Posts Tagged ‘Howard Jacobson’

Dressing up, dressing down

For the apparel oft proclaims the man

It has long struck me that this is one of the very few pieces of sensible advice that that pompous windbag Polonius gives to his son. For, shallow and superficial though it may be, we do judge people by their appearance. But what Polonius does not seem to realise is that it is not just the question of what one wears. Or, if you prefer, it ain’t what you wear, it’s the way that you wear it. Take me, for instance. I could be dressed up to the nines – the smartest suit, the most dignified silk tie, matching handkerchief peeping discreetly out of my breast pocket – and still look like a sack of potatoes. ’Twas ever thus. It was this innate inability to make the best of my clothes that nipped in the bud what may otherwise have been a promising career as a male fashion model.

Here, as evidence, is a picture taken from our holiday in Sicily some three years ago. There I was, not wearing the shorts and tee shirt that I believe are generally considered de rigueur on such holidays, but sporting instead a jacket, a shirt with collar and buttons, and a pair of trousers made of some material other than denim. And yet, far from looking smart, I look as dilapidated as the ruins behind me, and considerably less dignified.

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“Were you not hot and uncomfortable?” I am asked. Well, no. Although it was bright and sunny, this picture was taken in October, and the weather was mild. Also, it’s a very light jacket: I certainly found it, and find it still (much to the despair of my wife), very comfortable to wear. It’s what is termed “leisurewear”, or even “comfort wear”, that I find uncomfortable. I find jeans heavy and awkward, and the texture of denim unpleasantly rough and abrasive; and shirts without buttons are rarely flattering to a middle-age paunch. After all, even a sack of potatoes, I feel, is entitled at least to some remaining vestiges of vanity. And quite apart from the aesthetics of it all, there are the practicalities: I never know where to put the various things I have always to carry around with me – keys, wallet, phone, comb, a paperback to read while waiting for the bus – if I am not wearing a jacket. (A recent advert on television for some credit card featured, for reasons that now escape me, a nude man running down the street, and I could not help wondering – albeit momentarily – where exactly he kept his credit card.) The tie, in keeping with the tenor of our times, I have reluctantly forgone, but this does leave me not knowing what to wipe my glasses with.

Another advantage of wearing a jacket and a shirt with collar is that for those occasions where one does need to dress up, one need make no extra effort. Perhaps change one’s usual jacket for a nicer one, and put on a tie – but that’s about it. After all, why make that extra effort when you know you’re going to end up looking like that sack of potatoes no matter what you do? Nonetheless, when I go to the opera, say, I do wear a jacket and tie. Or a decent jacket, at least. I realise that this is very stuffy and elitist of me: when one goes to the opera, especially when one goes to the opera, one really should wear “comfort wear”, if only to demonstrate how unstuffy and un-elitist one is. One should wear “comfort wear” even if one happens, as I do, not to find it very comfortable. Those who do not go to the opera, and imagine the auditorium to be populated by ladies in tiaras and gentlemen in tuxedos, are likely to be somewhat surprised were they actually to go and see for themselves.

However, formal wear has not gone completely out of fashion. If, at work, I am to meet with customers, I am still expected to wear a smart jacket and tie. Or, preferrably, a suit. Everyone will dress smartly when going for a job interview, say; and prospective employers still tend to favour those applicants who have taken the trouble to dress formally rather than those sporting “leisurewear”. Irrational, I know, but, in our perceptions at least, apparel still proclaims the man. We will all wear our best clothes – and for men, that means jacket and tie – to a wedding, say, or to friends’ silver wedding anniversary at some swanky hotel: we would feel it disrespectful to go to such events in jeans and tee shirt. It is only when it comes to theatre and opera that we feel the need to exhibit how “unstuffy” we really are.

I can’t help thinking that this is because those of us who love opera have become overly sensitive to the allegations of “elitism” and “stuffiness” that are incessantly levelled at us. And that’s hardly any wonder. If we are constantly attacked and ridiculed simply for loving that which is dear to us, extreme sensitivity is only to be expected. The prices for classical music, we are told, are unaffordable. No matter how often you point out that a quick browse around the net indicates classical concerts to be no more expensive on average than rock concerts, and often considerably cheaper, these same allegation will resurface – over and bloody over again. Operas, admittedly, can be expensive, but then, so are West End musicals, which are never described as “elitist” or “stuffy”. And when I am told that opera is unaffordable by people who, almost in the next breath, tell me how much they paid for, say, a Beyoncé concert – some price I would never consider spending for a single night out, not even at Covent Garden – I cannot help feeling that it’s not the price that’s the point. When something one loves is constantly denigrated, and no evidence you adduce taken on board, one can’t help feeling a bit resentful about it all.

And if it’s not about prices, it’s about dress codes. Or alleged dress codes. Once again, no evidence one puts forward is ever taken on board. We who go to opera, and, what’s more, we who enjoy going to opera, are, we are told, dressed in tiaras and tuxedos, and anyone dressed in “leisurewear” stands out like that proverbial sore thumb, and is stared at. They may even, apparently, be asked to leave. No amount of evidence to the contrary can alter this current of opinion, and so, naturally, we all become more than somewhat sensitive to the whole issue. (Actually, if this is indeed the criterion of stuffiness, rock concerts must count as very stuffy, as anyone dressed in a jacket and tie at a rock concert will certainly stick out like that sore thumb, and will certainly be stared at.)

