On the Tube, an ad for Rennie Dual Action Tablets – they alleviate heartburn and indigestion. The slogan accompanying the image of someone’s stomach seen through their tee-shirt is ‘No Dual Action Product Works Faster’. This is, for a few seconds, confusing. The ad seems to be suggesting that, compared, say, to Single Action Products, no Dual Action Product Works Faster.
The streets are rammed. Passage through the alleys is gruelling – so many tourists are gazing into shop windows that the space left for getting through amounts to just a third of the alley’s width. Down in St Mark’s Square only vertical gazing is possible – the panoramic options are blocked out by thick clusters of camera-wielding snappers. Tour guides are present in their dozens, each marshalling groups of twenty or thirty followers. To combat the incessant hubbub the guides speak into microphones attached to small P.A. systems that they carry round their necks. There is little individual movement, people shuffle in packs from place to legendary place. It’s the last week in May. The season hasn’t started yet.
So proud is Venice of its unique heritage provision that even building works, such as those currently being extensively carried out on the giant Biblioteca Marciana – the Library of St Mark’s – have been enhanced in order to deliver a seamless viewing experience. In the case of the Biblioteca the local council, or whoever ‘manages’ these operations, has suspended from the top of one side of the building a samesize photorealistic backcloth depicting the pillars and masonry you would have seen had they not been obscured by scaffolding and the backcloth itself. Not only that, it has placed a gigantic and colourful advertisement for Rolex golden watches in the centre of the cloth, as if the building works at the Biblioteca Marciana were obscuring not only elegant colonnades but a portal to a marvellous chronometer opportunity featuring uniformed men in a technologised futurescape.
A very rudimentary piece of theatrecraft is being essayed here. The Men from the Veneto clearly view the eager hordes as unsophisticated hut-dwelling folk who will welcome bigness and boldness in any context. Having completely taken us in with the realism of the colonnade megaphotos they will now entice us into a domain every bit as magical as the fabled architecture of Venice itself. Rolexworld is presented as continuous with the splendour and sublimity of the highest of the high arts. It is, furthermore, accessed via the olden fabric of the Library. The building works, as sometimes is their wont, have uncovered an unsuspected trove at the heart of an already valued site. For a few weeks only we may gaze into the timeless moonscapes that appear to be the habitat of the timerich Rolex Perpetual Explorer.
As a lifelong non-combatant in the field of competitive sports – I blame the contempt-inducing secondary school character-building ethos – I just watch the major fixtures and then only on TV. An annual dash of Wimbledon, the odd international rugger game, a few strokes of the Open, quite a lot of the World Cup and so forth. It recently came to my attention that a Cup Final was to be played in the new Wembley stadium so I eased onto the sofa with a modicum of interest. There followed an exceptionally dreary match that inevitably became slightly engaging towards the very end when it seemed that somebody ought to score within the next ten minutes in order to preserve both sides from ridicule.
Drogba popped one in quite niftily for Chelsea and excitement was widespread. As the team and their people danced around the pitch a BBC1 reporter with an ear-piece and mike barrelled into the fray and clamped his free arm round Drogba’s neck. He positioned the crook of his elbow so that it was adjacent to Drogba’s nape. Then, shouting dementedly, he asked Drogba how he felt. The footballer, exhausted, elated, speaking in his second or even third language, clearly wanted to celebrate with his team-mates and enjoy the adoration of the crowd. With visible and reluctant effort, he told the reporter how incredible he felt and how amazing it had been and so forth. The reporter, sensing the restlessness of his captive, sought to detain him by blurting out another question, a minor variant on the tiresome the ‘So how do you/did it feel?’ form.
Drogba, struggling to be diplomatic, hesitated, started one or two sentences, glanced longingly at the crowd and began a short but surprising speech: he thanked his parents for all they had done for him. Suddenly we were at the Oscars. Drogba had slipped into the wrong format. Under duress from the cartoon character in whose arm-lock he languished, the Ivorian had unwittingly revealed the leakage between two worlds of high profile performance. Both worlds generate stars and both are premised on teamwork. In the movies only one star in one hundred will ever acknowledge the collective nature of the film enterprise and that’s only at award ceremonies. In football, however, the word ‘team’ is still widely used. Someone scores a goal because his team-mates set it up for him. Nevertheless, the forces of marketised individualism gravitate towards such notions and cluster around them, nibbling, buffeting and wearing them down in favour of isolating the heroic figure. The only team that heroic figures will acknowledge, it seems, is the Mummy & Daddy Organisation. ‘It is they who have enabled my heroism. I prostrate myself at the foot of their warm pedestal.’
