May 31, 2011

Make Something of Something

I’ve been following the energetic creativity and general joie de vivre of Claire the illustrator for a good while. Sometimes young people give you hope – there’s a spark there: a passion, a purpose, a spirit. If you’re looking for an example of resourcefulness, seek her out. I thought she was a real individual who happened to be handy with a pencil, but it turns out she’s also handy with saw and set-square. She wanted for something, and went and made the damn thing. Now that is a kind of problem-solving psychology that is all too rare these days. And there’s a fair example of fatherhood here too. Go look.

Image lifted from Pretty sure she'll be alright with that.

The example set me thinking. Time was that there were three kinds of people: people who made stuff or dug it out of the ground; people who sold the stuff that was made, or else filled in ledgers to record how much was sold; and people who did bugger all. Each had a value set. The first put value in skill; the second put value in money; the third put value in blood, or else in tradition. It seems to me that there is something very honourable in setting store by skill, something noble about blood, and something essential about tradition. And that makes me lament all the more that practically everyone these days is of the second category. Everyone is a salesman or an administrator, and our lives are reducible to an overwhelming concern with the bottom line. I find very little by way of humanity in the mere chasing of green.

Alas, the artisan and the patron are not likely to be resuscitated any time soon. I therefore exhort you to do as our young exemplar does, and make something of something. Find some value in life that does not reduce to dollars and cents. If you have a frivolous hobby, pursue it seriously. Play an instrument? Dedicate yourself to mastering it. If you’re a gardener, don’t satisfy yourself with pulling weeds, but work to enchant it. Write stories? Get published! There is humanity in these things, for the human creature is artful and skilful. Therein lies one source of our cachet.

May 26, 2011

Straight Talking

According to Stephen Evans, my peer of some renown in Berlin, the Germans don’t do small talk. There’s not even a word for it. How much of your day is spent congenially warming the air with idle nothings? For many people, at work, at school, or with friends, that’s all there is. Imagine taking it away from them for a day. How would it feel for them to be left with the emptiness of their heads?

It takes some time to realise that there’s a good reason why your German interlocutor is knitting his brow over your insistence that it’s fairer weather today than yesterday, and looks to be changeable tomorrow. He wonders why you think he can comment on meteorological matters, or why you are particularly preoccupied by them. The conversation doesn’t go anywhere because he doesn’t understand ‘ice breakers’. There is no ice in Germany, so why not sail straight to the point? The Anglophone’s tendency to prevaricate comes from his own self-consciousness, rather than any interpersonal hurdles in reality. The trouble is, a  German’s tendency towards plain sailing only thickens the ice for the Anglo. And the thicker the ice, the more our German friend will think us strange and disingenuous. Of course, all this disappears once you’ve managed to get to know one another, but the route to friendship in this case bears a resemblance to a Victorian wedding night. With no prior knowledge about how things work, it takes a deal of fumbling and apologising before a beautiful union can be made.

In truth, both these cultures represent a thing lost. Conversation used to be an art. Small talk was a failure in artistry. The true conversationalist would engage seriously, but without emotional investment, with sensitivity to political and social taboos. A conversation would flow naturally from topic to topic, without passion, but with subtle betrayals of character that would allow for the slow appreciation of personality. The essential ingredient in this engagement of the courtois was French, and that is the missing link in Anglo-German relations at present. The lingua franca is now English, but no two peoples speak English in the same way, or are united by a common purpose. We are lost in incommensurate idioms. The monarchies and the courts of the eighteenth century were, if not directly related, then at least of a political piece. French was the order of the day from St. Petersburg to London, and it bound the courts in common.

 Click to enlarge

Last time I looked, France still lay between England and Germany. There aren’t any courts any more, but we’re constantly told that we, the common people, are all of a piece these days. Maybe we should meet in the middle?

May 24, 2011

Winning Ways: Observations on Football Management

Times have changed, but the route to the top is the same as it has ever been. Hard work, determination, indefatigability, and self-belief. Repeat 10,000 times.

