November 28, 2010

Sportswear: A Reflection

It cannot have escaped your notice that professional sportsmen of various stamps are once again showing up to games wearing suits and ties, and leaving afterwards similarly attired. The England football team went to the last World Cup in grey three-piece affairs, and that was the best thing about their performance. This is all to the good, but something odd has happened.

England's 'footballers' 
I was reflecting the other day on the origins of certain forms of sporting dress, namely that worn for cricket, tennis and snooker. Cricket whites, or creams, were originally cream slacks, white shirt, and wool sweater (sleeves optional), worn with sporting blazer and cap. The blazer and cap were removed prior to play, and made for the accidental uniform of the sport. This is still the case, as seen in the fine-looking captains of England and Australia, below. But when all this was taking shape, men of all stamps who went to look on also wore jackets and ties, and hats.

Ponting and Strauss, this week 
Eton v. Harrow, Lord's 1906 
The tennis story is remarkably similar, as anyone who has seen old footage of Fred Perry playing will testify. The uniform of the sport was simply the uniform of the gentleman, but slightly unbuttoned. And the crowd spectated in collar, tie, and headgear.

Fred Perry
Snooker, which is now sinking into a mire of sad populism, owes its uniform to gentlemen’s evening wear, the dinner jacket being removed to leave simply a waistcoat, dress-shirt with bowtie, and dress trousers and shoes. Things devolved into the lounge suit, but basically remained attached to gentlemen’s formal attire. And those who watched the game would have looked much the same. Until the 1980s, the front rows of the audience at the World Championship wore black tie.

Joe Davis 
More generally, the sporting audience of yesteryear went into the public gaze in appropriate clothing regardless of the sport. Baseball audiences of the 1950s, and even football (soccer) audiences up until the 1960s were suited, booted and crowned (and I’m talking of working-class audiences in the main). So why, when so many sportsmen are returning to the suit, do the watchers of sport now attend the fixtures of their favoured sports wearing the clothes in which modern athletes perform? What logic is there in wearing basketball gear to a basketball game? Or a football strip to a football match? So many sporting uniforms owe their existence to a distant relationship with gentlemanly (or at least respectable) sartorial standards, it now seems odd that sporting attire – with all its utilitarian considerations of comfort, the wicking away of sweat, and optimal performance for elite professionals – is informing what Mr. Public wears in the street, around the house, and to sit and watch.

Baseball crowd, Cleveland 1957 
The explanation is perhaps wrought through an understanding of who reflects what. The amateur gentleman sportsman of old reflected the values of his society when he took to the field of play. Professionalism was a dirty word, and had nothing to do with the spirit of play. Now, professionalism is everywhere, and its crass tendrils infect us all. Celebrity, wealth, branding: these have become aspirations, and as such society attempts to reflect what it sees on the field of play. This inversion has little to redeem it, so let us hope that sportsmen’s return to decent clothing off the pitch ultimately has some influence on those of us who watch them on it.

November 26, 2010

School Uniform; or, The Beginnings of Self-Respect

My paternal grandmother was a fierce woman. I don’t think that anyone who knew her would disagree. Until she was 80 she would go on long marches with a stick, and I was never convinced that the stick served any purpose but for beating stubborn livestock that crossed her path. No doubt her early experience with a bull that had blocked her way home across a field had taught her a lesson. On that occasion she had been forced to spend the night under the stars, staring down the animal with contempt.

The 5th Earl of Carnarvon, or my grandma's largely absentee squire
Always take a stick. This lesson applied to life in general, and she wouldn’t suffer any nonsense. Nevertheless, my grandmother knew her place. She was working class, and defiantly proud of it. I’m sure she used to curtsey for the Earl of Carnarvon when he was up there shooting, and I wouldn’t be surprised if she cuffed the lads who weren’t prompt enough in the tugging of forelocks. Being working class was about being respectable: work hard; never let anybody see that you’re hurting, or that you have feelings; toe the line, even when you hate it, but give ‘em what for if there’s a whiff of injustice. Knowing one’s place involved everyone also knowing their respective places. In its own way, it worked. Of course, it also damaged. All that swallowed anger and resentment, those bottled up emotions and un-talked about problems – it was a patchwork of scarring. Still, face was saved. Respectability was assured. Heads could always be held high.

C.J. Vaughan
I wonder if we can dispense with the scarring and somehow reinvigorate the self-respect. What drove people then was a sense of belonging to a group, the code of which ensured that social transgression was policed not by parliament but by community. The same held good for the elite. C.J. Vaughan, headmaster of Harrow in the 1850s, once gave a lecture at Repton (home town of the aforementioned grandmother), claiming that authority and respect was maintained in the elite public schools by the prefects and praeposters, keeping bullying and oppression in check through their own activity of mind, industry and good conduct. Self-respect among leaders set the example for followers.

