April 30, 2010

Ad Nauseam: Miller Lite

The phrase ‘Man up’ is a noxious one at best. But it risks losing all meaning if it is continually employed for trivialities. A man struggling to find courage in the face of adversity, or blighted by prevarication when action is due, might benefit from the imperative, presuming it was delivered by an appropriate source. Another – a better – man is really the only acceptable giver of the exhortation to ‘man up’, and it is an exhortation to be used sparingly.

It’s not difficult, bearing this in mind, to see what’s so wrong with the latest Miller Lite commercial. For starters, all light beer should be stricken from the earth. There is really no point in claiming that one light beer is more masculine than another, for it is all abominable. If you are watching your weight, don’t drink beer. It’s that simple. Don’t doubly emasculate yourself by publicly announcing that you diet as you order your calorie-controlled weasel urine.

Second, this man clearly has no need of diet, so his choices are reducible to his general lack of taste. It is quite audacious here to have portrayed the righteous barmaid without a shred of irony. She knows taste. She knows the right light beer for real men. But she does not, I aver, for it does not exist.

The man is justly criticised for his choice in bag, but the issue is surely its cheap vinyl quality, not its denomination. Men carry stuff. There’s no getting around it. But it is possible to choose a bag of some distinction, made of leather; something that will wear and, with you, garner its own biography. This man is cheap and tasteless. His critic operates within the same sphere of cheap tastelessness. The ad overall can be reduced to the same assessment. The next time some company tells us to ‘man up’, it had better be a call to arms.

April 29, 2010

Substance and Style

Of all the blogs and websites out there trying to sell you something, how many really think very deeply about the substance of their product? In the world of Manliness Inc. the idea of manliness is reduced to an image, a suit of clothes, a telling look. Well, readers of this humble project of mine will know that I am by no means indisposed to a good suit of clothes and a telling look. But it is what the look tells that is all important. Clothes do not make the man, but they do (or should) say something about him. Yesterday, for example, when it was doing its level best to snow out there, the man in shorts and flip-flops might as well have worn a matching t-shirt with the slogan: ‘I am an idiot’. The man who matches a sport jacket and tie with chinos that puddle on the floor and a pair of running shoes would do no worse if he donned a baseball cap adorned with ‘Woman repellent’. In short, one’s clothes, more than almost anything else, make the first impression. If one is to appear as one really is, due discretion in matters sartorial is important.

With this in mind, I have to take my hat off to Austin Reed. Some bright spark in that venerable institution is well aware that dressing well sends a message, and instead of leaving all of us to work out what their brand of menswear signifies, they’ve established a blog (with facebook presence, of course) that is letting us know in no uncertain terms. From hosting dinner parties to tying bow ties; from shining shoes to mixing martinis, the good people of Austin Reed are building a lifestyle around their image, and it is an edifying one, based on the principles of etiquette. And they’re not ramming their product down our throats either. Go and have a look. And then come back!

Remember gentlemen, style signifies substance. How you look will be the basis of how you’re judged, rightly or wrongly. Better then to look the part, don’t you think?

April 27, 2010

Time and A Place; or, Get A Room.

I am all for the romantic arts. ‘Courtship’, whenever that word gets wheeled out, seems unable to escape its epithet: ‘old-fashioned’. Since I care not for fashion, nor for passing fads, I think we ought to put period to this unfair appellation. The outward form of courtship may change with the times, but at its heart is a respectable romance and a foundation of politeness. It takes place in two settings, one public and one private. To observe a courtship in public is never to be outraged, never offended. The intentions of the lover are manifested subtly, through kindnesses and attentions. The responsiveness of the beloved is likewise demure, modest. The courtship is suggestive only insofar as eye contact, or the occasional kiss of the hand, lingers, barely perceptively, a little longer than it might otherwise. In private we may dispense with some of the formality, but to put too fine a point on it would be to undo it. It is private, after all.

I was sitting in my usual spot, working in the library. I have often thought that libraries are sexually charged places, but this has something to do with the impossibility of even verbal, let alone physical interaction. As I have said before, if one desires a frisson of excitement, it is to be found in restraint, in covering up, in patience. The mind must not be deprived of its imaginative work by feasts of the eye! Yet even the hushed halls of places of learning crumble against the pressure of an uncouth culture, beating its walls from within and without.

The Place Where I Sit. Almost.

