January 31, 2011

Vive la Différence

I grew up watching Andy Gray play football, and distinctly remember his big-hair-phase photo from the ’81 Panini album. Then he went into the ‘boot room’ at Sky Sports, and made a respectable career for himself. I actually liked him.


I also grew up watching Ron Atkinson haul his heavy weight along the gantry walkways at Derby County to take up his commentary position on the match days that were televised. Ron was an early hero of mine at Manchester United – I still have the ’85 Cup Final programme that symbolises what was perhaps his finest hour. I actually quite liked him too.


Gray and Atkinson worked together rather well at Aston Villa, Gray being coach under Atkinson’s management tenure. They produced attractive football. There was a lot to like about it.

What else to Gray and Atkinson have in common? Well, Atkinson’s post-football media career went up in smoke in 2004 when he disclosed his racist streak on air, not realising his microphone was switched on. I won’t repeat what he said – it’s easy enough to find – but he was rightly banished to obscurity for the ridiculousness of his insult. Gray, just last week, was fired from Sky for a combination of comments of a retrograde and unwarranted sexist nature, also recorded when he thought his microphone was switched off. Again, no need to report what was said, but only to point out that the female referee’s assistant to whom the jibes were directed got the big decisions right on game night and made the chauvinists look like complete idiots.

It’s all very bad for the game and makes one wonder whether anything has really changed out there. In general, the FA has done a good and high-profile job of kicking racism out of football, and so far as I can tell it has been making a real effort to do the same for chauvinism of late. Things like this really taint that effort, and it’s such a shame. I have a feeling that for Gray, much like for Atkinson, the comments made were an expression of what it means to ‘be a man’; I would style it, ‘being a macho idiot’. If there is anything this blog does consistently it is to call out the disjuncture between manliness and being a moron; the distance between the finer points of the masculine disposition and the knuckle-headed attitudes of those who would wield clubs and grunt. Gray and Atkinson got what they deserved. If our heroes are revealed to be so deeply flawed we should not be disappointed, but grateful for the insight.

For my part, it’s just another nail in the coffin wherein I have lain football. May it find some peace.

January 30, 2011

Sunday

The waiter drew a love heart on his order pad, orienting it towards his customer, and smiled. The customer, who had just ordered the Frühstuck für Verliebte for himself and his wife, winked compulsively at the waiter, acknowledging the gesture. He knew that the symbol signified not only breakfast, but also the self-evident love between the intended consumers of the morning repast. It warmed him to think that he wore his love so manifestly, and as the waiter retreated the couple remarked on his sweetness, which was really a reflection of their own. Saturday night’s cocktails, which had boiled away overnight to the essential headache that comprised them, soon evaporated completely under the influence of fresh caffeine, cured proteins, and an influx of vitamin C. The week’s work had been hard, but good, and now they rested, content.

January 28, 2011

Pulling Punches; Or, Letting the Wookie Win

Doubtless I’ll cause some ripples of indignation here, but I want to point out that Chewbacca was a coward and a bully. I suppose he has recourse to his animal status, but he’s personified enough to fly at light speed, so to my mind he should be held to a higher standard. Now, if I remember rightly, Chewy took great exception to being out-manoeuvred by R2D2, abetted by C3P0, at inter-galactic monster chess. The little droid made ‘a fair move’; the wookie took exception. As Mr. Solo pointed out, wookies have a tendency to rip people’s arms out of their sockets when they lose. C3P0 suggests the new strategy of letting the wookie win. Goldrod’s game plan was entirely rational given the stakes. Chewbacca’s behaviour was nothing short of reprehensible.


