March 31, 2011

A Musical Education, Part III

Returning again to the Berliner Philharmoniker, I couldn’t help feeling that something was up. This was a night of debuts – young men emerging from a youth spent practicing – and it was full, like them, of promise. Yet further to my prior assertion that casualness in appearance breeds casualness in performance, last night offered some kind of proof.

I do not wish to detract from the the young soloists, for although the are already a long way down a path to greatness, they are nevertheless young. With youth comes the expectation of a certain attitude. Adrien Boisseau, but twenty years old (he looks a mere fifteen), chopped at his viola as if it were an electric guitar, and he a rock god. Perhaps Leo Smit, whose concerto for viola and string orchestra he attacked, would have approved. Inevitably, control was a tricky proposition for the more serene notes. The other debutant was Pierre Génisson, a mid-twenties clarinetist from Marseille, who cut the figure of a man looking for a jazz dive, unexpectedly finding himself in front of a symphony orchestra. With swagger, he seemed to shrug, and turned out Debussy’s première rhapsodie with impressionistic aplomb. The instrument occasionally got lost in Max Bruch’s concerto for clarinet, viola and orchestra in E minor, played into Génisson’s feet in a soundscape that lacked balance.

Pierre Génisson
Adrien Boisseau
The detractions of this evening were twofold. First, the audience (as usual); second, the orchestra (but it was the audience’s fault). Up in the gods, a large group of adolescents whispered and giggled throughout the concert. Although some distance from me, their twitterings were perfectly audible and distracting. The lengths to which concert-hall designers go to make sound travel behoove us to shut up and listen, lest our own sound travels. This rudeness was heightened at a pause between movements, during which a cacophany of coughing rang out. These pauses are the appointed time for the clearing of the throat, but it is not mandatory! The opportunity to stamp their presence on the evening appealed to the assembled youth, who extended their spluttering for a full minute, causing giggles and mutterings throughout the hall. The young maestro, Krzysztof Urbański, stood, arms aloft, waiting patiently for the audience to button it. You could see the orchestra rolling its collective eyes and wishing the stage would swallow them up.

This lack of respect clearly affected the musicians. The final piece, Richard Strauss’s Till Eulenspiegels lustige Streiche, a difficult composition, seemed at times to overtax some parts of the distracted orchestra. I am often given to wonder if concert musicians hate the people who pay their salaries. After all, they turn up in white tie for a formal event, and a bunch of teenagers, amongst others, turn up to watch (for they fail to listen) in what barely passes for streetwear. The incongruity of the whole affair was made more stark by the appearance of the compère, looking for all the world as if he’d come straight from another job as a football pundit: sack-jacket black worsted suit with belted, low-slung trousers, a greenish shirt and loud orange-striped tie. It was just as well that I couldn’t really understand this man, for I wouldn’t have listened in any case. The room exuded a casualness that was totally inappropriate for the event, and I think it took its toll. My companion and I tried our best to rise above, remaining serious and attentive. But seriousness and attentiveness, when things are not as they should be, only make one more aware of the lack of those qualities in one’s midst. It was a shame, for there was here on display a sense of what seriousness can achieve when admixed with diligence and talent. The example of young virtuoisity was, I fear, largely lost on the examples of young concert goers.

March 29, 2011

On Possession; or, ceci n’est pas une pipe

‘Have you got anything to smoke?’ Frédéric went on.
Dessardier felt his clothes, then took out of the depths of his pocket the debris of a pipe, a splendid meerschaum pipe, with an ebony stem, a silver lid, and an amber mouthpiece.
For three years he had been working on this pipe to make it a masterpiece. He had taken care to keep the bowl constantly encased in a chamois leather sheath, to smoke the pipe as slowly as possible, never putting it down on a marble surface, and to hang it up every night beside his bed. Now he shook the broken pieces in his hand, the nails of which were bleeding; and, with his chin sunk on his chest and his eyes staring, he gazed at these ruins of his happiness with a look of ineffable melancholy. (Gustave Flaubert, Sentimental Education, 1869).
We are given to think of sentiment, and to put it in its place. Manly men are not sentimental. We do not fawn over objects for their own sake, and we do not reduce things to banal aesthetics. We are interested in beauty, yes; cuteness, no. We are interested in ritual, yes; possession for its own sake, no. These divisions may at times be finer than we should like, but we shall adhere to them nonetheless.

Dessardier does not lament the loss of a pipe because it is precious, or even because it is precious to him. He laments the loss of the meaningful ritual that the pipe embodies. Indeed, this is not merely a pipe: it is the store of hours that structure a life; the joyful occupation that balances other arduous and necessary occupations. There will be other pipes, but in the wreckage of this one are times lost.

