October 31, 2011

Berlin Conversations, or, Why Make the Effort?

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

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

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

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

October 30, 2011

A Tweed Romance

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

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

From the wonderful Timothy Everest, of course.

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

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

October 03, 2011

The Manliness of the Long-distance Runner

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

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

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

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

To joggers: stop it and get real.
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