December 30, 2011

Year-End Renewal; or, Logging Off

I’ve turned into one of those: an absentee blogger. Here’s the deal.

The last quarter of the year was a total turnaround, and 2012 looks set to be on an upward curve. For two years I extolled, in these pages, the virtues of work. For a good portion of that time I considered this space as my workspace, and I gave it my full attention. Now somebody is paying me not just to do what I want to do for a living, but to be who I want to be. My first line of business was always the historian’s craft, and that’s where I’ve been the last few months. The next couple of years will require some serious writing on my part and I’m determined that it will be good.

The end of year involved the usual escape to Montreal. It is still home, regardless of where I happen to be living. It’s even better to be home when you’re feeling good about who you are and where you’re going. The holiday has been packed with the kind of manly activities typical of the repertoire you’ve been used to reading about here: Handel’s Messiah at the new symphony hall – a carpenter’s wet dream if ever there was one; proper steaks at The Keg; being a good guest, and a good host; the new wing of the Musée des beaux-arts; and a number of visits to the best tailor in town.

Montreal symphony hall. Pic from

On the latter score, I must give an extra nod in the direction of H. Padar on St. Catherine W. downtown. Mrs. VB is the proud owner of a new bespoke suit, readied from consultation to final delivery in one week. One week! Three pieces, navy blue super 120s merino. Truly remarkable. When you live in Berlin and your tailor is in Montreal, you either have to be extremely organised and plan months ahead, or you have to rely on great service. H. Padar gives you the latter, in addition to an excellent cut. He doesn’t hit you too hard in the pocket either. While he was at it, he completely transformed a Simon Horsley tweed suit, given to me by my dear brother, which unfortunately hung from my slight bones like a marquee on a corpse. To cut and shut a fine suit is no easy thing, but I am delighted with the re-modelling. A good tailor knows another good tailor when he sees one, and I’m sure Mr. Horsley would be happy to hear one of his creations has been given a new twenty-year lease on life.

It’s wonderful to feel well fitted. That my friends, is how I feel, in my suits as in my life. BeingManly is, therefore, to rest easy, not to die. Occasionally it may stir, when inspiration compels, but I think on the whole it will slumber happily. It’s been a joy making so many acquaintances and not a few friends along the way. Long may our associations continue.

I leave you with this: be manly if you can, and if you can’t, at least be polite. Happy new year!

November 13, 2011

Remembering the Civilian Cost of War

There is a raking light and a hint of frost in the air. Nobody has bothered to rake the leaves among the grave stones. The moss growing over the footpaths suggests desertion, a return to nature. A few early twentieth-century mausoleum facades stick out here and there among the hoary branches, fraktur engravings signalling a sense of self-importance that died with Weimar. One or two of the living are titivating, laying a winter rose for their family stone with cursive script. Death here is well organised. At the entrance to the graveyard is a florist. Directly across the street, a grave stone merchant. Adjacent to that, a large old-people’s home.

In the middle of this large suburban graveyard, a row of diminutive stone blocks hides among the fallen leaves. Nothing about them invites you to investigate. They are black, unadorned, inconspicuous: ignorable. But if you kick away the autumnal detritus you will discover that each stone bears the same date: April or May 1945. These people, mainly civilians, some of them without names, all perished during the fall of Berlin. Perhaps they met with disease, starvation, or a stray bullet. Who knows what privations they endured before the terminal date?

Remembrance Sunday in Berlin simply isn’t. Despite all of the recent moves to make the annual marking of the armistice about the general cost of war, the triumphalism of the victors still casts a pall. In any war, innocence is a grey area. People are caught up, swept along, killed, maimed, forgotten. Whatever their stories, the why of their deaths is filled with a futility that ought to move us. Wars, we expect, have a military cost. But among the celebrated fallen and the vanquished enemy lie the rest. I, for one, would like to remember them.

November 09, 2011

On Charisma

A charismatic figure possesses above all power. For sorcerers, the power consists in their supposed ability to control nature or humans. The modern scientist as a “wizard” in popular culture disposes over traces of this charisma. Other figures, such as athletes and actors, display more nebulous sorts of charisma. But in general, a person exudes charisma because he or she succeeds as a leader, a hero or Führer, in religious, martial, or other arts. Charisma thus emerges from and inheres in a social relation. A group of people ascribes certain extraordinary abilities or powers to a person. That person has charisma in relation to the ascribing group, whose members become active or passive disciples or followers or fans (William Clark, Academic Charisma and the Origins of the Research University, Chicago, 2006).
In the world of easy ‘likes’, Twitter armies, and the blogosphere, I rather feel that there is a surfeit of charisma kicking about the internet. There are enough scary nouns in Clark’s little charismatic reduction to make us most wary of it. The concatenation, Joe Public is a monster is a leader, is terrible, and the ethereal world makes it plausible. How many trolls have a few thousand followers or fans, more or less active? Vigilance, more than ever, is required. If charisma is to be so democratic, all the more reason to advocate goodness, virtue, manliness.

Onward, charismatically.

November 08, 2011

Edward Hyde is Everyman

I recently read Robert Louis Stevenson’s Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde (1886), and knew that in its pages there was something of value for Beingmanly. But the moral was lost in the chimera, and in my closeness to the text I could not unravel it. I therefore sent a letter to an historian friend of mine, who thinks about these things, and occasionally has a sensible word to say on such matters. With his permission I submit to you his reply, unedited, and with his wish to state the opening proviso in full:
My dear VB,

Your letter finds me between one article and another, and thinking about things far removed from the subject you present. In answering you I must confess that I have had a drink or two, and am in a somewhat altered state. But often the way to divining one’s real thoughts on a matter come in such moments, and since I do not have time to give serious thought to the matter you will have to make do with this.