We may apply this principle to most of the material possessions of the manly man, for he knows that the best a man can get is not a plastic razor, but rather that which incorporates experience, good habit, ritual and a weight of meaning. He knows that to own a thing of quality is to reflect on quality. An understanding of what is good, what it is that lasts, is to strive to be good, and to last. When a man harps on his possessions, or on that which he aspires to possess, we may form a sound judgment about the man. That which he cherishes, or desires, tells you of his depth, or its lack. To buy a thing only because a thing is en vogue, or because it is expensive, is to manifest shallowness to a world that consumes conspicuousness, but nevertheless cares not for it.

We must cherish our possessions and understand why. Chances are, if we do this, we shall require a lot less and value what we have a lot more.

March 27, 2011

Populist Flip-Flops Unpopular; Or, Merkel’s Lost Plot

I consider myself something of a Johnny-come-lately regarding German politics, but I find I can watch events unfold here with a detached interest that would be impossible in my native and other adopted lands. Were I to speak of British politics I should have to declare this whole site ‘not suitable for work’ and dust off all my worst French. The Germans, however, are slowly but surely making a dog’s dinner out of a gourmet meal, and it is nothing if not good entertainment.

Angela Merkel, who has enjoyed the respect of the international community over the years, and whose manful leading of Germany through tough economic times, has recently lost the plot. The soundest advice for politicians who preside over successful economies is to sit back and take the credit. Germany is the powerhouse of Europe, bucking every trend of the last couple of years, and generally cutting the figure of the angry fist-banging father at Greek, Spanish, Portuguese and Irish fiscal ineptitude. While the rest of the civilised world makes the case for cuts, Germany is doing rather nicely thank you. Surely any leader would capitalise effortlessly on such a situation.

Not so Mrs. Merkel, whose trousers have been slipping of late. I have detected a palpable fear in recent times – a sense of the tide turning for no good reason – and Merkel’s response has been nothing short of political panic. In politics we expect lies, cheating and double dealing. We expect promises to be broken and spin to be spun. Nevertheless, we are usually sure that under all the rhetoric there lie some true colours, and that in a pinch any given politician will adhere to his core convictions. In times of economic strength, we do not expect political leaders to sell to the lowest bidder. And these expectations make Merkel’s machinations most perplexing.

First there was the ‘multiculturalism is dead’ line, intended to appeal to the wavering right, which surely would not have deserted her in any case so long as the economy kept ticking over. Instead of shoring up support she merely created a shit-storm of hostility and negative attention. Some may say she was merely pointing out the elephant in the room. Others objected that a failure cannot be declared until a genuine attempt has been made.

Then there was the Guttenberg affair, in which she valued popular opinion over political integrity. It was inevitable that the pressure brought to bear on Guttenberg would force him out, and she needed in that instant to lead, instead of waxing anti-intellectual, populist, and illogical. Had she shown strength in making the tough decision to fire the man, then the populace might have had her respect. As it was, she merely looked weak and out of step. She was tainted by his indiscretion, and in pretending not to understand its importance she alienated herself from Germany’s educated electorate. That elite may be a minority of number, but the retention of power is rarely just about numbers.

Next Germany’s nuclear issues went up in smoke with the Japanese earthquake. Merkel was firmly in the nuclear camp until the wind started to blow from the East. Prevarication is never a savvy political move, and again Merkel has shown herself unable to hold firm to a conviction under passing populist pressure. Germans march and form human chains and generally make a great din about nuclear power, but the reality is that they are surrounded on all sides by nuclear-friendly nations whose reactors are already large in number. If Germany doesn’t boost its own nuclear option they will merely buy the power from France. And if the earth opens up and swallows a French reactor it won’t make much difference that it’s taking place next door. Merkel has wavered, backtracking on policies and plans, waiting to see how things look from day to day. It’s not political leadership so much as low politicking. The lack of conviction has cost her votes, and will ultimately bring about her fall. The Baden-Wuerttemberg elections are probably a taste of things to come.

To top all this, Germany has failed to rally around its allies over Libya, just when a bit of strong moral leadership was called for. The whys and wherefores of the action are by the by, but right now Merkel is sitting in the surprisingly long shadow cast by Nicolas Sarkozy, looking less manly on the international stage every day, and generally leading well-meaning observers to ask what the bloody hell is up with Germany and her perpetual aloofness in international affairs.

Merkel was the strong man of Europe for a good run of years. But as I’m sure I’ve said before, no man looks good in flip flops.

March 25, 2011

How Good A Victorian Are You?

