February 23, 2011

Winter, Get Away: More About Cake

This is likely my last post until Tuesday next week. It’s back down to -11C here in Berlin, and we’ve had enough. De-camping to Barcelona for the long weekend.

There are only so many things one can do to stay cheery when the winter drags on like this. One can dress accordingly, of course:

And one can partake of plenty of this:

Or this.

My part of town is rather rich in cake and coffee. It comes of people being beautiful and unemployed. Is it manly? Doubtless not, but winter comforts sometimes take priority.

Incidentally, outside the café that serves these delights is a clump of old tree trunks, standing about eight feet high, with holes cut in them in various places, big enough to accommodate books. People drop their unwanted books in the tree and others come by for a browse and take what they like. There’s something rather sturdily reassuring about a tangible tree of knowledge, offering such delights as Flaubert, the Spanish language in Italian, and Thomas Mann. Since nobody would find the thing if they weren’t on their way for cake, I hereby upgrade the eating of cake to an intellectual pursuit.

Until next week then. Stay manly.

*Pics all mine save the last, which I stole manfully from foodieinberlin. Coat: Danier; Jacket: Nino Cerruti; Shirt: Hilfiger; Tie: Mila Schön; Cardigan: Iceland; Jeans: Levi's 514 straight; scarf: Liberty of London; cakes: Himbeer Sahne and  Schoko Limette.

February 21, 2011

Three Treatises On Nothingness

I beg you to forgive the filmic turn of late, but occasionally one taps a vein and finds that all the blood is running in the same direction. Hollywood has always been the purveyor of emptiness, but recently its hotshot female directors have been selling us some pretty, powerful critiques of our own meaningless existences. Hollywood created us, they say, and now we are as meaningless as it is. If we subscribe to these critiques – if we see in them the image of our own existence – then something profound and terrible has happened. All substance is gone, and all men are mere bodies, taking up space.

The Kids Are All Right (2010) is a manless movie in the extreme. Writer/director Lisa Cholodenko follows the bland domesticity of a lesbian couple whose kids secretly seek, and find, their sperm donor father. The overachiever and underachiever lesbian pair make for a drab existence who have drab sex and argue about alcohol consumption. Their suburban comfort has bred suburban, two-dimensional children, who seek not their father but “their moms’ donor.” This man, who has been reduced to his seminal fluid, transpires to be little more than that when encountered in the flesh. He’s a drop out, a womaniser, a grower of organic vegetables, and to all intents and purposes a loser. He sleeps with one of the moms, who has found herself dissatisfied with being a non-person. Of course, that just makes her an unfaithful non-person and serves to relegate the “donor” back to his position of obscurity. Mom and mom make it up and send their daughter off to college. The daughter seizes her independence, better for the failure of her one shot at garnering a male role model. The son does not know where to turn to find out how to become a man. There are glimmers of hope in the “donor,” but we are far from convinced that this man knows anything about being a man himself, let alone about being a father. On the point of self-realisation, he his thrust back into his trite life with a new found and heavy disappointment.

Somewhere (2010) is the latest film from Sofia Coppola, and looks like an indictment on her childhood. While daddy was busy crafting a masterpiece, his daughter was observing the reality behind the make believe. The idea of story telling is almost lost in Hollywood. Re-makes stand in for original ideas, and where original ideas do emerge they are entirely self-referential. We may have already been under the impression that behind all the LA glam there was nothing but grim vacuity. Ms. Coppola shows it to us in all its dull monotony. Stephen Dorff plays a famous actor. We do not know if he is talented, or if he is simply a celebrity. It makes no odds. His life is sedated, pointless, humdrum, seen blearily through a self-medicated haze. The only glimmer of hope is the 11-year old daughter of a broken marriage, whose notion of life has not yet been fully corrupted by the sleazy meaninglessness of showbiz. All the trappings of masculinity, defined in the American macho sense, are here: twin pole dancers, fast cars, groupies, booze. None of it raises our hero’s pulse above the barely alive, and ultimately he realises he is nothing. He is nothing and it is impossible for him to be something. He drives out into the desert and ditches his car, wandering off in search of revelation. But we shall be fools if we think Coppola intends him to find it. Ain’t nothing out there but heatstroke and rattle snakes.

If Stephen Dorff’s future is bleak, the possibilities for the rest of us, who do not even have the interference of the paparazzi to look forward to, is put forward with absurd candour in Miranda July’s The Future (2011). Preying on our irredeemable sentimentality, we are compelled to hate the protagonists by the first-person narrative of a stray cat, due to be adopted, but never in fact collected. The cat, whose wildness is masked only by the most tenuous veil of domesticity, represents the nature of the heroine (Miranda July, who also supplies the voice for the cat). The man of the film, meanwhile, is an anonymous home-working tech-support provider. Beyond their own four walls, nobody seems to recognise that they are alive, and in their meagre domestic life they are perpetually hypnotised by Facebook and Youtube. A crisis is brought about by the thought of owning a cat. They are thirty-five. By the time the stray dies they will be forty. Forty is practically fifty, and the rest, our hero reflects, is just “loose change.” In their last-ditch efforts to do something meaningful with their lives – her to dance, him to save the environment – they both realise that they are hopeless cases. She is a useless dancer (the acting here is magical. It takes a great dancer to be that bad). The planet is already doomed. She strikes up an affair with an older man, for fuck’s sake. It is dangerous and she can’t handle it. Our hero’s world comes to a standstill when he learns of the affair. His emptiness is thrown into relief. Both hero and heroine forget to pick up the cat, who is euthanized. The heroine returns. The hero offers her nothing. She says “okay”: “okay to nothing.” The visions of their future, which have haunted them throughout this movie, are accepted with fatalistic resignation. We’re all just strays, thinking we’re something, wanting to be loved, waiting to be put out of our misery.

