October 31, 2010

Hallowe’en Has an Apostrophe; or, Thoughts on Dressing Up

Without the slightest qualm about being labelled a killjoy or bore, I can safely say that I do not like, do not see the point of, and cannot wait to see the back of Hallowe’en. The ubiquitous lack of its customary apostrophe is enough to put me in a bad mood. What happened to it? It was there when I went to school, but is now lost. Are we so lazy? In any case, this is the minor quibble. The bigger problem is the excuse it gives to grown individuals to behave even more idiotically than normal. I would be as charmed as a snake if it was just the kids. I saw some really pleasant little tykes this evening, out accompanied by adults, and wanting nothing more than a handful of candy in exchange for doe-eyed cuteness. All power to their elbow. I only ask that when they grow up they, well, grow up.


I won’t labour the point. Instead I’d rather celebrate the kind of dressing up I like to endorse. While the West went mad for witches for a weekend, I went shopping for something rather more refined. The German appreciation for professional attire, even among academics, is putting pressure on my suit rotation, and it doesn’t help that two-thirds of my wardrobe had to stay in Canada. Airlines are increasingly enrolled in weight-watching programmes, much to the customer’s discomfort. So, a new grey flannel suit is now in my armoury. Nothing garish; nothing notable; simply a classic cut and fabric and minimal fuss. I trust it will repel the worst that Berlin’s winter will throw at me.


Most people have forgotten, if they ever knew, that dressing up everyday is a joy. Perhaps if we reminded ourselves once in a while that the fabric of life has a lot to do with fabric – the whole looking good feeling good bit, which is pithier than you might think – then we’d probably take a lot less relish in grease paint, pointy hats and, what seems inescapably to go with them, getting pointlessly drunk.

October 27, 2010

Common Decency Not So Common

Much as we might like to dwell on the finer points of holding open doors for ladies, unfortunately we must complain in general of people and doors. Although I tend to moan about London, at least the vast majority of Londoners understand that in a very difficult and crowded situation, it’s better to let people off the train before trying to embark. However much we may like to confine our lives to the ethereal world, we humans are irrevocably and cumbersomely solid: no amount of pushing will propel us through oncoming persons, and we realise that less haste makes for a speedier, and more civil, commute. This is not the case in Germany.

Unknown in Germany: the orderly queue

I think it’s probably something to do with population, or the lack thereof. Such boisterous pushing and jostling would end in tears before bedtime in Blighty. On the whole, I must say that Germans know very well how to be civil, and would out-compete most nations at the Being Civil Olympics. Politeness is built into their language; the laws are strictly observed (try crossing the road on a red man and listen to the gasps of disapproving locals); little rituals hold sway in everyday life (church, Kaffeetrinken, customer service); everything is on-time. And yet, and yet… Today I was pushed in the back by an old woman who was concerned to beat all the young tykes to a seat on the tram. Everyday, the fit and agile push their way onto the U-Bahn trains before anybody has managed to disembark. A man recently served me with a full body-check as I attempted to leave a carriage carrying a heavy suitcase. I thought we should come to blows, but I held myself in check. One mustn’t sink to their level. And bus queues? Don’t make me laugh! There is a semblance of order, but only until the bus appears on the horizon. Then there is manoeuvring, pushing and place holding like nobody’s business. The fittest survive. The weak, the old (except for today’s grumpy granny), the infirm, the with-child – they all eat dust and end up standing in the aisles. It’s all pretty ordinary, as the Australians put it.

Also unknown in Germany: the consequences of the disorderly queue

I confess I do not understand why Germany can’t get this right. This and looking after their dogs. Domesticated canines seem to defecate willy-nilly in Berlin, and no one bats an eyelid. Everything else is just tickety-boo, and by-and-large we’re getting on swimmingly. I just can’t help the feeling that such things as these are the cornerstones of civil society. They are the things that, if done properly, help us repress the misanthropic feelings that inevitably arise from living among the urban. Just a semblance of the urbane softens our ire, cools our jets, waters our whiskey. When the common little courtesies among strangers are not observed, we wonder what else is awry, and before we know it we’re in a world of paranoia. So, sort it out please you lovely Berliners. Imagine everyone you see on public transport is your mother and behave accordingly. And clean up after your dogs!

October 25, 2010

Charm: Offensive?

It was charm again, my dear, simple, creamy English charm, playing tigers…. I was right years ago… when I warned you. I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm…. Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside of these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; I greatly fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.  
(Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited).

As one who has recently embarked on a charm offensive in a culture susceptible to its seductiveness, I take umbrage at the notion that charm is somehow – offensive. Of course, Anthony Blanche was himself the caricatured embodiment of empty charm, made malignant by a strong current of impoliteness. English charm rather seems to civilise our passions, to order our emotions, and to bolster our reputations. It ought never disconcert, but rather refers those we meet to the respectable heritage from which we spring. It surely goes without saying that the maxim I employed in my last entry works just as well the other way around: how one looks ought to be positively reinforced by what comes out of one’s mouth.

Of course, true charm indicates a certain sincerity. It is not possible, in the longue durée, to be charming without substance, intelligence and good will. No one can be charming through gritted teeth for any great length of time. Such a villain will come unstuck. But its cultivation ultimately has a bearing on one’s character, and it is in its very creamy Englishness that it positively reinforces love. And art? Perhaps. Artfulness? Certainly.

