December 30, 2010

Manliness Throughout the Year

When I began this blog a little more than a year ago I had been thinking of what to do in defiance of the personal awfulness of 2009. As 2010 draws to a close, leading me to reflect that this year has – I can scarcely credit it – been worse, I am given to reassess what I am doing, and what purpose these humble pages serve, for you and for me. I am much more qualified to judge the importance of this outlet for me than for you, so perhaps you’ll let me know. But just in case anybody is holding his/her breath, let me reassure you that I am set to continue on the path I have cut.

I have reflected a number of times that manliness is tested in the fires of adversity. It’s easy to cut a suave figure of chivalrous demeanour on a flat-calm millpond; it’s how we grit our teeth in the face of an angry sea that really counts. Those calm moments are so much the more convincing if you can still do it once you’ve emerged from a storm. Manly strength, as I’ve opined so many times, has very little to do with outward force and a great deal to do with inner fortitude. What is your tolerance for emotional turmoil, career failure, domestic upheaval, knocks to the confidence, and challenges to your integrity? To what degree can you avoid wandering down paths of little resistance that will compromise your honesty and/or your conscience? How firm is your grip on your identity – are you sure that you should be who you purport to be, or who you desire to be? Isn’t it easier just to give up and go with the flow? To be swept out with the tide and stop resisting the inevitability of fate?

Well, it would be easier, yes, but it wouldn’t be right. And fate is just a poor man’s excuse for his own weakness. If I was defiant a year ago, I see no good reason to be less defiant now. When I sit down to compose the words that fill this site, I am connected with the ideals I set for myself, and with the principles I would be loath to see compromised. Looking over some of the things I have written, I am reminded of the moments of turmoil that I choose not to share with you – for why should you be troubled with them? – and I see that this is my way of remaining resolute. When knocked down, this is how I pick myself up. I am continually reinforcing the hull of my little craft, and let waves of any magnitude come, I shall not be scuppered. If you believe in a thing, you must believe in it most when it seems least likely.

If, along the way, any of this resonates with you good people, so much the better. Here’s to another year of Being Manly, and let’s raise a glass to 2011, whatever she may bring.

December 25, 2010

Christmas Wrapping

It should be the aim of every  man with any pretensions to refinement and self-respect to steer a middle course between the Scylla of foolish foppery, which bedizens a man as though he were a tailor’s dummy or a barber’s block, and the Charybdis of loutish slovenliness, which neglects all outward graces and dignities. Of the two, I would rather you were a fop than a sloven. In the one case men would laugh at you: in the other they would avoid you. A man should be so dressed that no article of his attire arrests the eye or remains in the memory. There should be nothing in his personal appearance to suggest that it has occupied any but the most subordinate share of his attention and thought. The best-dressed man is he whose attire sits on him with a careless and apparently unstudied simplicity. (An Old Boy, Notes for Boys (and their Fathers) on Morals, Mind and Manners, 1885).
The key word in the above passage, pulled from a most useful little book, is ‘apparently’. It takes great attention and scrupulous thought to appear so thoughtlessly put together in a way that works. It might be said that the fop puts no serious thought into his meticulous appearance, for if he did he would rein himself in and undo that to which his fancy led him. In that respect the fop is merely the dark reflection of the slob.

Of course, this doesn’t mean that the man of taste can’t occasionally wear go-to-hell clothes. It is merely that he must wear them as if it was of no consequence to him whether today happened to be grey flannel or loudest plaid. If loud clothes are worn to say ‘look at me!’ then people will, and they will think you an idiot. But if loud clothes are worn because the wearer has the freeness of care and the confidence simply to be in them, then they will strike onlookers as outward signs of a strong character. The line is fine. Sprezzatura takes work.

If you could see my Christmas Day attire you’d understand why I’m given to reflect on these things. Wait, you can see it.

It’s an ensemble of patterns in earthy hues, principally in cashmere and silk. When I laid it out this morning, Mrs VB gave me that look – the one where a single eyebrow seems to question my sanity – but I’ve learnt not to let that put me off. Once adorned, she confessed ‘It’s not as bad as I thought it would be’. Then we danced – it is Christmas after all – to Cesaria Evora, with the freedom of movement one has in one’s own home, and the clothes became the man. They tend to do that.

Turkey awaits. Have a great day, one and all.