I’ve been looking over the managerial record of Sir Matt Busby, legendary manager of Manchester United. What a man he was. His single-mindedness was already evident before the Munich disaster, but his resoluteness in creating a team from the ruins of his Babes is still one of the most extraordinary turnarounds in the history of sport. I saw Busby once, just before he died. Children who had heard his name breathed with reverence by fathers and grandfathers lined up to hang onto his coat and beg him for his signature. Sometimes, greatness just is, and everyone implicitly understands it. But Busby was no conjurer. He simply had a vision, put into effect through hard work and discipline, repeated over 25 years.

Busby’s mantel is now worn by another. I’ve never been much of an admirer of Sir Alex Ferguson’s public persona, but Alex Ferguson the manager has my infinite respect. There is only one level at which a player plays for Alex Ferguson. Anything less than 100% will surely result in packed bags and a summer transfer. No player’s reputation is bigger than the club, and no media event is more important than what happens on the pitch. These are principles carried, no doubt, by just about every manager in the league. So it must be something about the man that allows them to be put into effect. He must be a man of immense character to pull it off.

There are several other things that endear me to the nature of his successes. He has consistently believed in youth, in nurturing talent as well as buying it. He absolutely understands that there are traditions and rituals to do with Manchester United that are far more important than his tenure with the team. Indeed, his tenure has been about preserving those things. He is unfailingly loyal – a self-styled servant of the club. In these things he represents what has otherwise been lost from the modern game.

What Busby and Ferguson also have in common, beyond their winning ways, is the faith shown in them by their employers. These days, football seems to be all about winning, or else the manager loses his job. There’s no faith shown in a manager’s ability; no adherence to the development of players, systems, strategies; no long-term planning. Ancelotti won the double at Chelsea, but nothing this year, and now he’s on his bike. What nonsense. Ferguson was appointed in 1986, first winning the league in 1992-3. Busby was appointed in 1945, not winning the league until 1952. Winning did not come by the touch of a magic wand, but through perseverance, experience and practice. It is bewildering to me that, regardless of the continuing presence and example of the finest ever football manager, in the shape of Alex Ferguson, the rest of Football Inc. attempts to emulate his success by following a diametrically opposite strategy. The way to win, despite the times we live in, is the same as it has ever been. 

May 23, 2011

Confirmed: A Drop of the Black Stuff Is Good for You

But America knew that already, right?

Bang A Drum!

Last night was Yutaka Sado’s debut at the Berliner Philharmoniker. If the stories are to be believed, it was his stated dream when he was in sixth grade one day to conduct this orchestra . His dream surely came true last night, as he tried, with a little help from Shostakovich’s 5th Symphony, to blow the roof off the Philharmonie. This was prefaced by an extraordinary performance of Tōru Takemitsu’s From me flows what you call time, for five percussionists.

It's rare to find an image quite so fitting, but this juxtaposition, of Time and Shostakovich, really sums up last night's performce.

Men like to bash things in anger at times, and we occasionally thrill to the sound of the blood pumping in our heads. But regular readers will know that I resist modern Western culture’s demand always and instantly to be gratified. It was fitting, therefore, to wait for the thumping Soviet march of Shostakovich; to be led there by a supreme exercise in control. Percussion, in a way perhaps more accessible to the watcher, to the listener, than with other musical instruments, is force controlled. It is striking, literally, on various levels of delicacy, intimacy even, in order to give emphasis to what we may happily and not inappropriately think of as the Big Bang.

The performance of Takemitsu’s piece made the best imaginable use of the entire sound space of the chamber, defining the score in terms of location as well as in pitch, volume, and tempo. Truly, it was a four-dimensional performance, with the five percussionists answering each other across the orchestra. There was a cosmic eeriness to the score, assisted ably by the dressing of each of the percussionists as, apparently, psychedelic dentists. The audience was brought to the edge of its seat, but whether to listen the more carefully, or in preparation to run, I am not sure.

The harnessing of so much power is like the coiling of a spring. Let it go, and the energy flies everywhere. Sado conducted Shostakovich like a man physically emptying the music onto his players. He breathed every note. The percussionists, restored to white tie and tails, took up the cudgels and batted back the volleys from his baton with the sound of artillery fire. Not for the faint of heart, this. The audience was roused and genuinely, for once justifiably, impressed. Sado had conducted the essence of the masculine, in all its reason and studied control, and also in its violence.

