30 December 2008

Waltzing Trad

Can you dance? Believe it or not, I can. It’s not something about which I am very talkative. But when I was aged 10, my mother enrolled me in a year’s worth of ballroom dancing classes at a dancing school in New Canaan, Connecticut. I mention it because a recent news article about the growing popularity of ballroom dancing amongst Czech teens in Prague has nudged my memory.

I attended evening lessons twice a week. The first few times filled me with acute apprehension. As we pulled up in my mother’s green Mercedes-Benz motor car, I sat, silent and unmoving, in the cold leather seat, absolutely dreading the next two hours. Outside the school doors congregated a group of nervous and chatting youngsters, school friends, our neighbours' children in New Canaan, a shivering mass of blue blazers and frilly dresses. For boys, the school dress code demanded a navy blazer, dark worsted trousers, OCBD, tie, dark socks, and dress shoes. Most boys wore penny loafers such as Weejuns or a variation thereof. A few daring chaps wore tartan trousers (see photo above), an audacious innovation of which I was secretly envious.In the ballroom itself the girls lined up along the wall on one side, the boys on the other. When we were told to choose a partner, the boys walked across the room, offered a hand to the girl of their choosing, and asked her to dance. The music started and we were on our way, the teachers calling out instructions and occasionally intervening to guide a wayward couple. I became particularly fond of Waltz music, which I found to be a more formal and dignified style and more in keeping with my family's cultural tastes.

Eventually I learned to enjoy the experience. But it was not something I anticipated with anything like excitement. What my mother was thinking when she enrolled me, I can only guess. Maybe she wanted to soften the rough edges she could already perceive starting to form around me. True, I was a querulous youth, independent and headstrong, apt to spend weekends and summer holidays on my own, tanned, blond, and barefoot, exploring the woods or the rivers and ponds. Ballroom dancing class, I think, was a way to ameliorate the selfish tendencies of a burgeoning little savage. It was an opportunity for me to socialise with peers and to develop confidence with the opposite sex in a more decorous setting.But soon afterwards, as I have mentioned before, my mother left for a drug-soaked New Age commune in San Francisco. I did not sign up for another year of ballroom dancing. What if anything can I salvage from the debris? What remains? Only this: I am grateful for having had the chance to learn something new. I am still able to cut a mean rug today. Most of all, I have warm memories of my ten-year old self, anxious and grumpy in navy blazer and itchy wool trousers, grasping my dance partner's white begloved hands and bravely stepping on to the floor together, and, quite possibly, leaving her heart flickering in my wake. Or so I like to imagine.

Reds Don't Surf !

24 December 2008

Merry Christmas 2008

Truefitt & Hill 1805

19 December 2008

The Australian

Imperial German Dueling Club

Today's university students, one might argue, are inveterate louts. Our ancestors were a sturdier breed. In the photo (above) note the horn-rimmed spectacles, repp tie, and the blood on the face of the chap at lower left.

18 December 2008

First Love: A Tribute to Gin

For my 15th birthday in South Kensington, one of my neighbours surreptitiously gave me a bottle of Beefeater gin. My neighbour was a buxom French-Egyptian woman with blonde hair and green eyes and two children my age who attended Wellington College and the Lycée Français Charles de Gaulle. The gin bottle was in a gift box. I hid it in my room upstairs. Over the course of a couple of months, I drank it straight. No tonic, no water, no lime. I had been drinking ale, bitter, and lager for almost a year. Even whisky and vodka. But the Beefeater was something new, my introduction to more sophisticated material, the beginning of a love affair. No other substance affected me the same way, except perhaps wine and whisky. I participated in messy pub brawls and snogged svelte public school girls. My first jail term was due to drinking too much gin. Over the years gin has served me extremely well, on the whole, and today I can attribute new horizons to drinking it. To gin, I raise my glass.

Black Shoes, Black Heart

As you may have heard, I have a new-found appreciation for my black shoes. And not just any old black shoes, such as those plastic, square-toed Kenneth Cole horrors that increasing numbers of chaps in the office seem to be wearing. I am referring to proper English shoes in an oxford, brogue, or tassel loafer style. These are the only shoes, in my opinion, that should be worn with a business suit. (I have specific views concerning dress boots, which I shall address in a later post).

My revived enthusiasm for black recently has led me to spend hours reassessing my footwear collection, much to the consternation of my new editor. I have even considered, in a phase of madness, liquidating all dress shoes in cabernet and oxblood colours; I rarely wear them to the office. I have worn black oxfords and loafers for ages. At school, convention required black loafers from New & Lingwood. Brown shoes, as everyone knew, are unsuitable for urban environments, solicitor's offices, and trading floors.

Black oxfords project an aura of professionalism and seriousness, which is especially helpful if these are qualities you yourself do not possess. Professional success is largely a result of dressing well and looking good, and wearing the right shoes to the office plays a large role in the equation.

Photo: Shipton & Heneage

17 December 2008

Hergé in Tweed

From the top floor of my uncle's five-story townhouse opposite the Victoria & Albert Museum, I could see the sparkling traffic lights on Cromwell Road far below. It was there that I did my evening reading. Not all of it was academic work. I enjoyed, amongst other things, the works of Hergé, creator of the Tintin character. I had most of his books. A girlfriend gave me a Tintin keyring. I even wore on occasion a Tintin sweater that had been bought for me from the Tintin store in Covent Garden.

Around the top edge of the townhouses ran a narrow embankment enclosing a channel for rain water. It was possible to climb out of the windows on to this wall, and, if you wanted, walk completely around the rooftops of the square, stopping to peer in each window. Our next door neighbour's daughter, a lithe 15-year old blonde at the Royal School in Hampstead, crawled out on to this narrow walkway and one evening appeared at my window on hands and knees looking for a smoke and conversation.

On the top floor of my uncle's house we would lie together, with the windows open, having a cigarette or two and some cocktails, listening to CDs, talking and leafing through the Tintin books.

10 December 2008

City Stripes Celebration

From my teenage years onward, I have had a thing for business shirts with narrow, evenly-spaced stripes. Today they are referred to as bengal, banker, or university stripes; but when I was young we called them City stripes.

One of my masters at school, Mr. Jessup, frequently wore City stripes. Jessup was a short, portly, shaven-headed gent with tortoise-shell specs (not unlike the American style expert G. Bruce Boyer) and a fondness for the poetry of Swinburne and Whitman, who wore cruddy cardigans or v-neck jumpers, stained charcoal trousers, knit ties, and black English loafers from New & Lingwood. His dress shirts invariably featured plum or purple City stripes. He wore these shirts so often that they smelled; the collar and cuffs were frayed. While he made us recite the poems of the English Romantics in a plummy accent, I made meticulous note of his City striped shirts.

At first I bought my shirts at Harvie & Hudson, where I would stand in front of the shop windows and study the brightly-coloured, striped configurations of the City shirts on display and dream of wearing them to a job in management consulting or investment banking. Later, I acquired shirts at Brooks Brothers, J.Crew, and JPress, usually with spread collar and double cuffs, wearing them on both business and informal occasions. Then as now I admired the clean look presented by the neat, even stripes. Like the colours on club or repp neck ties, City striped shirts can hint at membership of a club, college, or athletic team. Herein, I think, lies at least part of their appeal.

09 December 2008

'Heroes' (Bowie)

V-2 Schneider (Bowie)