Immediately to my right, with her back to me, a woman was working away. At first, I only noticed the ear plugs: sad testimony to the inevitable noise. Well, thought I, at least I won’t have any trouble from her. Until the man arrived. As she plucked out her earplugs, I noticed the rest of her, entirely clad in black, tight work-out gear. Her nether woman was barely covered, and in the gap between the top of her sweat pants and the bottom of her t-shirt (about ten inches), her rather skimpy underwear made an unwelcome appearance. She smiled a come-to-bed hello at this unexpected visitor, who kissed her on the mouth – somewhere between friendly and obscene. She pulled the pins out of her raven hair and shook like a wet dog in a shampoo ad. He sat beside her, much preening and many eyes being made. They then proceeded to ‘talk about work’, each with one hand pointing at respective computer screens; academic and intellectual interest being feigned. His other hand made a bid for her shoulder, thereafter sliding down her back and lingering on the aforementioned lingerie. Looping his fingers around the thong, he brushed her naked skin with his thumb.

Enough. Concentration cast to the wind, I simply exited the room. I cannot help feeling it should not have been me seeking alternative shelter. In their little bubble of loveliness, no doubt thrilling to them, was something ghastly. Time and a place, dear readers, time and a place.

April 22, 2010

Dear Diary

“Dear Diary,

I have a dilemma. The funny little blog that I’ve been writing for a few months has, much to my eternal surprise, been growing in popularity. Of course, I never meant to journalise per se, and I certainly didn’t want it to be one of those crass and conceited spaces where bored individuals talk endlessly about themselves to no apparent end. Look at me! This was not the kind of attention I desired. No, I meant to create an outlet for some serious thoughts that might nevertheless be cut loose from academic apparatuses: the stifling structures and strictures of my ‘day job’. But then, you know about all that. Of course, one must entertain; such an endeavour is nothing without an audience. Hopefully, they’ll stick with me when we have to go over the hard yards. Anyway, those times are still some way off. To the matter at hand.

I don’t want to dwell on me. This blog is not a diary, after all. I’ve got you for that. But then strange things keep happening to me, and I do wonder what to do. The good people out there in the ether will probably be interested in my stories, but I can’t be seen to preach disapprobation of self-interest and wanton egotism on the one hand – it’s so terribly unmanly – and wax on and on about yours truly on the other. So, I shall commit my story to these pages, and hope in that magical way that you will provide me with the guidance I seek.

I’ve talked on the blog about compliments before, but nothing like this. Today I left my regular seat in the library and went for lunch. On my return I found a hand-written note, tucked under my book. It was from a fellow British historian, unknown to me (and me to him). He’s from a rather nice college in the northern Midwest. Harvard is something of collecting ground, it seems. He can’t have known that we had a research specialism in common. Anyway, the note read:
I love the outfit today. Great hat. Great jacket. And have picked up on you as one of Cambridge’s best-dressed men before today. Would you consider being photographed for an article on this subject?
The note raised a smile, and perhaps a blush. Just for the record, I was wearing the linen blue boating blazer with the confident white stripe, a mid-blue Valentino tie with white collar, and those new 514s I bought the other week. The trusty panama was on the desk. It’s an outfit not unlike the picture of me I have on the blog – you know the one? – only I went with the four-in-hand knot today, and an altogether more summery colour palate.

Now, how does one react to such a note. Of course, I wrote to the email address he left and asked for further details, offering thanks and suchlike. But this is such an unusual turn of events in the ordinary course of a humble man’s life, and I very much doubt that the etiquette guides would have anything to say on the matter. I’d like to ask my public for their opinion, but I loathe attracting attention to me, me, me. So, there it is. I leave it with you, dear Diary, and trust that the answer will somehow emerge.

Thunderstorms forecast for this afternoon. Till tomorrow, then.”

