July 25, 2011

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

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


July 20, 2011

Is Sport Dead? Or, the Lie Detector

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

July 17, 2011

Sous les Feuilles

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

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

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

July 15, 2011

On Waiting; On Persevering

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

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

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

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

July 07, 2011

Confessions of a Four-year Old

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


And now:

July 06, 2011

Fighting with Two Chairs

Friends, I am beaten up. Today, as I was bleeding everywhere rather alarmingly, I did have the remarkably sober thought that it was all rather ironic (in the American sense), and probably fitting to actually wear some battle scars from the week.

I walked into a chair. ‘How do you walk into a chair?’ you ask. I do not rightly know, but there it is nonetheless. One thing I can be sure of is that I didn’t see the chair, and its way of announcing its presence was to knock loudly on my skull, with all its wooden might, just adjacent to my right eye. Quite a clout sent me reeling around the kitchen, wondering what the hell, and it wasn’t until I got to a mirror for a butchers that it started spurting, B-movie horror style, all over the place. ‘How do you cut yourself on a chair, even if you manage to walk into one?’ you justifiably ask. Well, I do not know that either, but the half-inch gash in the appointed spot suggests it is possible. There is a pleasant purpling developing all around, and by this time tomorrow yours truly will shine like a black hole.

Yesterday’s fight – well, more of a tussle really – was with a Chair of the academic variety, as I tried once again to find myself some gainful employment (much as I’d rather spend my time chatting with all of you, you’re not sending me too much by way of bread). I came away from that contest unscathed physically, but knocked around a bit all the same. I’m thinking of today’s head-banging as a sort of delayed, but inevitable, reaction. Anyway, fingers crossed that all this rough and tumble ends up with VB’s arm aloft. Nobody ever got where they intended without a knock or two en route, right?

Manfully forwards, ho!

Smoke Signals; or, Love Thy Neighbour

No, really: do you even know who lives next door?

I once lived next door to an elderly widow who would probably have loved some company, but most of the time one wouldn’t have known she was there. Her appearance one day at the window during my attempt at a back-yard barbeque was telling: ‘Are you trying to smoke me out?’ she yelled from the top floor of the house. She closed the window and then appeared at the back door. ‘Since my husband died I like to keep the bedroom window open’, she said. I wondered if he was still in there. In any case, it wasn’t an auspicious beginning, and I can’t say a relationship blossomed thereafter.

When I left England and moved to Montreal, my first neighbour there was a pot-smoking loner called Hubert. He really smoked a lot of pot; so much, in fact, that I spent much of the first six months in Canada feeling light-headed while teaching an assemblage of McGill ‘90 Averagers’. I blame Hubert for the smashing of this teapot, as my attempt to remain civilised failed in the drifting haze. I think the breaking of a teapot is a highly significant act, for the teapot is the pivot around which friends and neighbours are meant to gather. To imbibe tea is the modern equivalent of breaking bread. This was altogether a failure in the company stakes.

The German neighbours have been altogether a different kettle. I must say, I’ve become rather fond of our upstairs neighbour here, with his repeated insistence that we should come over and consume alcohol. He’s in his 50s, something of a lone wolf, and a tad deaf. But the act of talking to a neighbour is unlike other conversations. It’s not like talking to a friend, or a family member, or a colleague. After all, what do you have in common, other than your proximity? And to that end, talking to a neighbour reinvigorates the art of conversation, for you escape into chatter about interesting things, sometimes weighty, sometimes trivial, sometimes anecdotal, and find that you have pleasantly escaped your own stressful preoccupations for a while. Our neighbour here helps this along by his conspicuous display of maps and globes, old photographs and books, and a random assortment of antique talking points. It’s a stimulating experience, being inside the character-filled home of another. Think of that the next time you’re tempted to shop at Ikea.

Of course, it’s not all roses. We were invited to this man’s annual party once, along with an assemblage of life-long friends of his who collectively fit well with the randomness of his furniture. The only thing they had in common was a tendency to chain smoke. Being German, they all smoked inside. Since we’re now utterly unaccustomed to such an atmosphere, it was hard to swallow.

Good Neighbors: my first crush is on the right.

One way or another, it’s better to have neighbours whom you know than otherwise. It’s never a good thing to start a relationship with an argument, but unless you introduce yourself, this is likely going to be the case. So, why not send your people next door a smoke signal? What’s the worst that can happen?
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