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.
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