April 20, 2010

Creating and Recreating

Following a train of thought from my last entry, it occurred to me that doing is an imperative not limited to matters sporting. Indeed, purposeful activity runs through every facet of the life of any manly man. One of my historical heroes, George John Romanes, hated the idea of the man who did not work, and averred that being rich was no excuse. Recreation exists to refit us for work, and through work the active man creates. Without work, therefore, what is play? Please pay attention to dear old George:

There is not much to be said on the recreation of men belonging to the upper classes. That most objectionable of creatures, the gentleman at large without occupation, has a free choice before him of every amusement that the world has to give; but one thing he is hopelessly denied – the keen enjoyment of recreation. Living from year to year in a round of varied pastimes, he becomes slowly incapacitated for forming habits of work, while at the same time he is slowly sapping all the enjoyment from play. For although variety of amusement may please for a time, it is notorious that it cannot do so indefinitely. The intellectual changes which are involved in changes of amusement are not sufficiently pronounced to re-create even the faculties on which the sense of amusement depends; the mind, therefore, becomes surfeited with amusement of all kinds, just as it may become surfeited with a tune too constantly played – even though the tune be played in frequently changing keys. For such men, if past middle life, I have no advice to give. They have placed themselves beyond the possibility of finding recreation, and their only use in the world is to show the doom of idleness. They, more even than paupers, are the parasites of the social organism; and we can scarcely regret that their lumpish life, being one of stagnation self-induced, should be one of miserable failure, to the wretchedness of which we can extend no hope.
George John Romanes, ‘Recreation’ (1879).

Winslow Homer, Croquet, 1864

True, for most of us, the pitfalls of idle wealth are – and shall remain – an unknown sin. But GJR can scarcely have imagined a time when leisure would have become so thoroughly democratised as it is for us. To all intents and purposes, the average man now lives like the aristocrat of yore, and therein lies a danger. For if work is simply a place to which you travel on a daily basis, a chore to endure for the requisite period while planning your next binge, then you are – it grieves me to say – already incapacitated for forming habits of work, real work, and are in fact in a state of self-induced stagnation. If you do not work, so much as merely turn up; if your occupation is utterly meaningless and valueless for you; if you have ceased to ‘save it up’ for Friday night, but rather spend it on a daily basis; if you contribute nothing to the common good, i.e. you fail to create – then how can you hope to recreate? Your leisure is reduced to consumption; fun equates to a superficial routine, much like your idle day job.

Unlike Romanes, I do not abandon all hope. For, unlike the idle aristocrat whose birth came replete with the indelible imprint of status, the leisured classes of the twenty-first century can change course. Most of us must work; but all of us should desire it. This probably entails a reorientation of life goals: Who am I? What do I want? Of what am I capable? What can I give? The answers aren’t prescribed, but it is striking that most people do jobs they don’t like while fantasising about jobs they would like. The people who actually do those jobs don’t like them, and so on. A thorough reshuffling is in order. Whether you choose to work with your back or your brain, your gut or your graces, at least make sure you actively choose. The purpose with which you will thusly endow your life will give greater meaning to the pleasures you seek, which in turn will fit you better to fulfil your purpose. If, my dear readers, any of you have recognised yourselves in these descriptions, I exhort you: take your life in your hands, before the wretchedness of indolence consumes you!

April 19, 2010

Looking On

It is always better to play any game, however inexpertly, than to stand on the side lines and cheer the playing of others.

What is sport? To my mind it is the active playing of the game by the individual in place of being merely one of the crowd looking on or having sport done for you.

By true sport I mean any kind of game and activity that does you good and which you play yourself instead of looking on.
Robert Baden-Powell, Rovering to Success: A Guide for Young Manhood

Sir Robert Baden-Powell – founder of the Scouts, hero of Mafeking – thought so little of ‘looking on’ that he denounced it three times. He admitted that if he knew the men involved in a sport, or if he was watching a horse that he himself had trained, then watching became active, and was different. But in general, the rôle of what we would now call ‘the spectator’ was not one for a man emerging from the rutting season of adolescence, much less for one claiming a full manly stature.

The problem with watching is that it stunts doing. It is passive: an energy experienced only vicariously through the endeavour of others. Nothing is ventured, nothing is gained, not in terms of health, fortitude, esprit de corps, courage or valour. Any sense of achievement is borrowed; the adrenalin rush is second-hand. The sporting hero as aspirational figure becomes a mere idol; the spirit of emulation dies. Criticism follows: the overweight armchair punditry of ‘experts’ who know only how to talk.

America in particular could benefit by reading Baden-Powell. A good friend of mine tells me that the aggregate number of ‘fans’ who turned out for last Saturday’s college football games at Alabama and Auburn was 154,529. Perhaps there is a peculiar vested interest in ‘school spirit’ that ought not to be disparaged wholesale. But this kind of worship leads to further abdications of activity in later life unless we remind ourselves most self-consciously that we must not forget to do. For a man who does not, a man who merely looks on, is not much of a man in Baden-Powell’s book, of which, suffice to say, I am rather fond.

