Wednesday, December 4, 2019


Half a century ago, a certain social set really had its priorities in order. Life’s pursuits ran something like this: Jazz, tennis, newspapers, Yankees vs. Red Socks, Newport and Nantucket, sailing, contemporary literature, prize fights, prep schools and the Ivy League, cigarettes and cocktails, college football, Broadway shows, and New York parties that blended socialites with beatniks.
That's from a tribute to the Andover Shop's Charlie Davidson, who died this past Monday. I grew up in New Brunswick in a family whose roots were Québecois and famine Irish and yet that list largely describes the values my father and mother sought to instill in me. Prep schools were out of our financial reach, although a number of my aunts and uncles had made it to Ivy League schools (on scholarships) and were endlessly praised for having done so. Broadway shows were admired although we didn't get a chance to see them and had to wait for film adaptations. Parties that blended socialites with beatniks were more a subject for humor than admiration. But the rest of it: jazz, tennis, newspapers, Newport and Nantucket, sailing, contemporary literature, prize fights, cigarettes and cocktails and college football was endorsed. To which should be added: the style of dress Charlie Davidson and the Andover shop promoted.

None of those things were verbally endorsed! No one ever sat us down and said, these are the things you should value. We were taught by example. My father was a Hi Fi buff and the records he bought were jazz records. They all played tennis and when we visited cousins, tennis was always one of the activities. We had a sailing club membership and a racing dinghy and no one complained when I spent hours sailing or playing tennis. There were modern novels on the bookshelves and there were bookshelves in every room of the house. Men talked about the prize fights and every single adult male in the family had some experience in the ring. Cigarettes and cocktails were a prominent part of my parents entertaining. And we went to college football games.

And yet, it was all slipping away as I grew up.

Prize fights had already started to lose their luster before I started Grade 1. For most men of my father's generation, the second Cassius Clay vs. Sonny Liston fight stunk horribly. It was to them what the Epstein "suicide" is to men in their twenties and thirties today. Even if it wasn't actually fixed, everything about it left a bad taste.

The next things to go were jazz and Broadway shows. There were still jazz records my father had purchased in the 1950s and 1960s in the house when I hit my teen years but I was the only one who still listened to them. I remember my mother going to New York in 1977 and coming back with the report that the only one of the new shows she had liked was Annie. She was so disappointed, she never went back again.

Cigarettes and cocktails tapered out. By the early 1970s, any adult who still smoked did so shamefully. Cocktails were still consumed but less and less effort was put into preparing them. Women drank Bloody Marys and G&Ts. Men increasingly just drank scotch. The elegant glasses they were served in and the equally elegant clothes people put on to socialize slowly disappeared. Only a few men even bothered to have special glasses for their scotch.

Literature ebbed away without anyone acknowledging it. I remember visiting family friends in the late 1970s. While the adults talked, I slipped away into the library of the house and found my sister already there. She'd noticed something interesting. Our hosts had purchased every single Pulitzer, Booker and Nobel prize winning novel since some time early 1970s. That they had shifted from actively taking an interest in literary culture to reading only prize-winning books was significant in itself. What my sister had noticed, though, was that all of the books had stiff spines and a book mark somewhere in the first third. These books had been purchased out of a sense of duty and never finished.

Attitudes towards newspapers followed a similar pattern. Instead of reading the whole paper, my parents only read a few favourite columnists.

Tennis and sailing were done in by technology. Never cheap sports, they became ridiculously expensive. One-design racing boats became as expensive as cruising class, so people bought larger boats they could drink beer on or just stopped sailing altogether. Both sports were now administered by government-funded organizations instead of volunteer bodies and these tended to emphasize the interest of elite athletes and cared little or not all for ordinary people who played out of love.

College sports still mattered until the 1980s. But then it became political. It used to be that fans of rival schools could sit in the same room and put down one another's schools and teams in  good-natured way. By 1990, there were people who regarded Duke university as the moral equivalent of the Klan.

For young men my age, that culture that was ebbing away was not our culture. We'd grown up on Led Zeppelin, shopping malls and television. And yet it wasn't our parents culture anymore either. It was something they had abandoned and some of us resented their having done so. When it came time to leave childish things behind, which, for me, was sometime in the 1980s, a lot of us gravitated towards the things our fathers had loved in the 1950s.

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