Local (to me) working-class school uniforms, c. 1970.
This week I read in the news that Education Secretary Michael Gove wants to encourage schools to re-introduce blazer and tie uniforms, and traditional prefect and house systems. There’s not much that’s come out of the mouth of this man in the last few months that I would care to endorse, but I think this is a worthy idea. I was looking through some archival photographs of kids from my childhood locale and noting that it really wasn’t so long ago that even the lowliest of comprehensive schools chose to sport collar, blazer and tie. Kids used to look smart, and schools had an identity because of their colours. Children felt like they belonged, and took ownership of their identity. Sure, they chaffed at the system at times, but surely they looked (and behaved) better than the track-suited and denim tribes one sees these days. I also remember with fondness the house system, with its house points, as late as the 1980s. I was in Nightingale house, and there was a genuine sense of wanting to do well for it. Good conduct, not to mention good work, benefitted the group as well as the individual. Bad behaviour penalised the group, and the group therefore policed itself. I really don’t know why we scrapped such things. To be house Captain surely was no bad thing. Why would we not want that for our children? All of it taught them self-respect, and all of it helped to ensure that the community sorted out its own transgressors.

My senior school scrapped the blazer and tie just before I joined it at 11. I’m sure my grandmother was appalled. Given the chance she would, no doubt, have cuffed the headmaster. Bring it back, I say, and let’s re-begin with self-respect.

November 24, 2010

Giving Thanks for Americans

Regular readers will know that I have an equivocal relationship with America and Americans, but it should be noted that while I have disliked It and some of Them with a fervency quite unmatched, I have also loved It and others of Them to degrees otherwise unknown. And this is not unbefitting for a country that has had a tendency of late to divide opinions, even among its natives (and historically, among its Natives). However much this leaves a bitter taste in the mouth, one can nonetheless state with complete certainty that American life is currently fully fuelled with passion, debate, and activity. While we may find fault with some of the chosen outlets for the burning of this fuel, we should be thankful that people are exercising their right to have a damn good barney.

Tomorrow is a special day for them, and it is scarcely creditable to me that this time last year I was there, cooking roast beef as a sort of Old World protest. I marked the day with mental relief at the removal of Hallowe’en decorations, and thought it was a jolly good thing to have a day of family and recreational time, filled to the gills with good food, only a month before Christmas: sort of a dry run for the real deal.

So, from my distant vantage, I raise a glass to the manly Americans out there, and salute your spirit. Long may you continue free.

November 22, 2010

A Sunny Disposish

The street where I live: grey, wet, and typical
I have a feeling that things may seem to have taken a turn for the bleak and miserable of late, so I write to reassure that the sunny disposition of yours truly is still alive and well. I wish I could say the same of Berlin’s climate, which does its best to shroud the city’s peculiar beauty in a damp mantle of slate grey. I had not realised how much one might miss the sun, and certainly I don’t recall November being so dark, even through all the worst that English winters had to offer. Wearing grey flannel and crowning oneself with a black umbrella, one runs the risk of merging into the monochromatic cityscape, like a Lowry figure of no distinction. Today, as a matter of defiance to the weather (which is set to get worse, by the way), I donned socks to amuse the Teutonic passengers on the U-Bahn. Germans don’t have any compunction about staring at strangers, but today I saw one or two smiling to themselves in the process. I count that as a significant victory.

My silver lining

November 18, 2010

Missing Pieces, Part II

The nature of the response to the first post under this title was such that I think there is real value in it. Examples drawn from life apparently say more and go further than any form of prescription or wit on the part of yours truly. If we all think about it, I’m sure we can come up with many examples of the tragically flawed in our lives, and upon reflecting on those flaws we perhaps better understand ourselves as we are, or as we would like to be.

Between the ages of about 5 and 13 my neighbour was a man I shall call Thomas. He lived with his wife and his Old English sheep dog, apparently in quiet suburban boredom, just like everyone else. He washed his car; he went to work; he mowed his lawn; he entertained – or endured – his wife’s parents, and her brother, every weekend; he walked the dog; he grew a beard; he washed his car… Once he had a knee operation to fix a cartilage problem. For six weeks in a cast he struggled with bucket and sponge, lawn mower and hound. But then all went back to normal.

After a few years a baby was born, just as you’d expect. His wife’s parents, and her brother, now visited more often, and he struggled to establish any paternal or familial status for himself. Things deteriorated. His wife suffered from post-natal depression, which neither of them understood, and about which neither of them knew how to ask for help. Thomas began to doubt his own worth: what was the meaning of this life, with its dark loveless procession of in-laws, works and days? He started to drink. My brother saw him at lunchtime one day, parked in his car in a layby drinking Tennant’s Super. The pain was to be numbed, one way or another. I watched with childlike fascination as this well-meaning but ultimately lost man fell apart. He came home from work one day and hid a plastic bag full of beer cans within our compost heap. His escape from the problem had now become the problem, the identification of which covered over the real issues – depression, family, fatherhood, boredom. Alcoholism tends to be treated as an evil in its own right, but often, as in this case, it is merely a symptom. To treat it without treating the underlying cause is futile.