April 16, 2010

Rites of Passage

The subject of masculine rights of passage came up recently on the Art of Manliness forum, which I recommend to anyone who needs a new source of procrastination. I have given this subject thought in the past. Towards the end of a somewhat trying two years in Berlin, I married into a family with German ties, and discovered that rites of passage still hold a place of importance in some cultures. I was struck by my sense of dislocation, but also by the feelings of new belonging. I therefore re-post what I wrote then, which was originally intended for a small private audience. I trust that this small public audience will find it of interest. Although I note here that this is my final word on Berlin, it seems that I am actually not quite done with that place. But more on that later...

Etwas ist los. Was?

I sat, an awkwardly English ambassador for the Canadian wing of the family, in a packed Evangelische Kirche, for three hours, watching a proxy cousin be Confirmed in a religious process I understood neither linguistically nor culturally. Yet, despite what should have been alienation, or at best culture shock, something felt very right. And this feeling of rightness means that something, somewhere else, must be very wrong.

Family and community are cards which trump language and distance. I hadn’t really realised that before. To the English, small distances are large; first cousins are distant; extended families the stuff of genealogy, not direct experience. Why should that be? I have a feeling, somehow, it’s got something to do with the church, or the lack of it. I’m not here talking about matters of faith. Belief is really nothing to the purpose. But a place and a reason to gather has long since died in the place from which I originally hail. And with it the ties that bind have slackened. Rites of passage used to be important – in some places they still are – but with what, I wonder, have we replaced these rites? How does one become a man anymore? How does a community formally recognise the emerging man? Outside of the ancient security of institutions I can only think of nefarious means, and nefarious means come with undesirable (social and personal) ends. And the alternative?

Here I dwell on the rites of passage through which I did not pass. The common malaise among my peers is that of ‘waiting for adulthood’: when shall I (here read an empathetic ‘I’) become an adult – really feel like one? The question would be ridiculous to our forebears, because the rite indicated the exact moment, and childhood (such as it was) ended. To be sure, there were atavisms, but essentially the moment was precisely defined. Most people I know have no such idea when and where they became adults. Unquestionably they are such, but in body only. The mind languishes in limbo, knowing not how to feel, and correspondingly, not how to act. Childhood and adolescence have received their sociological classifications, the distanced analytical gaze of the disinterested researcher. The consequence, catalysed by the effects of the disintegration of tradition, so it seems, is that ‘real’ childhood has lost its meaning, and, as a consequence, adulthood too.

Here is the positive conclusion to my secondment to Germany. To watch, in a passive role of elder, wiser, supporting relative, someone else go through a rite of passage: literally to become an adult – a man – (even if in all other respects to remain a boy), instilled in me the sense of adulthood and the concomitant awareness of the ties that bind that adulthood ought to imply. This has been dawning slowly, in part through the cracking of the cheap veneer of academic life, in part through my own sense of being in the wrong place. So as I leave Berlin, this being my final word on the subject of this city, it is with something of a renewed sense of self: an emergence. The difficulties and depressions, the space between indignation and pity, the sorrows, the unbearable knowledge of waste – all this has merely been my passing through the tree-trunk (there have been joys too, but joy has not been the leitmotiv). What I leave behind will have its place. I shall make narrative order where there was chaos; reduce bad experience to just experience; put things away, to be unfurled occasionally for a child: ‘let me tell you’ – I can already imagine saying it – ‘the story of when I used to live in Berlin…’

April 15, 2010

Is This the Real Life?

I wore the infamous plaid trousers today. It’s true that they never fail to attract attention, but aside from the unsolicited compliments (and giggles) from strangers, I am experiencing a general engagement with the man and woman on the street that I thought existed only in bad American comedies where entire communities know each other by first name. On days that I wear The Trousers the engagement level goes up, but it’s happening more and more, regardless of what I happen to be sporting.

Yesterday, on the way to the cobblers, a middle-aged fellow (whom I knew not) greeted me with the words ‘Hello there my brother!’, and I tipped my hat. On the way back from the cobblers – no shoes in hand, there was a mix up with the date – I bumped into the same chap, who declared: ‘We meet again!’. I told him that the third time was a charm, and went on my way. Today, heading back to the cobblers in The Trousers, a woman actually interrupted her telephone conversation in order to stop me in the street and make her favourable opinion known. On the way back – shoes perfectly mended – an elderly gentleman called after me as I passed him: ‘Good morning Sir!’, he said. ‘Hello’, I replied. ‘Beautiful weather today!’, he went on. So congenial. So friendly. What the bloody hell is going on?