The chemically induced alter ego of Dr. Jekyll is far too well known for me to shed any further light on Stevenson’s exemplary novella. I’m sure you of all people aren’t too lazy to look after this yourself. But since you crave something useful for your odd little blog, I might say that the Strange Case could well illuminate our own lives to a degree uncomfortable to admit. Taking away the extraordinary excesses of Mr. Hyde, we are left with the statement of Dr. Jekyll that lends the story verisimilitude. For in this statement, civilised men will recognise themselves:
And indeed the worst of my faults was a certain impatient gaiety of disposition, such as has made the happiness of many, but such as I found it hard to reconcile with my imperious desire to carry my head high, and wear a more than commonly grave countenance before the public. Hence it came about that I concealed my pleasures; and that when I reached years of reflection, and began to look round me and take stock of my progress and position in the world, I stood already committed to a profound duplicity of life.
I will not dwell on Freud. Lord knows, enough people have done that. Nevertheless, here we have a description of the internal schism, of propriety and gratification, that blights the lives of men. We measure other men by their adherence to the former, and by the degree to which they fall from this standard. Moreover, men measure themselves in this way, wreaking guilt, anxiety, shame, and so forth, upon themselves.

Our contemporary American Macho type of man, about which you have written, and which is represented, needless to say, across the civilised world, overcomes this schism by simply paying no heed to the marks of civilisation that have, in a roundabout way, produced him. On the contrary, he listens only to the democratic culture – in the Platonic sense – that has fostered his freedom to be licentious, promiscuous, ill-tempered, ill-spoken, and indulgent. The specific manner of this man depends largely upon his access to money, but the differences are of degree rather than of kind. Striking out for himself, he is not gnawed by guilt or anxiety. He is not riven by an internal schism. No, he is already fully realised as civilisation’s Edward Hyde, devoid of conscience, on the make, leaving no avenue of gratification unexplored.

This is one solution to the shackles of propriety. If everyone ignores the restraints we may merrily go the way of the beast. For some, life will be a cruel victimhood. For others it will be nasty, brutish and short. And for yet others it will be an epicurean delight. Let the dice fall as they may.

I would humbly submit that we are not all fighting, internally, against propriety. We shall only be faced with an eternal demon if we give credence to the duality within us. I doubt not that men’s passions overflow on occasion, but this is not our internal other, beating down our public face. We are one, whole, complicated certainly, but ultimately intelligible. Propriety need not be the external force from which we are alienated, but the embraced standard by which men can live. Like the man who tells a lie so often he comes to believe it, propriety can be truly felt. A man must give himself to civilisation, not secretly fight it. He will then find his gratification through his propriety. His desires and his standards will fall into line. He will shake off this Victorian curse and live, contentedly, among the civilised.

Such is the limit of what I can presently communicate on the subject. The whiskey bottle has scarcely enough in it to merit leaving for another occasion, so I will adjourn with it and return to serious thinking. Trusting you will not embarrass me, I shall remain

Your humble servant,

P.S. There is such a thing as too much tweed, you know. You’re at risk of becoming a bore, if not a boor.

November 07, 2011

Timothy Everest Online

I’m willing to bet that a fair portion of you will be putting hints in the way of your respective better halves about things you are craving for Christmas. Now that Timothy Everest has an online store, you will have something concrete to tell them about. I am the proud wearer of the Spitalfields tie you see here, and can attest to its quality and all around spiffiness. To be sure, I can think of things I’d rather take out of stockings, but in the realm of common decency this is as good as it gets. Happy shopping.

November 05, 2011

Remember, Remember; or, Forget Completely

Across England there will be conflagrations. Accident & Emergency centres will be on standby for their busiest night of the year, waiting for one idiotic teenager after another to explode through the doors with firework related injuries. Effigies of England’s most notorious Catholic will be burnt without a second thought, while delighted nippers will get sick on bonfire toffee and toffee apples. What fun!

For my American readers, which accounts for most of you, tonight is Guy Fawkes night, or if you prefer the euphemism, Bonfire Night. It’s a tradition that’s been suffering in recent years because of the rise of the infinitely more commercial Hallowe’en, which is an abomination of a festival in the eyes of this author. The proximity of the two events rather tires the public, who traditionally gave a ‘penny for the Guy’ (more on that below), but who are now held to ransom on their doorsteps a few days earlier by adolescents threatening to vandalise their property unless some money changes hands. Such is ‘trick or treat’ in England.

My childhood reminiscences about Guy Fawkes night are in the mode of innocence. Building a bonfire, watching the fireworks, making and then burning the Guy – it was all such a terrific wonder. The great taboo – fire – was once annually the licensed preoccupation of school children. It was an excitement akin only to Christmas morning. And it came with a song, which everybody knew and repeated, lest we should forget:

Remember, remember the 5th of November,
Gunpowder, treason and plot.
I see no reason why gunpowder treason
Should ever be forgot.

And so we sang it, having not much of a clue why we were supposed to remember it. Sometime in the 1980s, the health and safety brigade made the ‘remember, remember’ motto into a cautionary tale about ‘The Firework Code’, with pictures of little Johnny’s burnt hand, and the girl who had a firework go off in her face. I’m pretty sure that this put the very idea into the heads of many a scoundrel.

Round the neighbourhood we would go, dragging a lumpy representation of Guy Fawkes, the manufacturing costs of which were to be met by the village folk. The burning of this effigy was to honour the real burning of Guy Fawkes, who in 1605 attempted to blow up the Houses of Parliament in a Catholic plot to get rid of King James I. We vaguely knew this. We also vaguely knew that Fawkes had been caught in the act, tortured until he confessed, taken to the gallows, from which he jumped and broke his own neck. He was then drawn and quartered, and finally chucked on a great pyre as an example to any other Catholics with big ideas (there is some confusion about this last part). Somehow or other, it became a legendary victory for democracy.