Another evening: this time he arrived home already three sheets to the wind, and found himself locked out. He banged on front door and back, urinated against the side of the house, and then banged on the doors some more. Eventually she let him in, but it was now clear that his alcoholism had made her afraid – afraid of the animal in the man, the brute that all of us carry and suppress. No longer coherent, and no longer strong enough to be human, with all the sensibilities and sensitivities that guide our relations, he succumbed through alcohol to the bare beast.

A few days later an ambulance arrived in the morning and took him away in a wheelchair. He was ashen, resigned, a wreck. He died of septicaemia within a day or two. He was 34. His wife, when asked how she was, said it was ‘a relief’. Her son was raised by her and her brother, who moved in and took over the washing of the car and the mowing of the lawn. Thomas’ life insurance paid off the mortgage.

November 17, 2010

History, Leather Jacket, and Shades

Apparently Simon Schama has been hired by the British Tories to revamp History education in secondary schools. If you don’t know who Simon Schama is, which seems unlikely, have a look at this.

For whatever reason, Schama is the kind of Brit who is vaunted and valued by dint of living in America. He gets paid really a lot of money to present self-penned history programmes on the BBC, attracting the ire of the ivory tower, and the interest of the incumbents of No. 10. I last saw him on election night, doing bits to camera from a booze cruise on the Thames, and generally causing everyone to wonder why on earth anyone thought his opinion particularly mattered. But then, this is Simon Schama, and Simon Schama has a leather jacket. I suspect he also owns shades. He is a cool historian. It’s official.

I’ll reserve judgment on the kind of curriculum he’s been able to come up with, but it is worth questioning his appointment. I live for the day when people who advise the government are selected because they are the best qualified to do so. In this instance, a respected historian who has extensive experience working with schools, perhaps preparing teenagers for History at university, or advising teachers, would have fitted the bill. Perhaps an History Ph.D who went into teaching. Maybe just a really great History teacher who knew his stuff, and had a good idea what was wrong. But no. Simon Schama is University Professor of Art History and History at Columbia University, NY. His main expertise pertains to the Dutch. He writes and presents authoritatively on everything: a Jack of All Trades, or ‘paper philosopher’, if you will. As far as any of us might guess, he hasn’t set foot in a secondary school, well, ever. Schama went to public school (in the British sense of that term).

So, we must presume that he was selected because someone saw him on the telly and, when pressed to name anybody who knew anything about the past, blurted out his name, pub-quiz style. Fair-play to Simon for taking the gig. I mean, who wouldn’t take the opportunity to stamp his brand on a generation he’ll never meet in the streets? But our leaders must cease to be swayed by the suave and the leather-jacketed of this world and make a concerted effort to put substance into their judgments. I’ll hold my hands up and admit my mistake if the Schama revolution generates a tidal wave of brilliance among teenage historians. But my suspicion is that he’s just too cool for school.

November 16, 2010

To the Future King and Queen

The announcement of a Royal engagement is newsworthy for precisely one reason: we discover who is to be our future Queen. It is not important for us to know if she can work, but if she will serve; not if she is happy, but if she is dutiful; not if she is pretty, but if she is healthy. And one might say that even these things should be beyond our ken, for it is nothing to do with us after all whom His Royal Highness chooses to wed. She is entering a public role, and this should have nothing to do with the paparazzi, or with intimate knowledge about whether she can cook, or with what she chooses to wear.

Our utter disrespect for the Monarchy is generally expressed through our interest in all the bits and pieces of their existence that are completely and wholly irrelevant. We reduce them to first names, follow them in celebrity magazines, pass judgment on their comments, their actions, their every move. We answer nonsensical polls about whether we ‘like’ them, or what they’re ‘good for’, and go about as if our opinions on such things matter. We are generally so dim-wittedly unaware of what the Monarchy is for, and from whence it came, that one wonders why we bother taking so much ‘interest’ in it at all, or rather, why they seem so intent on managing their media presence. The Monarchy is now on Facebook, and you can ‘like’ it, and for its part, it will delete offensive comments. The post- modern court is dull, plebeian, and hideously democratic. If Royalty is reduced to this, then how do we distinguish it from its opposite: the Anti-Monarchy Society, also of Facebook?

We really should take note of the Monachy mottos, and so might They
We are mistaken to think, and the Monarchy is mistaken to endorse the thought, that we all inhabit the same world; that they’re ordinary people, like you and me; that we have a right to know, and that they have an obligation to tell us. If all of that were true then they should not continue as a monarchy, but instead retire into middle-class ennui. The Monarchy has forgotten how to be a monarchy, it seems. They care what we think, and they appear on sofas talking to journalists who call them William and Kate. And this breeds nothing but contempt in those who look for reasons to abolish the whole lot of them, for they flaunt the lie of their special distinction, rubbing our noses in it. For God’s sake go back into your palaces, and occasionally deign to wave at us from a balcony. Be mysterious, aloof, eccentric. Be evasive, elusive, and above all have contempt for the media limelight. You do not need to court it, or to woo us. You are the Monarchy. You have to believe, or at least portray that you believe, that you are morally, spiritually, and constitutionally distinct from me, and from everyone else. It may be utter nonsense, but those are the terms, or else all bets are off. Either You reign, or You do not. Either You serve a constitutional function, or You do not. Either You appear on stamps and the money, or You do not. There is nothing democratic – meant in the crass modern sense, where everyone thinks they should have an equal say about everything – about You.