December 24, 2010

Christmas Delivery

He wasn’t in the usual garb of Father Christmas. Think more blue overalls and a couple of days’ lazy beard. He was also Arabic. Nevertheless, he came on Christmas eve and delivered all the Christmas presents, not to mention my underwear and shaving kit. Earlier, one of his elves had called (from India, apparently), and foretold of his coming, sometime before 11 p.m. All this seemed to me most unorthodox, but who am I to judge of the mysteries of his delivery methods? Rudolf (a white Ford Transit) didn’t seem too interested in my proffered carrot, and Santa himself averred that sherry wasn’t quite appropriate for a man with a lot of Christmas deliveries to make. Such modern responsibility! And he was even so good as to substitute his usual sack for the exact suitcase that Mrs VB and I had lost in transit from Germany. It must be a little miracle in Montreal.

Merry Christmas to all!

December 22, 2010

Large World, Small Odyssey

Being Manly is now coming to you from Montreal, after much trouble. After years of harping about the smallness of the world, I am now convinced of its largeness, and promise to hold my peace in future. To say that I am lucky to be here today would be an understatement. Our arrival depended, ultimately, on our ability to transfer from a domestic to an international flight at Frankfurt in only nine minutes. I wonder if I can submit that to the people at Guinness as some kind of world record?

Something else I have been given to harp about is the ubiquity of gadgetry that does its utmost to make us less human. Yesterday’s tormented journey was actually caused by such gadgetry, and not by snow, as the news would have you believe. After days of struggling, Mrs. VB and I were actually sitting on a plane in Berlin, two minutes from taking off. At that moment, somebody with the internet in his hands discovered that his connecting flight in Frankfurt was  cancelled, and decamped himself and his cohort from the aircraft. Despite the remonstrations of the crew, they insisted on getting off, which meant that their luggage also had to be removed. This caused us to miss our 8:45 a.m. departure slot, and we were then allocated the new slot of 3 p.m. These people knew that their selfish act was about to jeopardize the Christmas plans of roughly 200, but they did it anyway. I checked this morning, and discovered further cancellations from Berlin to Frankfurt. Despite my general disposition of good will, I can’t help hoping that those people remain stranded for a very long time.

Once we’d been told that we would now have to sit for six hours in the cabin without moving, most people decided to give up and get off. About thirty of us decided to stick it out, reasoning that it was better to get to a hub and take our chances than to remain in the Berlin backwater. We dug in. The spirit of the Blitz was alive on a Lufthansa craft in Berlin. A man next to us had spent nine hours in a queue the day before, and figured it was better to wait in a comfy seat with free drinks on offer, than to sit in the terminal. Turns out he was shrewd. Along the way there were rumours of earlier slots, only to be dashed, followed by a sudden flurry of movement that allowed us to leave at short notice at about 12.05 p.m. Those who had fled at the first bad news must have kicked themselves. There were no further flights to Frankfurt that day.

When the plane reached the stand at Frankfurt it was 1.15. Our onward flight was at 1.45. We knew already that if we made it the luggage wouldn’t, but thought this a fair sacrifice and ran. Amazingly, there was no second security check for connections (Heathrow take note), and we covered the distance between gates at a good click. Naturally, once the gate was closed and we were safely on board there were further delays because there aren’t enough de-icing machines in Frankfurt. And furthermore, the Jetstream headwinds that are causing all the wintery awfulness made the Frankfurt-Toronto flight time a gruelling eight-and-a-half hours.

Gillray, Britannia between Scylla & Charybdis
We naturally missed our connection to Montreal, but got lucky with standby seats on the next flight (which was naturally delayed because the pilots were absent – stuck in the US). How strange it was to emerge into the Montreal winter air and reflect that it was colder and snowier in Europe. The world is on its head: no wonder travelling around it is tricky. Between the Scylla and Charybdis of the weather and the blackberry, our Odyssey is over. For now.

December 20, 2010

Gallows Humour

Rumours of my departure have been greatly exaggerated. In true Planes, Trains and Automobiles style, it keeps on snowing everywhere and we keep on going nowhere. Yesterday we saw that our flight – Berlin, London, Montreal – was cancelled when we got up, but we had to go to the airport anyway, for there was a queue there not to be missed. Three hours in that line got us an upgrade and a new itinerary – Berlin, Düsseldorf, Newark, Montreal – for the next day. Today we left well before dawn in heavy snow, to find Düsseldorf cancelled. Queued for an hour and got bumped to a delayed earlier flight, which was about to land in Berlin. Unfortunately, at that moment Berlin went blizzard, and the airport closed. Our route out was diverted to Leipzig, I presume never to be seen again. Back to the queue for another two-and-a-half hours (and this was the first-class queue, mind), and we eventually received our new itinerary – Berlin, Frankfurt, Toronto, Montreal – for tomorrow, replete with downgrade back to economy. It’s a story full of Christmas joy.