I’m an inveterate museum goer, but I’m discerning about where I spend my time. Museums have to walk a fine line these days for the sake of making money. Such vulgar pursuits ought really to be beyond their purview, but alas, everyone must play the game. The museum – which had its zenith under the Victorians – is now a sort of theme park. And like all theme parks, some are better than others.

There are museums that flaunt their superstar objets d’art, which they claim are objets trouvés, but which (in the West, at least) are usually objets volés. From the Elgin Marbles to Nefertiti, these artefacts pull in the tourists to gawk and throng, without really imparting any obvious benefit to the viewers. They must be seen because travel guides inform travellers that they simply must be seen. And that’s that.

Nefertiti: nicked.

Then there are the museums that make up for their conspicuous lack of Elgin Marbles by being interactive. I hate interactive museums. ‘Lift this’, ‘Pull that’, ‘Open this drawer’, ‘Play this stupid game’: it’s all such a frightful bore, and inevitably so. After all, these museums have been designed for children, with no mind given to the poor parents who have to schlep around after them, looking increasingly beleaguered at the mass display of over-stimulated ADD. Unfortunately, the Natural History Museum in London has gone in this direction, when there was really no need. The statue of Darwin sits atop the main staircase looking for all the world like none of his living headaches was ever this bad. Make it stop, make it stop, please God (?) make it stop…

Darwin: Cheesed off

Next there are the museums that demand you read everything. A wall of text greets you, and you spend the next fourteen hours craning to read small wall-mounted signs that tell you all a good scholar could ever want to know on the subject. You can read about different interpretations of this and that, scholarly debates, where exactly the horde was dug up and its significance and, probably, you can find out precisely what you’re supposed to think about it all. The signs will tell you. These museums are often complemented by a catholic collection of artefacts that fit the description: ‘Everything ever done or ever made. Ever’.

The best museums somehow manage to take the best elements of all these models and balance them out. They are usually small, often specialist, typically focused on singular artistic or historical themes. A couple of my favourites are the Bergruenn Museum in Berlin, the new building of the National Museum of Scotland in Edinburgh, and the Morgan in New York. But no museum as yet had ever managed to convince me about the need for interactive technological contrivances. That is until today, when some friends pointed me in the direction of the McCord Museum in Montreal.

Shamefully, I’ve never been to this place, even though I lived for several years about two minutes away on foot. Now I am 4,000 miles away and yet I have been lured in. So much about the Victorian era is encapsulated in the museum, yet most people know precisely nothing about what Victorians were like. Now’s your chance to play a little game, online (shudder), where you can discover just how good a Victorian you would have made. It’s all about dressing, manners and etiquette. It is right up my street, and damn it if it isn’t interactive.

Go and have a play. I discovered I have a tendency to overdress, but otherwise I am a ‘picture of politeness’. Now, when a museum application tells you this, you jolly well shake it by the hand and invite it over for tea. It seems I have been formally welcomed to post-modernity, through the Victorians of all people.

#FF? Hang Twitter, It’s Formal Friday

There’s a large minority of people – probably the majority of intelligent people – who think that the casual turn is really what’s wrong with the world. There’s something about ‘looking the part’, a lesson I learnt when I was about four years old, that instils purpose. Uniforms serve a purpose, and not only in schools. I would expect a bank manager to look like a bank manager, for example, and would think twice about entrusting my money, or my conversation about a loan, to a man in khakis and open collar. When I have to deal with a call-centre monkey, pace call-centre monkeys everywhere, I really think I can tell whether s/he has turned up to work smartly dressed or not. It’s something in the tone of voice. You just can’t be confident and professional if you show up to work in a t-shirt. Television engineers, gas men, electricity meter readers, plumbers: under your overalls I should like to see a collar and tie. It shows you care. It shows you’re professional. If you come to install my Sky box or fix my boiler wearing jeans that would be illegal in certain Southern counties in the US I should be loathe to let you into my house.

Worst of all is the general trend in offices everywhere to observe ‘casual Fridays’. Whose idea was this? It can’t be good for business, and it can’t be good for people’s self-esteem. The Victorians believed in the maxim of ‘healthy body, healthy mind’, and bless them if they didn’t rule the bloody world. I can only think that the twenty-first century motto will be remembered as ‘casual attire, casual attitude’, or ‘slack pants, slack off’, while civilisation crumbles around our under-used ankles. What’s more, being casual at work actually takes more effort than professional wear. People worry lest they are judged for their ill taste, and compete for the best individual appearance. Work wear makes no such demand. It simply is what it is. The style-savvy professional might know how to make it his own, but nobody is going to mind if he doesn’t.

Some rather natty Americans have formally rejected the casual turn, and announced that Fridays be especially formal. I’ve long thought that dressing well sets an example, and that, whatever the policy, if a respected individual dresses like a professional then others will emulate him. I exhort you to join the ranks of these fine people and don your best for Fridays in an outward show of contempt for the broad societal acceptance of slovenliness.