There is no redemption in any of these movies; nor do any of the characters, especially not the men, deserve any. Are we supposed to see our own nothingness in these scripts? Are we meant to check ourselves in the mirror and say to ourselves, seriously, “who are we kidding?” We have no talent, no substance, no future? It’s all surface, and sham, and bodily fluids? Maybe some people could do with the wake-up call, but they won’t see these movies. As for the rest of us, it’s one long chapter of insults. Don’t watch these movies if you want inspiration, or if you crave a modern, or post-modern hero. But if you want to be stirred into action through indignity and defiance, these movies receive my seal of approval.

One, Two, Three

How do you make a gentleman aristocrat out of a Bolshevik? Make him the heir to a Coca-Cola fortune, of course.

February 20, 2011

When To Fight And When To Take A Beating

The young man and his girlfriend had parted ways in acrimonious circumstances. It was always a mismatch, but the pressures of adolescence were such that the gulf between them was filled with the vile interpositions of their classmates, who voyeuristically saw the relationship as a kind of soap opera for which they might have a hand in the script.

Teenagers are cruel animals and, if left unchecked, will revel in the sight of another’s public suffering. This group had hungered to witness, and had therefore worked hard to orchestrate, the couple’s loss of innocence. The physical aspect of love is something that must come when all parties are good and ready, and certainly not at the behest of the salacious mob. The girl, being of an easily led disposition, caved to the peer pressure and made a demand of the young man, despite his protestations. She would be in an out-of-the-way spot at a certain time, but where the crowd would have a splendid vantage point. All duly assembled, but the young man did not attend. A posse of girls were sent to summon him, and to drag him there if necessary, but the young man was intractable. The mere suggestion was abhorrent to him, and he stood his ground. Then came the ultimatum: if he did not respond within five minutes, the relationship was over. And so it ended. The trysts and entanglements of young passions are ephemeral things, fiery and fraught, full of hormone-fuelled emotional difficulty. They are over quick, but linger long in the conscience. The young man had fought, however passively, the bestial urges of his cohort, and felt a pang at their lack of humanity. He had surrendered the girl to them as their willing champion. Pyrrhic victory was his, but it was hollow.

Then came the bitterness. An onslaught of insults and depredations poured in the direction of the young man, who had satisfied his principles but angered the mob. Egged on by their disappointment, the girl launched a volley of invectives that lasted for a week. The boy remained silent for as long as he could endure, but driven to breaking point his character gave way and he summoned the worst insult his soul could muster. The words were aimed not at the girl, but at her mother. They were cruel words, designed to crush. The name-calling of children is an unimaginative business, but the more intelligent youngster can devise words to pierce the heart. As they left his lips he knew he had lost the high ground. He had surrendered to the level of his peers. Whatever happened now, he realised he had defeated himself. The girl was demoralised and went away to charge her anger. There would be blood.

The next day the young man stood in line waiting for his turn to go into the school dining room. The girl approached, jaw set, fists clenched. The young man turned his back in shame and she punched, hard, like a boy, three times in the back of the head and neck. The young man took these blows and turned to face the girl. Hands by his side he looked her in the eye, and then she swung at his face, splitting his lip, and making a colourful show of it. He did not speak, nor react. Another boy led him away to be cleaned up.

Feeling rightly punished, but also recovering some of his sense of character and propriety, the young man knew that was an end to it all. The girl had lost any right to compassion, and also put herself out of the reckoning so far as other suitors were concerned. The young man had learnt a lesson. Pushed to an extreme, he had faltered, but then recovered. It is a common cliché that one must learn from one’s mistakes. Of course, the unsaid but essential element of this axiom is that one must make mistakes in order to learn.

February 19, 2011

In Praise of Cake, Double Wicks, and Bow Ties

You’ll all be pleased to hear that the little party of last night went off in the right spirit. Homemade hummus, tzatziki, and tapenade were duly demolished, along with all the Sekt, and plenty more besides. Yours truly is slowly rehydrating before going for the Saturday long run. Candle, lit at both ends, is burning rapidly I assure you.

But what would a party be without cake? Thankfully, a good friend and former student of mine came up trumps with the most evil chocolate cake I have ever tasted. Comprising 500g of butter, a whole kilo of sugar, and ten eggs, this thing was a heart attack on a stick. And this is just as things should be. Too many people these days attempt to make chocolate cakes full of compromises, but frankly if you need to compromise you simply shouldn’t eat chocolate cake. Why transform the divine into the mundane? Surely that’s just depressing.

It may be of academic interest, but here’s a snippet of last night’s rig – nothing too formal, for we were at home after all. The best thing about a bow tie, by the way, is pulling on one end of it when the night gets long. Nothing says ‘man had a good time’ like the undone knot.

And so to the track, well buttered.

February 18, 2011


Can’t stop, I’m prepping for a party chez nous for Mrs. VB’s birthday. Remember the golden rules:

1. Don’t allow glasses to reach empty.
2. Ask the guests about them, and stop wittering on about oneself.
3. Be charming. Always be charming.
4. Do everyone the honour of looking good, but don’t look like you did everyone the honour of looking good.
5. Stay a few shades under a skin full. No man ever cut La Bella Figura when three sheets to the wind.

Until tomorrow, dear friends.