The funny thing about all this is that it is actually funny. Or at least, one tries to make it so. Mrs. VB and I have made some firm friends in the queuing process these last two days. One nouveau riche couple – English and Latvian – were supposed to go Riga, London, Buenos Aries, Santiago, Easter Island, for some romantic Christmas getaway. Just outside of London their plane was turned back to Riga, and the Latvians, imaginative bunch that they are, thought sending them to Berlin might be a good way to get them to London. Heathrow closed in the meantime, and the Germans lost their luggage, in which they’d packed their medicine. Oh how we laughed! She chortled so much her mink coat nearly fell off.

Take my word for it, their smiles were infectious

Today we spent chatting to a motley crew of international travellers, upgraded to business yesterday like us, downgraded to chattels today. The prominent member of this group was a lovely and elegant Parisian lady, with whom we partook in devious queue strategies. She was trying to get to London, and when that failed yesterday she had been booked on the same Düsseldorf flight as us. Then, a London flight opened, but they wouldn’t bump her to that one because she was clearly booked on a flight to Düsseldorf. Why should she want to change it? We laughed so much it hurt! Another lady, from Singapore, was told to board a plane to Cologne (why not? She was going to Düsseldorf and then Munich, after all) that hadn’t even left Cologne yet. They were good enough to lose her luggage, and she re-joined us in the queue after an hour or so of staring at the space where her plane was supposed to be. We could barely contain ourselves! The third member of this group was a jolly Austrian with bad teeth, attempting to get to Vienna. Since it all seemed so hopeless, he had the idea that Lufthansa would book him into the Kempinski Presidential Suite, and we’d all be invited for Christmas on the airline’s dime. He was so thrilled by this idea that he practically begged the Lufthansa agent for more bad weather. We all looked like the prancing orphans from Oliver! singing Food, Glorious Food, and pretending that there wouldnt be gruel. Meanwhile, the local news had sent a camera man, pushed on a luggage trolley by his director, who secured a terrific dolly shot of all our smiling faces. The viewers of tonight’s local TV are in for a treat.

We waved goodbye to everyone as we left for home (again), wishing merry Christmases and happy travels, and hoping never to see each other again, with the best will in the world. We left our little patch of muddied red carpet – seriously, the business and first-class line had red carpets covered in snow and grit – and walked back past the economy queue, which stretched from gate 10 back way past gate 7. I reckon it was at least a six-hour queue. Everyone looked so happy!

I hope not to write to you tomorrow, because I shall be travelling all day. It seems a shame in a way – cancellations are too much fun.

December 17, 2010

Sins of the Flesh

Not so long ago I introduced the first guest writer to Being Manly. It is now my pleasure to welcome my humble blog’s first guest artist, the venerable and manly Julian Peters, whose literary comic art is making a stir in Montreal. He has kindly lent me these four panels, on the Wicked Ankle Flasher of London Town, to accompany my text on The Sins of the Flesh.

Some moons ago I complained, under the good head of ‘I Like To Be Tied Up’, of the male throat’s loss of erotic status. This could be recovered, I postulated, by the universal adoption of the necktie, which would surely have the effect of sending those who lust after men wild with anticipation for the rare moments when top buttons are loosed. I have noticed some progress out there with regards to tying the knot, but the jury is still out as to its impact on the libido. I must now return to this topic, plunged as I am – like a celebrity neckline – into a culture of fleshly display, and bodily exhibitionism.

It is not only the Germans who have lost the primal instinct when it comes to the flesh. It is a general disease of the West that we are no longer titillated by suggestion, and must instead witness the brutal candour of sex and sexuality at every moment. Once upon a time, a sigh, a lengthened gaze, and a knowing look would have been enough to establish that television characters had done the deed. Now we would not be certain, and we demand the ocular proof. One can blame the internet, if one will, which has taken the shame out of purchasing pornography. Partakers of such things used to get a thrill from the mere daring of having to purchase their visual feast under the gaze of public scrutiny. This also kept up the shame levels, and I believe to some degree kept our baser natures in check. The internet has dispensed with all these balancing forces. The result is a whole new level of exposure, if you will, and now nothing short of the whole hog, sometimes literally, will do the trick. To be sure, the depths of the human imagination have always been plumbed, packaged and sold, for those few who had a taste for it. But now it seems to be the norm, and this is our loss.