Perhaps it is this sensitivity surrounding these matters that explains the astonishing vitriol that has been aimed at a recent piece by Howard Jacobson, in which he laments the decline of formal wear at the opera. The piece itself struck me as comic in tone, often tongue-in-cheek, and, like most comedy, indulging in exaggeration and in hyperbole for comic effect. When Jacobson, at the end of the piece, references the sex-strike in Aristophanes’ Lysistrata, I must admit I laughed. Not, maybe, as uninhibitedly as I do when watching Marx Brothers films, but I definitely emitted a few audible chuckles. And yet the vitriol, from opera lovers, from performers, from music writers, is unrelenting, both in the below-the-line comments, and also, inevitably, in social media. It’s as if all the good work that has so laboriously been performed in trying to convince people that opera isn’t elitist and stuffy is here undone.

I suppose I am going against the grain here in not objecting to Jacobson’s article. People who think badly of opera and of opera-lovers on account of their alleged “stuffiness” aren’t going to change their minds: they haven’t so far. How much longer must we keep insisting to them that we really are normal people? Yes, of course people are entitled to wear whatever they damn well want. And of course it’s how you respond to the opera that matters, and not what you’re wearing. I doubt Jacobson himself would disagree with any of that. But his point, dressed up as it admittedly is in comic hyperbole, seems to me to be that not only is there nothing wrong in dressing up specially to mark a special occasion, it may even, given we are social animals, and given further that a night out, whether at an opera or at a rock concert, is a social as well as an aesthetic event, be a Good Thing. Such a point I find entirely unexceptionable.

But of course, in my case, given that I look like a sack of potatoes no matter how I dress, it probably doesn’t really matter very much. So let me finish off by offering another picture from our Sicilian holiday of three years ago. Here I am in a Greek theatre in Syracuse, wearing my jacket and buttoned-up shirt in honour of Aeschylus, who is reputed to have performed here.

(And please – no gags about the Popular Front of Judaea: that one has been done to death!)

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Expectations great and small

We are accustomed to speaking of Dickens as a “flawed author”. Or, at least, I am. And on the whole, it doesn’t really bother me: perfection, I’ve often felt, is such an overrated quality. But Great Expectations seems to me just about perfect. I can’t think of a single thing in it I would wish changed. Except, perhaps, for one: the character of Orlick. In a more characteristic Dickens novel – multi-stranded and multi-faceted, overflowing with life and with vigour and with figures painted in each square inch of its gloriously overcrowded canvas – such a flaw wouldn’t really have mattered: after all, who cares about a few flaws in the face of God’s Plenty? But Great Expectations is a very different sort of novel: here, a single blemish, a single vicious mole of nature, seems to disrupt the harmony of the whole. And yes, I have often wished Dickens had done away with Orlick. I have often fancied that he would have done so had he not been writing in serial form, thus committing himself in later parts to what he had already written in the earlier.

But this is, indeed, mere fancy. The possibility does exist – as it always does – that it is I who have got this badly wrong, that Orlick is, indeed, a necessary component of the whole. That is certainly the view put forward recently by novelist Howard Jacobson:

… the shock of Orlick’s brutal beating of Mrs Joe resonates through the novel: not only implicating readers in the violence (there isn’t one of us, if we are honest, that hasn’t been wishing her harm in the pages before the attack), but miring Pip further in that consciousness of crime that crowds his every thought, binding him with Orlick, an alter ego who makes a mockery of his longing to be spotless enough to deserve Estella.

Further, Jacobson contends, Mrs Joe’s pathetic submissiveness to her assailant mirrors Pip’s own relationship with Estella – “loving her for what she isn’t, and loving her the more, the more she mistreats him”. Jacobson continues: “… it asks a terrible question about the psychological hierarchy of beater and beaten.”

This deranged psychology, “the deranged fastidiousness we call romantic love”, is indeed, as Jacobson says, at the heart of the novel. And yes, there is a “savagery” and an “eroticism” that many of us perhaps fail to see because these are not the qualities we expect from a work we have come to think of as a “venerated classic”. However, I wonder whether Jacobson is being perhaps a bit unfair in denouncing the view of this novel as “a moral fable about a snob’s progress”. For it seems to me that such a view of the novel is also tenable; and that, furthermore, seeing it in such terms is not necessarily, as Jacobson claims, to “reduce” the work. After all, the search for a moral code in an immoral world is surely a big theme not unworthy of a major novelist at the height of his powers. And neither is this theme subsidiary to that of Pip’s erotic obsession: Pip learns, by the end of the novel, to love Magwitch, and this is a moral redemption – indeed, a moral victory – that seems to me every bit as significant as the failure of his erotic aspirations.

But what of Orlick? Is to omit him from adaptation to “…[wilt] before the novel’s savagery”, and to “…[dilute] its eroticism”? Perhaps. But the problem with the strand involving Orlick is that there seems no satisfactory way of resolving it. It was a problem that Dickens himself could not, I think, solve. After Pip goes to London to become a gentleman some one third of the way through the novel, Orlick, who had previously played so striking a role, effectively disappears from the narrative, and is only brought back, presumably for the sake of completeness, in a single incongruous chapter towards the end. And this chapter refuses resolutely to fit its surroundings: it is a crude episode of an adventure story set in the midst of what is otherwise a complex moral and psychological web, and seems to me a very conspicuous blemish on what is about as near perfection as makes no odds.

But Jacobson is right, I think, to complain that we have reduced Dickens to a “mincing art”. This is perhaps the fate of all works we label as “classic”: the very term seems to imply a certain gentility, a certain preciousness and over-refinement; and, in our readings, we tend, perhaps unconsciously, to reduce works bearing this label to the scale of our own Reduced Expectations. And, having reduced them to our own size, we criticise them for being too small. Great Expectations is about many things, and a “moral fable about a snob’s progress” is not, I think, to be ruled out: but yes, it’s time we saw again something of its savagery.