But who am I to tell you what to do? I’m just one man at court among millions.

November 11, 2010

Braving the Public

My dear and faithful Readers,

I have seen fit to make myself available to you, as it were, personally. Yes, in addition to the ample opportunities you have to engage with yours truly, here, on Twitter, and on Facebook, you can now send me a private message if the moment takes you (link over on the right). I can make no promises to respond directly to everyone, but in some cases I see there is a need for conversations to proceed further than the blog forum permits; in other cases, I may pursue questions or ideas that you might have for me on the blog itself. After all, we live in an age where the audience may directly inspire the author – why not take advantage of it? Credit will be duly apportioned. If you don’t hear from me, you may nevertheless be assured that I am reading, and taking you as seriously as you seem to take me.

My glass is charged with a fine twelve-year old single malt, given to me by an all-too-generous friend. Here’s to looking forward to making your further acquaintance!

Until then, I remain your humble servant,

November 10, 2010

Back on Track; or, the Five-minute Mile

For better or for worse, I am incurably goal oriented; without challenges I would sit and fester. Once I set my own targets I am stubbornly fierce about meeting them. I am much more pragmatic about goals set by others. After all, one might think one’s boss or, in the case of academics, one’s peer reviewers, to be ridiculous. Meeting arbitrary conditions is soul sapping. And even if you think the third-party goal worthwhile, the satisfaction is never quite fulfilling. Then again, hitting my own marks does not so much satisfy as stave off the worst kind of disappointment. How does that adage from school teachers go? ‘You’ve let the school down, you’ve let me down, but most of all you’ve let yourself down’. And there it is: I hate to disappoint myself. Therefore if I set out to do something, it had better get done. You might think this a bizarre masochistic streak, but I call it manliness. My intentions are to cultivate and enact self-reliance, determination (grit and pluck), organisation, resolve and purpose. As I said, I call it manliness (or part thereof). It can be plied back into a world full of things bigger and more important than I, and, with any luck, to everyone’s benefit.

It will be just like this
I suppose it has been long enough since my marathon exploits of September to let you in on the next goal. I confess that the long run, and the hundreds of miles that went into its preparation, took a toll on the legs. One particular ligament at the top of the fibula did not want to settle down for about a month, and then I took another month very easily so as not to aggravate anything. But for the last couple of weeks I’ve slowly been upping the intensity, and nothing has snapped, so I’m comfortable with stating my intentions. I timed a mile yesterday and clocked 6:45, which is somewhere near my pace as a 14-year old. Sigh. The target is 5 minutes, and I’m giving myself a year to do it. Oh, and I’ll run the Berlin half marathon in April, aiming for something under 1.40:00. As per the last challenge, I won’t bore you with the details, however gruesomely and deliciously they would read, until the deeds are done.

November 09, 2010

Hold On A Mo; or, Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow

It is November and therefore the month of the moustache. This recent convention is in aid of prostate cancer research and awareness, and on that score it is unimpeachable. But what of the moustache itself? Clearly identified as a masculine symbol by the orchestrators of this movement, the moustache is nevertheless of uncertain historical status. At the very least, Jeeves was highly circumspect about matters of the upper lip, and that should give us pause. Of course, the ladies of the Wodehouse world thought otherwise, but they were universally awful and had poor taste. Further pause. By no means do I suggest that P.G. tips offer the best insights into the manly life, but then again, they aren’t far off.

Barbarian lipwear, c. 300 BC.
The first reported depiction of a moustache was on the face of a Scythian warrior. The civilised world at that point in time would doubtlessly have considered him a barbarian. This is an inauspicious beginning. Still, the Greeks coined the thing, calling it mystax, and her philosophers were no strangers to the cultivation of facial hair. Our modern associations with the hairy lip don’t help settle the thing, with everyone from Ned Flanders to Stalin to confuse us.