Don’t mistake this for prudery. It’s really rather the opposite. We are sensual and thinking beings, and for as long as man has thought, he has known that eros and logos make for a heady cocktail. The greatest thing about humanity’s capacity for the erotic is its elevation above that which is merely animal. It is our sinking to the level of the beast that I decry, and the problem is just too much flesh, too often.

Never was a period more erroneously known for prudery than the Victorian Age. Here were men and women in a state of almost permanent arousal, for their taboos were so far-reaching. The merest improper suggestion could cause embarrassment; the slightest transgression of social inhibitions led to scandal. Quite self-consciously, all talk of sex was strictly censored, or else subject to censure. The only way safely to stay within these bounds was to make sure that one always kept them in mind. In short, Victorians thought about sex all the time. The slightest hint of sexuality sent shivers up the spine. An ankle here, a wrist there, a bat of the eyelids perhaps: any such thing sent a man – or a woman – into an internal frenzy. Just imagine what the bedroom scene must have been like, once all that passion was given an outlet.

In sum, taboos feed the imagination, and it is through our imagination that we thrive as humans. If all our mental capacities are denied to us through a too ready access to images of base animality, then base animals are what we shall become.

December 15, 2010

Now We Are One

It is a year since Being Manly got off the ground. I can scarcely credit the passage of time. In some ways that first blunt list of a post seems a distant historical, if not historic, event, but the subsequent discussion did lay a foundation for what was to come, and for what is still to come. I’m not much of a memorialist – Birthdays come and go without a lot of fanfare if I can help it – but I thought it fitting briefly to mark the occasion.

In that year Being Manly has gone from utter obscurity to mere obscurity. For the statisticians among you, there are some 319 people following, either through Google or Facebook, including some duplications I suspect. The approximately 70,000 words of content has been perused some 40,000 times (not including those of you who connect via blackberries and such like). You have left me some 658 comments, by which I am humbled and for which I am grateful. If you’re new here, I might take the opportunity to link to the year’s most read posts, for which I have no good explanation: One to Blow and One for Show; Daring to Speak Its Name; A Gentleman’s Guide to Wine; Keep Calm and Carry On; American Macho. If I may be permitted to name a personal favourite, it might be An Elegant Weapon for a More Civilised Age. I'd be happy to hear what has taken your fancy this year.

The 'could've been' banner. Both this and the banner for the blog are from Manly, near Sydney Australia, and were photgraphed by Yours Truly.
I confess I am bewildered by the numbers that some blogs rack up, without seeming to say anything at all. But then I remember that the people who have nothing to say reflect the majority of people who would rather not think. On Facebook there are many pages flying under the banner of ‘Being Manly’. The most popular one has 2,345 ‘fans’, and boasts precisely zero content (unless you count magic-diet and get-rich-quick spam). And this is quite saddening, for one hopes that the meaning of manliness might not be so superficial as the world seems to want to keep it. On the other hand, it also means that those of you who have found your way here are a discerning bunch, and I should rather have a small cohort comprised of quality than a large coterie of empty heads.

I shall maintain a hope – to the extent that I do hope, which isn’t much – that you shall bring your influence to bear on those people whom you know who share a like mind with your good selves. But if this is to be the limit of our society, I confess it is more than sufficient motivation for me to continue. 2010 has been a hard year in many ways. Being able to share my thoughts with an interested and wholly respectable audience has been a real fillip.

So, onward with a manly gait into year two. I trust it will be as enjoyable as the first.

December 14, 2010

On Giving (Up?); or, The Thought that Counts

Some of you may remember my advocacy for shopping with women, why it’s worthwhile, and why it’s joyful. In these happy instances, the purchase of a gift heralds a warm glow of mutual satisfaction. It needn’t be contrived, nor hitched to the calendar, but simply occurs as an outward show of affection. What then, of those gifts that are contrived and calendrical, and that must be purchased in the absence of the intended receiver? Such is Christmas shopping, and I hereby declare it no fun.