The Conspirators
So, in short, a religious extremist took umbrage with the status quo and, in a desperate act of terrorism, tried to assassinate the representatives of government. That government, terrified and reactionary, used torture, killing, and rites of public humiliation to assert its authority. The public, raised to fever pitch with hatred and intolerance, smacked their bloodthirsty chops and carried out representative acts of torture and burning, so as to make their allegiances clear.

Oddly enough, it’s always been told as a story of just punishment for treason. In 1605, doubtless it was.

Any of this sound vaguely familiar? Funny, because while we’re all busy ‘remembering’ we seem to have forgotten completely.

Tonight I’ll be introducing the tradition to some Germans in a little village near Potsdam. There will be children, eyes sparkling at tales of historic gore, who will be instructed to remember. But as a good historian, my exhortation will have more to do with what seems to have become the moral of this story: what goes around comes around. Be vigilant.

November 03, 2011

Pole Dancing

Well, not really dancing. His Excellency, Dr. Marek Prawda, mark the truth, simply tapped his foot. The Polish Ambassador to Germany sat next to Joachim Sauer, the quantum chemist better known for being the husband of Angela Merkel. It was good to know that while the cat was tearing her hair out in Cannes, the mouse was out to play. It gives a sense of normalcy to all the talk of crisis. Sort of like the band playing on while the Titanic went down.

The event, part of a broad programme to mark Poland’s presidency of the EU – something between a poisoned chalice and an empty cup – was a performance by the ‘I, Culture’ Orchestra, made up of bright young things from Poland, Armenia, Azerbaijan, Belarus, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine, at the Berlin Philharmoniker. Conducted by Sir Neville Marriner, they fairly charged through Tchaikovsky’s Symphony No. 4 in F minor. Apart from one stripling who appeared, from the way she was coughing into the back of her viola, to have a sharp case of tuberculosis, it was a wholesome affair that gave one a mite of hope that young people might actually turn into fairly decent old people. Indeed, if I hadn’t seen them all smoking outside the stage door afterwards, looking cowed and ill-postured, I would have called them an elegant lot.

Sir Neville, who is ageing gracefully
There was one moment of extraordinary drama. After Arabella Steinbacher had finished chopping into Karol Szymanowski’s Violin Concerto No. 1, the chamber emptied for the obligatory interval. Toward the end of this hiatus, before the audience had re-assembled, fully ready to clap in all the wrong places, a hero appeared. Tall, broad-shouldered, with long, dark hair, this gallant fellow appeared on stage clutching a ball-gown clad young bassoonist. The fragile blond, with head thrown back and bosom heaving, completed a picture fit for a Mills & Boon cover. He carried her, over-the-threshold style, across the stage, her broken foot discreetly concealed, before gently lowering her into her seat. She then sat and waited for the rest of the orchestra, for what must have seemed like an age, embarrassed in the manner peculiar to pretty teenagers, but with the scattered audience who had stayed for the break now firmly in her corner.

The performance was rousing; Marriner was respectively exhaustive, exhausting, exhausted. Occasionally someone took the opportunity to shake hands with the dignitaries. I even saw a man click his heels and bow. This venue never ceases to surprise in its anthropological delights.

October 31, 2011

Berlin Conversations, or, Why Make the Effort?

It was only after some minutes that I realized she wasn’t taking in anything I said. She evidently couldn’t understand my English, for I was talking much faster now, and not choosing my words. In spite of her tremendous devotional effort of concentration, I could see that she was noticing the way I parted my hair, and that my tie was worn shiny at the knot. She even flashed a furtive glance at my shoes. I pretended, however, not to be aware of all this [Isherwood, Goodbye to Berlin, 1939]
Minus the Nazis and the playful communists – though one can still find both, I am sure – Isherwood’s Berlin is very reminiscent of my own. Admittedly, I do not know any cabaret singers, prostitutes, or Jewish department-store owners. I do, however, encounter more than my fair share of middle-aged German ladies; a fair portion of young Germans – rich and effete as well as poor and intellectual – of various stylistic and sexual orientations; and the ubiquitous drudgery of trudging working-class existence. I have been poor here, and I have been better off. I have been in some sleazy holes, some shabby-chic Lokals, and to rather many refined establishments. I have gibbered through frozen cobble-stoned winters and baked in oppressive concrete summers. The Berlin stories hit home.

The above passage is perhaps the epitome of my affinity for Isherwood’s tales. British English is, now more than ever, a provincial dialect of the lingua franca that only a privileged few understand. There is another dialect – International English – that I am learning to speak, with some difficulty. It is, as any regular reader of my humble prose will admit, impossible for me to imagine a life without idiom, without metaphor. But International English is just that: a two-dimensional functional dirge, the linguistic equivalent of protein pills and vitamin supplements in lieu of nutrition by culinary means.

There are two aces up the sleeve of the colourful but misunderstood speaker. First, being English still goes a long way. For better or for worse, the English accent ratchets up one’s reputation a couple of notches in most of the Western world. Second, one can dress to reinforce this a priori impression. As per Isherwood’s example, the inattentive ear gives play to the wandering eye, and one must therefore make the effort to look the part. A top-hole accent matched to a refined appearance can make magisterial prose out of mere rhubarb, rhubarb, rhubarb, and will leave your struggling interlocutor feeling like an intimate confidant.

In short, faced with a world that understands me not, I shall make the effort to look the part. Whatever I may say, I may then be confident that my befuddled companions at least have the right impression.