February 17, 2011

On Civic Courage, Pushing, and The King's Speech

The German crowd positively thronged. In front of one door, the circus of lights and cameras suggested the peculiar lack of action that is Hollywood glam on the red carpet. The crowd here did not have tickets, but thirsted after a view of celebrity in the flesh. In front of the other door, a more sober crowd hunched its shoulders against the cold, gritted its teeth, and – after a Teutonic fashion – bayed for bread. Its nourishment of choice took the form of a good seat in the Friedrichstadtpalast so as to be better able to see the film in question. It was an avoidable mob. If only the organisers of the Berlinale (hailed as the people’s film festival) had bothered to assign seating, all the unpleasantness could have been avoided. As it was, the doors opened and the crowd charged. Old ladies stumbled in the stampede, and were trampled upon by other old ladies who had greater reserves of strength. It was as if Ryan Air had bought one of those new, super-large airbuses and had organised a free-for-all.

The film the crowd maddened to see was, funnily enough, about finding the courage to stand up for civilisation. Apparently, that’s the kind of thing people will risk their necks (or the necks of others) to see. Once seated, of course, the mob transformed into an entirely different animal: sober, respectful, and splendidly quiet. I’m no closer to understanding any of this than I ever was, but one cannot review a film, it seems to me, without reviewing the experience of seeing the film, of which all this is part and parcel.

Mrs. VB was sagacious enough to acquire for us two tickets to the gala opening of The King’s Speech, which was dutifully attended by Mr. Firth, Ms. Bonham-Carter, and Mr. Hooper. With the exception of Timothy Spall’s overly caricatured figure of Winston Churchill I thought the film absolutely splendid. There was some playing fast and loose with history, but such are films. In essence, the characters were well demarcated according to character, and overall George VI (Firth) represented an excellent example of civic courage, ably assisted by a stark contrast to the feckless and dishonourable Edward VIII (Guy Pearce), who demonstrated the timeless truth that clothes do not make the man.

I'm no paparazzo, but I stooped to snap this one

Packaged with considerable humour, the film depicts the struggle of a man to overcome all-too-human fears in order that he may perform sovereign duties. Those duties, as it transpires, were slight: mere reading, in fact. He neither had to think up, nor write his speeches. The sentiments were not his own, or at least did not have to be. He did not need to believe what he said, and he did not need to act upon what he said. But he had to talk of defeating the principle of might over right, and to rouse the real courage of those who would defeat it; he had to be believed, for people follow what they perceive to be the example of their leaders. The King’s stammer, a product of fear, would not embolden a nation, but make it hesitate on the trigger. The stammer had to go; the depths of personal misery and a history of abuse had to be plumbed; a speaker to be believed in had to be fashioned.

Twice in the film, the man who would rather not have been king was described as ‘the bravest man I know’. On both occasions I thought the speaker could not have known many men. But then, it takes a special kind of bravery to lead when you would rather follow; to honour duty when it falls on you against your will; to represent steadfastness when what you feel is weakness. Here was a man whose position meant he could not fight (although he once fought); a man who could barely string together a sentence; and a man who feared the life that birth and happenstance had dealt him. And despite these things, here was a man who had to make others believe that they could fight, and fight for him, for he embodied them as a sovereign nation.

How pleasant to see a king made humble but not left humble, as is the wont of the modern media. We are left with an image of a hero, a leader, a true king. We are confronted with circumstances that we, as ordinary men, will never face; but we see this man facing them and we admire his spirit. He becomes an aspirational figure, and garners our respect, and more importantly, our allegiance.

The audience laughed. The audience spontaneously erupted in bursts of applause during the film. The audience embraced the film’s vision of civilisation and its defenders. And then the audience stood up and pushed its way out onto the street.

February 16, 2011

International Be A Gentleman Day

By no means confine your gentlemanliness to a single day, but let February 22nd, the first International Be A Gentleman Day, be a signpost for the way things should continue. An Australian fellow by the name of Peter Ryan – why is it that I encounter so many good Australians these days? – established the concept and set up Today’s Gentleman last autumn. The ethos of the site is much in the vein of my own, and I’m more than happy to point you generous people in his direction. You can officially declare your taking part on the 22nd on the facebook event page. What does it entail? I’ll let it stand in Ryan’s own words:

This is a day for all (men and women) to reacquaint themselves with going about their day constantly displaying “Gentlemanly” conduct.
      In the busy, time-poor society of today, sometimes it is a little too easy to forget the importance of courtesy, respect, consideration and, dare I say it: Chivalry.
      This is a day to hold the door open for the next person, give up your seat for someone who needs it more, help someone in need, let the lane changer in, let the person with two items go in front of you in the supermarket queue, hold the lift, share a taxi, look around you and make the world a better place one Gentlemanly action at a time.
      BaG day is also a time to recognise and celebrate those who have consistently displayed these behaviours, and to show others the quality of social interactions possible when everyone is behaving this way.
What makes me certain of his intent is his highlighting of a definition of integrity from dear old Wikipedia. In case you were wondering:
Integrity is a concept of consistency of actions, values, methods, measures, principles, expectations, and outcomes. In ethics, integrity is regarded as the quality of having an intuitive sense of honesty and truthfulness in regard to the motivations for one’s actions. Integrity can be regarded as the opposite of hypocrisy, in that it regards internal consistency as a virtue, and suggests that parties holding apparently conflicting values should account for the discrepancy or alter their beliefs. The word ‘integrity’ stems from the Latin adjective integer (whole, complete). In this context, integrity is the inner sense of ‘wholeness’ deriving from qualities such as honesty and consistency of character. As such, one may judge that others ‘have integrity’ to the extent that one judges whether they behave according to the values, beliefs and principles they claim to hold.
If a man wishes to sponsor integrity, we must only ask where to sign on.

