June 29, 2010

The Retrograde Menu

Twice on our European travels in the last weeks, Mrs. VB and I have been confronted with customs that I presumed were long-since abolished. Readers of this humble blog will know well that although I see clear values and virtues for manly men, these generally tend to be inclusive, considerate and, by-and-large, in keeping with the times. I hold on to traditions where they are important, but I am not hard-headed about the hard-won social victories – progress, if you will – of the last fifty years. For my many female readers, I hope to provide an image of man that they might endorse. It would be remiss of me, therefore, not to call attention to the Retrograde Menu.

The Retrograde Menu comes in two forms. One of them looks like any other menu, replete with prices. The other contains all of the dishes on offer, but no prices. The latter form is given to the lady, on the nineteenth-century understanding that a woman has a) no understanding of money; b) no income; c) no interest in the ways in which a household’s money is spent; d) no notion of value; e) no intention ever to pay, or contribute to the expense; f) no self-esteem g) no standing whatsoever when in the company of men. Furthermore, she is supposed to be relieved of having avoided the political minefield of choosing a dish that will not offend her male counterpart’s wallet. She may assume, after all, that if he couldn’t afford the Lobster and the Dom Perignon, he wouldn’t have taken her there. For the man of straightened circumstances, the menu for her can simply be dispensed with: he will decide what she would like.

What utter rot! Needless to say, on both occasions Mrs. VB and I studied the same menu. As a form of protest, I suggested in one instance that she might order for me. I do not think, on the whole, that men are still concerned either to pay for everything, or to conceal the price of things from women. This is an empty chivalry, and no way for a modern marriage to function. So why, please somebody tell me, does this custom remain?

I have noticed that the service in those establishments persisting with this system also tends completely to ignore women. When a man and woman walk into a restaurant together, is there not something distinctly odd about the greeting ‘Good afternoon, Sir’? No eye contact for the lady; no words of welcome; not even an acknowledgment that more than one person has entered the room. I do wonder what would happen if a woman were to dine alone in such a place. What a horrible dilemma for the maître d’. He might have to admit that women exist (and, what’s more, earn more than he does).

I was under the impression that we were well beyond reducing women to empty-headed and meaningless extensions of their husbands. To prove that we are not, and to enhance the foul taste that this leaves in our mouths, I hold up for your general derision the Retrograde Menu.

June 26, 2010

The Gentleman's Club, II

In keeping with the notion that one must seize one’s opportunities, I’m taking the chance to go for lunch at the Oxford and Cambridge Club on Pall Mall next week, before my European voyage comes to an end. Since I have previously maligned the diminished status of the gentleman’s club, I thought it worthy to give credit where it’s due and celebrate the good old ways where they are well preserved. Here, for your general edification, are the basic rules for club members and visitors alike. If more places insisted on the form of decency, would not the substance of decency follow on?

The Club recognises two standards of dress
Before 11.00am on Weekdays and before 6.00pm on Saturdays, Sundays and Bank Holidays smart informal dress is permitted.

At other times, subject to the exceptions set out in the Regulations, gentlemen are required to wear a jacket and tie, and ladies to dress with commensurate formality. Jeans are not permitted. Gentlemen who remove their jackets pursuant to regulation E (2) must wear long sleeved shirts fastened at the cuff.

The Committee considers that the following forms of dress are inappropriate in the Club house at any time: shorts, t-shirts, training shoes, and similar casual wear.

Members, Guests and Reciprocal members who are using the bedrooms are exempted from the dress code when first arriving and last departing.

The use of mobile phones is distracting to others. Their use is unrestricted in the Pall Mall Business Suite. In other areas please switch them to silent or vibrate, and if you have to take or make a call please go to the telephone booth (on the first floor), or the street outside.

Children under ten are generally not admitted to the Club house. If they are to be invited to a Private Function, please discuss with the Secretary when booking.

Animals are not admitted, except guide dogs.