I confess to be at a loss, most typically at this time of year, when it comes to she who is closest to my heart. She has excellent taste and a refined judgment. She desires only that which she desires, and that which she desires she generally already owns. She dislikes extravagance and conspicuous expense, and is not a fan of clutter. Any event that tends to increase the sum total of stuff in our lives is generally met with terms of disapprobation (you may have noticed, we tend to move countries several times a year). Books are too much like work, she being also of the academic persuasion (we tend to come in packs, or whatever the collective noun for academics happens to be. Perhaps it should be a dust of academics). Chocolate she has in stockpiles, and it is all divine. Scents make no sense – she has several litres of the stuff. Jewellery is oft a winner, but I’ve ploughed that furrow rather too much and the field must now be left fallow lest the crop starts to wilt. Clothes must first be tried on, and therefore have no element of surprise; likewise shoes, boots and hats. Watches, diaries, stationery, writing implements – all of these she owns and, because she is exquisite in her selections, none of them needs replacing, augmenting, or upgrading. In short, I am looking for an elegant wonder, that is valuable and to be valued, but which comes at a thrifty hit. It must be imaginative – innovative even – and be the embodiment of her heart’s desire, and yet she must not have had the prior knowledge of it being so. It should be large in gesture, yet small in stature (ethereal might be best, second only to consumable). I so much want to give such a thing, but its rarity always has me on the verge of giving up.

I shall not give up, however, for this annual process is, I aver, what is meant by the tired cliché ‘It’s the thought that counts’. This phrase is typically and erroneously associated with presents that are completely unwanted and discarded. I have heard it explained that the ‘thought’ in question involves the remembrance of the friend or relation who is the recipient of the gift. ‘Ah yes’, says the gift giver, ‘It is so-and-so’s birthday. I must give any old piece of tat that I can lay my hands on. At least I will have remembered so-and-so, and it’s the thought that counts’. This sounds to me like a very low standard of care, and if it is this kind of thought that counts, then I am sure it counts for little. Is it not better to give not a lot but especially well? ‘I am on a tight budget’, says our gift giver, ‘but I want to make sure that the recipients of my gifts appreciate that I really thought about them this year. The gifts may be mere tokens, but they will be meaningful, because it is the thought that counts’. The process may be not much fun, but the end result ought to be full of joy.

I shall endeavour to give well this year. And so I must continue to think.

December 13, 2010

Spirit of the Season

Scrooge was better than his word. He did it all, and infinitely more; and to Tiny Tim, who did not die, he was a second father. He became as good a friend, as good a master, and as good a man, as the good old city knew, or any other good old city, town, or borough, in the good old world. Some people laughed to see the alteration in him, but he let them laugh, and little heeded them; for he was wise enough to know that nothing ever happened on this globe, for good, at which some people did not have their fill of laughter in the outset; and knowing that such as these would be blind anyway, he thought it quite as well that they should wrinkle up their eyes in grins, as have the malady in less attractive forms. His own heart laughed: and that was quite enough for him. (Charles Dickens, A Christmas Carol, 1843).
It is perhaps unlikely that any apparition will poke its nose through your bed curtains this year, forcing you to examine yourself and all your foibles, but that should not hinder you in your own self-examination. The ghosts of Christmases past, present and yet to come are duly encompassed by the conscience, which in our case, unlike in Scrooge’s, works quite well enough I am sure.

Have we been miserly and mean? Short-tempered and brusque? Uncharitable and callous? Have we lost our humanity in the hurly burly? Our good sense for the sake of dollars and cents? I trust not, but I for one welcome the opportunity to check. We drift into new habits of misanthropy if we let down our guard – which we all assuredly do at times – because the people we meet whom we do not know tend to encourage ill feeling. The crowds of a busy shopping street; the impatient assemblage of the supermarket queue; the drivers who make up the holiday traffic; TV weather men; teenagers on the train; pressure salesmen; surly waiters, and so on. Unless we come up for air from this sea of awfulness, we might feel justified in beginning to think that people are generally bad. But when we are abroad among the madding crown, and other people meet us, they likely think that we too are the pit of humanity!

Since this clearly won’t do, I suggest getting in touch with our better natures in the spirit of the season. A little sympathy here, perhaps; a little generosity there. Prepare to charm and be charmed, and to let the things that rub us the wrong way go by without a second thought. Be generous in giving, and humble in receipt. And give of yourself – your time, your ears – and not just of your wallet. In any case, I’m sure you’ve all been thoroughly nice all year. But best to check, lest you should hear the rattling of chains.

December 10, 2010

Badger, Badger, Badger

Mushroom (look it up)? No, not on this occasion. However, the unrivalled Christmas markets of Germany have provided yours truly with an advance Christmas present from Mother dearest, in the form of a former badger on the end of a piece of wood, all the better to lather one’s face, my dear. There’s something rather medieval about these markets: there’s actually a fair bit of quality fare to be had, and not just the Chinese trash of lesser English varieties of the vaunted Weihnachtsmarkt. Add some Gluehwein, Baumkuchen, and a dose of snow, and one could really be immersed in an early Protestant Christmas (save for the German cabaret version of Wham’s Last Christmas, and some gay fire jugglers pretending to be French). A manly Christmas beckons: was machst du?
Weihnachts Zauber, Gendarmenmarkt, Berlin.