The most sensible words on the subject can be extracted from Household Words, via the pen of Dickens, in 1853. We must be on our guard, for Dickens was not averse to quackery and nonsense, and we can quickly disregard his arguments about the bodily expulsion of carbon and the body being thrown into chemical imbalance by daily chin scrapings. More persuasive are his allusions to the symbolic importance of the thing:
The idea that there existed a connection between a man’s vigor of mind and body, and the vigor of growth in his beard, was confirmed by the fact that Socrates, the wisest of the Greek philosophers, earned pre-eminently the title of the bearded. Among races of men capable of growing rich crops on the chin, the beard has always been regarded more or less as a type of power… The beard became naturally honored, inasmuch as it is a characteristic feature of the chief of the two sexes (I speak as an ancient), of man, and of man only, in the best years of his life, when he is capable of putting forth his independent energies. As years multiply and judgment ripens the beard grows, and with it grows, or ought to grow, every man’s title to respect.
Still, this deals in zones rather lower than that upon which we currently gaze, and Dickens hastens to draw our attention to the mistaken mystax of the nineteenth-century aristocrat. The association of whisker and rank was stamped into the popular imagination, so that after the revolutions of 1848 the Germans did away with their hairy adornments so as not to be confused for members of the old order. The Hungarians, however, continued to place great esteem in the thing, and famous Generals sported moustaches that might have been caught under foot. Despite this nonsense, Dickens averred that it was better for Englishmen to lay down their razors, for it would save them a year over a lifetime. And this, ultimately, speaks against the moustache, for it saves no shaving time, and indeed probably makes for fiddly shaving and, if you will, mo’ maintenance. It should be beard or nothing, and even then it should be tended and trimmed, just as the philosophers insisted.

I dont aspire to any of these labels.

All this having been said, and with my former assertions about the joys of shaving in mind, I am attempting to grow a moustache, if only to demonstrate to myself that the judgements of history are not wrong. I doubt it will last, for Mrs. VB is not a fan, and there are certain acts that should not be compromised, as this fellow in 1855 discovered:

A caution during the approaching festive season to young gentlemen who wear sharp-pointed moustaches: Pretty cousin: What a tiresome great awkward boy you are! Just see how you have scratched my chin! (Punch)

November 08, 2010

Charm: Offensive? Part IV

Ambition – it is the last infirmity of noble minds (J.M. Barrie, The Twelve-Pound Look).
Who deserves to be charmed, and who are the charming? It should so far be clear that I am no advocate of false charm, but rather see that the rewards of charm must reflect its genuine qualities. The charming man is usually superior to his audience in this respect, for he sees in them what they most wish to see in themselves, but they are incapable of returning the insight. It is true that, in the case of despicable people, the charming man may choose to withhold that which would charm, for he may see no purpose in inflating the bad. Then again, if, as I maintain, everyone has something to redeem them, then the accentuation of this quality may nudge the bad man toward the good. We are wont to do that which brings us popularity and success, and it is as well that these things are wrought by that which is good in us, for history reveals ample proof that they need not be. It is possible, therefore, for the charming man to facilitate power without necessarily taking it. It would indeed be so much the better if charming men were our electors, for then we should have leaders chosen for their better qualities, instead of leaders who put themselves forward with inflated ideas of their own virtues.

The great pleasure of being truly charming is to see people basking in the goodness of themselves, and to know that it was you who put them there. They will, perhaps, love you and reward you for it. Insofar as charm is to offer generosity, therefore, it also reflects back and serves the interests of the charming. I must be clear, again, that these interests cannot determine charm, for this will lead us to flattery and deception. Rather, one must assume that good follows good, and that what we sow we shall someday reap, without knowing in advance the nature of our crop. The charming man therefore actively pursues the good, but he does not reduce his goals to ambition. He may seem self-effacing, but in reality he knows that his rewards will be just.

November 07, 2010

A Gentleman's Guide to Wine, Part I

Some time ago I asked you all what on earth might be deemed a manly wine, and offered only its antithesis. I’m now proud to introduce the first guest writer on Being Manly, who knows his stuff and is happy to share. So, for your delight and to our advantage, I give you my friend, Amator Vini. And remember, dear readers, a symposium is technically a drinking party. You’re all warmly invited.

With the vast array of wine available in today’s market and the multiple challenges of price, provenance, and the tendency of wine to be branded, on occasion, as elitist, choosing a suitable libation for a gentleman’s evening of dining or for a romantic soirée can be challenging. Herewith, then, a Gentleman’s Guide to making a sound choice – part one – written from the perspective of a lover of wine in all of its forms, and a buyer of certain types of wine for the last decade.

Wine is a complex entity, and the fact that it is ‘alive’ and constantly evolving makes it profoundly interesting. The vast majority of wines, including those with the unfashionable but highly practical screwcap (which now finds favour in many New World offerings) are designed for consumption within twelve months of release and do not reward cellaring. Their primary appeal is the youth of their fruit, their lightness, and the simple pleasures which they inflict on the tastebuds. For an aperitif of this kind, one that is light on complexity, you could look to the classic options: a young Beaujolais for example, perhaps a Joseph Drouin or a Georges Duboeuf. Each November, watch for the arrivage of the Beaujolais nouveau, wines from that year’s crop, which are a pleasure to quaff and which can be had for a little as a few euros per bottle. More complex Beaujolais are found in the crus of Brouilly, satisfying wines with more character and body, but still suitable as well for a gentle drink before dinner.