June 25, 2010

American Manly

American Manly is an example to us all, and let us hope, in him, we may find the redemption of that troubled country. I shall resist the temptation to introduce any particular real-life exemplars of American Manly, for within its purview there is room to move, to breathe, even to square-off and box, and I wouldn’t want to prejudice anyone against the possibilities of this noble breed. Where it exists, American Manly is an aspirational figure, an embodiment of respect and, in his presence, a guarantor of a raised tone. He is the finest of all things, save perhaps for the English Gentleman (of course), and it is high time that the shady bushel that has been obscuring him of late is once and for all uprooted to reveal the gleaming light.

Allow me a moment of comic-book fantasy, if you will. In the good old days, Superman’s superhero status had a lot to do with Clark Kent. He was hard-working, diligent, and well-dressed, but modest and courteous to boot. Awkward, yes, but the awkwardness was the ultimate affectation: a modest disguise for the ultimate modesty. A secret identity ensured that the man would receive no glory, no unwanted attention. He could go about his business. His transformation into strength itself, a noble fighter of evil and doer of good, depended in part on the gentle sensibilities of the alter ego. Cometh the hour, and so forth. Superman’s character worked because it said something about American values. Politeness, diligence and the grace of civil life were matched by the controlled power, strength, and determination to fight for the protection of that civil life, when duty called. Superman, the ideal type of American Manly, was America’s finest citizen.

On the walls of the Memorial Church in Harvard Yard are the names of many of Harvard’s alumni who gave their lives in World Wars I and II, Korea and Vietnam, and the Gulf, replete with their School and graduating year. The memorials themselves are nothing of note. After all, there are lists of names of the fallen everywhere, cenotaphs in every British town. Once I was at the Last Post at the Menin Gate in Ypres, and the names fell around me like a deathly shroud. Yet in this church more than any other place one gains a sense of sacrifice; a notion of what was on the line; an appreciation of the substance behind the names. For here are marked the snubbed flames of American potential, who fought that others might have the chance to realise theirs. These were leaders in intellect, in enterprise, in spirit; they saw purpose in their way of life, and saw that it was worth the fight. Given the chance, they might well ask what we have made of their sacrifice.

You can see the descendents of American Manly across the country. They are intelligent, but are galled by the ‘smart’; they throw up their hands at the politicians and thereafter roll up their sleeves; they understand the importance of form, carriage, comportment, courtesy and modesty; they know the measure of a man by his handshake, and judge themselves by the cast-iron of their word. Nothing is more disappointing than disappointment in themselves. American Manly treasures his family and his heritage, and understands that the love of his country must be rooted in the things for which it has historically stood. And this means that he must be a reader, a learner, an asker of questions, and above all a listener. In times of disarray, American Manly marches to his own tune, assured that it is composed of the right stuff, and confident that it is better to take the lead than to follow fools.

Homo Americanus should take note, for American Manly is not a distinct species. He is there to follow, and with good measures each of perspiration and hard thinking, he is there to become.

June 22, 2010

Signs of the Times

Happy men are full of the present, for its bounty suffices them; and wise men also, for its duties engage them. Our grand business undoubtedly is, not to see what lies dimly at a distance, but to do what lies clearly at hand. (Thomas Carlyle, Signs of the Times, 1829).

Never a more eloquent carpe diem was yet uttered, and yet, in the same breath as the exhortation to get up and do, Carlyle bade us to stop awhile and reflect; a look, if you will, before the proverbial leap:

We were wise indeed, could we discern truly the signs of our own time; and by knowledge of its wants and advantages, wisely adjust our own position in it. Let us, instead of gazing idly into the obscure distance, look calmly around us, for a little, on the perplexed scene where we stand. Perhaps, on a more serious inspection, something of its perplexity will disappear, some of its distinctive characters and deeper tendencies more clearly reveal themselves; whereby our own relations to it, our own true aims and endeavours in it, may also become clearer.
What Carlyle found on closer inspection was a mechanised world that had buried all traces of the finer points of character, the magic of genius, the mystery of faith, and the dynamism of humanity, swapping it all instead for a balance sheet of pleasure and pain, some scientific instruments, bank statements, and an unedifying tendency to want to know how things were before anybody had asked what they were. A surfeit of facts buzzed around the institutions of late-Georgian England, at the expense of imagination. It was only to get worse. Carlyle thought that all the steam being blown off would ultimately reduce the noise of the fanatics to a whimper. In this estimation, history sits as grim judge.

