Israeli fellow who talked so loudly on his telephone that it is some wonder he even needed one. I resolved to wait until he had finished his conversation – that is only polite – before pointing out to him the seven signs instructing him not to engage in telephone conversations. He carried on at length, however, so I moved calmly to another room without huffs, puffs, or performances.

In short, I have held together my vessels of mud and ooze. I returned home to find the most marvellous testimonial (duly posted) from ‘Sonny’, whom I do not know, and raised to him a glass over dinner. I did so, he will no doubt be heartened to learn, with no great expense of vital energy.

March 08, 2010

To Some Women

For your poise, elegance and grace; for your indefatigability in the face of repression; for your sober reasoning; for your compassion, sympathy and spirit; for your independence; for your knowledge of when to be demure, and when to be defiant; for your infinite complexity – trusting that you will recognise yourself among those included hereby – I salute you!

Whatever International Women’s Day means, and I cannot seem to find an acceptable harmony of approach between those nations that celebrate it, I trust that you will make the best of it.

March 06, 2010

Eric Bloodaxe: Teacher and Mentor

I had the great fortune, aged seven, to spend a year in the class of Mr. Eric Jacks, Primary School Teacher. Mr. Jacks was a complicated man, but a man of straight talking and straight justice. He once asked me to draw for him an icon of Eric Bloodaxe, which thereafter adorned his classroom door for many years. Eric Bloodaxe, a tenth-century Scandinavian king, was famed for his prowess and his strength. It was this with which Mr. Jacks identified; that and a reputation for merciless punishment, which can also go a long way.

Eric Bloodaxe

It is a cliché that everyone remembers a good teacher, but what that means, or how it comes to be, is rarely explained. I have had twenty-five years to reflect on my encounter with Mr. Jacks, and I cannot escape the conclusion that his influence was truly profound. Mr. Jacks taught the curriculum, just like all the others. But most importantly, Mr. Jacks taught the difference between right and wrong; between courage and stupidity; between tomfoolery and vandalism; between good manners and slovenliness. It was in that class, at the tender age of seven, going on eight, that I learned self-reliance, self-defence, and discipline. Mr. Jacks taught boys how to be men.

I cannot, in good faith, provide a biography of this man. A child carries a small and skewed set of memories into adulthood, and my account will certainly say more about me than it will say about him. Nevertheless, I maintain that I was shaped and directed by this man whom I did not really know, in ways of which he himself was probably not aware. And for every me, there are hundreds of men who passed through this able mentor’s hands. He taught, I should think, for forty years. Woe betide us if we underrate the power of teachers!

I had not before seen a male teacher. In fact, I was under the impression that all teachers were women. It was a fearful day, therefore, when I was inducted into Mr. Jacks’ care, in loco parentis. He announced to the assembled class that his name was Eric, and he wrote it on the blackboard in cursive script. I recall his languid and rather fluid handwriting (later replaced with stern block capitals as commentary for shoddy work). Cursive script had been banned up until this point at school. And until then, no teacher had ever had a first name, let alone divulged it. This was transgressive, exciting, and also scary. Did he mean to speak to us as people?

Any sense of familiarity was soon followed by an unequivocal introduction to authority. A beating stick, broken into two halves, was produced, with the (I am sure apocryphal) tale that it had been broken on the behind of an unruly boy, before corporal punishment had been outlawed in England. Mr. Jacks lamented the demise of the cane, but liked to threaten its reprise in exceptional circumstances. In one fell swoop, he had gained our trust, and then our respect. For one knew implicitly that it would not be advisable to cross this man, but that fair play would be rewarded.

There used to be more latitude given to teachers in the exercise of their authority. Mr. Jacks always claimed that many parents had given him permission thoroughly to discipline their children, and his full-throated shout alone was enough to petrify the most agitated. Yet he was not a dictator, and the ethos of his authority could carry down to those he taught. A bully, he averred, was a coward. Always. The best cure for being bullied, therefore, was to punch the bully on the nose. Invariably, this cured the problem, and it came with a good deal of manly satisfaction. Mr. Jacks despised cowardice, and taught that the key to self-reliance lay, more often than not, at the end of one’s own arm.

It was not all fisticuffs and shouting, however. I felt that Mr. Jacks was a tender, Godly man, whose vigorous manliness did not get in the way of his love of tradition, the fine arts, the religious calendar, and the piano. He introduced me, and the rest of my cohort, to the ballet. Imagine compelling thirty scamps to sit through The Nutcracker Suite, which lasted for an age. He sold it to us. Could not balance, poise, elegance, and all the finest qualities of the finest footballers be inculcated through ballet? Maybe that was a cheap trick, but I’ve always remained convinced of it. Mr. Jacks had us singing ‘Seek ye first the kingdom of God’ (Matt., 6:33) in rounds, and loving it, as he roughly chopped out chords on the school upright piano. If anyone mucked about, he’d bring his whole weight down on the bass keys like so much thunder. Music was joy; music was force. These things he taught us, without telling us.