October 30, 2011

A Tweed Romance

It is tweed season. Long gone are the humid quandaries about the short trouser and the intransigent male knee; past is the rumple and crumple of processed flax; forgotten are our cotton discontents. We wait each year for the donning of Scottish twill, much as we shall lament its passing come spring, for the tweed season warms a man’s bosom just as his mantel warms his body. In tweed we reign majestic, clad in sturdy tradition, embodying fine craftsmanship, and ready for anything. Striding o’er hill and dale, sheep shoot us jealous glances at the finery we have woven from their coats. No fabric bespeaks sturdiness, fortitude and downright bloody-minded stubbornness as does this highland wooliness.

It is a solemn and momentous day when a man first acquires a coat of tweed, because it represents his emergence as himself. Tweed, after all, is the stuff of youthful scorn, unfairly associated with fusty granddads and stolidity. It comes with a bouquet of aristocratic rottenness that marks it out as a corrupt badge of distinction. It is a pompous old crotchety farmer. It is an Olde English hairshirt. It is, of course, none of these things, but it takes a profound moment of inner strength to tear off the drab overtones of threadbare stereotypes and thrust oneself into the loosely woven complexity of a truly adult suit of clothes. Tweed is a rite of passage.

From the wonderful Timothy Everest, of course.

Like all ceremonies, one is transported there each time the memory of it is evoked. Hence, at this time of year, one returns to the first tweedful radiance, in the blush ebullience of youth. The virgin crop of feelings of maturity, gravitas, authority and, above all, self-respect, return reinvigorated. One is re-born a man once again.  Let not the rock star, the high-street faux-tweed faux pas, or the Gant model deceive you. Tweed is truly a manly affair: not an on-again-off-again fling, but a perennial foundation stone of the goodness of man.

This post is dedicated to Gilles. Welcome to the club.

October 03, 2011

The Manliness of the Long-distance Runner

Don’t talk to me about jogging. Jogging is for memories, not for bodies. Jogging is to running as slow-walking with ski poles is to hiking. Jogging says, ‘I could do more than this, but I’m lazy’. It’s not about speed – everyone needs to find their pace – it’s about attitude. Tarting yourself up in go-faster stripes and prancing around the streets bespeaks a wilful vanity. Jogging is plainly ridiculous.

Running is about intent. At a minimum, it is about health maintenance. After that one can imagine all kinds of goals, from the 5k race for charity to some Herculean super marathon. But running is also about process, discipline, and mental fortitude. Anybody who runs invariably spends a good deal of time with himself, listening to his body’s complaints and overruling them; wading through memories, plans, conversations, and scenarios real and invented. If you were to appear alongside a me in full flow and say hello, chances are this would seriously disturb my concentration, like waking me from a dream, alerting me to the screaming in my calves and the pounding in my chest. I would seriously resent you for that, and that’s why I don’t run with other people.

But it’s never lonely. In order to push through the barriers set by our bodies – bodies that are weak and sedentary and accustomed to Western decadence – one must involve the mind in a dialogue, or a war, with the corporeal self. For every runner you see, there is another inside. The body always wants to stop. The mind either capitulates or it defies. The true runner defies.

One definition of manliness might be ‘mind over matter’. When the task at hand causes an instinctive bodily response that tells the brain ‘I can’t’, the response ‘wanna bet?’ bespeaks manliness. It calls forth a deeper reserve, an extra gear, an iron will. And once this is habitual then the mind finds a new level of freedom. Ask any serious runner and they’ll tell you that they sort out the world in their minds on long runs. Ten miles into a marathon, a man really begins to think. The body, docile and servile, functions by itself.

To joggers: stop it and get real.

September 06, 2011

The World, if not the Worm, doth turn

My presence here has been patchy of late, but I want to let you know that the ride didn’t stop. It simply ran on other rails for a while.

I can’t recall a busier summer of travel and work, which both fly for me right now under the banner of ‘application’. In any case, the summer’s work is bearing fruit, as you might expect, and harvesting it is a labour. Yours truly is back in gainful employment, at least for the time being, and committing his energies to his professional calling. Callings are the best and worst of life, for they demand to be done whether they come with joy or otherwise. For many a moon, my calling came with a kind of grief, where the rewards were always tainted by the overarching feeling of being misapprehended and under-valued, and by the stink of failure. One puts it all down to paying one’s dues. Get your head down; grin and bear it; soldier on.

Since I can’t guarantee that the upturn will endure, I’m making the most of it. If you spend a winter rationing last summer’s meagre bounty, then it is no time to be lazy and nonchalant when it’s time to gather this summer’s plentiful crop. A measure of success is not a sign to sit back and enjoy the ride. A measure of success is a sign to put your foot down and bloody drive. You’ll understand, perhaps, that this has kept me from these pages of late. Once I figure out how to make everything balance again, you’ll hear from me more often. There is no shortage of things to say, after all.

A quick shout out to Lily Lemontree, who will be posting my guide to elegant places to visit in Berlin later today, so she tells me. Do enjoy it.

August 17, 2011

Binge Drinking: An Explanation

I am no puritan when it comes to alcohol. I consider myself a lover of wine and a connoisseur of beer. Having been born and raised in the brewing capital of Great Britain (and once of the world), I grew up with the smell of beer in my nostrils, and soon developed a keen sense of barrel freshness, correct cellaring, the vagaries of beer that has had to travel, and the signal importance of being given good head by the barmaid.

While a significant minority of my compatriots share my studied enthusiasm for hoppy warm ale, most other Englishmen abuse the most obnoxious weasel urine in the name of simply becoming intoxicated. Anti-social as this is , especially in provincial cities on a Friday and Saturday night, recent rioting tendencies have given the weekly, or nightly, drunken binge a rather more sinister edge. Why then, do the English, more so than any other great drinking nation, consume their alcohol in such a rapid, indiscriminating, and ultimately harmful (to themselves and to those around them) fashion?