Beaujolais has the advantage of price; even the most expensive rarely sell for more than thirty dollars or so. They lack the so-called ‘glamour premium’ that afflicts the great wines of the world, and that places the Lafites and Moutons out of the range of any but the sporting elite or the privileged of Hollywood. These wines – the vins du garde – are primarily responsible for wine’s elitist image (the Lafite 2009 costs over $1200 per bottle, and will be much more expensive when finally released on the open market in 2012). But to focus on these wines is to miss many promising possibilities. Take the 2009 Bordeaux vintage, hailed as one of the greats and held up alongside 1945, 1961, 1982, 2000, and 2005. Its wines, still being aged in the barrel but available for purchase on the futures market, are currently the most expensive Bordeaux offerings in existence. Yet below the stratospheric prices of Le Pin, Pétrus, Lafite and others lies a plethora of wonderfully made, well-priced wine. The appeal of Bordeaux, the largest wine-growing area in the world, is its complexity: wines are blends, typically of the five varieties allowed by law: Cabernet Sauvignon, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Merlot, and Malbec. Assembled through the expertise of the winemaker, they are sublime creations and a true Bordeaux is a sum greater than its parts, and offers marvellous treasures: the softness of a Pomerol, perhaps Latour à Pomerol; the rich depth of a St. Emilion, maybe Fleur Cardinale or Figeac; the elegant fragrance of a Margaux, like D’Angludet; the robust strength of a Pauillac (think Pontet-Canet or, for less, an Haut-Batailley) or a Medoc, like Bernadotte or Pez, from St. Estephe. But how to avoid the pitfalls?

With Bordeaux, unless you have inherited great wealth, avoid the hype, and choose wisely. Consult guides such as those offered by reputable sources such as Decanter magazine, and follow the adage of buying lesser-known names from good vintages. Look for the magic years: 2000, 2005; even 2001, 2006, are promising. Avoid 2007, where poor weather produced wine without character, and wines were selling for far-fetched, pre-recession prices. For a steak-frites, choose a Pauillac or Medoc; for roast chicken, Pomerol; for a chateaubriand, a St. Emilion; a Margaux with fine cheeses. And don’t forget the sweet gem of Bordeaux, Sauternes: if the prices of the fabled Chateau d’Yquem make you weep, look to its lesser-known neighbour, Guiraud, which sells for much less and is just as good, and in good years, like 2009, possibly better. With a Sauternes, you might offer ripe figs, soft cheese, and chocolate.

What to do with those New World wines? Unlike their French avatars, the wines of Australia, Canada, Chile, and the USA tend to be sold by grape; a Bordeaux will never tell you what the blend is (you are expected by the Bordelais to have done your research), but the Americans will place it on the label. At the so-called Judgment of Paris, Napa Valley reds beat their French counterparts, and they are sure bets for a good evening – but only if you can afford them, for the great wines command the same hype found in Bordeaux. Avoid the wines from mass-production tank farms, such as those made by Gallo. The most interesting wines are those from smaller producers – Tablas Creek, Ojai, Longoria – although they can be hard to find. Canada’s wine offers many gems and with few polluted by cult status you can make some informed choices guided by the name. Choose Mission Hill or Iniskillin for easy options; Lailey or Tawse for more interesting styles. If you like the scent of green grass in your wine, choose Chilean Cabernet; for wines to be drunk with a resilience provided by over-extracted tannins, Australian wines.

Readers will note the absence of Italian wine here, and will also spot the clear preference for French wine. I must offer the confession that I have never quite understood Italian wine, finding it astringent and of inconsistent quality. A recent report discussed in Decanter suggested that up to 30% of Italy’s vineyards should be pulled up or replanted, as they make substandard bottles. That is open for debate. But if there is one thing to be said for choosing wine, it is to find a region you understand and enjoy, and learn all you can about it. France offers, for me, wines of unbeatable value. Away from Bordeaux you can find exquisite soft rosés from the south; heavy, tannic reds from Provence; fragrant, unoaked expressions of the Chardonnay grape in Burgundy, which put the vanilla-butter produce from some Australian or American vineyards to shame; and, the French wine par excellence, Champagne. Champagne offers what no other sparkling wine ever achieves; Prosecco and Cava are pleasant, but the curious mix of power, acidity, depth, and brioche in a fine bottle of Champagne, which can only be called such if it comes from the area around Reims and Épernay, is unmatched anywhere else. And what of the price tag? Champagne has also acquired its own glamour premium, and in my opinion money spent on Cristal or Moet prestige wines is wasted; leave them for the racing car drivers to show off with. Small family producers are the ideal choice – here you will find wonderful expressions of terroir. My favourite is H. Billiot et Fils, which, lacking the marketing power of les grandes marques like Moet, sells for a song but is a much finer wine.