May 20, 2011

Perils of the Fad

This post gives me the pleasure of re-introducing my artist friend, Julian Peters, whose website is now full of his magical skills. Honestly, who knew that poetry and comic books could make such stylish bedfellows. I hasten you there, where you may happily lose an hour or two.

We’re all subject to fads; even the best of us. Although the more elegant of our number will point to a certain permanence of style, we nevertheless watch as cuts go in and out, longer and shorter, and as tie widths narrow and widen from one year to the next. Take time-lapse photography of the face of an adult male over ten years and you will see his sideburns dance up and down, with seasonal facial hair sprouting and disappearing whimsically. The mutton chop, however, is now dead (and wherever you see it, you can be sure it’s a fad). At least we can say that the mode du jour in these terms is only variations on a theme. Taking a broad view, things appear basically to stay the same.

Reproduced with permission.
Click to enlarge.

Not so in the inelegant world. There’s a meaningless revolution every five minutes out there on the street, as vanity dolls everywhere do their best to be miniature poodle of the year. It really is as tasteless as Crufts. Someone should hand out rosettes for best in show. Particularly annoying this year is the craze among women to wear not-quite-thick-enough black tights sans skirt. This year I’ve seen more underwear, cellulite, bum sweat, and unmentionable bulges than any given single man with broadband. And all I’ve been doing is making my way on the pavement, trying in vain to mind my own business. Really, ‘ladies’, when did you decide that this was above board? If it’s merely a fad to presage the second-coming of the long dress and empire waist I might just about live with it. I fear however, that the next step will be even more revealing, and a further notch on the self-degrading scale.

The male fad that’s made me sigh most this year – and maybe it’s just a Berlin thing – is wearing glasses without lenses. That’s right, just frames. It helps if the frames are luminous pink, or green, but I’ve also seen rather swish tortoise-shell affairs astride the hipster nose. I don’t get it. Is being somewhat optically deficient in? Were my sight to diminish I should embrace the wearing of glasses wholeheartedly. Until it does, and I pray it won’t, I shall continue with nez au naturel.

Reproduced with permission.
Click to enlarge

At times like this I wish I were an oak tree. As the years pass, I would barely notice these fools, and the world might seem like a consistent procession of the stylish.

May 18, 2011

Beasts Within

At whatever point you choose to dip into the history of philosophy, from Plato (or before) to some ephemeral chap of the moment, you’ll find that it’s pretty commonly understood that underlying every man is an animal, and not a cute kitten either. No, not with Darwin did the idea emerge that somewhere within us was the beast, or at least its legacy. One way or another, the history of humanity has revolved around suppressing this thing in us that subverts reason and supplants honour.

Dominique Strauss-Kahn has been finding out about his inner animal, and its consequences, this week. I’m not going to try and convict him here, of course, but the tale is cautionary. Ask around the world of posthumanists and their ilk and you’ll find an overwhelming reluctance to distinguish humans from animals in any sort of meaningful way, despite several thousand years of this being at the centre of the meaning of civilisation. I wouldn’t go so far as to call that a conceit, but it is pretty daring, and is challenged most dramatically when a given human behaves, for want of a better way of putting it, like an animal.

To what standard shall we hold people? To nature? I don’t quite see a basis for morality there. Indeed, in making moral imperatives, and in judging moral transgressions, we always designate something in the man that supersedes the animal in him. At the same time, these codes always acknowledge the animal’s presence, its danger, and its closeness to the surface. To deny its presence is to abdicate vigilance. To celebrate its presence is surely to risk us all. No, our human qualities must cage this beast, subjecting it to an iron will and an unimpeachable reason.

This is an essential and on-going task of the individual and of the society. If we fail, we shall lose the meaning of the ‘inhuman’, and if we reach that point, send us all to Riker’s Island.

May 16, 2011

What Goes Around...