March 24, 2011

RTW @ Timothy Everest, SS2011

Pace Mr. Everest, I’m stealing his photographs, but I’m sure he won’t mind. The bespoke tailor to men, celebrated or otherwise, of impeccable taste, has just launched his Spring/Summer ready-to-wear collection, and it’s divine. Pictures are all from TE’s blog.

Top to bottom: 3-Piece Prince of Wales suit, sky-blue penny collar shirt, and TE's signature Spitalfields flower tie; navy two-piece, with classic spotted tie; cream cotton 2-piece suit, with notable Sea Island pink cotton socks; navy knitted blazer with Liberty print shirt.

On Purpose

Oh how easy to drift along allowing things external to ourselves to determine what we do. People will become agitated if you tell them they lack agency, for we all wish to be our own masters; and yet common-or-garden frustration is borne precisely from a feeling that matters are beyond our control. Whether it be work, geography, money, relationships, family, friends, dependencies, or just the bloody weather, a moment’s self-reflection often leads to feeling of smallness and futility, immediately followed by a kind of fatalism. We are but small boats on a big ocean, and we daily curse the moon.

I’m not about to turn around and tell you that all of this is not the case. But I do maintain that the feeling can be managed, and that what we identify as the fates can be defied, at least in spirit. Fundamentally, each individual needs a purpose: a reason to go through life. It might be a duty of care. It could be a pursuit intellectual or physical, or perhaps political. It is probably not reducible to the acquisition of money, for mere accumulation still begs the question ‘what for?’. Likewise, ambitions are not purposeful, for what happens if you realise them? The process itself must be the reward. For many men out there, the process of self-betterment is their purpose. Whatever comes their way, this resolve steers them straight. But whatever be your purpose, if you hold fast to it you will be able to endure and surmount the circumstantial obstacles that seem to block your way. The challenge is part of the actualisation of self. Capitulation, after all, is never partial. To give in is to abnegate the self.

Illustration by Bill Ross

My purpose is to write, for to write is to engage. It is an end and a means to other ends: discussion, education, learning, entertainment. The where, what and how of the writing process is up for negotiation, but the object is constant. Of late there have been many obstacles to pursuing my purpose – funding being not the least – but to hell with them. My wants are, after all, meagre. Consider this a re-statement of intent, albeit with many of the details omitted.

What is your purpose? What keeps you going? And by what means do your steer your craft, in defiance of the tide?

March 21, 2011

The Writer's Work Week

Under the U-Bahn line the workmen are laying cobble stones. Berlin construction workers restore the old unevenness after having dug it up. The conveniences of cables and optical fibres are buried in charm. No tarmac and steam rollers here, but a wheelbarrow full of rocks and a team of men with hammers. These men of 2011 could be men of 1921 or 1871 were it not for their modern interpretation of work wear.

The view is from a café on the corner of Schönhauser Allee and Danziger Strasse, overlooking the historic site of Konnopke’s Imbiss where, since Weimar days, this street-food shack has purveyed currywurst, day and night, to Prenzlauer Berg patrons. It has survived wars, hot and Cold, and managed to function behind the Iron Curtain. Now it’s being renovated, the stones under it being replaced, that it might serve sausage another century.

The U-Bahn arches over the street in freshly painted green wrought iron, riveted but trembling under the weight of the yellow trains. It’s an essential industrial relic: a monument to muscle work for which we no longer have a taste, but upon which we rely everyday. Thousands ascend the limestone staircase to the platform daily, for the train is the artery that transports worker blood to the capital heart. At 6 a.m. the workforce is in overalls; at 8 a.m. it is in suits. They rattle off that the city may function, and underneath the men with hammers, on their knees, knock in stone after stone.

In the café, students are being industrious in their way, learning languages in tandem, reading papers and writing essays. Some sit in a studied picture of thought, which is to daydream in an intellectual posture. The baristas pull shots of espresso and plate croissants and watch life go by, wishing they were going by too. The industry here is decadent and delicious. Plate glass separates this world from the clickety-clack and blue collars of the street. As if lured to giant plasma screens the intellects look up at the riveting scene of industry and the pathways to work. Disengaged, they resume their posturing. They live in a world of screens and windows – of televisions and computers, telephones and tablets – and the café is just another way passively to pretend that their lives are active and engaged.