So, gentlemen, whatever your choice, remember that prices can be misleading; research always pays off; and pick lesser-known wines from good years, especially for Bordeaux. Do not waste your time on buying footballers’ wines like Pétrus or parvenues like Le Pin (over $2,000 per bottle for the 2009); you will be disappointed, and in debt; and so, looking for a good wine? Try Ch. Bernadotte, from Bordeaux; a fine Drouin Brouilly from Burgundy; a provençal rosé from Bandol, or a brut from Billiot, and make sure that you approach wine as a creature of complexity and vivacity to be carefully poured, slowly tasted, and matched for its depth and weight with the food of your choice. In my next column, I will offer some more thoughts on the correct matching of foods and wines and sample menus, for your delectation. Until then –

Amator Vini

November 06, 2010

Mr. Keuner and the Flood

Mr. Keuner went through a valley, when he suddenly noticed that his feet were in water. He realised that the valley was actually an estuary, and that the flood tide was coming. He stopped immediately and looked around for a boat, and so long as he hoped for a boat he stood still. But when no boat came in sight, he gave up this hope and hoped instead that the water would like not to rise any more. Once the water was up to his chin, he also gave up this hope and swam. He had realised that he was himself a boat (Bertolt Brecht, Herr Keuner und die Flut).

With apologies for the undoubted looseness of my translation, I nevertheless offer this little morsel as a weekend reminder to be active and self-reliant. If we stand and wait for what we desire, the chances are we shall fail. We must assert ourselves and make the most of our resources, for the helping hand we desire is no farther away than the end of our own arm.

November 04, 2010

Of Baseball and Bowties

On game nights, I used to be able to see Fenway Park from my apartment. The floodlights and the blimp were unmistakeable signs that Americans were playing baseball. I used to pass the ballpark on my way to work sometimes, but that was as close as I came to entering that hallowed arena. You see, despite baseball’s storied past and its penchant for the poetic, most Europeans simply don’t get it. The standard questions – I can imagine a continent getting set to roll its eyes – go like this: why are these so called athletes overweight and chewing tobacco? When does something happen? Why does the atmosphere have to be manufactured by an old woman with an organ? And what’s with the ‘World’ Series anyway? I don’t see too many non-American teams taking part.

So much for the clichés. The real reason I didn’t much take to the thing – and I have tried, mind you – is that its men didn’t strike me as being particularly worthy of emulation. The sport’s leading lights do tend to carry too much weight in the gut; the spitting is ugly; there are rumblings about drug abuse and cheating; and the game is not rich in articulate speakers. In the main, there is not a lot of obvious joy in the game, and what grim determination there is tends to be concealed beneath an arrogant nonchalance. Whereas the game itself will richly reward the devotee in its surprising complexity, the playing staff simply do not reach comparable depths.

I am always, as I have oft noted, open to change, given a convincing enough argument. It strikes me that famous sportsmen are, first and foremost, role models. When I was a child I did not want to be like my heroes; I wanted to be my heroes. Since I don’t count myself as being particularly unusual in this regard, it ought perhaps to make all parents alive to the question of who it is their children wish to be. In baseball’s recent past, are there heroes that, without qualms, we would introduce to our offspring? Well, perhaps now there might be. I was really taken by the image of Tim Lincecum arriving for the final game of the World Series besuited and bowtied. That is a most welcome change. Having done a little digging, I found he had this to say:

But who doesn't want to believe their kid is amazing? I'm going to be hoping the same thing for my kid when I get older. What better feeling can parents have than when they brag about their own kids?
So, a man with an eye on the future; a man with an eye on being the best at his job; and a man with style. Oh, and he also does Sinatra. Baseball, I’m interested.

Charm: Offensive? Part III

I do not want to leave aside an important matter, a mistake that it is easy for a Prince to make unless he is very prudent and has good judgement. This concerns flatterers, of which the courts are full, for men become so obsessed with their own affairs, deceiving themselves in the process, that it is difficult to defend themselves from this plague. In seeking to combat it, one runs the risk of becoming hated. There is no other defence against flattery than letting men know that they do not offend you by telling you the truth (Machiavelli, The Prince).
Perhaps what should have been said is that charm as deceit is not charm at all, but simply deceit. Intention is all important when considering the charming, for indeed, true charm has good ends. We must be able to discern the difference between that which is shallow and that which is deep: the depth of true charm is its paradox of self-effacement that is in turn endearing. The charming do not self-promote, but rather accentuate the positive in those around them. As parties disperse and partygoers reflect on the evening, the man who was charming will be on their lips, not because of his accomplishments or charisma, but because he allowed others to see themselves in the best light.

But true charm is not mere flattery, for in accentuating the positive, the charming man must light upon genuine qualities that are in fact there. This author is no fan of flattery. I’ve said somewhere within these pages in the past that the question, ‘does my bum look big in this?’ is one of the most symbolically violent acts between the sexes in the West. If the answer is ‘yes’ then the straightforward man might feel loathe to say ‘no’, and yet he surely must, or at least have enough of an idea of his interlocutor’s wardrobe to be able delicately to suggest something else. At its worst, flattery is lying, and lying cannot be true charm. Mere flattery is simply deceit by another name.