February 15, 2011

A Three-Pipe Problem

      ‘What are you going to do, then?’ I asked.
      ‘To smoke,’ he answered. ‘It is quite a three-pipe problem, and I beg that you won’t speak to me for fifty minutes.’ He curled himself up in his chair, with his think knees drawn up to his hawk-like nose, and there he sat with his eyes closed and his black clay pipe thrusting out like the bill of some strange bird. I had come to the conclusion that he had dropped asleep, and indeed was nodding myself, when he suddenly sprang out of his chair with the gesture of a man who has made up his mind, and put his pipe down upon the mantel-piece. (Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, The Red-Headed League, 1891).
Mr. Nestor pressed his thumb down on a half-filled pipe, closed his eyes, and thought. Over a long life he had come to recognise the difference between a connoisseur, an addict, and a buffoon. People who smoked common-or-garden cigarettes – foul things – merited none of his attention. They were slaves to nasty tobacco, and he could not laud the wilfully enslaved, however wonderful their character in between puffs. Men who smoked cigars for the look of the thing on special occasions, with no mind to what a cigar was beyond its use as an ever-decreasing phallic symbol, also did not command his attention. They compensated for lack of depth by conspicuous display. It was not for him. The cigar aficionado – not merely the purchaser of the eponymous magazine – was a different matter altogether. He saw the art in the thing, and went about his business as might an expert of wine, or of porcelain. So long as he was not obsessed by the passion that burnt within him, Mr. Nestor was interested to talk to him (knowing, of course, that there was usually fire where there was smoke).

For Nestor, all of these characters faded into the mist when put next to the man of the pipe. The pipe smoker was one of three things: deeply cerebral and intelligent, worldly wise, or a fool. (Nestor disregarded the fourth pipe smoker: the affected man. Any pipe smoker who did not fit his three categories was a charlatan and a disgrace. To smoke a pipe as an affectation was to ape virtue; and virtue, Nestor thought, could not be found in any ape.) He thought back over many decades to his early childhood, sitting on the bony knee of his grandfather, who prepared his pipe with meticulous ease. The sweet blue smoke enveloped them like a shawl, and the child craned his neck to hear what lessons in life might rise up on the plumes of smoke, to be inhaled and passively absorbed. Here was learning, straight from the wisdom of lived years.

Nestor then considered the learning of books and of civilisation, and the teachers thereof. The pipe, for dons and politicians, connected a circuitry of thinking and doing; breathing, cogitating and gesticulating. The pipe, brought to the lips, signified cerebration. As it was withdrawn and directed towards listeners, it presaged words of direction, of decision, and of authority. A man who tells you what to do by allowing his words to follow the length of an arm and rise up out of a pipe is a man whom you obey, thought Nestor. Here was presence. Here was charisma. Here was the embodiment of all that was wise.

And then Nestor remembered the man he knew who liked to smoke his pipe when playing golf. When playing a shot, the man placed his pipe in a trouser pocket. It still surprised Nestor that the man had only once set his trousers alight. If you asked that man about the incident, he would deny it. The scars were an old war wound, he’d claim. But you know what they say: ‘Liar, liar…’

Nestor pinched these reflections into a single confusion of tobacco, pressed it into his pipe, and smoked it.

February 14, 2011

Modern Times

The man visited the Neue Nationalgalerie near Potsdamer Platz  in order to look over the Moderne Zeiten exhibition. He could never quite reconcile himself to the abdication of morality among certain modernists. Art that gave itself to mere daubs and splatterings seemed to him an insult to painting. The pursuit of pure form, of messages surreal, abstract or non-existent, seemed to him pompous and puerile. But the man was drawn to new objectivity – to the confrontation of those parts of the human most joyous, most erotic, most grotesque in candid representation. He went expecting a heavy dose of the latter element.

He argued with his companion over the meaning of Lotte Laserstein’s Abend über Potsdam (1930): whether the men bored and ignored their women, or if they fought over them in that faux-relaxed intellectual manner that attempts to prevail without ever coming to violence. In either case, the feast is meagre, the mood depressively alcoholic, the outlook grey with pending gloom. If this was a last supper, it was not a prequel to an apotheosis, but a repast before a fall: sin and daggers cum panis. The man, shocked by this portrayal of masculine shortcomings, walked away trying to shake of his admiration of the portrayal of their clothes, to which he was compulsively drawn. There is more to civilisation than dressing, he considered.

In the next room, a crowd of people stood laughing. The man joined them and began to laugh too. They watched Charlie Chaplin, at his beautiful best, in Modern Times. Across languages and cultures people came together to laugh at the master who has never been approached in comedic cinema. His performance transcends time. And so does his critique. The man ceased to laugh and looked again. So many muscular men; so many hard workers. But the machine enslaves them, and makes men subject to unworthy men, who hold power in capital, but who occupy themselves in effete activities, engaging with reality through jigsaws that cannot be put together. The weakling is put on a par with the strapping chap; the function of biology put in rhythm with the machine. Woman is reconceived as mere nuts and bolts, to be tightened compulsively and without any notion of humanity. Modern Times was emasculation in extremis.

The man moved on, searching for an image of a man to which he could hold. He could not find one.

February 13, 2011

On Companionship

…you’ll all find, if you haven’t found it out already, that a time comes in every human friendship, when you must go down into the depths of yourself, and lay bare what is there to your friend, and wait in fear of his answer. A few moments may do it; and it may be (most likely will be, as you are English boys) that you never do it but once. But it must be, if the friendship is to be worth the name. (Thomas Hughes, Tom Brown’s Schooldays, 1857).
Do boys know any longer how to be friends? What about men? It is odd that in an age that might be described as ‘the emotional turn’, men succumb to the worst inhibitions of macho culture and have lost what was formerly a delight in the company of another man. Nineteenth-century novels abound with examples of schoolboy friendships that were defined by devotion, love and respect – the complete confidence of boys who saw each other and the world as if through one set of eyes – that matured into lifelong relationships of trust and affection, regardless of political, geographical or occupational obstacles. The romance of these narratives no doubt exaggerated the commonplaceness of such amiable entanglements, but they were nevertheless expressions of an ideal. Such friendships – such implicit contracts of trust – were positively desired and encouraged.