We, therefore, are the inheritors of the mechanised world, and through its ever more efficient operations we have grown lazy and fat, greedy and insatiable. Carlyle’s judgement on his own times rings true for ours, but the sentence carries the added weight of offences oft repeated:

The infinite, absolute character of Virtue has passed into a finite, conditional one; it is no longer a worship of the Beautiful and Good; but a calculation of the Profitable.
What then, is to be done? Well, tarnished as we are by failings similar to those of our forebears, we would be foolish to look, as they did, to governments, institutions, and charities (now all subsumed under the title of ‘the internet’) for our solutions. These, so saith Carlyle, are merely the accursed machines. I can think of nothing better than Carlyle’s original solution, a project close to my own heart:

To reform a world, to reform a nation, no wise man will undertake; and all but foolish men know, that the only solid, though a far slower reformation, is what each begins and perfects on himself.

June 21, 2010

Browned Off

It has always been my intention to interweave the weighty with the light hearted, and I want to take the opportunity to beg a question of no importance whatsoever. Why all the fuss about wearing brown in town? The maxim is repeated endlessly among sartorialists and yet almost universally ignored in practice. The most self-conscious clothes horses might even opt for brown to feign a lack of care, but the truth is that this rule basically no longer applies; unless you work for a big bank, that is, in which case you have my sympathies (I have seen stories in recent times of big-bank employees wearing brown so that they wouldn’t be recognised as bankers. It’s something akin to American tourists stitching Canadian flags onto their suitcases). Common sense is the order of the day, and one only need ask if one’s dress is appropriate for the situation at hand. This is a matter of the whole ensemble and the cultural practice of your daily setting, rather than any taboo about a particular colour. To wit, I must cry foul with regard to some of the displays I witnessed as I returned to London on Saturday, coincident with the returning of the crowds from Ascot.

The fellow who had this suit made knew a thing or two.

Now, Ascot is a strange event by anyone’s standards. I have something of a penchant for morning suits and top hats, and it’s such a pity that – save for weddings and Ascot – they are mere badges of eccentricity. Still, if you’re going to do it, it is worth doing well. A properly bedecked man in morning attire really looks the part, but if there is a piece missing it begins to look ridiculous. Why go to all the trouble of renting (presumably) a morning suit for Ascot if you plump for polyester? Trim your first couple of stakes at the Tote and you’ll save the difference for a proper job. And presuming you have kitted yourself out appropriately, why then would you wear un-shined, everyday shoes of various descriptions? Ascot is not a fancy-dress party (a ‘costume party’, for the North Americans among you), but a formal event. If you do not have the cash or the class to scrub up properly, then find a different stand and wear a suit.

But don’t wear a black suit. Now here’s the thing: much as I don’t see the quibble with brown, I do have a problem with the excess of black. Black has a number of purposes – evening wear and funerals being two – and its current universality risks its special functions. While I’m at it, I might also beg that those men who begin the day, at Ascot or otherwise, sporting a necktie should try to end the day with it still on, and with the top button fastened. There is only one reason why wearing a tie is ever uncomfortable, and that is that the shirt does not fit. And there is no more sure-fire way to look like a ‘punter’ than to undo that button or to remove the tie and sally forth with chest hair aplenty. Please, save it for after dark (i.e. when nobody can see you).