I’m not complaining. It’s simply that years of contrary experiences lead me to be suspicious. I must be on film: my own personal Truman Show.

Discarding paranoia, I can only conclude that dressing well is attracting positive attention. I don’t think it’s me who has changed so much as it is the public’s attitude to smartness that has altered. There is a glut of stylish shows on the television; a raft of societies and clubs for men who are attempting to reinvigorate the connections among looking good, feeling good, and being good: it is all clearly having an effect. If Joe Public looks me up and down and determines that here is a man to whom I should say ‘hello’, I for one welcome the change.

Or is this fantasy?

April 14, 2010

Slacking Off

It has been a little while since my last entry, but this is not the slacking off to which I refer. In my defence, I have been on the road. There is no more ceremonial way to mark the end of winter than to pack up one’s winter clothing, take it all to another country and leave it there, and come back bearing linen jackets and straw hats. This was my mission. I am pleased to report that I have been met on my return by blue skies and clement temperatures. Who says rituals are empty gestures?

Now, the slacking in question rather concerns my dear old nether man (the legs, to mere mortals). After the last post on shorts, I thought quite hard about what to do, and in the end invested in a couple of pairs of slacks. These items are difficult to find at a reasonable price, but a man must be prepared to turn over stones. I came away with some 100% cotton Calvin Klein Dylan cut slacks in navy, with grey pinstripe, and some linen and cotton eggshell slacks by Bosco Uomo. Both elegantly break on the shoe, and have a European style fit. No billowing trousers for this fine fellow! To combat foot fatigue and Italian cobblestones, I bought some medium blue Italian loafers with a curious rubber soul. Having decided against shorts, shoe shopping was something of a breeze. Some socks in pastel blue and pastel pink completed the shopping spree, before all of it was put away ready for May. $150 the lot ($460 value).

Meanwhile, I am pleased to report the successful purchase of a Tim Farah suit from Club Monaco: retail $519 (already a bargain), I paid $58, plus $5 shipping. For anyone who has never given Club Monaco a try, know this: their sale prices are on a precise schedule, and everything ends up going for a song. Better yet, if your local store no longer has that item upon which you had set your heart, they can find it for you in one of their other stores and mail it anywhere in America for $5. So, I bought the suit pants for $9 in Cambridge, MA., and had the jacket, $49, shipped from New York. It took three days to arrive. This suit, with working cuff buttons and detailing way beyond its original price point, is my bargain of eternity.

I report these stories of sartorial thrift not to gloat, but to present to you the possibilities. Looking fine need not cost a king’s ransom. Thrift is a virtue often forgotten in these plasticated times. Retailers, especially in times like these, can be persuaded to slack off the price.

April 08, 2010

Short Temper

It was anomalously 90 degrees yesterday. My approach to such unseasonal temperatures is simply to slow down, but I see that this is not to everyone’s taste. The frenetic pace comes at a price, however, and I’m afraid that the desire to move at winter speeds in sweltering heat is too dearly bought. There are two things that should hardly ever be seen on a man, except when he is engaged in some form of athletic activity, or some form of manual labour: sweat and shorts. I shall consider you, dear readers, as men about town. As such, I exhort you not to sweat, and not to wear shorts. To my rural readers, of course, one must make exceptions. Honest toil makes for honest perspiration, but how many really know about that anymore? Still, there’s probably no good reason for shorts, even in the country. To my lady readers, I am sure you will join me in this prescription. Although you will have no first-hand knowledge of either sweating or shorts, I am sure you have seen them both on men, and I am sure that, with me, you object.

Um, no.

Here’s the basic problem. Shorts are ugly. Moreover, male legs leave a lot to be desired. Shorts tend to do nothing for the masculine pins, being ill cut, ill-conceived, and often ill coloured. Men demonstrate far more sartorial bravery in shorts than at any other time, and they should not be surprised if I label it what it really is: foolishness. Few men can pull it off. In large part it has to do with the choice of footwear that is paired with shorts. I occasionally see a man looking enviously good in well-tailored shorts, with expensive boat shoes, and then I think to myself: those shoes are going to be ruined by his sweaty feet, and he will smell. Of course, had he been wearing socks I would have thought he was sadly misguided. Trainers are for training. Sandals are for hippies, geography teachers, and those men generally lacking in taste. Flip flops? Please. Canvas deck shoes I can nearly picture, but the sweating! There’s no escaping those leaky feet. It’s just a no-win situation.