Amidst all this the writer observes, wondering about his place. It is Monday, but it doesn’t much matter. The writer has done his fair share of manual labour. He has also ridden the train in a suit, heading somewhere for somebody else. He has been a student, and studied the affectations of their kind. He has done the intellectual labour that they haven’t yet reached, and may not ever, and found in it a detachment – an unbridgeable distance from the day-to-day – that he tries to recapture through observation. He fails for himself, but finds meaning in the others. Writing what he sees, he orders more coffee.

March 20, 2011

Stirred, Not Shaken

Not long ago Reggie Darling gave up martinis for Lent. He is a better man than I. The other day I was reflecting on the unbridled joy of gin while drinking the hands-down worst martini I ever had. Even with chunks of sharp ice floating on the top, a too-sweet vermouth, and an olive that should have been in a museum, I was still spell-bound by the thing. And the gin was cheap too. Then I remembered all the truly historic martinis I have consumed and felt slightly giddy. There’s the made-at-your-table old-world citrus sprinkled Plymouth genius of the Dukes Bar in London; the majestic opulence of wonder mixing at Claridges in that same fair city; the flavour-enhancing view of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in New York; and the pure rocket-propelled vertigo of the James Bond (sic) martini of Club 737 in Montreal (not for the faint of heart).

Martini at Dukes, by

My own humble mixes don’t pass muster I’m sure, but I do have preferences. I’ve asked around, and find no consensus. Reggie’s mix is as follows: 
I likes a whisper of vermouth in my martini, but no more than a quarter of a cap full when Im mixing two of them (one for me, one for Boy). I freeze the glasses, not the gin, and I shake it, not stir it, in the silver shaker... Sometimes I'll dirtify my martini with a teaspoonful from the olive jar, but only rarely and only when bored, which I rarely am.
The Idle Historian, who knows a thing or two about the consumption of alcohol, but never before lunch, advised me that he is ‘firm, of course, on it being stirred and not shaken. One cannot bruise the delicate, healthful molecules of gin... (and, of course, it MUST be gin, not vodka)’.

Churchill famously liked his martinis very dry (i.e., the vermouth was allowed to be in the same room as the gin, but no nearer). The Queen Mother dispensed with the pretence of the cocktail and just drank neat gin. From the bottle.

My own martinis have an accidental nature. I started by shaking the things, but after one evening the top jammed on my cocktail shaker and only came off eight months later. A god-fearing man might have taken this as a sign, but yours truly endeavoured. Taking a leaf out of the Idle Historian’s book, I took to stirring the drink. Like Reggie, I freeze the glass, not the gin. Pour four parts gin to one part vermouth in a very large, ice-filled glass and stir. The process not only seems to preserve the gin, but also to avoid partial crushing of the ice. That little bit of water melt takes the edge off the strong alcohol and allows the palate a chance at the full complexity of the gin. I pour it over three pimento-filled olives that have been thoroughly rinsed.

 It's not called Mother's Ruin for nothing, you know.
Hogarth's Gin Lane, 1751

Do not ever give me vodka. And if I order a martini, don’t do what the purveyor of awful cocktails did to me the other night and offer me Martini® Bianco. It will take you days to recover from my look of pure contempt. I promise, you will be shaken.

March 18, 2011

On Bullies and Accomplices

Tom Brown’s Schooldays is not my favourite text, but it is full of educational and relational ideals that seem to endure, especially now, when they are so seldom observed. Not least among its lessons is the attitude towards bullying, a theme that recurs throughout the novel. I’ve been given to turn once again to these pages after having witnessed the video of the Australian bullying and the victim’s rather emphatic response to it. That young man has made something of a name for himself, but his notoriety saddens me to some extent. The idle idiots who shot the video, and who then presumably submitted it to the local news, succeeded in getting both boys suspended from school. And now he’ll spend the rest of his childhood being ‘the fat kid who fought back’. He did the right thing, but it should have been private. He should have been able to fight his own battles and have the satisfaction of prevailing. Now he has lost control. In joining the fray of commentators I realise I’m adding to that loss, but the example – since it is public – must now serve to assist the thousands of others undergoing his torment. Those idle bystanders who have brought Casey Heynes to international attention represent the silent culprits complicit in bullying everywhere. Whatever we think of Heynes and his bully, we must roundly scorn those who implicitly endorse bullying by their inaction.