June 20, 2010

On Fathers

The child is father to the man, or so they say, but what kind of man the child becomes depends on the kind of father he happens to have. In these days of ‘fathers for justice’ and paternity leave, does anyone stop to ask what justice for fathers might mean, or what fathers ought to do on their paid break from work? What is the role, the duty, of the father after his biological deed has been done? What should he be to his child, for childhood’s duration?

There were times when the answers to these questions were understood, responsibilities acknowledged. There are obvious differences according to time and place, but a common core of fatherliness emerges. Fathers were to be exemplars of virtue to their children, especially to their sons. They were to demonstrate, either through their actions or through their knowledge, the appropriate models of courage and physical prowess. A delicateness of touch and a gentleness of demeanour were to be married to a robustness of spirit when the moment commanded it, and sons were to understand that the former without the latter would not a man make. In many periods, the father was the moral teacher, ensuring the next generation of citizens understood what citizenship meant, and why it was worth fighting for. Some people have misunderstood this as all tiger shooting and rugby, but as we might expect, it was richer than that. The boy was to respect his father and treat his mother with the courtesy that his future wife might expect. Here, the father would lead by example, as also in the cases of piety, temperance, and fortitude. The son would learn from the father that in the family lay life’s treasure, and its sanctity would provide the motivation for its defence.

A way of life, in a free state, is perhaps reducible to this unit. To challenge a state so constructed is to challenge the core element of the family. A call to arms, therefore, would not be an appeal to an intrinsic masculine attraction to blood and guts, pomp and circumstance, and glory. On the contrary, the image of the thing to be defended – the gentleness of family life – will serve to ensure that the boy-becoming-man attends the roll call.

Justice for fathers in our world might then begin with the education of fathers in matters manly. While courage, strength and indefatigability have been watered down in our world, we have almost failed to notice that fidelity, courtesy, patience, civility, temperance and loyalty have virtually disappeared. If fathers do not know, or cannot pass on these things, then justice for certain children may well be to leave certain fathers out in the cold. But where these things can be salvaged, and where the correct spirit can be divined, then the least we can strive for is to allow fathers the freedom and the time to do their duty to their children. And if inspiration is required, a father may find it in the eyes of his new child. For surely in this, what is needed is implicitly understood.

June 19, 2010

Homo Americanus

Homo Americanus represents the silent, and invisible, majority. He has a notion of strife: he works hard for the money to feed his family and to fund his debt, but these are the limits of his horizons. Nine-to-fiving for the Man, this beige individual is probably intelligent enough to know that his existence is meaningless. To be a cog in the economy barely works as an identity when the machine is well-oiled. In rustier times, its vacuity is alarmingly apparent.

The self-aware variety is depressive and anxious, possibly angry (but restrained), and clings to the system, for he feels powerless to move within it, let alone effect change. The denial variety has a larger debt, for he fills his desolation with stuff. Cars, gadgets, bits and bobs – anything to inject some distraction into the day-to-day – that he can compare with the stuff belonging to others of his species (whom he calls ‘friends’). He drinks beer with these associates, grills, and goes to football and baseball. If he’s a bit higher up the tree, he’ll play golf, but only because one should.

A picture, for provocation's sake

Homo Americanus knows that something is wrong, but cannot exactly express what. He feels unrepresented by politicians, if not betrayed by them, and does not exactly know what America is fighting for (on various fronts). He is intrinsically patriotic, but is torn between an unquestioning allegiance and his nagging doubt. And still he works, and still he pays down his debt. Homo Americanus is inert. He is a quiet voice, getting on with things, such as they are. He despises American Macho, and anonymously posts comments on web forums about the obesity problem. He recognises, but does not know how to be, American Manly.

June 10, 2010

Sweet Interlude

I shall be writing in the next week, but I cannot guarantee to be posting. For the first time in fifteen years I shall be returning to my holiday stomping grounds in beautiful Cornwall, and in a way I shall be sorely disappointed if there are such modern contrivances as the internet. After the activities of recent months, a week’s repose is going to seem strange indeed. Cornish ale, ice cream and pasties are to be consumed, as well as an inordinate amount of local fish. I hope it will be a good old-fashioned change of air, and a chance to take stock.