The charming man must therefore be a man of great insight, for he must see that which redeems us. People are wont to project that which is negative, perhaps not perceiving the ways in which they tend to be received. We form instant judgements based on appearances, first utterances, a look in the eye, a tone of voice. The charming man sees through this to our greatest qualities and, as he affirms those qualities, we relax under his gaze and warm to his approach. We know not about him, and we do not realise that we have not asked. The charming man will be sought again, because people will think to themselves that they like him. Actually, they have simply realised that they like themselves. When people like themselves – when they feel that they are good – they are more likely to be good to themselves and to manifest their goodness to others. The charming man therefore facilitates the good.

November 03, 2010

Charm: Offensive? Part II

Not for the first time, my most faithful reader has pushed me to elaborate: ‘I should like to know what part of charm is flattery, what part deception, what part politic acts, what part generosity and what part pleasure’. Not wishing to disappoint, and thinking the subject worthy, I hereby undertake a more detailed look at charm – what it is, and what it’s worth. Further instalments will follow shortly.

Let us begin with deception, for here we find charm at its utilitarian worst. In the main I would like to distance my usage of charm, the word and the act, from its literal association with the casting of spells. When borne of temperate and decent natures, charm may intoxicate but it will never be the malignant concoction of the sorcerer; it will never cause the hypnotic state of the snake. Unfortunately, precisely this brand of charm has long been a feature of our literary villainy, with Iago as the patron saint. This could make one very wary of charm and the apparently charming, and indeed might make us take seriously those warnings of Anthony Blanche, warnings that might very well have applied to himself.

Where this works in literature and drama is precisely where it fails in life. Dramatic irony always underscores the naïveté of the beguiled victims, with the thinness of the superficial charm clear for the audience to see. This usually causes an unfavourable judgment of the victim, rather than the perpetrator, for being so gullible. It’s no different to the standard emplotment of stories concerning cowboy builders and phony meter readers. The vulnerability of the victim is always the leitmotiv. They are somewhat pathetic, pitiable creatures, who fall into the category of ‘one born every minute’. The despicably charming are scolded for their callousness, but we all assume that the trick would not have worked on us. These men are newsworthy because they are exceptional. On the whole, one cannot be deceptively charming in a sustained way. The pitfalls are too great; people are too wise, or else suspicious; and the web of deceit becomes quickly and horribly complex. Not for nothing is Othello a tragedy.

In sum, charm as deceit is not for us. True charm, insofar as it can be cultivated, is an expression of character. About that, we shall have more to say anon.

November 01, 2010

Save Standard English; or, Stop Being Mis-CHEEVY-ous!

One hears stories on the BBC, stories without a note of disapprobation mind you, about the ways in which the youth of today is bastardizing the English language without so much as a by your leave. It’s all most troubling. Apparently, the status of English as the new French is not the only route to its being sullied and abused. The bally natives can’t even get the thing right, apparently because they labour under the misconception that words ought to sound how they are spelled. Hence the pronunciation of ‘ate’ as 8, instead of ‘et’, which used to be how it was spelled, until someone made it deliciously ornate to ward off interlopers. The same is true of ‘says’, which the poor blighters are rhyming with ‘ways’ instead of ‘fez’. It will never do.

My pet peeve – you might have noted that I have a number of pet peeves; the apartment is a regular menagerie by now – is the insistence of the illiterate in pronouncing ‘aitch’ with an ‘h’ at the beginning. One might be forgiven for thinking that it is only English-speaking French people who go around putting aitches everywhere except where they are meant to be, but apparently the British have a great knack for it. I’m told it’s something to do with a rather silly neurosis about not appearing to be working class. That’s how Orwell identified his socially inferior comrades, don’t you know? He compelled the middle classes to join forces in an incoherent socialism, telling his stupefied readers that they had nothing to lose but their aitches. Well, more fool him for thinking that aitches were trifles. In the event, it turns out that the working classes fancied a bit of the capitalist pie after all, and figured that aitches were the only thing standing in their way. So, they put them every-bloody-where, including at the start of ‘aitch’, thereby ensuring that everyone can still readily identify them as the working classes they long not to be.

It's to the north, I believe

Those incorrigible scamps who dare to use polysyllables also tinker with the word ‘mischievous’, pronouncing a phantom ‘i’ before the ‘o’. I suppose it’s either a sick joke or that they are borrowing the ‘i’ from American aluminium, which apparently has one going spare. And all the while the politically correct linguists keep repeating that there’s no right or wrong; that this is how language evolves; each to his own, and so on. Well, I’m all for regional diversity: England has a great range of daft accents and dialects that help us to know where we are, and they are a wonderful source of pride and passion, as well as an endless mine for television comedians and advertisers. But, we’ve all always known that there was a correct way to speak that served for job interviews, meeting the vicar or the bank manager, and for generally being understood when outside one’s own village. To be ‘bidialectal’ was to be English. However, if we go around saying that anyone can talk any old way they please, it’s all the same to us, and sorry even for breathing, then before you know it we’ll be a barbarian backwater. Americans, instead of assuming that we’re all touched with genius and related to the Queen, will laud it over us for our inferior articulations, and laugh at our cute incompetency with the language we invented.

Save Standard English. It’s the only damn thing we have left!
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