If the proper codes are observed, however, pulling punches is an unforgivable form of behaviour. Letting the other win is satisfying to nobody. If you’re in the habit of letting your boss beat you at golf, you are a crony, and he is a fake. Who wins? I typically aver that magnanimity in winning and grace in losing are the two essential components of competition. An honest win or an honest loss is, ultimately, honest, and honesty is the true measure of a man. Once this balance gets all out of kilter the civilized restraints of healthy sport or game playing are removed and things can get ugly. Let us be clear: games and sports, when competitively engaged, are displacements of violence. They establish, in entirely human ways, who is the alpha dog. By moving the internecine warfare of nature into the arena of play, civilized man found an analogue that allowed hierarchies to be formed without mortal wounds. Sport is, by definition, civilized. When bad losers get violent, or braggart winners laud their superiority, the very essence of the thing is contravened.


All of this is why I am highly and increasingly circumspect about professionalism. Once money is made the object of competition, the arena is made vulnerable to greed, cheating, underhandedness, and conceit. Do we wish to celebrate the best man or the richest man? In recent times we have seen the results, when we do not enquire about the substance of a man, of equating greatness with wealth: Tiger Woods, Michael Vick, a number of Pakistani cricketers, etc. I don’t propose to do anything about these problems except to place my attention elsewhere. Professional sport relies, completely, on our attention. If we concentrate instead on our own pursuits, on those of our cohort, and on those of our local amateur clubs and associations, then we shall be the better for it, and sooner or later the professionals will have to re-evaluate why it is they do that which they do.

The next time I meet you over the Scrabble board, or on one or another field of play, be assured that I shall be playing to win. But also be assured that win or lose, providing you meet me on the same terms and don’t pull your punches, we shall always part on good terms, with arms where they are meant to be.

January 27, 2011

Measuring Up; Or, Analogies of Weather

Clearly I pricked your interest with the story of the phallus, which is no fallacy mind you. I suppose it could be considered odd that a platform erected for the discussion of manliness has not before measured up the nether man, save to talk of trousers. Well, decency typically forbids, but where there is an intellectual point to pursue, we cannot help but to give it thrust. I hope my readers of a more sensitive disposition will by now have forgiven me. I shall try not to penalise you further. For a while anyway.


Being the awkward English fellow that I am, it would be usual to start a conversation about the weather after unwittingly taking the discourse into sensitive areas. What could be safer, after all? Funnily enough, and contrary to the answer to my rhetorical question, I’ve noticed that men compete for the weather, as if they take ownership of their own climates. You perhaps won’t notice this unless you travel, but take my word for it. Wherever you go, men will claim their weather to be better, worse, more interesting, or more boring than yours, and in some bizarre way this serves to make them hardier, more resolute, than you. I will own to having done this, albeit unconsciously at the time. The conversation in winter might go like this:

Berliner:          ‘It’s so damn cold here!’
Montrealer:      ‘Cold? You don’t know cold. I remember when it was minus 50 Celsius and my face froze off’.
Berliner:          ‘Yes, but isn’t it a dry cold in Montreal? Here the humidity cuts you like a knife. It feels colder.’
Londoner:       ‘Damp? You don’t know the meaning. When it’s plus one Celsius in London it feels like minus twenty. And the wind. It does blow’.
Yorkshireman: ‘Shurrup you daft Southern pillock. You dunt know the meanin’ o’ the word cold. Yer just thin skinned. When I were a lad nobody bothered wi’ heating and nobody wore a coat. You just braced yerself and gorron wit work’.
Berliner:          ‘But when the wind blows from Siberia…’
Siberian:          ‘Ahem!’

In short, men (and women too, but I suspect their motives to be different) seem to compete for ownership of the worst conditions. The worse things are, the more hardy the man. The more he can endure, the more worthy he is. Isn’t this true of most things with men? I see no reason why it should be any different for meteorology. It might be considered to be all rather sad and pathetic, but as I’ve said many a time in these pages, the threads of civilisation are tenuous, and through such displacements we are able to rise above our inner animal. Next time you compete over the weather, just be glad you aren’t actually trying to kill one another.

January 26, 2011

The Politics of Virility; Or, Cock o' the Walk

It was the worst prick galling the state’s flesh (Aristophanes, Ecclesiazusae, 390 BC).
The phallus: let us measure its historical penetration. A symbol of power as well as of sex, the phallus has long-since been taboo in the West. Yet, thinly sheathed in symbolic disguise, we will find it everywhere if we care to look. Do you care to look at it with me?