Mr. Jacks was also the man to see for school drama. He always had a spare play up his sleeve, and directed ridiculously ambitious performances with complete confidence in his young cast’s ability to remember its lines. Of course, they would go wrong like all school performances do. But the sense of engendered trust was invaluable, and I think a rare thing for children to feel. Trust inspires responsibility and arouses an awareness of consequence. You cannot put that kind of thing on a school curriculum, but that does not mean it cannot be taught.

School was only nominally about the three Rs. School was substantially a preparation for a life among people who would judge you on intangible qualities – style, comportment, manners. Mr. Jacks critiqued our posture, corrected our speech, taught us that cursive script (having allowed us to bring in our own fountain pens – this was a coming of age). We had a class competition to see which of us would be chosen to write to the Queen. I forget the occasion, but I didn’t win and it still hurts.

Eric Bloodaxe. Well, maybe not. But Mr. Eric Jacks was a king among the men in my life.

March 03, 2010

Ad Nauseam: Old Spice

Time was when Old Spice only needed a man on a surfboard and a chorus from Carl Orff’s Carmina Burana to let the world know that this was a smell for seriously rugged men. I’m not sure there was ever any truth in that, but I had no objection to the way it was being pitched. Things have taken a crass turn.

The latest ad, aimed jointly at women who have complete control over the grooming of their men and at men who quiver at the sight of a superior musculature, demands that women make frequent comparisons to the men in their lives and the loosely towelled jock on the screen. Assuring women that they may justifiably give up hope that reality will ever compare favourably to his robust frame, the actor suggests that at least a real man does not have to smell like a woman, or worse. I have previously stated my opinions about the importance of the olfactory sense (Firing up the Ol’ Factory), but I don’t much care for it being sold in this way.

For starters, the appeal to women relies on an extension of the derisory stereotype put forward by the good people at Dodge (Ad Nauseum: Dodge Charger). Women will be wowed by such simple fripperies as tickets to a show (exactly what show is irrelevant because men don’t care about such things, as long as you’re happy and prepared to have sex afterward), diamonds, strutting about on the deck of a yacht, and the sexual connotations of horses. There is no substance in any of this, to the point that women are supposed not to notice that the man here is portrayed as arrogant, narcissistic and conceited. A pleasant aroma will take care of any and all the defects of character, it seems.

Second, are men thought so utterly hopeless that a direct appeal to them is futile? Surely a call to their self-respect and dignity would be better. As I mentioned previously, a man’s smell should be based on the reflection, ‘what does my smell say about me?’ If the answer to that question is simply ‘I do not make choices for myself’ then that is a shame.

March 01, 2010

Ad Nauseam: Dodge Charger

A few television commercials which purport to know something about manliness have been getting my goat recently. I hereby offer a transcript of the Dodge Charger effort, as well as the ad itself:

I will get up and walk the dog at 6:30 a.m. I will eat fruit as part of my breakfast. I will shave; I will clean the sink after I shave. I will be at work by 8 a.m. I will sit through two-hour meetings. I will say ‘yes’ when you want me to say ‘yes’. I will be quiet when you don’t want to hear me say ‘no’. I will take your call. I will listen to your opinion of my friends. I will listen to your friends’ opinions of my friends. I will be civil to your mother. I will put the seat down. I will separate the recycling. I will carry your lip balm. I will watch your vampire T.V. shows with you. I will take my socks off before getting into bed. I will put my underwear in the basket. And because I do this, I will drive the car I want to drive. Dodge Charger: a man’s last stand.

I really thought we were beyond all this nonsense. If I were to nitpick, in a missing-the-point kind of way, I would observe that any man who really felt this whipped by his work and his wife would scarcely have the temerity to dig in his heels about a second-rate muscle car. And if this really were a man’s last stand, what a feeble whimper it would be to signal the end of masculinity! I have no life, no dignity, no self-respect, no courage, no volition, no conviction and no taste, but at least I have $26,000 worth of metal to hide in! To all the knuckleheads out there nodding along to this trash, allow me to enlighten you.

If your work is so benumbing that the best you can do is ‘sit through it’, I suggest you are in the wrong job. A little imagination will sort that out. Since you’re already in a job, a position of strength, getting another – a better – one shouldn’t be too daunting a task. If it’s broke, fix it. And if the person you claim to love is as absolutely horrible to you as the archetype of woman in this ad, might I suggest that you take matters in hand and bring the relationship to a conclusion. Of course, the real issue is with the advertiser’s notion of woman as a hen-pecking, nagging, domineering malignancy. Does it really need to be said that women are not actually like this? And if yours is, either take it on trust that you have not done well in the sexual selection stakes, and that you can do better, or take a long hard look at yourself. What are you doing to make her so miserable that she is after you all the time? No doubt being an absolute wimp who blows his salary on a Dodge Charger. Try a bit harder and you will find a pleasant change in her demeanour.

Footnote: at the point in the ad where the car appears, note the small print: ‘Do not attempt. Professional driver on a closed course’. If you’re looking for a domineering malignancy, look no further than the litigation averse political correctness of companies that do not actually have a shred of the conviction they purport to sell.
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