Licensing laws have recently been relaxed in Blighty, with certain bars and clubs staying open to all hours. The vast majority, however, still habitually close at 11.10 p.m., and it is to the historical reason for this timing that we must turn.

Before the Great War, the average pint might have cost a penny. You could reckon on it being 8 or 9% vol., and you could buy it in pubs for 17 ½ hours in the day. Men on different shift patterns could have a drink after work whether they finished at 6 a.m. or 6 p.m. There was no rush to drink, and indeed, many of them would have been drinking steadily throughout the day at work. The industrial nineteenth century had conquered many things, but the best way to guarantee safe drinking water was still, in many places, to boil it. The cheapest way to do that was to buy boiled water in the form of beer. In hot trades – steel works, for example – a man might consume twelve pints of small beer per shift. The nutritional content often meant that beer served for lunch and dinner. Indeed, in Russia until a couple of weeks ago, beer was classified as food, not as alcohol.

The war changed all of this. Britain was led by the temperance fanatic David Lloyd George, who famously declared that ‘we are fighting Germany, Austria and Drink, and and as far as I can see, the greatest of these deadly foes is drink’. With raw materials now being diverted for the production of food instead of brewing, the drink trade was instructed to reduce its output and to weaken its beer. The price also rose, through extra taxation for the good of the war effort, and because of the premium on beer’s ingredients. At the same time, the need for ‘national efficiency’ focussed attention on drunkenness as a hindrance to the production of munitions. 17 ½-hour opening was quickly ended, being reduced at a stroke to a mere 5 ½ hours per day.

The anger aroused among the British public was immense, and the Royal Commission of 1917 charged with investigating industrial unrest found that the chief cause of strikes was anger at the scarcity of beer. Nevertheless, the brewers’ profits soared under the new conditions, and drinking habits changed accordingly. The average man continued to spend his spare change on beer, but now he consumed as much as he could in the time available. The habit had to be served as quickly as possible. Moreover, the weakness of the beer now incentivised drinking even more of the stuff, but again, for only five hours per day. Binge drinking had been invented by a government determined to eliminate drunkenness.

The obvious choice, one might think, would have been to return, post-war, to the way things had been. But actually, the brewers’ new business model served them rather well. They could now charge more money for a weaker product in a streamlined business. Temperance activists were also happy, having not fully put two and two together about the consequences of reduced opening times. So, the licensing restrictions remained.

Until a couple of years ago, these restrictions were basically still in place. They had been steadily relaxed to allow afternoon opening and Sunday opening, but the last call at 10.50 p.m. (10.30 p.m. on Sundays) is a sort of national institution. The high price and weak beer still tend to result in people drinking a relatively large quantity in a short time, in order to maximise the effect of the alcohol.

Perhaps in time the relaxation of the licensing laws will reduce the lager loutish behaviour on the streets of England.  Until then, I’m rather fond of laying the blame at the feet of Lloyd George, the Welshman who brought binge drinking to the streets of Britain.

August 16, 2011

Utterly Incensed

I’m hoping some of the lovely bloggers on/of domestic elegance pick this up and help me out. Mrs. VB and I just moved in to a new apartment. One of the vagaries of contract work is that one never settles, and as such we often find ourselves in furnished places, subject to other people’s tastes. I have a high degree of tolerance for ugly domestic interiors, but I’m finding a certain hidden devil here rather difficult to live with.

It seems the previous tenants were burners of incense. I know of no good reason for incense, unless one counts Catholicism, and this experience is not improving my opinion. The smell won’t shift. The essential oils, or whatever they are, somehow seem to be in the very fabric of the place – in the wood, the walls, the floors – and no amount of fresh air and vinegar seems to be doing the trick.

Any suggestions?

August 15, 2011

The Politics of Mindlessness; Or, I Predict A Riot

I’ve been watching in despair as my country goes to the dogs, in almost as much horror at the politicians as at the rioters. I’ve heard the word ‘mindless’ bandied around so much by the powers that be, in an almost Tsarist display of denial at the social reality of the nation over which they preside and sit in judgement, that one truly suspects the word would best be reserved for the politicians themselves. The outpouring of violence and brand-name-driven looting – aggressive shopping, you might say – was frightening enough, but the failure of the authorities to understand its causes is more alarming still.

The segment of this generation of teenagers who saw fit to riot and help themselves is lost to a greater extent than any since the teenager was invented around the turn of the twentieth century. They have no idea of anything greater than themselves. They have been raised to aspire to empty celebrity, sloth, consumption, and all the glistering fool’s gold of post-modern consumerism. They have never been subjected to a meaningful ‘no’, for they have not been raised with a moral code or a moral conscience. Their idols laud criminality, anti-intellectualism, and the acquisition of shiny things. One way or another, English society has spawned a generation of magpies.

I remember distinctly when religious instruction in English state schools was outlawed. It preceded the birth of last week’s rioters by a year or three. Up until the age of about twelve, I used to get my moral education in school through the preaching of Christian values in daily assemblies. Whether one is religious or not, one has to figure that the idiom of this moral education ought not to have been removed without some plan to continue the moral education somehow. It might be considered possible, even useful, to educate people about morality, community, citizenship, without demanding that children make a pact with God. Values are embedded in tradition, in a sense of belonging (civic pride), and are based on human relations (family, friends, school). The instillation of esprit de corps, or the notion of a greater collective purpose than that of any individual aim, fuels self-respect and a sense of mutual responsibility. If people in authority do not provide the foundation for this esprit de corps you can bet that young people with come up with their own. Gangs of rampaging youths organised together through social networking could just as easily have been pulling for a worthy cause. But it’s too late now.