Even if one removes the fulsome rhetorical honesty of the English public-school boy, replacing it with a more stoic or taciturn working-class nature, history still supplies plenty of real and fictional examples of genuine loving amity. Old friends, ‘sat on a park bench like bookends… waiting for the sunset’; young friends confiding their hearts’ desires, lost in play that forecasts future realities, like the ‘two little boys’ of the Napoleonic era.

I think I had friendships like this. Wonderful hours that became days that became whole summers of infatuated indulgence – of football and card games, of cricket bats that were machine guns when they weren’t cricket bats, and of talk about important things (marble collections, Star Wars, and puerile fantasies of this girl or that) – in complete and blissful ignorance of a judgemental world. One boy’s company was always sufficient, and where larger numbers met, two boys remained when the other boys went home. I think it was the same for most boys: like juvenile lions looking for their own pride. Alas, these friendships have not quite stood the modern tests of geography and occupation. The modern ‘social network’ is too easy to be meaningfully pursued. And somehow I feel the beauty and strength of childhood alliances is no longer encouraged. I cannot think why. Perhaps we feel it fosters weakness, but really we should identify the strength it engenders.

‘What a time it was… a time of innocence; a time of confidences’.

February 11, 2011

Boys versus Men; Or, the School Match Debacle

The boy had kept score the previous year when the fifth formers had taken on the teachers at cricket. It seemed to him a privilege accorded to those about to be ushered into adult life. In the final summer of school, two teams met on a level playing field and played for the honour. The teachers would win, of course, for they outgunned their rivals in strength, experience, and skill. But there was pride in every wicket taken, and valiantness in every run scored. The boy looked forward to his final year, when he might take his chance.

The following spring the young man for that is the status he felt he had attained raised the issue with the teachers. He should like to play them at cricket, as had his forebears, and he should like to raise a team for the purpose. Were they willing? Answers were received in the affirmative. The young man set about organising his eleven.

On the day in question the eleven, feeling a certain pride in representing the budding manliness of their peers, took to the field. And then something untoward happened. Half a dozen or more fourth formers appeared in kit, ready to play. Who were they? What did they think they were doing? And then the teachers arrived: eighteen of them. The young man made enquiries. Apparently the Young Turks had protested at being left out, and the teachers had invited them to play, without informing the fifth-form eleven. It had been decided, unilaterally, that it was to be eighteen-a-side, and that the fifth form were to share their moment with these boys. There was indignation in the ranks. The privilege had been besmirched. The teachers’ equation of one group of boys with another group of young men had emasculated them before a ball had been bowled. It was dispiriting, and guaranteed the worst of defeats.

To make matters worse, the teachers condescended to bowl with a plastic ball that robbed the young men even of the satisfaction of feeling leather on willow. At the change of innings, tea was taken in the school library. The young man did not go. He could not, in his rage, break bread with these men. He sulked, cried foul, and malingered in the field.

As we grow, we learn

At a certain age a boy wants to be treated like a man. If, under such circumstances, he fails as a man, he must face his responsibilities, and take his punishment like a man would. If, however, you treat him who would be a man like a boy, then you must not be surprised when he behaves like one.

February 10, 2011

On Loyalty and Unassuming Pride, Part I

I watched a film today that I found posted by Will at A Suitable Wardrobe. It was made under the auspices of Esquire, and I only wish everything perpetrated by that particular rag paid such sober reverence to quality and tradition. If you have a spare hour, go and have a look. There are some very ordinary, salt of the earth, old-fashioned working people interviewed in this film; or at least, they seem ordinary, but they are not. In fact, they are stunningly exceptional.

Time was when the best working people spent years honing a skill, a craft, a vocation. The finest artisans did things that their brethren could not do, and they were rightly revered. They built the backbone of an empire, literally, with their bare hands. Forget machines. Forget steam. What drove British preëminence was a mind to quality. It was superiority in skill, in combination with the finest resources. As with so many ironies of history, the world these men built was to be inhabited by men who found no further use for them. The machine – the engine of mass production – was the death knell of empire. The zenith of imperial production was also the possibility for colonial competition. Any man, after all, can turn on a machine. Not everyman can make one.

How refreshing, therefore, to see a number of people who have spent years at their craft, loyally serving companies that had their origin in headier days. They are the last of their breed, but you can almost see the sense of pride running through their veins. Pride is not something I would typically advocate, save where it is magnanimous and absolutely justified. These people make the finest things of their type anywhere. They cannot themselves afford to own the things they make, but they are proud to see them being worn by others. Watch the tweed maker fill up when he sees his cloth transformed into a bespoke jacket, on the back of a Savile Row man. The social distance traversed in this extraordinary meeting is really something to behold. The pride is precious.

The loyalty of these people is bound up with their pride. They work for men who give them jobs for life, on the understanding that the standard set is high. Note how few young people you see in this film. We have lost hold of what it means, what it meant, to work for somebody, for something, that you believed to be important. Much greater than the pursuit of chasing pound notes was once the pursuit of position. Among working-class people, a skilled position within an esteemed manufactory was to be blessed with the best that could be hoped for: the respect of one’s peers, one’s employer, one’s family. To own a skill was a much greater asset than mere wealth. To ply that skill for the man who first employed you, and to do so for all your working days, was a matter of honour. One can read of it in books; it is a rarity to witness.

So, where do your loyalties lie, and does what you own mean anything? Without skills, and without allegiances, we run the risk of being frivolous, even to ourselves.