Over the years I have wondered what to do with boyish memories, hankerings and nostalgia. Whether your childhood was good, bad, or indifferent, it is doubtless good to reflect from time to time. Part of manhood is the knowledge of how it differs from boyhood, and theoretical musings are useless without some introspection. How did I get here from there? I was reminded of the importance of a realistic approach through facebook, of all things. Discovering the grown-up shadows of youthful faces from the past, replete with biographies of maturation, joy and lament, really altered my impressions of what happened all those years ago. There was a coming-to-terms moment; a sense of distance travelled and demons diminished.

I anticipate the coming week to be something similar, but in reverse. I can visualise my own tiny footprints in the sand, the thickness of summer air, and the exuberant innocence of childhood. Probably most of us had a juvenile paradise, removed from our ordinary world and utterly joyful. In memory, the sun always shone. No doubt my revisit will come with realities not formerly noticed: cloudy days and costly diversions. A week will seem like seven days and not an eternity, and I shall probably not be satisfied to spend the days variously playing beach cricket, jumping breakers, and foraging in rock pools. Contemplating the sea as a child, my mind travelled to America – an impossibly distant and enchanting idea – and the world was just wonder. Having come back from that unfeasibly close and disappointingly familiar place, to where will my mind go now?

I will settle for a little peace. In case I cannot communicate in the meantime, I wish for you the same.

June 09, 2010

American Macho

I begin my wholly ill-considered project of laying-out a cultural typology of men, the fit and the misfits alike, with the least palatable of subjects. Those of you who have been following along may already have inferred that there is a kind of American masculinity that is not to my taste. A more noble image will follow, I assure you, but there is no getting away from the ugliness that is, for want of a better description, American Macho.

American Macho carries his abundant girth like a badge of honour, and is clad in overlong chinos, a baseball cap and running shoes (never used for their express purpose). He may have biceps of considerable proportions, because fitness can be reduced to the power of the arm. He shouts before thinking, but perhaps never thinks. He is the one bawling ‘You’re the man!’ at golf tournaments and letting off falsetto whoops at concerts, and he will be seen giving standing ovations for mediocrities, if not everything. He thanks God, publicly, when he wins a bowling tournament, or an eating contest, for this is God’s purview. American Macho is highly opinionated about all matters, but utterly uninformed; yet he will never concede a point. He has never travelled, and possibly does not have a passport; yet he claims to know how the world should best be run. He knows to the very fibre of his being that America is the best country on the planet, but he does not know why (for he knows no history, and has not been out of his own State). He will, nevertheless, fight you on this point. His politics are staunch, this way or that, but can be expressed only in the same terms as his love for his favourite baseball team. American Macho does not know how to cope with America’s new reality, and cannot see past his own back yard. American Macho blindly worships the flag, the greenback and the American way of life (which he defines as the freedom to be self-interested). American Macho is all these things, but he is also simply a jerk.

There, it is said. I suppose the image will please no one; it certainly does not please me. I propose no remedies for American Macho, for his antidote is American Manly, and we may trust that American Manly will prevail. But first we must describe the American man who sits between the two, and perhaps comprises the majority type. I shall return, therefore, with what will doubtless be an equally controversial description of Homo Americanus.

June 05, 2010

Inside Out/Outside In

After yesterday’s stilted beginnings, yours truly is getting back into the swing of things. Afternoon tea at Fortnum & Mason, a perambulation down Jermyn St., a new pair of wingtip brogues, a warm beer or two in a Mayfair establishment, and it feels as though I’m hitting my stride. I’m still somewhat surprised to be experiencing culture shock in my native land, but this, I suppose, is what happens when one returns from grazing in adjacent pastures.