The Greeks, of course, founded their power on the phallus, and displayed it prominently. Everyone who has been to a museum has seen a herm, but hardly any of you have seen one as it was intended. The herm, a flat stone upright with a head on top of it, originally had an extra design feature: an erection, half way up the flat stone. Here’s an ancient image of one being carved:


And here are some more original examples:


Immediately before the disastrous Athenian excursion against Sicily all the Hermae were desecrated. The stone boners of power were lopped off en masse, and Thucydides tells us that ‘it was regarded as an omen for the expedition, and at the same time as evidence of a revolutionary conspiracy to overthrow the democracy’. The penis symbolised power: the physical emasculation of the statuesque cut at the heart of a masculine ability and right to rule. I’ll allow a fellow scholar, from whom I've purloined the pertinent images, to state the case:
In the case of a society dominated by men who sequester their wives and daughters, denigrate the female role in reproduction, erect monuments to the male genitalia, have sex with the sons of their peers, sponsor public whorehouses, create a mythology of rape, and engage in rampant saber-rattling, it is not inappropriate to refer to a reign of the phallus. Classical Athens was such a society (Eva Keuls, Reign of the Phallus).
Now, the question is, are things much different where you live? Sure, you might not have an erection for a gatepost anymore – 


– but the rest? I’m pretty sure one can still find sequestered wives and daughters kicking around the planet, tethered to the yoke of domesticity or sexual slavery. According to the ever-reliable Wikipedia:
In 2001 the United States State Department estimated that 50,000 to 100,000 women and girls are trafficked each year in the United States. In 2003, the State Department report estimated that 18,000 to 20,000 individuals were trafficked [t]here for forced labor and sexual exploitation. The June 2004 report set the total trafficked annually at between 14,500 and 17,500.
I can cite you a million examples from the history of science, showing female inferiority to be located in her womb and menstrual cycle. According to the inimitable Herbert Spencer, the energy required for childbirth entails an ‘earlier cessation of individual evolution’, manifesting in ‘a rather smaller growth of the nervo-muscular system, so that both the limbs which act and the brain which makes them act are somewhat less’. The results are a lessening of the ‘general power or massiveness’ of ‘mental manifestations’, and a ‘perceptible falling-short in those two faculties, intellectual and emotional, which are the latest products of human evolution – the power of abstract reasoning and that most abstract of the emotions, the sentiment of justice – the sentiment which regulates conduct irrespective of personal attachments and the likes or dislikes felt for individuals’. It’s all hogwash, of course, but science wore an intricate rhetorical cloak in the late nineteenth century. Are we so sure it now opts for more honest stitching? Ask Larry Summers, for example.


 These pics are mine, ok?

Anybody who has seen a newspaper in the last year knows that certain men in authority have an unfortunate tendency to bugger the boys in their charge, although all the best efforts are made to hide it of course.

Do men still sponsor houses of ill repute? I’m prepared to guess the answer to that. Has a ‘mythology of rape’ existed in our times or recent times? I wouldn’t recommend googling it. And there is so much evidence of saber rattling among politicians (mostly male by the way) that it would be hard to think of it as a thing of the past.

In short, all the reasons Prof. Keuls comes up with for justifying her description of Classical Athens as a ‘reign of the phallus’ apply just as well to us. When you see a herm with an erection, or a gatepost penis, or when you read a play by Aristophanes, you can think of all this as a distantly removed age of superstitious nonsense and overt chauvinism, above which we have risen, along with our superior rational minds. But you might ask instead whether men thought better of showing their strengths in such obviously vulnerable ways after the desecration on the hermae in 415 BC. The phallus is often hidden in plain sight, but men are no less fascinated with the thing than they were in Ancient Greece.

Why do I bother to make this point? Call it a cautionary tail.