The Art of Manliness

I was the beneficiary this week of the kindness and manly spirit of Brett McKay, who presides, with his wife, over the writing and goings on at the Art of Manliness. Being Manly was featured in the Art of Manliness Trunk: a treasure-trove of ethereal delights from out there in internet land. The effect would have caused nose bleeds in lesser men: 2,200 page views in three days is new territory for these humble pages, and long may things continue in such a vein. I am most grateful for the exposure, and I’m especially happy to welcome newcomers, especially when they are sent from such reputable sources.

The Art of Manliness community is an amorphous place, filled with every kind of man one might imagine. Yet it is driven by a spirit of masculine depth that keeps it from being a mere locus of grunting and scratching. To be sure, look deeply into any community and you will find elements that you do not like. But such a discovery has an air of reality about it, and one better appreciates the prevailing decency of the majority for remaining hospitable to the rest. In this community, in which I’ve been active for a long time by now, are men driven by giving, by intellect, by enthusiasm, by sartorialism, by literature, by politics, by art, by sport, and by a willingness and a wish simply to understand what it is to be, and what it takes to improve, a man. It is neither self-help, nor men helping themselves (i.e. taking). It is a shared journey, the passage of which involves disagreement, requests for advice, the giving of advice, and the expression of opinion. The community regulates itself. Members call out each other for transgression. Moderation – two meanings, one a virtue, the other a duty – abounds here by nature.

If you’ve never been to the Art of Manliness, do go. If you like it here – and I do hope that you find my hearth equal in warmth to my hospitality – you will assuredly like it there. And do come back again and tell me what you found on your travels.

To the Art of Manliness: in being there, may we find out what it is.

February 09, 2011

A Musical Education, Part II

Of all the badly taught subjects the boy experienced at school, music was the worst. He despised music lessons, for they seemed to have nothing to do with musical experience. In the latter days of Thatcher, music education was on the verge of being abolished (along with drama and art), and what was left – two hours a week were shared by the EPA (expressive and performing arts: a way of making one subject out of three) – was not even close to resembling education. 

On each desk was a small Yamaha keyboard, complete with headphones. In his way, the teacher must have been a genius: twenty-five teenagers were left unguided with noise making machines, but with their headphones on they neither talked nor made any other audible sound. Most of the lesson was spent fiddling with the stored playback of these machines. Then we would gather round to sing collectively. Everyone knew the possibilities, and competed with each other for quietness:
‘Stop!’ bellows the music teacher. ‘Somebody here sounds good’. The class begins an awkwardness of foot shuffling and an intent staring at the ground. The music teacher’s finger is outstretched and scanning the ensemble.

‘You! You boy! I think it is you!’ The boy visibly winces and shrinks into his clothes. Everyone is looking, happy it is him and not them. They are not sympathetic. The culture of this room has led them to see the pain of others as the nearest thing to pleasure.

‘Sing! On your own! Let’s hear it!’ The piano starts up. It is Kumbaya, or On the roof, or Raining in my heart. It doesn’t matter. The teacher only knows how to play fortissimo. The boy’s voice has died to a whisper. Any unintended essence of the carefree that had before led him to sing out has now shrivelled. There are giggles from the ensemble. The teacher makes it last the eternity of a whole verse.

‘Pathetic!’ he shouts. ‘Everyone, start again’. And so it went on, interminably.
Never has music been so without joy, or teaching so lacking in substance, so damaging to the confidence. Happily, the boy never connected these dreadful hours with the real, lived experience of music. At home he sang from the moment he woke. He rifled his parents records, and listened intently to John Peel at nights, his head under the covers. Peel was his real music master. There was a Yamaha keyboard in the house, similar to those in the school, but at home the boy taught himself to play, learning how to read music by himself. Utterly unguided, the emerging man had music in his heart and could do nothing but follow the beat.

A man must have a musical education. He may have to fall back on his own resources to get it.

February 08, 2011

Repositories of Masculinity; Or, Keep Libraries Open

Your average macho man would, if he conformed to the stereotype, not have much to say in favour of milksop bookworms who spend their time dreamily composing poetry. The two images could not be farther apart, and yet they are in each other’s debt. For without poets we should have no Achilles, and no Aeneas; we should have a more sober notion of Henry V; and the Charge of Light Brigade would be merely a military disaster. How else are we to know the measure of a man, without some great insight from other men who understand greatness?

The juxtaposition has been made many times I am sure. Yet there is a missing element here, for poets need readers. If poets are not read, then no magnitude of eloquence will serve posterity. Original manuscripts of ancient texts were preserved by religious orders. Those texts were consulted by scholars who transcribed, translated, and published them, to be forever preserved in libraries. Of all the great strides of the nineteenth century, the opening of libraries – the democratisation of knowledge – is surely among the most important. Public bodies assumed the duty to maintain and preserve the store of human knowledge and to make it freely available to anybody who wished to pursue, or simply to peruse it. We, the readers, owe a great deal to those people who opened the doors to self-education.
Not so long ago, in a town or city like yours, a university administrative committee congratulated itself that it could finally get rid of hundreds of tonnes of volumes from the university library, thanks to newly available digital resources. The old tomes, which were formerly available for consultation by any member of the public, had been thrown into skips. Since the local library was also scheduled to close, the reading public was left with no recourse. The new digital version of the library was made available only to those fortunate people who could boast a university log-in name. Cost of said log-in is shortly to rise to £9,000 per year, since the only way to get one, other than by being employed by the university, is to be a student. Meanwhile the administrators basked in the empty space of the library. It was so much easier to breathe without all the books. And it was so much easier now to find a seat.
The self-appointed guardians of the internet have taken on no notion of liberal access to knowledge, and in this they are ably supported by governments looking to save pennies. By day, the internet is being made a pay-per-view medium, just as libraries are slated to shut down. The digitisation of the world’s libraries is a fantastic idea, but only if we can get at it. Giant scanning projects are not undertaken with a mind to making libraries more available; they are undertaken to make money. There’s nothing wrong with that ambition per se, but if the result is the closure of real libraries that inhabit real space, because they no longer fit digital-age models of value, then we have taken a drastically wrong turn. Knowledge is being returned to the realm of those who can afford it, and the richness of existence that lines the shelves of countless public libraries is set to disappear (see the map below of UK library closures).