Sure enough, once religious assemblies were outlawed they were replaced by meaningless activities and collective head scratching about what to do. The timing of this pedagogical innovation coincided with the enforced death of Britain as a centre of manufacturing (primary industry was already dead) and of the demise of training in technological, vocational, or artisanal skills. Meanwhile the universities underwent massive expansion so that degrees could be handed out en masse, affording the hordes of the future unemployed a chance at dejection and feelings of under-achievement on a greater scale of self-inflated ego than hitherto. Those unable to matriculate could no longer depend on a trade or a skill, but were glamorised by the laddish lager and drug culture. Their sense of social exclusion was intensified. The ironic anthem of my generation – is it worth the aggravation to find yourself a job when there’s nothing worth working for? / It’s a crazy situation, but all I need are cigarettes and alcohol – became the disturbing reality of the next. The political landscape was squashed into an ugly composite portrait: a set of homogeneous white men distinguishable only by their respective red, blue and yellow ties. The lack of purpose in the individual lives of poor youths was mirrored in the lack of political will to really do anything about social fragmentation and ever-widening inequality. The lack of political choice led to disengagement, apathy, fatalism. Votes, as it became painfully obvious in the last General Election, have ceased to mean anything. Go to Burger King or go to MacDonald’s. In the end you get much the same thing: a bland burger that will kill you eventually.

What happened to the spirit of the Blitz?

These riots were not mindless. This violence did not come out of the clear blue sky. The situation has been produced by the aimless and feckless politicking of a generation and it is time that somebody stood up and took responsibility. There can be all the talk in the world about the future policing of this kind of collective outburst, but until somebody starts talking seriously about how to teach values and virtues, and until somebody starts to think seriously about how communities work, there will only be one certainty: it will happen again.

August 04, 2011

Complaints and How to Answer Them

After a recent travel debacle, I decided to complain. My letter and the response are below. Sometimes being manly is about knowing when you've been wronged as a paying customer and standing up for yourself, within civilised bounds, of course. It clearly hits home. I congratulate Delta for the tenor of their reply.

Dear Sir/Madam,

I would like to describe to you my journey from Montreal to Berlin on Air France on the 28th-29th June, 2011. I would like to ask you if you would yourself tolerate such an experience. I further wish to know why, given the competition in the airline market, I should ever choose to fly with Air France again? You should be aware that this is a trip I have made about three times per year for the last five years or so on different airlines. Of all of these experiences, my recent Air France trip was the worst. I hope you will reply promptly to this letter. In two weeks time I shall publish this letter on a blog that receives about 12,000 page views per month. I should very much like to include your reply.

My trip began with a delay. The scheduled departure time of 17.20 was put back to 19.00. No explanation was offered. In the event, we did not depart until 19.45 because of “boarding difficulties.” This delay occurred even though boarding began at 17.30 – a full 90 minutes before departure. The first load of passengers, myself included, were driven to the aircraft in a vehicle that raised and lowered itself. When this vehicle arrived at the aircraft it stood there, suspended thirty feet in the air, for 40 minutes. There was nowhere to sit, no ventilation, and no explanation.

Once underway I realised immediately that the screen in my seat did not work. I informed a flight attendant who said he would “re-set” it. He forgot. When I could next attract his attention I asked again and he saw to it. It was one hour into the flight before I was able to avail myself of the in-flight entertainment. I watched a movie. As soon as it was over, the screen went black and the system remained inoperable for the remainder of the flight.

At no point before being served a meal was I (or anyone else) offered a drink. What happened to champagne in economy? It was your proudest boast in former times. By the time I was served my meal I had been sitting in my seat for three hours. The man next to me repeatedly asked for water and was either ignored or told explicitly to wait for his meal.

The quality of the meal was very poor. I’m not sure of the wisdom of serving scallops in economy even under the best of circumstances, since they are dangerous when re-heated. In this case, however, it was completely inedible. I actually wondered if a small piece of hard rubber had accidentally landed in my salad by mistake, until I realised that everyone had one. In addition there was no choice of meal offered. It was a questionable beef and pasta dish or nothing.

My connecting flight was in Paris. Unbeknownst to me, I arrived in chaos. When I first checked the boards, my 10.20 flight to Berlin was showing “on time.” At 10.00 it changed to “delayed until 10.55.” At 10.30, the flight disappeared altogether from the boards. I asked three separate Air France members of staff at the gate what was happening, and all three assured me that the flight was not cancelled.

At 10.50, it was announced that the flight was, prior assurances notwithstanding, cancelled. At this point, the Air France member of staff at the gate began to communicate without a microphone and only in French to the assembled crowd. I could neither hear nor understand her. Confusion was extreme. Eventually I managed to get re-booked onto an earlier flight that was about six hours (!) delayed.

No reason was given for any of this. Rumour was the only source of information: a French strike? A lightning strike? Only at 12.00 did the pilot of the next flight tell us of a massive systems failure in Paris, but it is hard to believe that this can be allowed to happen.

I arrived in Berlin shortly before 14.00. The baggage did not arrive for nearly an hour. No reason given; no communication. Needless to say, when the bags did arrive, mine was not there. I went and joined what turned out to be a very long queue of disgruntled Air France customers reporting missing bags. Mercifully, I was near the front. I reported my case, and was assured the bag would be with me the next day. That should have been today (June 30th). I called the service and was told that my bag had been found but was still (!) in Paris. I am now expecting delivery tomorrow. Of course, I am without clothing, and without some important items in my case.

I left the airport finally at 15.30. The total travel time, from scheduled departure until leaving the airport at my destination: about 16 hours. From Montreal to Berlin, that is completely ridiculous.