October 22, 2010

When You Greet A Stranger...

When you greet a stranger, look at his shoes.

So goes the saying, and there’s a lot in it. I’m given to write on the subject because of Will’s podcast on shoe shining over at A Suitable Wardrobe. There’s really something to be learnt here, and it’s not all vanity and preening either. The advice about shining one’s shoes as soon as you buy them is practical and sensible, for good reasons explained by Will and his guest. Go there and find out. Moreover, I’ve been reminded recently – as if I needed it – that looking the part is really so important in life’s struggles. I’ve noted many times that clothes do not make the man, but that the man can certainly be unmade by the wrong sartorial choices (which usually amount to a lack of thought). As a rule of thumb, what comes out of one’s mouth ought to be positively reinforced by how one looks. In the last few weeks I’ve been stretched intellectually by a number of powerful people whose judgments might make or break a career. My mind, I am pleased to report, is able to translate thoughts into words rather effectively, but I dare say this would count for little if my shirt collar were loose, my suit ill-fitting, and my shoes scuffed and uncared for. People move through life at breakneck speed, forming opinions and making policies based on impressions, for impressions are all we have time to gather. Your shoes, suit and shirt won’t be the reason you get the job, but they could easily be the reason you don’t get it. Or, to put it another way, no one will consciously notice the cut of your jib, unless they don’t like it.

October 19, 2010

Decline and Fall

The world has been in a bad way, to such an extent that one can only personalise the experience in order to make sense of it. People do not understand deficits, downturns, depressions. Those things are mere numbers on the news. They only understand their own unemployment; their own house’s repossession; there own dwindling savings and pensions. This personalisation of the economy does, in some places, take the form of a general reaction against government policy. The French are so adept at this. A million personal gripes – the collective selfishness of the mob – somehow gets coordinated and the country is shut down. Like it or not, you have to marvel at the effort.

Then there is the other extreme. In Britain, so it seems, the cuts are so breathtakingly universal that everyone has his own distinctive complaint, and nobody does a damn thing. A generation is being turned to face a new dark age, and we shall usher them into it without so much as a peep. The culmination of our apathy, our decadent indulgence, and our broken political system is to be their loss. For shame!

Last night I attended a lecture given by a very British man: bald, blue blazer, ill-considered tie, old-fashioned spectacles, Cambridge elocution, Knighthood, Professorship, interest in things aristocratic, interest in things past. This man, as so many of the best British men will come to do, lives and works abroad. He talked, from a flowery yet elegant script, of Churchill’s hopes and dreams for the English-speaking peoples – wistful fantasies come naïve expectations come ridiculous anachronisms – and reminded his German audience (patient, listening, laughing), of the absolutely sealed status of Britain’s decline. After the war, the nation looked inwards – it saw that its problems lay at its own doorstep, and it voted ‘charity begins at home’ – and nobody could blame it. As the nation once again confronts the wolf at the door, with what staggering lack of vision do the nation’s leaders plot to feed it?

One cannot help thinking that the whimper of dissent with regard to all of this is terrifically unmanly. We have succeeded in failing to educate our youth, so that they know not how intelligently to protest; we have succeeded in failing to safeguard our political institutions, so that there is no viable opposition; we have inculcated apathy until it became normal, and now we blink like stunned rabbits as the snares tighten around our ankles. Isn’t it time we woke up?

October 15, 2010

Mum's the Word

I have neglected you. I do apologise. England was as it has always been: vibrant, exciting, damp, a germ-breeding ground. I’m afraid it rather got the better of me this time, and something had to give. Now back in the land of the mullet and the sausage, things will settle down again. The motherland keeps a hold on me, nonetheless.

It is apropos that I mention mothers. Lest we forget, chaps, gallantry begins at home. For many a budding man, the chief experience he will have had with a woman will be with his mother. Please don’t allow your imaginations to run away with you here, but instead pause for a moment to consider how it is that a gentleman learns to treat a lady. The corrections and encouragements offered by one’s mother in early life – providing one’s mother knows how to be polite – become the model of acceptable behaviour for our later relations with the fair sex (for a moment I will bury the alarm wrought by the image of the mother who does not know how to be polite). I confess to be fortunate in this regard, and I dare to suppose that Mrs. VB is the happier for it.

I had the rare opportunity lately to return to the source, and dine out with Mother on a sort of date, if you will. Champagne a-plenty, five splendid French plates, and a dinner service that legitimately lasted for three hours. There was elegance, decorum, decency, and the kind of conversation that Brits can only have once the wall of inhibition has been razed by alcohol. The art of conversation is verisimilitude, but there is rare real truth to be mined under certain conditions, and why should we scruple to shun it when the opportunity arises? One’s own mother is a wealth of history in the autobiographical mode. I fear we seldom ask about it, and therein we risk a terrible loss. For what goes in to fashioning us came, in part, from what made her. To know these important influences is to better know oneself, and we can scarcely be the worse for that. So, dear readers (if you are still reading after I have treated you with such carelessness), I recommend you call your mothers and offer to take them out. Treat her like the lady who made you, give her a drink, and allow her to talk. You (probably) won’t regret it.
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