Unfortunately, I shall be in Italy in late May and it will be so hot that my betrousered legs may slow to a stop. In that case I shall be forced to make a difficult decision. I shall not make it lightly, but only after due apologies to the gods of good taste. If, in the meantime, anybody can suggest some plausible way to look good in shorts and shoes without the aforementioned problems, I shall be much obliged.

April 06, 2010

Being Boring

Mother always used to say ‘there’s nothing more boring than the bored’. Indeed, having to endure the ennui of another is insufferably dull, and best avoided. At least, however, the bored can be ignored. They can languish in their lack of imagination for all I care. I shall pay them no heed. You will find me out doing (not to mention outdoing), getting, living, being. One mustn’t forget that being manly is inherently active. It needs constantly to be brought about, vigilantly recapitulated, vigorously upheld. This ‘blog’ would perhaps have found a more appropriate title in ‘becoming manly’.

What mother did not mention was what to do with the actively boring. For it transpires that some people are perfectly happy to share the day-to-day, hour-to-hour, minute-to-minute experiences of their mundane lives, as well as anything and everything that has ever happened to them, with anyone within earshot. This can be so utterly mind-numbing that there is serious risk of them turning their listeners into the bored. These people are reprehensible because they begin a vicious circle of decline in others. They bore you, you become bored; you become boring, others are bored, etc. The actively boring violently assault the lives of interesting people by having no notion of when is enough. One is tempted to pierce one’s own skin with needles just to make sure one is alive.

If you are wont to drone on – if you’re not sure, solicit the honesty of someone you trust – ask yourself occasionally when it was that you last heard someone else’s voice. Gauge your audience: if you’re a particle physicist and you happen to be conversing with philatelists, chances are you are going to need a third subject in order to find common ground. In certain parts, there may be class distinctions to bear in mind. The local costermonger support group (i.e. the pub) is not likely to want to hear about your most recent skiing holiday. Likewise, the costermonger probably doesn’t care for the professor’s continual irritation with the former’s use of punctuation. In short, it’s important to be rounded. A one dimensional life isn’t likely to gain dynamism in conversation.

There’s nothing more boring than the bored. There’s nothing more irritating than the actively boring.

Cooking Up a Storm

I am pleased to note that men are not strangers to the kitchen. In fact, it seems that there is something of a movement to get us there, through various forms of appeal. Most of the celebrity chefs on our goggle boxes are men of some description, with more or less refinement. Last night I saw Anthony Bourdain extolling everyone to get into the kitchen and properly cook. This morning I found a book, with accompanying blog, called Men’s Cooking Manual, which looks unnecessarily like the mechanics guide to a family car. In short, men are cooking. But I’m worried it’s all fire and grunting.

Man Vs. Food

Eating isn’t about quantity, it’s about quality. It’s also about traditional values and some form of local or national belonging. There are an awful lot of gluttons, posing as gourmands, and the gourmets are left out of the equation. Skip around the Food Network for five minutes and you’ll find all kinds of strange overweight men eating as much as possible. Man vs. Food, for example, is really not a sound message; especially not for Americans. If this is how we eat, then I am suspicious about how we cook. Is there an awareness of art? Is there an appreciation of skill? Are palates being cultivated? Is heritage being honoured and preserved? Is the necessary time being taken? Cuisine merits respect. Do we respect it?

One of the forgotten heroes?

Men should cook, but men should cook properly. The aforementioned blog appeals to a masculine love of sharp knives, tools, swearing and sex. First and foremost, however, should be a passion for food, what it does, and what it means. A passion for creation, and for the instruments of creation, is not effeminate. An active involvement in traditional tastes ought to come with a sense of duty. Lighting up the grill alone will simply not suffice.

April 02, 2010

A Manly Wine? A Manly Whine

A friend of mine recently made use of my apartment in Montreal, which has seen a succession of temporary sub-lessees over the last seven months or so. As a thank you for her couple of nights repose, she left Mrs. VB and me a bottle of wine in the place, ready for our eventual return. Knowing my penchant for things manly, said friend asked the expert in the local Société des alcools du Québec (SAQ – provincially run liquor store) for a recommendation on manly wines. Blank looks ensued.