Working Lunch; Or, Where There’s A Will There’s A Way

A kindly American professor once told me over lunch of his struggles through the system, finally to reach a place of security, contentment, and intellectual fulfilment. Having escaped the Eastern Bloc when a youngster, he had sought enrichment – of the mind, principally – in America. He found the going hard; money difficult to come by; basic expectations unexplained (for we tend not to explain to outsiders that which is normal to us). He set his sights on becoming a professor, making a promise to himself not to sell out to the first offer, but to cultivate his mind even if it meant going hungry. He had constructed for himself an end. As for the means, he was open to anything. A year without pay, but in the right academic environment, ultimately paid off. Encountering the best minds of his generation, he conquered his intellectual fears, and thereafter soared.


We live in difficult times, but then, everyone has always said such things. At times the things we want to do seem improbable, if not impossible. The temptation is to give in, let it go, raise the white flag. But let us wax Churchillian for a moment and consider the merits of declaring, ‘we shall never surrender’. Giving up and giving in to fear are much the same, and we are the worse for capitulation. Lying down to be walked upon, the invited footprints will slowly bruise the spirit and crush the soul. That job you are chasing; that girl, or boy; the feelings of security and contentment, for us and for our families; the escape from boredom: these are wants with which most of us can identify. They are worthy pursuits. A level higher, our ways of life; our freedom, to speak and to act; and our beliefs: these things we may not think about so directly, but they are given tangible form in the material and emotional desires of the former list. To give up on the one set because they are too hard or too expensive, the process too fearful, or too risky, is to jeopardize the latter. To give up is to let down the guard of vigilance that is the basis of freedom. When we give in to fear we are weak; when we are weak we are vulnerable; and when we are vulnerable the strong will smash us. It is precisely when we sense our weakness that we should muster courage. This is virtue. It is fortitude in the face of our own perceived limitations, or at the risk of our bodies and minds.

Another way of saying this is ‘where there’s a will there’s a way’. The will, much less the phrase, does not ward off failure. Rather, it suggests that failure should not be an act of volition. Moreover, the way is often not the along the intended route, but we might well resolve that come hell or high water we shall get where we are going in any case. The important part is not to resign before material difficulties. If our object is realistic, our nerve should hold steady. We may not be able to conjure up a job that isn’t there, or persuade a love that doesn’t care. But should the job, or the love, come along, we shall not have ourselves to blame if we do not prevail.

January 25, 2011

A Man’s A Man for A’ That; Or, Burns Night

Is there for honest poverty
That hings his head, an’ a’ that
The coward slave, we pass him by
We dare be poor for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
Our toil’s obscure and a’ that
The rank is but the guinea’s stamp
The man’s the gowd for a’ that

What though on hamely fare we dine
Wear hoddin grey, an’ a’ that
Gie fools their silks, and knaves their wine
A man’s a man, for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
Their tinsel show an’ a’ that
The honest man, though e’er sae poor
Is king o’ men for a’ that

Ye see yon birkie ca’d a lord
Wha struts an’ stares an’ a’ that
Tho’ hundreds worship at his word
He’s but a coof for a’ that
For a’ that, an’ a’ that
His ribband, star and a’ that
The man o’ independent mind
He looks an’ laughs at a’ that

A prince can mak’ a belted knight
A marquise, duke, an’ a’ that
But an honest man’s abon his might
Gude faith, he maunna fa’ that
For a’ that an’ a’ that
Their dignities an’ a’ that
The pith o’ sense an’ pride o’ worth
Are higher rank that a’ that

Then let us pray that come it may
(as come it will for a’ that)
That Sense and Worth, o’er a’ the earth
Shall bear the gree an’ a’ that
For a’ that an’ a’ that
It’s coming yet for a’ that
That man to man, the world o’er
Shall brithers be for a’ that

(1795) 

