Tuesday, December 31, 2019

Lost time

Emma Garland describes herself as "a so-called writer" and who specializes in "music, being mad and shagging". She has a BA in English Literature and Creative Writing, which is nothing special, but is working as a writer and that is a lot better than most people with her education manage.

We might sneer at her but I'm not inclined to. Yes, she writes about trivial things in a trivial way but so did Proust for most of his career.

She'll be 10 years out of university this year, which makes her one of those writers who've made a career out of not growing up. That's a much harder trick to pull off than you might be inclined to think. She writes mostly for Vice UK, where she is features editor.

I mention her here because she has written a piece called "An A-Z of Things the 2010s Killed." It's mostly snark, as these things always are, so let's not blame her for that either. What struck me (and others) was the entry for he letter Y, which is titled "you". Here is what she says on the subject,
I don’t know a single person who has made it through the decade without losing something vital (their chill, their general faith in humanity, their dignity to a skater who runs a meme account and ghosts you after giving you chlamydia etc), so shout out you for enduring one of the most stressful decades in history.
Okay, chill, faith in humanity and dignity are all things you can get back—to lose them is not to lose "you"—but let's keep practicing charity, unlike some others I won't name. I suspect that we are seeing an example of accidental self-revelation here. Someone violated Emma's dignity. That's got to be at least partly her fault but it still really hurts when that happens.

So what? I know, I know, doesn't something like this happen to absolutely everyone in absolutely every decade? Well, not quite everyone, but I think most people have something like this happen to us. I know it happened to me and I know that it hurt more than anything else I've been through. Yes, "one of the most stressful decades in history" is silly but the last few years of it were possibly were the most stressful in Emma Garland's history.

And I suspect it's going to get worse before it gets better, if it does get better and it doesn't get better for an awful lot of people. She probably isn't making much money and it is even less likely that she's saving much. I don't get the sense that there is a lot of emotional stability in her life either. I doubt she has spent much time worrying about either but that is starting to change, which is the source of all the stress.

Which is why a very good decade looks so awful to her. Don't sneer, it must be bloody awful to be Emma Garland. She can get her chill back pretty easily. I doubt she'll even miss her faith in humanity. Her dignity will be much harder to recover but it can be done. The ability and willingness to be vulnerable again, on the other hand, will take a heroic effort. I hope she succeeds.

Saturday, December 14, 2019

Playboy: really about a girl

The notion that women really drive popular culture is a notion I've experimented with before. I say "experimented with" because it's not something you can prove. I think it's true.

If you want to understand what's going on right now—the new puritanism, cancel culture, virtue signalling—you need to look at young women. They're not happy and they feel they should be. They, or rather enough of them to carry the day for now, think the problem can be solved by controlling others and that's only going to make it worse. And that's probably all I will say on the subject. It's their problem after all and I doubt being lectured at by me would help even of I did know better than them and I don't.

But let's look back a century to another generation of young women. Our story begins with nineteen-year-old Eleanor Borton. Eleanor was around that age in 1919, which makes her roughly the same age as my grandmother.

She was dancing with a man named Edward S. "Ned" Jordan who had started a car manufacturing company. She was at the party in the first place because her father was one of the people financing Ned's company. And she said to him,
Mr. Jordan, why don’t you build a car for the girl who loves to swim, paddle and shoot and for the boy who loves the roar of a cut out?
I'm not sure I know what a "cut out" is. I suspect it was a term for roaring away in your car. My source for this the Hemmings Classic automobile auction company. They have a wonderful write-up about the Jordan Playboy, the car he was inspired to create as a consequence.

I'm inclined to wonder if the lovely Eleanor ever said those words. I think she may have said something like them or it may simply be that Ned liked the thought of those words coming out of her mouth so he put them there himself.

Ned was a really good writer and, by coincidence, those very words showed up in the first advertisement he wrote for the new car.
What shall it profit a car to gain complete mechanical excellence if it must sulk under a drab and sombre body?
Though it have the best chassis in the world, with unlimited power, and though it be properly designed and balanced so as to give maximum performance—and has a dowdy commonplace body it is as nothing among the motor wise.
It goes on at quite some length after that. Far too long, really. But that's okay because he was working out the concept.