‘I perceive,’ said Coningsby, pursuing a strain of thought which the other had indicated, ‘that you have great confidence in the influence of individual character. I also have some confused persuasions of that kind. But it is not the Spirit of the Age.’
‘The age does not believe in great men, because it does not possess any,’ replied the stranger. ‘The Spirit of the Age is the very thing that a great man changes.’
‘But does he not rather avail himself of it?’ inquired Coningsby.
‘Parvenus do,’ rejoined his companion; ‘but not prophets, great legislators, great conquerors. They destroy and they create.’
‘But are these times for great legislators and great conquerors?’ urged Coningsby.
‘When were they wanted more?’ asked the stranger. ‘From the throne to the hovel all call for a guide. You give monarchs constitutions to teach them sovereignty, and nations Sunday schools to inspire them with faith.’
‘But what is an individual,’ exclaimed Coningsby, ‘against a vast public opinion?’
‘Divine,’ said the stranger.

Disraeli, Coningsby, 1844.

May 08, 2011

Seve: Goodbye to a General

To define what makes a leader of men has always been difficult, but it is perhaps more so than ever in a world that lacks obvious examples. One such man has recently passed, albeit, his world was merely golf.

Sport is an analogy for life: it is contest, struggle, defeat and victory. It defines joy and misery. Men win and lose as individuals and as teams. In all this, through highs and lows, some stand out as shining examples of honour, charisma, magnanimity, inspiration, and courage. Seve Ballesteros was such a man. He combined the abilities to charm the media, to dazzle the ordinary onlooker, and to enthuse men with an unbeatable spirit. His talent was peerless, but even as physical deterioration deprived him, and us, of its use, he brought to bear his extraordinary leadership on a group of men who seemed otherwise to lack lustre and desire. The 2010 Ryder Cup was won, so the players attest, for him, on the back of a rousing speech given by telephone. We do not know the content of that speech, but it moved men first to tears and then to resolute action. Few can arouse such things.

It was not the first time. Seve’s speeches over the years have been said to count for a number of victories. And now, in death, I expect his memory will also serve to inspire men. At the 2012 Ryder Cup at Medinah, don’t be surprised if all Europe says with one voice, ‘win it for Seve’.

Rest in peace, genius.

May 03, 2011

A Long Time in Politics

What’s up with this year?

I heard an analyst say yesterday that Osama Bin Laden’s death isn’t hugely important since al-Qaida’s influence has already been massively diminished by the democratic uprisings in the Middle East and North Africa. People power wrote the sentence to which some Navy seals added a triumphant exclamation mark (footnotes pending). Nevertheless, Obama goes from zero to hero overnight, and Americans indulge in some tasteless celebrations over, let’s face it, the death of a man. I heard the news of the death with a mixture of relief, concern about the inevitable tensions it would arouse, and a certain hollowness. After all, it took the world’s most powerful nation, with unlimited resources, fifteen years to track down and kill a single man who had repeatedly and mercilessly messed with the psychology, if not the physical landscape, of democracy. Some humility, magnanimity even, was called for, I would have thought.

Meanwhile, north of the border, Canada’s political heritage has gone up in smoke in the unlikeliest set of election results in the country’s history. Canada now appears to be a polarised country – East/West, Left/Right – and the next five years look set to be a ding-dong battle. I’m pretty sure that the 40% of people who didn’t exercise their right to vote yesterday will nevertheless spend the next five years complaining, but then, if it means they vote next time, so be it.

And finally, this week sees the UK go to the polls again to decide whether or not to overhaul the traditional first-past-the-post voting system. If you’d asked me six months ago I probably would have been in favour, but now that the third party in the UK has made itself eternally unelectable, I’m not sure of the consequences that change would foster. In an era of schism and split, it seems odd to be ushering in an official ‘hedge-your-bets’ policy. ‘Better the devil you know’ is perhaps the order of the day, although that seems to be a highly unpopular aphorism this year in world politics.

Don’t even ask me about Germany, Italy, Ireland, etc. Come December I expect to be able to look back and work out where we are. Right now, however, I don’t seem to have a clue.
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