In all, my trip was a series of delays, with poor service, poor communication, poor food, and lost luggage. I highly recommend that your senior customer services representatives try flying Air France Economy some time and see how they like it. I wouldn’t wish this trip on my worst enemy, and yet I undertook it voluntarily! I even paid hundreds of euros for the privilege! It seems that Air France needs to be reminded that its customers are neither cattle, nor are they cargo. Your passengers were sorely let down by this frankly brutal experience.

I hereby challenge you to make amends: what assurances, or compensation, can you offer me that might once again induce me to purchase an Air France ticket? I promise you I will not be easily tempted to return.

Sincerely yours,


Dear Dr. [VB]

Thank you for your communication.  I would like to inform you that Delta Air Lines represents Air France and KLM in North America.  Therefore, on behalf of Delta Air Lines and our SkyTeam partners, I would like to extend our sincere apology for flight disruptions causing your late arrivals and our service failures on your trip to Berlin on Air France.

After reading your email, I can only imagine your frustration when the Air France flight from Montreal to Paris was delayed.  I am so sorry for this inconvenience of leaving over two hours late.  To make matters worse, the connecting flight to Berlin was canceled and you were rebooked on another flight that was delayed six hours.

We all take on time performance very seriously and despite our tough economic conditions are not sacrificing these goals or safety in any way.  At the same time, we realize travelers want an airline they can count on to reach their destinations in a timely manner and how upsetting it is when plans are disrupted.

Additionally, it is disturbing that you were not offered explanations by the Air France staff regarding these flight disruptions.  We expect our team members to provide prompt flight information updating our passengers at the gates, but I apologize your experience in Montreal and Paris was to the contrary.

Also, I am truly sorry for your disappointment with the inflight service received on our flight from Montreal to Paris.  I deeply regret our video system was malfunctioning  on this lengthy flight, you were not offered a beverage prior to our meal service, and the food quality served was unfavorable without being offered a choice of meals.  We want our partner's inflight environment to be pleasing to our customers, but I understand your disappointment with the inadequate service you received on this flight.

Finally, after waiting one hour for the checked in baggage to arrive, I am so sorry your checked in luggage did not arrive with you in Berlin. Like you, we certainly wish that instances of mishandled bags never occurred.  Your frustration is understood considering you were without clothing and some important items during this delay.  Please know we have dedicated goals for delivering bags, but I apologize, again, for this inconvenience.

We appreciate you taking the time to advise us of this unfortunate experience.  It is important for us to know any instance where our partner's service is lacking.  Please know your concerns are taken very seriously and have been thoroughly documented.  Be assured, I will be sharing your comments with the Air France Airport Customer Service leadership teams in Montreal, Paris and Berlin for their internal follow up.

As a gesture of sincere apology for our flight disruptions, our inflight service failures and your mishandled baggage,  I have issued an Electronic Transportation Credit Voucher (eTCV) in the amount of $200.  Please note the voucher number and associated Terms and Conditions will be arriving in a separate email.  I encourage you to add Delta Air Lines to your receiver list so the voucher document is not misdirected to your spam folder.  Please keep the voucher number and the Terms and Conditions since the number is required for redemption.  It is also important to remind you that there is no Direct Ticketing fee for reservations confirmed online at

Dr. [VB], thank you for your support as an Ivory Flying Blue member and for trusting your business to us. We hope you will continue to choose Delta Air Lines and our SkyTeam partners, Air France and KLM, for your future air travel needs. Please know your comments will not go unnoticed.  We will make every attempt to serve you better in the future as we look forward to our continued business relationship.  Thank you for writing to us.


Thomas Wyborski
Coordinator, Customer Care
Delta Air Lines

July 25, 2011

Fleet Street; or, Pipes, Facial Hair, and Suits

I love everything about this, and I think many of you will as well. If only newspaper men still looked like this, what? Click on the picture to be taken to the video. Be prepared for smart men in wide-lapel suits, pipes in conference rooms, and moustaches at which one could not shake a stick.


July 20, 2011

Is Sport Dead? Or, the Lie Detector

Years ago I found the single-best golf membership in the world. At Ampleforth College, a sort of Catholic Eton on the edge of the North York Moors, there is a challenging little golf course primarily for the use of the pupils. There’s also a private members roll, and on enquiry I discovered that the subscription rate for students (as I then was) ran at only £50 for the year. Who could refuse? I sent in my form, and wrote to the secretary asking if he required proof of my student status. The reply was just what you might have expected: ‘The last time I looked’, he said, ‘golf was an honourable game. No proof will be required.’

I had a happy two years in that honourable place, and in the adjacent pub. But I’m given to reflect on the diminution of that spirit of trust in sport in general. The influence of money has corrupted most of the pursuits we love, and the spectre of cheating lies in wait for those activities we cherish as sacred. Baseball has been disgraced; cricket is in the mire; athletics (track & field) has become the least trustworthy display of athleticism known to man; and cycling is a plain farce. I could go on.

Hogarth, Pit Ticket. The shadow of a dishonourable man hangs over the game cocks.

In times past the influence of money was perhaps just as prevalent, but the general sense of shame, or fear of disgrace, checked abuses. In the heady days of cockfighting, which before the 1830s was as popular and as monied as horse racing, those who made false bets were publicly exposed, suspended from the ceiling in a large basket, and alienated from the community until all debts were properly settled. The community regulated itself because the honour was the point of the activity. Winning was hollow unless winning was genuine. And when winning was genuine there was no shame in losing. The better man, or his cock, won, and hands were shaken.

The spirit of fair play is integral to sport, and that is contingent upon trust. Sport must be honourable or else it is not sport. With this in mind I viewed with some horror the latest developments at the Marylebone Cricket Club (MCC). The MCC is the home of cricket at Lord’s in London, and upholds everything good about the traditions of the sport. It is stuffy, conservative, and typically reactionary, but it is all these things in the best traditions of the English anti-revolutionary pace of reform.