December 08, 2010

Man of the Year, 2010

The calendar is close enough to its terminal date to make the announcement of the first annual Being Manly Man of the Year. The decision process has been entirely personal and wholly undemocratic, but still it is more reliable than FIFA. The award, which conveys as much honour as its recipient would care to mention, comes with no formal prize. Nevertheless, the winner’s name will adorn this website for as long as it lasts, and I trust that the links to his endeavours will do him, and his causes, some good.

So, without further ado, the Being Manly Man of the Year is Australia’s own crazy runner, Tristan Miller, or ‘T-Bone’, if you will. Mr. Miller was implicitly introduced to you back in September, after I had met him on the Montreal Marathon course. I have followed his exploits on an almost daily basis since then, and can safely say that his is a rare spirit. A man of character if ever there was one, Mr. Miller is, at this moment, on the southern tip of Chile, preparing for a flight to Antarctica to run his 51st marathon this year, with one more to complete the set following shortly afterwards in Melbourne, Australia. 52 marathons in 52 weeks! The feat is superhuman, and has taken him to races on every continent. From a physical point of view alone, this is extraordinary, as anyone who has run 26 miles once will tell you. Then there is the mental factor : to remain focused and motivated, and to put mind over matter, through pain and illness, day after day, week after week, all in the name of seeing the extent of human possibilities – all this makes me believe Mr. Miller to be a man of singular strength of mind.

You will not need to know ‘T-Bone’ for long to catch his infectious humanity. I shared a meagre eight miles with the man, and can safely say it was the easiest eight miles of that race. Thereafter he sped away, as is his wont. Mr. Miller runs his marathons generally in the range of three to three-and-a-half hours. Sometimes he does that on consecutive days. With flu. If one wasn’t convinced, through personal association, of his flesh-and-blood constitution and his vivacious spirit, one might suspect him of being mechanical.

Although so much of Mr. Miller’s endeavour has been personal – a voyage into his own unknown – and a deeply moving individual story, he has never lost sight of things bigger than himself. In his mining of the limits of what it is to be a human being, he has helped us all to an understanding of our collective humanity, and of the social injustices that abide in this world. He has never stopped campaigning for those of us inspired by his exploits to donate to one of two charities – Facing Africa and Unicef – and he gives a very good account of why we should.

There is a nobility in his cause, and an old-fashioned sense of adventure in his swashbuckling run around the globe. Join me in wishing him well for the last two races, and salute your Being Manly Man of the Year 2010!

Mr. Miller’s website: Run Like Crazy
Mr. Miller on Facebook

December 07, 2010

Revenge, Justice and Forgiveness

Dear Hilton has asked for my thoughts on forgiveness, and I am happy to oblige. But first I feel it necessary to disentangle the quest for revenge from the concept of justice. There is some confusion out there in the ether, that a man who seeks justice is a man seeking revenge, and that justice should be foregone so that we do not surrender ourselves to the cold-heartedness and self-imprisonment of vengeance. ‘An eye for an eye’ is a brutal notion, and it is just as well for us that we live in civilisation, where the institutional structure of society is designed to give us access to justice. Where this fails, we must not take the law into our own hands, but rather, fight to make the law, and our communities, work.

Revenge is a cold, considered insanity. It cannot claim that impulsive, momentary quality exemplified by the bar-room drunkard. Through cultivated anger, the vengeful man surrenders his soul to that which is most monstrous. We all are capable of this, and must watch vigilantly over our inner demon. For so long as vengeance remains only a thought, it can be defeated. Once it becomes an act, all is lost. Take Ahab, who enacts his vengeance over the longue durée, at every moment ready to immolate himself for the sake of it:

All that most maddens and torments; all that stirs up the lees of things; all truth with malice in it; all that cracks the sinews and cakes the brain; all the subtle demonisms of life and thought; all evil, to crazy Ahab, were visibly personified, and made practically assailable in Moby Dick. He piled upon the whale’s white hump the sum of all the general rage and hate felt by his whole race from Adam down; and then, as if his chest had been a mortar, he burst his hot heart’s shell upon it.

It is not probable that this monomania in him took its instant rise at the precise time of his bodily dismemberment. Then, in darting at the monster, knife in hand, he had but given loose to a sudden, passionate, corporal animosity; and when he received the stroke that tore him, he probably but felt the agonizing bodily laceration, but nothing more. Yet, when by this collision forced to turn towards home, and for long months of days and weeks, Ahab and anguish lay stretched together in one hammock, rounding in mid winter that dreary, howling Patagonian Cape; then it was, that his torn body and gashed soul bled into one another; and so interfusing, made him mad. (Moby Dick, 1851).