Let us turn to Thomas Hughes. Tom and East dig in and beat off their assailant (the scene depicted above), but in return the bully Flashman sullies their reputations. The legacy outlasts his presence. It is easier to follow the bully than to strike out for what is right: 
If the Angel Gabriel were to come down from heaven, and head a successful rise against the most abominable and unrighteous vested interest, which this poor old world groans under, he would most certainly lose his character for many years, probably for centuries, not only with upholders of said vested interest, but with the respectable mass of the people whom he had delivered. They wouldn’t ask him to dinner, or let their names appear with his in the papers; they would be very careful how they spoke of him in the Palaver, or at their clubs… But… bear in mind that majorities, especially respectable ones, are nine times out of ten in the wrong; and that if you see a man or boy striving on the weak side, however wrong-headed or blundering he may be, you are not to go and join the cry against him. If you can’t join him and help him, and make him wiser, at any rate remember that he has found something in the world which he will fight and suffer for, which is just what you have got to do for yourselves; and so think and speak of him tenderly.
Not every boy will have the power to overcome his bullies. Sometimes guile must serve in the stead of brute force. Sometimes reserves of fortitude must be drawn upon. But he must give no quarter; must not comply. He must know, deep down, however much it hurts, and however much the fear debilitates, that his tormentor is more afraid than him. The tormentor is the coward, the uncertain, the envious. However unhappy the boy, the bully is more so. The boy must dig deep, for right is on his side. And when he does fight his battles, he should fight them without the world’s attention. But he would be helped if his peers, knowing right from wrong, and being cognisant of his plight, did not follow the bully’s path of least resistance. If I were to suspend anyone in Casey’s case, it would be the girl with the camera on her phone. She had her chance to do the right thing, to do something, and she failed. The bully got what was coming to him, and may have learnt his lesson. That should have been an end to it. But what has she learnt?

Unrattled at the Philharmonie

We turned up at the wrong house. Amateur mistake, you might think, but I thought this guy was a big draw. Turns out he was next door, and a cosy little gathering it was. As it transpires, the night was all the better for it.

Over in the Philharmonie, Leif Ove Andsnes was giving his first orchestral performance as pianist in residence. Simon Rattle, who is the chief conductor, had sent out a message to the Japanese people, with whom there are great connections in the classical music world. There was a feeling of necessity about the atmosphere – an overwhelming sense that it was important to carry on. We only got as far as the lobby and ticket touts. In the Kammermusiksaal next door, Ray Chen was about to wow a half-filled room.

Photo: Altmann, Beer

Ray Chen was born in 1989. It’s enough to make you swallow your tongue. 1989! This young man plays the violin like he was born with it attached to his arm. It is absolutely a part of him. He won the Yehudi Menuhin Competition in 2008 and has become hot stuff ever since. I can’t for the life of me think why the room wasn’t full, but I’m willing to bet that the acoustics were all the better for the lack of German girth. We were treated to a virtuoso evening with the young star, whose selections absolutely showed off his depth of skills to the enraptured audience. Some of them were so taken aback that they coughed noisily through all the most delicate and quiet moments of emotion poured into his Stradivarius. The rest of us held our breaths for two hours.

The highlights of the evening in this beautifully intimate chamber were Giuseppe Tartini’s Devil’s Trill, Bach’s Chaconne from the Partita for solo violin No. 2 in D minor, and Henryk Wieniawski’s Saltarelle in A minor, which frankly left me feeling giddy. You know me: I’m highly critical of audiences at this kind of event. This one, apart from the one or two who gave the impression of being terminally ill, was there because they really knew something. The reception started warmly, and grew ever more affectionate. The largely empty room raised enough noise of appreciation to gain two encores, and the young Chen treated us to his sense of humour, his German, and his beaming smile. Would that all performances were so utterly worthwhile.

In the audience a few seats down from me was a mother with a young daughter, aged about 5. The little girl fidgeted a bit, but was largely engrossed in the movement of Chen’s fingers, and carried on his melodies. I love to see children being exposed to such things, especially when they seem to realise that it is important. Knowing how to behave as an adult comes from childhood experience, or else is dearly bought. This young one looked inspired, and gave Mr. Chen a standing ovation. It was clearly not her first time. And so a musical education has begun, to her great benefit, and, should she be the next Ray Chen, also to ours.

March 15, 2011

What to Do with Bullies in Australia

Currently going viral: what to do with bullies. It speaks for itself really. I will probably have more to say about this though.

McNeal Continues to Impress

A few snaps from the Spring/Summer collection from McNeal, which continues to impress in terms of style, quality and price. I can’t pick the difference in quality between this and Gant, but you can reckon on paying about half the price for everything.

I raided the sale rack for this brown-sugar coloured cord jacket and the classic tie. Went for a song.

March 13, 2011

Sporting Courage

It occurred to me that I really ought to let the North American continent know the nature of that which I blather on about so much. Just why does cricket exemplify manliness to such a great extent?