Naturally, there will be divergences on such a subject. If, for example, a manly wine is supposed to reflect the character of manliness, then we should need a clear definition of manliness in order to proceed. Unfortunately, judging by the myriad groups and societies out there in the ethereal world, no such common ground exists. It may be that my own definition (provisional) would have foxed the sommelier: robust but refined; sophisticated but blunt where necessary; polite but candid; traditional, with one eye cast to men of great vintage, but also forward looking; fun, jaunty, even eccentric if judged by popular tastes, but solid, reliable, distinguished and, above all, grounded. If anyone can recommend me a wine that sounds like this man, please waste no time in letting me know.

I thought this was a fairly unique problem I was having, but then yesterday I saw this (click to enlarge):

Apologies for picture quality. The only way to get it was to photograph my screen.

Personally I have no problem with oak. What better symbol of strength, endurance and stickability is there than the oak tree? But regardless, I found this faux campaign entirely distasteful, precisely because it failed on point of politeness, sophistication and distinction. A man does not need to point out who is a wimp. It gives the impression that he is somewhat self-conscious of his own status as a man. Self-worth and self-assurance lead us to accentuate the positive, not to point fingers and sneer; certainly not to get up meaningless petitions. The conspicuous failure, however, is the absence of substance in its definition of the opposite to the thing it protests. One cannot laud ‘authenticity’ while practicing gimmickry. One cannot appeal to the ‘interesting’ without demonstrating what on earth that empty label might mean (the word ‘interesting’ always gets crossed out of student essays). One cannot celebrate ‘complexity’ while denigrating the word ‘cause’ by applying it to a shallow marketing campaign.

So I ask you again, dear Readers, for your recommendations. Please, nobody say Ravenswood.

April 01, 2010

The Devil Is in the Details

I have spent the last six weeks editing a book. Publishing in the digital age isn’t what it was. The days of turning in a physical manuscript and waiting for the proofs seem long-since gone. To be an author/editor is also, now, to be a copy editor and type setter. My eyes are addled by the constant scrutiny, searching earnestly for rogue commas and inadvertent spaces; watching out for the differences between Em spaces and En spaces; burning the occasional ‘which’ that should be a that, which follows a genuine rule you know; juggling leading (line spacing), and font sizing, headings and subheadings, headers, footers and the like. I’ve also been unifying spelling and punctuation. When you have fifteen people writing in English who hail from half-a-dozen different countries it is quite apparent that English is not one language but many. Also references: there are really only four main styles of academic referencing, but most academics write in an idiosyncratic combination of all four. Making one out of four is a devilish business. And of course there are mistakes, and often not of the obvious variety. Would you be able to spot that a quote from Cicero is mistakenly attributed to ‘On Ends’ when really it came from ‘On Duties’? Well, to my surprise, I did.

Now, forget page counts and word counts. When you consciously set about eyeballing every facet of a document (you can hit the show/hide button in MS Word to make every key stroke appear on the page, including spaces and carriage returns) the relevant number becomes the character count. There are, at present, 707,000 characters in this book. I am, understandably I think, bleary eyed. But I am also satisfied.

Why? Because this stuff is important. Too many people these days cannot form basic sentences in their native language (I am reasonably convinced that the problem is worst for English speakers). Spelling has gone out of the window; punctuation is like some mysterious black art; grammar, so far as many people are concerned, is merely your mother’s mother. Mistakes are passed over unnoticed. The beautiful, slippery, taut but paradoxically flexible vagaries of grammatical rule are jettisoned in favour of expediency, laziness, and an altogether unengaged approach to discourse. I maintain, however, that these things are the pillars of politeness. They afford us grace in our interlocutions. They hold us together by a common bond. They pour meaning into belonging, and grant that feeling an esteem, appreciated most, perhaps, when we see it abused. And yet our language, when used properly, also allows us to transcend its strictures, and therein lies its power, its authority, and dare I say it, its cool. But rules can only be broken when rules are known. Otherwise transgression is simple ignorance, and in simple ignorance there is no power, and no authority. There is no cool.

The Devil is in the details. We should do well to pay them mind. Our language is, after all, a precious inheritance.
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