Vengeance is pouring injustice upon injustice. It does not even the scale, but merely adds further weight to the one side. We all learnt, as children, that two wrongs do not make a right, and though for an instant we may feel gratified by the settling of a score, we subsequently sink into despair at the lowering of our nature to that of our offender. Society as a whole suffers by the example, for as the keeper of justice it must now serve justice against both parties. The example of vengeance strikes fear into the hearts of men, for they know that a society in which vengeance occurs is a place where justice has failed. We are all laid open to the possibility of being the victim.

When we are wronged we must have justice, but we must know what it means to be wronged. To have one’s house swept away by a tornado, or to have one’s dog struck by lightning – these things are not unjust; they are unfortunate. We may feel aggrieved, but we must simply dust ourselves down and rebuild. We may be ruined, but we are not wronged. In such cases, insurance companies come under scrutiny when they fail to follow contractual obligations to pay. And where there is injustice here, there are courts in which to fight. It is no use waging war against the heavens, for injustice is a human contrivance.

To be clear: to seek justice is not to be confused with seeking revenge. To that end, the quest for justice is not incompatible with forgiveness. Indeed, when we are wronged we must let go of the hurt that drives us into malice and contempt – into unjust acts of our own – and, especially if we are met with contrition, we must forgive. If we seek justice in the appropriate way, we may feel it better to see justice served before we forgive, but that already implies a will to relent our ill-feelings. And ultimately we must, for no good comes of hate; no right comes from a will to do wrong; no humanity was ever wrought from a hardened heart.

We may rue our lot, but we must not let the injustice done to us define us. To be human, and to prosper, we must let go and look forward. Those who trespass against us may not be the worse off for that, but we shall be the better.

December 05, 2010

Love Thy Neighbour?

It is festive season, and we shall all be drawing together our disparate lives and attending parties and obligations-flying-under-the-banner-of-parties for the next few weeks. I say disparate lives because the Christmas party tends to be an Event that has little to do with conviviality, or spirituality, but rather more to do with an official letting-down of the collective hair of people who normally only see each other at work. One’s colleagues usually have precisely one thing in common with oneself, namely, they work at the same place as one. And to get over the awkwardness of it all, enormous amounts of alcohol are consumed and nefarious activities take place in the vicinity of the photocopier. It is altogether not particularly charming.

Anonymous photocopier Christmas art
And there are the parties with friends and family, which are much more congenial, but these days no less representative of our disparateness. In the age of Facebook, who can say anymore that all their friends and family live close by? Mine don’t, and I shall be making the 4,000 mile trip to see some of them, while leaving others behind. Even then, people will be dispersed across the vast metropolis, and will come together only through Planning, Organising, and the tool that works at any distance, Facebook: in short, through Contrivance. One can never escape the feeling on such reunions that water has passed under the bridge. It is not so much a catching up, as a patching up; re-building ties undone by distance.

Isn't everyone's family gathering like this?
Who here knows their neighbours anymore? I’m afraid to say that over the years I have not known mine, and when I have tried I have found them either unresponsive or transitory. People don’t sit still for long enough, and where they do, the hatches are battened down. This is a shame, but I sense a glimmer of hope in my current abode. I always thought it was a matter of politeness to invite one’s neighbours to a party, since the best way to avoid disturbing them is to include them. I am pleased to report that the slightly eccentric man above us included us in his annual gathering – wine, whiskey, spätzle and a lot of cigarette smoke. It wasn’t our scene at all, but these were neighbours, offering a hand of friendship and hospitality, and we were most gracious. And strangely enough, everyone learnt something in the process: I learnt that even the most ‘ordinary’ of Germans – bad knitwear, leather trousers and the mandatory mullet – value politeness and tend to be decently read. We tiptoed around each other for a while, but soon the language barrier began to melt away. I spent a long time talking to a young man, eager to learn but with little worldly experience, about why one cannot claim multiculturalism to be an utter failure if one hasn’t actually tried it. I think I also successfully introduced this youth to the finer points of single-malt whiskey. The scotch-drinking part of the evening involved the removal of those with a robust palate to a separate room, where history and social policy became the topic of the night. I inferred from our host that those with a taste for fine spirits were more likely to have refined minds, and on the evidence of the evening I cannot argue. It finished with two complete strangers offering me the long-term loan of a guitar and amplifier. I was pleased as punch.