January 24, 2011

Corporate Man

Apparently if you work for Swiss bank UBS you’re about to get a break. Not the usual bonus, mind you, but a loosening of the corporate leash. I read in the news that UBS has a 44-page handbook telling its employees how to be – everything from their general appearance to their underwear and diet – and that this handbook is being revised and relaxed. As things stand, women aren’t supposed to wear red underwear (rather, it must be flesh toned), and garlic and onions are to be avoided. They’re instructed on their make-up, stockings and perfume to boot, with lifestyle tips for how to recover from wardrobe malfunctions. Men, for their part, undergo the same culinary prescriptions, as well as being told how to knot ties, to get regular haircuts, and to avoid unruliness in the piercing department (at this I am baffled. Is any amount of piercing on a man good?). Everyone is reminded to keep their glasses clean and shiny, lest they look negligent; but given the overbearing nature of the employer I wonder why they ever hire anybody with less than 20/20. ‘Our bankers can really see’ might be a unique selling point in this day and age.


All of this is nonsense, of course, and knowing the Swiss as I do I’m sure they take it all in the right spirit, which is to say, I’m sure they completely ignore it. Still, I’m given to wonder about what it takes to survive the cut and thrust of corporate land, so I’ve plundered the self-help shelves, subsection ‘executives’. There’s not much for men here, at least, not explicitly. There’s plenty of stuff for women though. Apparently, ‘a profound fear’ has ‘bound... women together over the course of the last 2000 years and continues to bind [them] together’. It is ‘the existential primal fear of sanctions and punishment’, associated with transgressing the role of ‘the unassuming, good little girl’ (Buholzer, Frauen starten durch, 1999). Another guide suggests that the ‘thing that stands between many women and the ability to get what they want is a proclivity toward self-denial… a preference for powerlessness’ (Rubin, The Princessa: Machievelli for Women, 1997). Meanwhile Corporate Man is everything Corporate Woman is not: he regards ‘new things as a challenge, and [is] usually of the opinion that accepting challenges is part of the essence of being a man’. Men are ‘primarily concentrated on themselves’; women are ‘afraid of exposing themselves to criticism’ (Haen, Das Zicken-Prinzip, 2000).* Which is to say, men should take a pill, and women should get over themselves. And all of this is sheer drivel.

Self-help?

The problem with self-help as a genre is that it is full of generalisations that, as an academic, I would immediately cross through in red ink if written by a student. The other problem with self-help as a genre is that it is not really self-help at all, but the preachings of self-assumed authorities. People who blindly follow its advices are no more asserting themselves than the rats who followed the piper out of Hamelin. The corporate idea that men are thus (sharks perhaps) and women thus (more like dolphins, if you were to believe Dodo Lazarowicz (Erfolg steht mir gut, 1999)), is not a foundation upon which the bonds of gender stereotypes can be broken, any more than Corporate Woman will be assisted by being given permission by the bank to wear red panties. Corporate World has gone through a crisis of late, and its population has shown itself to have lacked presence of mind, or the individual verve to think creatively around a problem. Corporate Man has shown himself to be afraid, like a little boy, of dealing with the enormity of new challenges, and, like so many lemmings, one by one they have walked over the cliff.


In sum, Corporate Man and Corporate Woman need be no different to any other man or woman of distinction in his/her character and general comportment. The uniform, such as it is, will merely give impetus to an attitude, but it will not by itself finish the cutting of jibs. In Corporate World there is more fear now than in living memory, but nobody, after all, is fearing for his life. It is a test of mere civic virtue to overcome it, and, on recent evidence, this is just as much of a challenge for Corporate Man as for Corporate Woman.

*Translations by Ulrich Bröckling, from ‘Gendering the Enterprising Self’, Distinktion (2005).

January 23, 2011

Being Manly and the Question of Substance

One must draw a line between mere affect and substance; between appearance and character; between form and content; between words and deeds. As I circle the internet, buzzard-like, I notice many of the former categories in this list masquerading as the latter categories. For some reason many people seem to confuse what is essentially empty for that which is substantially meaningful. All kinds of assumed contiguities are employed so that, for example, clothes can stand in for the man. We all know the axiom ‘the clothes don’t make the man’, but the axiom exists only because it is so widely and indiscriminately ignored. In much the same way, most people judge books by their covers. It has been the principle of bookselling since Gutenberg.