One of the things about being a foreigner everywhere is the curious way in which I perceive strangers. Being always a semi-insider, always a semi-outsider, the respective openness or guardedness of this society and that become readily apparent. I am an unintentional anthropologist, making my way by trying to understand. In Britain, despite the stiff stereotypes disseminated abroad, strangers are perfectly willing to communicate. Chatting at the bar, making eye contact, sharing a joke: of course, it’s all a way of defusing the tension – the rage that simmers close to the surface – in a bid to let everyone know that things are under control. For now. Sharing a space this evening with a few parties of rich Arabs and Indians, with their pernickety drink demands (Grey Goose and lemonade, Black Label and soda, Corona with lime on the side, etc.), the proprietor identified me as ‘in’, and bemoaned ‘some people and their bizarre orders’. He was flustered, looking for sympathy, hoping for patience. He was also servile, not much of a man’s man, but trying hard to please. In his eyes I saw lamentation. He remembered when a pub was a pub; when men drank beer; and when landlords garnered a form of respect in their own manor.

Over the past few weeks, in my involuntary silence, I’ve been pursuing thoughts along these lines. How do I perceive men in their native environments, in their native lands, and how do they differ from place to place? How does emasculation occur here and there? What counts as manly for an American, for an Italian, for a Brit, for a Canadian, for a German? What counts as unmanly? I have only the mental field notes of an amateur observer, but I propose to offer in the coming period a few sketches – a typology, if you will – of men. No doubt I shall paint in grotesque strokes, but I plan to present the portraits as unfinished, to be augmented by your contributions and criticisms. Somewhere in the mess, there will be truth. That’s where it usually is.

June 04, 2010

British Humour

A man walked into a bar and ordered a pint of bitter, a G&T and a sticky toffee pudding. ‘It’ll be a twenty-minute wait on the food’, said the barman, ‘do you still want it?’. The man said ‘yes’. Pouring the gin, the barman realised he was out of ice and sent his barmaid to fetch more, telling the man he’d have to wait for his drinks too. Meanwhile, a second man had walked into the bar, followed by a third, followed by a woman. The lack of ice having caused the barman to lose his cool, he knew not in which order the customers came. The third man, being drunk but sensible, suggested the lady be served first. The lady ordered fish and chips and two large glasses of pinot grigio. The ice had not yet arrived. ‘Who’s next?’ asked the barman. ‘It must be me’, said the third man, ‘since I just let her go before me’. Faultless logic, no doubt, for the third man. But the second man took exception. ‘I’ve been waiting bloody ages’, he said. Regardless, the third man was served next, during which time the ice arrived. The second man, thinking he was sure to be next, was disappointed to discover that the man, patiently waiting and observing, could now have his original order filled. ‘Still want that sticky toffee pudding?’ asked the barman. ‘Yes please’, said the man. ‘This is getting beyond a joke’, said the second man. The barman apologised, but pointed out that the man had been waiting for his ice. During the distraction, the returning barmaid decided to serve an American man, lately arrived, who couldn’t quite decide what he wanted, but settled on a glass of water. The second man pointed and loudly observed, ‘Well, I know I was before this geezer!’. On another level entirely, the barman and barmaid were in disarray that erroneous orders had inadvertently been transmitted to the kitchen, wherein the chef was preparing food for nobody in particular, causing the twenty-minute delay for sticky toffee puddings. Apparently the computer printouts were unintelligible, and nobody could think of a better way to communicate orders between front of house and rear: all of twenty yards. The barman, by now heavily sweating, concluded the transaction with the man, telling him he was owed £8.50 change, but handing him only £3.50. Turning to the white-knuckled second man to take his order, the barman was interrupted by the man, who informed him that he had been short-changed a fiver. The second man walked around in circles, fuming. The barman did not apologise to the man, but rather slapped the £5 note into the man’s hands and slammed shut the till. Everybody went away to their respective darkened corners and to the waspish beer garden. And the man thought, ‘this is indeed beyond a joke’.

The pub into which the man walked. The pudding was good.

I’ll be in Blighty for the month. I hope to share my thoughts more regularly than of late, old-world irritations permitting.
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