It's rather impertinent writing, taking words of Jesus and using them to sell sex. And make no mistake, selling sex is what it's all about. Any nineteen-year-old girl contemplating her marriage prospects in the exciting new world of 1919 would have caught the full significance of "sulk under a drab and sombre body".

Here's the full ad.

The paragraph about dogs barking, chickens scattering, old folks storming and so forth was written 24 years before "The Surrey With the Fringe on the Top".

Hemmings says, and I'm sure they are right, that the Jordan Playboy was a triumph of style over substance, "behind the colors, athleticism, rebellion and exuberance was a real–even rather ordinary–means of transportation."Okay, fair enough, but what strikes me is the appeal to women. "Colors, athleticism, rebellion and exuberance," perfectly describes the female heroines that Mildred Wirt Benson created in Nancy Drew, Penny Parker and Madge Sterling. 

In 1923, this magnificent ad appeared.

 That's a woman driving and a man chasing her on the horse. That's important.
Somewhere west of Laramie there's a bronco-busting, steer-roping girl who knows what I'm talking about. She can tell what a sassy pony, that's a cross between greased lighting and the place where it hits, can do with eleven hundred pounds of steel and cation whe he's going high, wide and handsome.
If that first paragraph were the opening of a novel, I'd have read the whole thing before going to sleep even if nothing after it lived up to that promise. And sex! A "cross between greased lightning and the place where it hits." Whoa!

No man would aim to be that. It's at once too intimidating and too restricting. The car doesn't deliver that either, nor would a girl really want it. It's to be the girl who knows what he's talking about and if you need that explained to you, well, then you don't.

Don't feel bad, others didn't know either so Ned filled her out a bit.

She's still driving and the man is still chasing her. You can already see decline, though. Compromises are being made. "She loves the cross between the wild and the tame," and "It's a brawny thing—yet a graceful thing for the sweep o' the avenue."

And the full rot is in with this ad.

I get the point. I want to be that man in that car, driving past that pine tree. The text is still aimed at a woman, she is in the one in "earmine". But she's letting the man drive and that's wrong.

Ah well, nothing good lasts forever. In the ad below we are decidedly east of Laramie.

The car is speaking in this one and yet ... .

That is, after all, a woman at the wheel.

It's also a woman on the horse. We can tell, alas, because she's riding side saddle. Bronco-busting, steer-roping girls west of Laramie didn't ride side saddle. Girls who know about a cross between lightning and the place where it hits, don't ride side saddle.

Wednesday, December 11, 2019

A decade of blogging

Yes, it's been a whole decade as of today. Here is the first post again:

Strength is a virtue

I was rereading Alasdair MacIntyre the other day and something that had never seemed terribly significant or controversial jumped out at me. This:

At least some of the items in a homeric list of the aretai would clearly not be counted by most of us as virtues at all, physical strength being the most obvious example. (After Virtue p181)
I should preface this by saying that MacIntyre is surpassed by only Jane Austen in my personal pantheon of moral thinkers.

That said, I still think he is wrong. Physical strength isn't the most significant virtue but I think it is a virtue and I think we all know it is. You can see it quite clearly where I live, and where we got a big dump of snow yesterday. A man or woman who is incapable of helping push a car out of the snow or of shoveling a driveway is morally deficient. Yes, there are legitimate excuses, old age and serious spinal injuries for example, but failing some such excuse it is a moral requirement to have a certain amount of physical strength.

This is not to say that physical strength is the most important virtue and it matters a whole lot what you use that strength to do but a virtue it is.

This comes out very clearly when I need help. If I go ask Dennis, who is much stronger than me, to help me push my car out of a snow bank, I have to treat his strength as a virtue if I am to show any moral consistency at all. If I think, “Well, you’re just a stupid bonehead Dennis but I really need your help so I am going to pretend to admire you just to get the help,” then I am treating Dennis as just a means and not as an end.

Added: I still rate MacIntyre highly but not quite so high as I did a decade ago. 

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.