Judge thee not
I’m troubled by this, just as you would expect. When we strive to be the best we can be, are we really content with reducing our betterment to cosmetics? If you were to search the great ethereal sea for what people have to say about being manly, for example, you will find all manner of ill-considered talk of flatulence and fire, power tools and automobiles, firearms and fisticuffs, and generally the treatment of women as sexual objects. The more discerning empty rhetoric you’ll find will talk about manners and pocket squares, but only a very few make any attempt to draw a line between show and substance. In both extremes you learn only how little men know about what is really important: a man’s virtues.

Does he have courage, or know how to define it? Does he understand that which he fears and has he faced it? Does he know when to rush in, and when to hold hard? Can he balance the problems around him and see his way through with wisdom? Is he temperate, hard-working, resilient and just? Does he understand his place, in his family, his nation, his world, and can he execute his role as a worthy citizen? He must understand these things, not as words but from within, if he is to be these things. And for this there are no short cuts; no sound-bite routes to glory; no quick fixes. I may talk of form, of affect, of appearance, and of words; but I want to arrive at content, at substance, at character, and at deeds. Sometimes, the surfaces serve as entry points to, or as analogues for, the depths; we must remember that it is for this reason, and for this reason alone, that we concern ourselves with the surface at all.

Being manly, or indeed womanly, is not something that can be achieved through the mere push of a button. It’s hard, but worthy, work.

January 22, 2011

Berlin Fashion: Weak?

Berlin Fashion Week is drawing to a close and I don’t care. I suppose I have no interest in fashion because I have no real interest in things that pass, as it were, in the blink of an eye. I know that there are some people in town this week for whom I have great admiration, but I would admire them all the same whether they were here or on the moon. And they don’t much have anything to do with fashion so much as they are ambassadors of style, which is to say that they have an eye on the threads of continuity. And as an inhabitant of Berlin, I must say that Fashion Week’s influence on the city has been, from my perspective, minimal. If anything, there was even less German being spoken on the U-Bahn, and slightly more evidence of fake tan.

Berliners are a stylish lot, but they follow their own compass. There’s an idiosyncratic mix of Western-looking orthodoxy and Eastern-looking jauntiness, mixed with peroxide and angular spectacles. Of course, there is as much diversity in the city as you’d expect to find anywhere, but there is an unmistakeable ‘look’, which might be rooted in their wonderfully powerful jawlines and piercing eyes. I am, I confess, rather taken with the beautiful people here. The Northern European gaze is filled with intellectual-looking types, who represent a collective lament at the demise of film noir, for which they were born, holding their cigarettes oh-so chicly as they peer over their tortoiseshell rims onto a black-and-white winter.

The eye must be selective, however, just as it must be anywhere. If you look too closely you will see a preponderance of mistaken attempts at cool: a clothing line called Jetlag; a surfeit of Lonsdale-clad youthfulness, wasting; a tendency to drink alcohol in public. But the brain is such that these things can be disregarded. My eyes dart instead to the Marianne shoes on every beautiful her, and the Derby brogues on every beautiful him; the coils of loosely knitted woollen scarves; and the refreshing array of headgear worn by the discerning, if not merely by the cold. Berlin fashion is, I am afraid, weak. But Berlin style endures.