We had made a priori plans to stay an hour and politely take our leave. We left at 1 a.m. The sense of community was unlike the standard fare of the Christmas season, and although I am not known for being a literalist, I began to see the most obvious advantage of the phrase, ‘Love thy neighbour’.

December 03, 2010

Shutting Up, Shutting Down

You’re all well aware of my penchant for conversation. I appreciate the art of it: the playful exchanges of delightful folk are, at one and the same time, of no consequence whatever and yet supply the tenuous threads by which civility hangs. Moreover, anyone who habitually sends his soliloquies out into the ether in the hope of finding interlocutors can hardly be thought reticent to engage. I am a thinker-talker – an embodiment of logos, if I may be so bold – and rather like it that way.

There are times, however, when one must shut down (or up) one or both of the features of logos. It has struck me before that one doesn’t need fully to understand a language to know that a particular speaker of it is an idiot. Any thinker-talker of the slightest capacity ought to know when to look before leaping and when to hold his peace. The broadcasting of opinions is not for every forum and every occasion, and the loose tongue is oft the symptom of an empty mind. We could perhaps all use a reminder that some of our most pointed and devastating sentences were better never said. To the sartorially inclined, think of it as buttoning one’s lip.

Devastating WWII public warning
That said, there are times when thinking ought to be suspended too. Rushing heroically into the clichéd house on fire would be one of those occasions, but there are many moments when a thorough unplugging of brain is just the order of the day. A man never yet hit a golf ball sweetly who was thinking how it might be done while making the attempt; a sportsman never yet brought down his moving quarry while wondering about how it would later taste; a driver never yet swerved to avoid an errant child while contemplating the value of the child’s life. We are instinctive beings. That which was not provided at birth we acquire through learning as skills, the execution of which has nothing to do with thinking. Where we think, in these circumstances, we surely fail.

Do or do not; there is no try.
The best of us, as talkers and thinkers, sometimes should shut up and shut down.

December 01, 2010

Crying Game: A Vignette

‘The winter is hard in England’, thought McDuff, as he looked in on his players warming up before the big match. There wasn’t a great deal of stretching, or indeed any physical activity of any kind, but gloves and scarves (or snoods, so he’d heard) were being donned uniformly. He thought back on his youth in Aberdeen and reflected that the dark months must have been much warmer then.

Each player scrupulously adjusted himself in his personal mirror, making sure that the Nike logo on his snood faced the front, and that his earrings weren’t obscured by the deliciously synthetic fabric. Wantona Bandon, the £15m striker from Ivory Coast, turned to his Brazilian teammate, Preeno, and asked if he thought his eyebrows were evenly groomed. ‘These tweezers will never do’, he said, waving the twenty-four carat diamond encrusted implement in the Brazilian’s face. Preeno grunted – a masculine show of irreverence – and continued to fuss over his tights, which he’d laddered in the processing of putting on. He cursed his fingernails to the room at large, and made a mental note to fire his manicurist after the game.

McDuff called order in the room. The players sat down on cushioned benches, while the young and willing youth squad silently attended to the laces of the stars’ personalised pink football boots. The only sound was the oily slurping of hair gel as it was liberally applied to the players’ heads by the team coach, Sean Itall, a Yorkshire man who no longer understood his life. As McDuff glared at his players he reflected that he didn’t shout as much as he used to do. A sharp glance seemed to bring tears to their eyes and, for all his accomplishments, he knew not how to handle snivelling.

‘This will be a hard game’, he said. The European Champions had drawn non-league side Bighoof United in the cup – a pub side from Barnsley – and McDuff wasn’t sure that his players understood the task at hand. ‘They know only how to kick, punch, and tackle’, he went on, ‘and they won’t much care if you’ve got the ball or not. They’re impervious to cold – they don’t even wear shirts when they’re out on the town – and they will mince you and make you into pies if they sense weakness.’

Anxious looks ensued. A rustle of paper from just outside the door alerted McDuff to the presence of the players’ agents, who were flicking through their clients’ contracts to see if there was any way that they could be weaselled out of the game. They need not have worried. An epidemiological singularity occurred at that moment, as each of the star players was suddenly struck with an acute virus, the symptoms of which included hyperventilation, vomiting and syncope. Like so many Victorian ladies, their constitutions failed them at the eleventh hour. One after the other they expressed their wish to lie – to lie down.

McDuff had seen it before. He clicked his fingers at the bewildered youth squad. ‘Boots on lads,’ he said. ‘You’re going on’.
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