Here’s some footage of Brian Close in 1976 facing the bowling of Michael Holding of the West Indies. It was in the days before helmets, arm guards, thigh pads, and chest guards. This was maybe the most vicious spell of bowling the world had seen, and what does Close do when the ball hits him? Chews his gum. At no point would showing the bowler his pain have helped his plight, for the bowler would have thrived on seeing the batsman’s anguish. The balls that hit Close were pretty nasty, but more impressive is Close’s technique at getting out of the way of the ones that didn’t hit him. At least two in this over were likely to have killed him, but the slow motion shows just how closely he watched the ball.

Arguably, the technique of contemporary batsmen has declined because of the advent of the helmet. This ball ended up giving Australian captain Ricky Ponting a nasty scar, but without the face grille it would have demolished his cheek bone.

Next, a famous encounter between England’s Michael Atherton and South Africa’s Allan Donald. One youtube user described this sequence as ‘unstoppable force against immovable object’, which to me seems quite apt. If any of you find yourself wanting for interpersonal psychology in sport, have a look at these two staring each other down and fill your boots. Also note the way Athers keeps his wrists down and his bat out of the way. His body control was pretty exquisite.

In case you were wondering, cricket balls are significantly harder than baseballs and, in all these instances, are being delivered at something around 90 miles per hour. In Holding’s case it was probably faster.

And then there’s the fact that cricketers catch that hard ball without the need of big bucket-like gloves. Take a look:

And what happens when something goes awry and a guy does get hurt? Shoaib Akhtar did his best to take Brian Lara’s head off, but he was pretty horrified to nearly succeed. See how competitiveness immediately transfigures into concern. Cricket is tough, but it is played in the right spirit.

March 11, 2011

See One, Play One

Not a post about cards, although it is high time I ventured in that direction. No, I merely wanted to say that I was buying groceries yesterday and picked up a bunch of tulips for Mrs. VB while I was at it. The guy behind me had a bottle of cheap red and a lump of cheese on the conveyor belt. He looked at my lot, tapped me on the shoulder, and asked where I got the flowers. He looked insecure. I pointed, and he went and fetched a matching bunch. He looked a lot happier for it. Being a gentleman isn’t all about sense of self. One leads by example, even when completely unaware that one is being observed.

March 10, 2011

Remember My Name

The only thing less polite than forgetting a person’s name is calling a person by the wrong name. I confess I struggle to remember the names of people introduced to me in passing. Generally speaking, once I’ve met a person twice I will retain their name, but otherwise I’m a bit of an idiot on the appellation front. Still, if an interlocutor’s name cannot be teased out of them in some cunning and round-about way, I think it better meekly to ask them to remind you than to take a stab in the dark and get it wrong.

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Hardest of all for yours truly is remembering the names of people I have never met, but whom I nevertheless have cause to refer to professionally. This morning, for example, I was trying to cite an authority on Victorian Britain. I could remember the title of the book in question; I could tell you who published it and when; I could even describe the cover to you. But I could not for the life of me remember the author’s name. Utterly frustrating! I’ve only used the book a million times. Still, I’ve never met the man, so the name eludes me. Worse than this, of course, is when students fail to look up the names of their authoritative authors and recall them wrongly in writing. I’ve always maintained that it is a matter of basic manners to get people’s names right, especially if you’re going to refer to them in a text. Needless to say, whatever profound and stunning argument is being attempted fails entirely when couched in such sloppy terms.

As a matter of habit, I try to say a person’s name to myself twice (silently) upon first being introduced, and to use the name soon after meeting. If I lapse in this habit, chances are I don’t know whether you're Adam or Ant. If anyone else has a good method, please share it.

March 09, 2011

Every Intellect Needs A Café

There’s something about those little plaques that really saddens me. ‘So-and-so used to come here and behave like a bohemian’, they tend to say. And the hipsters and tourists flock to the cafés where these plaques hang in order osmotically to acquire the genius left embedded in the very tables and chairs. Theirs is a conspicuous consumption of over-priced caffeine, and they will likely be remembered for nothing. The sadness arises because I see the erection of a plaque as a cultural period. If a spot is designated as formerly a hive of intellectual and artistic activity, then it is now nothing more than a relic, and artists and intellectuals will give it a wide berth. Nothing says cultural death quite like a plaque.

The truth is that every artist and every intellectual still needs a café. Give us the quiet of an urbane apartment and we go stir crazy. Give us an office and we recoil at being at work. Put us in a library and we object to all the out-of-place noise and bustle. But give us a café, with wait staff who look and act like waiters and waitresses; with a sense of age and tradition; with a nonchalant superiority in cakes, pastries and savouries; and with a decent wine list for when espresso no longer cuts the mustard – give us this place and we shall relish creation. The noise of this place is not distracting, as it would be in a library, but atmospheric. The public becomes a muse for our endeavours. We acknowledge the faces of those whom we recognise as being similarly engaged, and we think of ourselves as a salon. Occasionally we meet, talk, inspired and aspiring, lose track of time, loosen the grip of society’s sense of the importance of time, and loose our imaginations.