January 21, 2011

What People Do In Pubs; Or, The Berlin Kneipe

Rejoice, all ye young choiring throats, round our table rings a roundelay, hey-dey-dey-hey-dey-dey, round our table rings a roundelay. Three times three is ni-i-ine, we swig our drinks like swi-i-ine, three times three and one is ten, let’s swig another one like men – two, three, four, six, seven.
            Who is that standing at the milling-bar, the swilling-bar, the rilling-bar, who is that smiling into the smoky stink-hole? (Alfred Döblin, Berlin Alexanderplatz).
Any man who lives in a city, and I mean really lives in a city, rather than merely working or commuting through such a place, will own that a city can always surprise. In a major capital one can never know everything, and while we may think of certain networks of streets as forming ‘our’ patch, we are nevertheless driven by the mystery of the place. Beyond the well-trodden path of tourists and the attractions they seek lies the dark urban world of the inhabitants, made bright by the light of their spirits. Let us follow a Berlin local now, and see where we end up.

We are at the door of a pub, an Irish pub apparently, in Kreuzberg, in the south. The door is iron, the frontage shabby and uninviting. No tourist would ever come here, but nor would the Prenzl’berg hipsters and, we gather, that is why it is good. There is a moment’s hesitation, for we know of only two kinds of Irish pub: the kitsch plasticity of the formulaic boozer, bedecked in made-in-China ‘authentic’ Irish breweriana and giant TV screens, and real pubs in Ireland. This one is called Mrs. Lovell, and we wonder if there is an intended illusion to Mrs. Lovett, the meat-pie making accomplice of Sweeney Todd. For a moment we are glad that we have already eaten. Suspicions fly away as the door is pushed inwards and a cloak of smoke envelopes us and, through the gloom, smiling eyes and mouths greet us as old-friend newcomers. This is not an Irish pub; it is a living room with a bar, and the hosts are happy we came.

People in pubs these days typically are there only to drink. There is nothing else to do. Gone are the days when a man met his chums at his local in order to recapitulate the terms of friendship through play and camaraderie. Cards, dominoes, even darts, are now things of the past. In the age of ‘Rockband’ nobody can play an instrument, and we sit and stare at plasma screens without sound, voluntarily hypnotised by the moving images, for we have nothing to say. Men used not only to smoke and to drink, but to philosophise about smoking and drinking. A pipe or a cigar was not idly consumed but relished; scotch drinkers and real-ale drinkers savoured. Now we drink to excess the ditch water served up to us so as not to taste it, and we occupy our mouths with the acrid tar of whatever comes cheapest simply because our jaws are idle.

Not so at Mrs. Lovell, whose proprietress is, we gather, a Berliner of said name. The man of the house, English so far as can be gathered, says only that he is ‘from Mum and Dad’ when probed about his origins. Between them, they orchestrate an evening full of song and laughter, in two languages, based squarely on a steady rhythm guitar, the raspy voice of a smoky larynx, and the percussive innovations of a man in leather and snakeskin trousers, whose kit included a single tom, a wooden table and a glass ashtray. From the darkness of a back room a man emerges with a saxophone, breathing heavily through it at first and then bending it up through the smoke and finding a clear soprano tone that shines like a light through the fog. Two men at the bar produce ukuleles and join in, and shortly enough the room fills with locals, who greet each other as long-lost pals and immediately join in song. The evening is not planned. A capella renditions of Mackie Messer and Goodbye Johnny are incongruously mixed with a choppy Dirty Old Town and a weirdly out of place Another Brick in the Wall. Everyone is experiencing an unadulterated, unregulated delight. The room smiles. The pub dog pads from table to table, wet-nosing the guests as if to say ‘stay’, and dancing barmaids – dancing because they can’t help it, not because they’re supposed to – keep the glasses filled. The Guinness is as it is meant to be, and all is right with the world.

We leave with reluctance, for soon the trains will stop running. Savouring the outside air for a minute, we duck underground and head home. We miss the last connection from Alexanderplatz, but somehow having to walk home from here, on this night, seems only right.