View Public Library Closures in the UK in a larger map

The books will not be burned, but for no better reason than that we are now environmentally friendly. The books will be pulped.

February 06, 2011

La traviata; Or, Fallen Gentlemen at the Opera

The last time I was in environs such as this I had to contend with chatterboxes and toothpicks. Unfortunately, the chatterboxes are everywhere these days, and if I give up going to the symphony and to the opera it will be because I really can’t abide the audience any longer. The mob at the Deutsche Oper for the last performance of La traviata was true to contemporary form, with mobile phones, sweets in noisy plastic wrappers, flash cameras, and voices incapable of a whisper. I tried not to get worked up. After all, I knew in advance that these things were sure to happen. I also knew that there would be endless applause regardless of the performance, but on this occasion the cast fed the beast with curtain calls after every scene. Everyone seemed most assured that it was all as brilliant as could be.

Well, some of it was extremely good. Anja Harteros (not pictured here) was in perfect command of Violetta, portraying convincingly the passion, sacrifice, fragility and fatalism of the role, and ultimately (and quite appropriately) she sang her lungs out. The male cast were professional in support, but I didn’t believe Alfredo or Giorgio for a moment. The first scene of Act II lacked sufficient movement to distract the audience from its length. The second scene of Act II was a feast for the eye, but one is never quite sure what to do with all those matadors. All of this is by the by.

What really caught my eye about the whole event was the look of the thing. A more perfect disharmony between cast and audience could scarcely be imagined. Berlin crowds, so I hear on the streets, don’t get togged up for high culture. I thought that this was because they simply shunned the artificiality of it all, and doubtless for some their choice of denim and running shoes was for precisely this reason. But Mrs. VB and I learned with much amusement that a good many actually made a concerted effort to dress to the nines and failed with hilarious results. I’ve never seen such a bizarre collection of ill-fitting sartorial curios in all my days, parading up and down in the intermission like it was a Zoologische Garten catwalk. Old and young alike partied like it was 1979. Meanwhile, on the stage, Verdi’s opera had been wrenched forward into an elegantly cut 1930s suit. The abundance of black tie on stage was in stark contrast to the complete lack of said costume in the seats. I felt sorry for the cast: they were the only ones looking at us, and unable to see how fine they themselves appeared.

It makes me wonder about the future of the opera. In the year 2100 will any artistic director stroke his or her beard and decide that the next production should have the look of the 2010s? Well, perhaps only at the Komische Oper.

On Becoming Immortal

The writer put down his pen and made a fist, cracking the joints in his hand and feeling the dull ache chase up his arm to the shoulder. ‘To publish a book is to give birth to a child that never dies’, he mused. That wisdom is as old as the hills; perhaps older. In these days of ‘think it, publish it’ he wondered if it remained so.

He took up his pen once more and wrote:
Of course, the ethereal ephemera of our age is really only the pulp nonsense of yesteryear writ large. Of things published we remember less than a tithe. We should be wary of easy roads to living forever: even Aristotle’s works have been partially lost, and nobody is really sure who Shakespeare was. I used to think that writing a book was my chance to leave a timeless legacy of myself to the world. Having written one, I might be forgiven for concluding that I have merely added another unread block of bound paper to the dead weight of the world’s libraries. Writing in our age is the production of ever smaller needles for the stocking of an ever larger haystack. I am given to reflect: a writer needs a reader if he is to achieve immortality, and the reader must be so impressed as to ensure the dissemination of the work. He must not be a mere pleasure reader, for many millions have read J.K. Rowling and Dan Brown in this vein, and we can forecast quite credibly that these authors will not be remembered. The reader must be serious and thoughtful, and also influential in those two capacities. Note to self: find a patron.
Leaning back in his chair, feeling the burn in his neck and the cramp across his shoulders, he noticed that he could no longer feel his legs, and he struggled to his feet. He paced the room impatiently, awaiting the descent of his blood to his feet. As he gasped at the return of sensation, he lamented the bygone times of the Medici, the Court of Friedrich the Great, the English aristocracy, and the conspicuous nouveau riche of America’s gilded age. There were stupid people in abundance, with more wealth than they could ever spend, eager to add, vicariously at least, human importance to their social value. Under such a system the cream rose to the top. To be sure, they made compromises in their art for the sake of the paymaster, but then, the paymasters were often too simple to notice that their prescriptions only made the artists crafty.

The writer traced a finger across a dusty bookshelf and stopped at Milton’s Areopagitica. He thumbed through it until he found the page he wanted, and then folded himself back into his chair, found a blank page, and scribbled:
Milton says: ‘Books are not absolutely dead things, but do contain a potency of life in them to be as active as that soul was whose progeny they are; nay, they do preserve as in a vial the purest efficacy and extraction of that living intellect that bred them’. I am morally compelled therefore to write, or I risk losing that which I am. But it must not be lost. It must not be mere memoranda, but live in the memory. Write the damn book. But DO find a patron.
The writer looked at his watch. It was 16:44. With renewed purpose, he continued to write out his soul.