I am an itinerant; I am always in need of a place like this. In Paris I confess I went directly to Les Deux Magots, but Hemingway and Picasso are long-since gone. I wasn’t there long enough to come up with better, but in the sun’s penetration of the smoky terrasses of Saint-Germain-des-Prés I knew I was in the right neck of the woods. The very air suddenly turned me into a photographer:

Oh, if I were there now. Why does my camera only work occasionally?

Other cities have afforded more time. In London, Patisserie Deux Amis, a short walk from the British Library, and Café Mozart on Swains Lane (now closed, so a plaque is no doubt being conceived), have been my bolt holes. Don’t all crowd out the former, or you’ll spoil the place. Anyway, it’s mine.

In Cambridge, Simon’s on Mass. Ave between Porter and Harvard Square, if you could ever find a seat.

The eponymous Simon. Photo by Mark Garfinkel, Boston Herald

In Montreal, I’m unimaginatively attached to the ghetto cafés on opposite corners of Milton and Parc, the 24-hour Second Cup and the Presse Café that faces it. These attachments are more productive than romantic, and there’s little actually to recommend them (which is perhaps as it should be). But if my legs are working you’ll find me at the Nocochi Café with its Persian cookies, or at the Première Moisson a bit further along Sherbrooke.

Favourite haunt of McGill undergrads, as well as their profs.

In Berlin I’m spoiled for choice, but my destinations of choice are pretty well set. Leysieffer and Café Einstein offer all the old-world charm a thinking man needs, the former peddling the finest chocolate outside Switzerland, the latter doing fine fare in general and Apfelstrudel in particular. Anna Blume I’ve already covered, but a stone’s throw away one can happily intellectualise oneself into a coma at Weinstein – not really a café, but that’s how I treat it, which is all that counts.

Leysieffer, Friedrichstrasse

Einstein. Just a perfect place. Photo by tip Berlin.

Weinstein. Emphasis on the Wein. Photo by tullintusch, Qype

Where to next? The world hasn’t let me know yet. But just in case, let me know where you all go to create, wherever you happen to be. Maybe I’ll meet you there.

March 08, 2011

In Praise of the Egg

It is International Women’s Day. And Pancake Day! Rarely is one’s focus so tightly concentrated on the symbol of the ovum. It may seem difficult to celebrate the achievements of half the global population, but I suggest targeting your attention on the wonders of those women around you. I am blessed to be accompanied daily by women of exceptional intelligence and impeccable taste, and I salute them. To she who is most exceptional of all, I made a votive offering of my own famous pancakes. She is ascending to new heights of brilliance of late, and I count myself especially thankful for her, and for the opportunities that have been freely available to her. Onward!

Rembrandt, The Pancake Woman

March 07, 2011

Barcelona Masculine: Some Observations

The most common image on the door of gentlemen’s bathrooms in bars and restaurants in Barcelona is of Al Pacino as Michael Corleone in Godfather II. We can debate the manliness of this character, but not if he only marks the way to basic biological functions.

The nearest, and most lavish, den of iniquity to my (rather nice) hotel was called ‘Bagdad’, and offered an ‘Arabic porn show’. I deigned not to penetrate its inner sanctum.

The Olympic needle is enveloped by a feminine O, and the crucible of the Olympic flame sits atop a rather flaccid looking upright.

One of the principal city displays is the magic fountain, which gushes on a precise timetable, to the strains of Pavarotti. It’s an illuminated circle of water, fed by a lavish terraced waterfall that descends from an art museum.

At the Picasso Museum, the art is slavishly laid out in chronological order, with no mind to the apparently enormous gaps in the collection that this method reveals. And thus we get the man’s loose sketches of his arty friends alongside his cheap smut. You’ll see some gems here, but the feeling you’ll leave with will be that of Picasso’s women: the man was a stylish cad.

And finally there’s Gaudi, who was pathologically afraid of the straight line so far as I can tell. Barcelona is the best planned city in Europe, all neatly laid out in beautiful tenement blocks. But the chief attractions among these solid piles are Gaudi’s visions, giving the distinct impression that all his bricks melted in the Mediterranean sun. Twelve Euros to enter, no less; more for the premium shack.

All told, a city of the exotic and the feminine, the organic and artistic. What manliness abounds in the visible city is cast in questionable light. But I would aver that these attractions are not where people live, nor work, but are the mere attractions for the touristic gaze. In its stoic planning, the rest of the city conceals its strength in a sober anonymity.

*4th, 5th, 6th, 8th, 9th pics are mine.
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