January 19, 2011

The Edge of Virtue; Or, Good Habits

Most men walk along the edge of virtue, the steep precipices of indiscretion, immorality and vice running closely adjacent to their poorly marked paths. How does a man stay on this path, when lurking close to the surface lies the beast, skulking in the corners of the mind, and stalking the outer reaches of conscience, eager to attack? Most men will confess, if they are truly frank, the demons that attract them: a rather too thirsty attraction to alcohol; a depraved sexual appetite; aggressive and angry sentiments and urges; a compulsion to gamble more than can be afforded to be lost; and the enjoyment of procrastination. Strip away the thin atmosphere of civilization, and men are deeply unpleasant creatures. Fortunately, most men only fall by degrees, rather than all the way to the bottom. And most men pull themselves back up the cliff of failure, through shame, contrition, and renewed intent. But how to stay on the path in the first place?


Good habits are our signposts, our guide rope, our safe port in uncertain waters. Routine – not a slavish obsession over the minutiae of life, but a basic regimen of what should be done regularly – is the means by which we continue to find the right path when the animal urges us in different directions. What is in a routine? Whatever we feel like. But it must hold us to things as we would ideally like them, for then we have a notion of when we are beginning to disappoint ourselves. The objects of our routines consciously jar us into steering a steady course. Let’s say I have ten pairs of shoes: wouldn’t it be good if they were always clean, polished and ready to be worn? Wouldn’t it be best if they were properly dried after wearing, stored as the cobbler would have wanted, and kept mended and maintained when necessary? To the outside, it might seem like I have a fetish, but I will know that I am merely keeping up standards. And chances are, if I keep my footwear fastidiously, I will keep more important things with equal care.


One could make similar cases for matters of the body: hygiene, grooming, fitness. A million men resolve to get in shape everyday, but how many of them incorporate that resolution into their daily understanding of what must be done? Probably not many, and that is why they fail. If we elect to do a thing because we see that it is good, then we must practice that thing because it is good. It must become habitual in its execution, but we must be mindful always of why it is important. I knew a man once – a gentle man under great strain – who insisted on simple politeness. At work he would be confronted by angry and anxious Young Turks, barking questions and commands in lieu of ‘hello’ and ‘good morning’. He would stop, smile, and say ‘Good morning, how are you?’ and would then remind them that everyone was behoved to observe the pleasantries if they were to hold on to their humanity. I’m sure the approach irritated people, but it tended to calm them, and him, down a little.

Keep good habits. Not letting this humble blog slide is one of mine.

January 18, 2011

Bling! Or, Put It Away, Sir

Now then. As it ‘appens.

The image of sad-old-man friendliness when I was a child was Jimmy Savile. Anyone outside of Britain will not know who this is/was. He is/was a kindly fellow – once upon a time he was a Radio Luxembourg DJ, and the first ever presenter of Top of the Pops, if he needed any cred – who had a show in which he ‘fixed it’ for children to have their hearts’ desires. I wouldn’t usually think of the ‘80s as an age of innocence. But then there was Jimmy. Sir James, as he later became, was very fond of his mum – lived with her always so far as I know – and when she died he kept her room just as she had left it. It was a shrine, and Jimmy will go to his grave a mummy’s boy, in the nicest possible way. He is a good lad, now pushing 85 I should think; always a fit man – ran dozens of marathons – but a perennial cigar smoker; and a huge benefactor of noble causes and charities. The English tend to think of him as a national institution; a classic English eccentric. He wears a lot of jewellery, for which he is famous. He looks like this:


He used to look like this:


Sportswear and jewellery remain his most recognisable motifs, save for a few choice phrases. He kind of reminds me of this:


Which is to say, that unless you’re a kind-hearted English eccentric, beloved by old and young alike, and honoured by the Queen, you look like a bit of an idiot in jewellery and sportswear. But you know that. The point I’m leading to is rather more positive. What jewellery can you wear if you happen not to be said national institution, or an idiot? Why this, for example:


Gold and mother-of-pearl cufflinks. Edwardian I think. Picked up by my wife at what I call a ‘rifle shop’ (so named because you have to rifle through a lot of junk to find the good stuff, which is always there if you’re patient). My brother has the matching pair, which I gave to him on the occasion of him being my Best Man.

Keep it clean, simple and honest and you cannot go wrong.

How’s about that then?
Related Posts with Thumbnails