Enter the Australian: Steve Waugh is a member of the MCC’s World Cricket Committee. He’s a former Australian captain, and a fabulously plucky character. And Steve Waugh is cheesed off. Fed up with being asked how many games he played in were fixed, Mr. Waugh decided to put himself through a lie-detector test. Naturally, he passed the test with flying colours, but in his report to the media he suggested that the polygraph ought to be taken up by the sport so that innocent men could prove their innocence and restore public confidence. The integrity of the sport, he seems to suggest, depends on honourable men being subjected to lie detection.

My strong feeling is that the fading integrity of the sport is killed outright by such a suggestion. If an innocent and honourable man truly is innocent and honourable, then I will take him at his word. If I am betrayed, no doubt it will come out in due course, and we will shake our heads. But the fundamental point is that we would be better to educate our youngsters to uphold the games they play in the right spirit so that such barbarisms as polygraphy are unnecessary. Doubtless, a return to the glory days of amateurism are not set to return, but that does not mean that we have to accept the notion that financial reward is the raison d’être of sport. Primarily, I expect sportsmen to be sportsmen because they fundamentally love their sport, and love the competition that comes with it. If we can instil this precept, we shall not have to worry so much about corruption.

If lie detectors are really thought necessary, then the sprit of sport is surely dead. I await the outcry of honourable men.

July 17, 2011

Sous les Feuilles

The art of lying on the grass, of dispensing with knife and fork, of making yourself generally useful – with the air of one accustomed to be generally useless, – is not to be mastered in an afternoon. As it is held a special compliment to a man’s manners and intellectual gifts, to ask him to breakfast, so it should be high flattery to bid him be merry in good company under the greenwood tree. Let the candid reader admit, however, that there is vast room for improvement in the art of dining with nothing between you and the pendent caterpillar. (The Epicure’s Year Book for 1869).
No larger feast than under plane or pine,
With neighbours laid along the grass, to take
Only such cups as left us friendly-warm,
Affirming each his own philosophy –
Nothing to  mar the sober majesties
Of settled, sweet, Epicurean life.
(Tennyson, Lucretius, 1868).
Somewhere in between the ideal and the awkward lies the picnic reality. But let not the peripatetic formicidae put you off. Inspired by Lily Lemontree a little while ago, Mrs. VB and I sprawled ourselves out on the lawn in front of Schloss Schönhausen – a quiet little seventeenth-century palace that has recently been restored – and partook of brie, grapes, black German bread, Leberwurst, and Riesling.

I had planned to read aloud for the afternoon, but the book remained unopened. Not long into the affair we spotted a jogging philosopher friend who I had not seen in several years. Seeing our horizontal civility as eminently preferential to his unseemly Sabbatical activity, he trotted over, caught his breath, and chewed the fat for an hour or more. This is the kind of thing that happens in Berlin. We soon set the world to rights, and made a dinner date for next month, to resume a conversation about my next book, in which he has a keen interest.

A gentle promenade around the grounds followed, before heading home. Ants, wasps and Heidegger were left on the grass to their own devices. For once, the weather forecast was completely accurate. In short, I recommend this oft-forgotten activity. Do it with grace and a little charm. Do it with passing intellectuals, if you can spot them. Do it with a decently chilled bottle of wine. But most of all, do it, won’t you?

July 15, 2011

On Waiting; On Persevering

You must go on, I can’t go on, I’ll go on.

I apologise for my patchy presence of late. Work rolls in unpredictable tides, and I can hardly complain about being up to my neck in the rising waters. At some point I expect to stop floundering and start floating. After that I’ll start thinking about navigation, but one mustn’t get ahead of oneself. In any case, professional obligations are impinging on the limited writing space my head will allow, and that accounts for the recent dearth. Normal service will, I am sure, be resumed anon.

Of course, in asking for your patience, I am mindful of my own waiting and persevering game. The world of the writer/scholar is not the jet-setting and exotic existence one might be forgiven for thinking it is. Travel is a blessing, yes, but when one is constantly in search of bread it is easy to forget the joyousness of it all. Being left to the contrivances of one’s own mind is a liberation, but often also a frustrating constraint. Nobody ever tells me what to do at work. Sometimes – and I immediately chide myself for so thinking – I wish somebody would tell me what to do. Working independently forces a man to confront the thing upon which he is never fully sure he can depend: himself. It is a constant battle of organisation, self-imposed dead lines, motivation, and crises of self-assurance and confidence. The structure provided by a regular job has to be provided entirely by the self. In short, it takes a good deal of will continually to make it work. Knowing that the intended goal is worthwhile is important. Persevering into the biting gale of procrastination is at least equally significant.

Bear with me, dear friends. I’ll be with you soon.

July 07, 2011

Confessions of a Four-year Old

Yesterday’s musings on neighbours inadvertently threw up an old flame from my puerile fantasy world. Combine that with a bang on the head and suddenly I’m remembering the other influential women from my days of emerging consciousness. A four-year old surely does not have much to go on when it comes to the rational discrimination of beauty, so I offer you these four angels as pure forms, who appealed to me in an unmitigated manner, haunting my early childhood dreams. My wife says it is pretty clear what my ‘type’ was, but I had thought from a relatively young age that I could pretty much find a redeeming beauty in any face. I wonder now if those redeeming features in some way evoke the memory of a small part of these four faces. Looking at them now, together, for the first time in years, I realise that the primal attraction is undimmed. Looking at them in their current form, wearing the years most respectably, I think my four-year old self knew what he was doing. Anyway, with apologies for this bizarre turn (surely a result of a rattled brain), may I present Felicity, Agnetha, Deborah, and Olivia. Please bear in mind that I want to hear nothing whatsoever about Freud. If that’s your cup of tea, fine, but drink it somewhere else.


And now:

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