February 05, 2011

In Defence of Breakfast; Or, Dunkin' Don't

Some men, under the illusion that the behaviour makes them seem tough, leave the house each morning on little more than a cigarette, and perhaps coffee. During my stay in the Boston vicinity, I observed that this was often augmented by doughnuts, on the way to wherever men went. I do not like to see unhealthy people. The grey, pallid skin, raccoon-ringed eyes, chapped lips, and mournful vacancy of the expression are all tell-tale signs of the malnourished. Men who look like this do not seem tough to me. They seem fragile.

Breakfast like a king! It is the first phrase of a three-part maxim, the other two being ‘lunch like a prince, and dine like a pauper’. I’ve never been entirely sure about the latter phrase, but in any case, I absolutely adhere to the primary exhortation. When one breaks one’s fast, let us say, at 8 a.m., it may be thirteen or fourteen hours since the body has been nourished. It craves food, and should have it supplied. One cannot possibly expect to make it through a morning’s work in any kind of fit shape unless one is sustained. To eat well in the morning is to take on the fuel necessary to be the best one can be. Let us hear no more of the coffee and cigarette regime.

The knock-on advantages are many. One snacks less. One binges less. One feels fit and able. For those of you who are overweight, I would suggest that eating well – eating best – at breakfast will help you lose weight, for you will be satisfied at the beginning of the day. You will have more energy to exercise, and more will to do it. But what to eat?

The possibilities are endless: porridge, boiled eggs or scrambled, kedgeree or poached haddock, kippers, fruit, pastries and breads, cereals, cheeses and cold cuts. Mix it up, but be sure to feed yourself well. Once, or maybe twice a week, go all out with a Full English. It need not be overly greasy, if done properly, and will sustain you like nothing else. The ingredients, lest anyone should be in any doubt:

Bacon (streaky or back, preferably grilled, according to the English definition of that word).
Sausage (none of your cheap and nasty processed stuff, but something your butcher made. Grilled, for twenty minutes).
Eggs (however you like them. Poached is the healthiest way).
Mushrooms (fried).
Kidneys (from whichever animal you prefer, and lightly fried).
Black pudding, if you can find it.
Fresh tomato (sliced in two and grilled).
Hot toast with butter and jam.

Some people like Heinz baked beans for good measure. Can’t say I disapprove. Wash it all down with a pot of English Breakfast tea, or, for the more refined approach, some Earl Grey.

Nary a weekend in the Beātum household goes by without one. I wish you the same comfort.

February 04, 2011

Things A Man Should Know About Style; Or, A Book Review Of Sorts

Receiving a parcel is one of those delights that never gets old. Opening a parcel is a game of mixed fortunes, but on the most recent occasion that I received a mysterious package I found inside this book, sent from Mother Dearest, back in the Motherland.

This is not a serious book, and provides no justifications for the advices and exhortations it bestows upon the reader. On matters of style we are asked simply to believe the authors, as if clothes will indeed make the man, all by themselves. It seems there is a greater talent for aphorism than for philosophy here, but then, we shall always have recourse to Carlyle. Nevertheless, it is jammed full of practical wisdom and strategic nuggets of information that cannot fail to make life go more smoothly. What is more, these rules to live by are given with an irreverent wit that will surely raise a smile. This is typified by the selection of the model for all the photographic support that the book provides for its rhetorical maxims. A picture or two will speak many a thousand words:

So what of its rules and regulations? Here are some of the more valuable gems that I have found it handy to live by myself:
If you wear a suit on a plane and there is a flight delay or cancellation, the ticket agent will help you in a way that she wouldn’t if you were in a tracksuit.

The Hawaiian shirt: no.

“Easy-care” is for those who don’t.

There is no foot pain so severe, no dress shoe so fragile, no commute so arduous as to justify the sartorial holocaust that is wearing trainers with a suit.

A restaurant meal tastes better when you’re wearing a suit jacket.

Never trust a fashion magazine.
This last is particularly poignant because the publisher of the book also publishes Esquire, which, it should go without saying, you should never read. This tongue-in-cheek subversiveness warms me all the more to the tome’s tone. Nevertheless, there are some things to which I must take exception, and I might as well share them. First, the authors assume its readers to have no prior knowledge of these things, which surely cannot have been the point of publishing the book. Only a man who thought he knew it all already would ever find amusement in it, and if it ever fell into the hands of a style dunce he would likely regard it as so many silly pictures of bulldogs. I take no satisfaction from the introduction telling me that some of the rules may be broken ‘so long as you know what you’re doing. Which you don’t’. Furthermore, I must take at least partial issue with the following:
There are no bargains.

Speaking of colour, there is little use for pink…

You can’t wear a fedora if you’re under forty-five.

You can’t wear a bow tie with anything other than a tuxedo if you’re under forty-five or not a famous novelist or not a total geek. Got that, professor?

Keep a clip-on [bow tie] in reserve, should your bow-tying skills fail, which they probably will.
If there are no bargains I can only assume that much of my wardrobe doesn’t exist. Finding a bargain doesn’t mean you have to compromise. If there is little use for pink then most well-dressed Englishmen do not exist either. This must just be nonsense. Fedoras are a matter of confidence, not a matter of age. Likewise bow ties. Is one to presume that young and famous authors waited until post-fame to begin wearing them? And if your nervousness about bow ties causes you to carry a spare clip-on lest your ability to tie knots fails, then you should probably also carry some spare shoes that fasten with Velcro. The knot is essentially the same, after all.

All this being said, this isn’t really a book review, but an extended note of thanks for having received it. By the way, one thing that isn’t in here: Always send thanks to people who send you gift parcels. It’s only the right thing to do.
Related Posts with Thumbnails