The heroising rays have, of course, bathed many a footballer in starlight. It’s clearly confusing, though, to the extent that the idea of there being different types of hero is dissolving. All heroes now achieve the condition of the filmstar, even if they are not filmstars. The scope of heroism is narrowed, probably to make it appear more readily attainable. It may be the case that heroes themselves are confused: by their relationship to the collective, which they are increasingly encouraged to overlook, and their sense of themselves as performers who are treated as actors.
A photograph in this morning’s Independent depicts the powerless Prime Minister, Tony Blair, standing beside President and Mrs Bush. The delighted ensemble is flanked by two Marines, each wearing dark, medal-bedecked tunics and light trousers. Both Marines, of course, also wear the peaked cap of the Marine. The visors of military caps invariably jut downwards at an impractical angle, thereby enforcing what is imagined to be an appropriate hyper-bolt-upright stance in the wearer. I have no doubt that a proponent of the Alexander Technique would assert that such a posture compresses the vertebrae of the neck and upper back producing an inflexibility inconsistent with the requirement for fluidity of the trained military body. I am not losing sleep over this.
Even when the cap visor precludes a normal forward-looking gaze it is possible to tip the cap back slightly thereby clearing the eyes for the surveillance one would surmise is necessary for the survival of the expensively trained military specialist. In the Independent photo, the two Marines have opted for slightly different cap-wearing styles. On the right of picture the Marine’s visor is drawn low over the eyes, completely shading them from view. It is not possible to see the expression in these eyes. On the left of picture the visor has been pushed back to reveal the eyes. This Marine is simulating expressionlessness. There is no such thing, even in death. While much of the face is held stiffly in what passes for neutral, the eyes are tense and uneasy. The expression could, it is true, be taken for one of alert readiness, but basically the Marine looks uncomfortable. His colleague, however, despite and because of our not being able to see his eyes, looks more relaxed.
The odd thing is that Marines are meant to look at you and scare you, not the other way round. The visor will enable this intimidating gaze to be conducted from the shadows so that if the Marine is not confident of manufacturing an unambiguous glare, the rest of his stern face will convince you that the unseen eyes are scaring. Not all Marines will need to hide beneath the visor but it does impart some of the benefits of dark glasses to those in need. The visor is such an extreme device that it actually compels rumination on the credibilty of the military bearing and all that it supposed to represent. Could it be that the visor not only enforces a chin-jutting, down-staring effect, as designed and intended, but also protects the corpsman from a sceptical gaze – our gaze – that might detect the proximity of his fear and anxiety to his undoubted strength and aggression?
On the other hand, from the point of view of the corpsman’s superior officer, the visor ensures not only a respectful head/neck angle but a vulnerable one – the face is too open, as is the throat, and the inspecting officer sees its angle as one of supplication. He is, furthermore, protected from the Marine’s strength and fear by the regulation that compels the Marine to avoid eye contact with the officer whilst under inspection. What the civilian sees as menacing aloofness, the officer sees as an embodiment of obedience.
These are elements of well established ritual but embedded in them is an unwitting acknowledgement of the fact that even at the point on the spectrum where warrior qualities should be at their purest there exists a theatre of manliness rather than the real thing. In the greater part of the spectrum, between the poles of larval feebleness and titanic rigidity, it is taken for granted that the manly thing is something you learn, it doesn’t come naturally. Soldiers get a bonus in the course of this apprenticeship – they are taught to be angry on request, as if the object of the anger were not relevant to the feeling. This is the sort of thing actors do, in a way, so it’s not surprising that even when the bayonet is inches from your nose, it’s a bit like show business, devoid of the entertainment value.
The visor is too ambiguous, it’s a comedy prop, a nasty equivalent to the tickling stick. It gives the game away.
The steam room is well designed. It’s long with wraparound banquettes and a glass door. A guy in there holds up a blue plastic mineral water bottle and says “Is it okay if I…?”
He unscrews the cap of the bottle then pushes the bottle onto a protrusion in the wall.
“What’s that?” I ask.
“The thermostat. It makes it thinks it’s cold.”
“Has it got water in?”
“Yeah. I was in here this morning and there was no steam so I got this bottle. It has to be one of the square ones or else they fall off. Evian always falls off.”
“You’ve been working on it,” I say.
“It’s my life’s quest,” he laughs.
“I’ve seen people pouring water on them but never sticking a bottle on,” I say.
“Which one do you use?”
“Usually the north London one. The thermostat is a different shape.”
“Some people spray water on it from their mouths, from the drinking fountain. I’ve done that,” I boast.
Two more guys come in.
The water bottle guy says “Apparently there’s this thing, you shouldn’t go straight from the gym to the steam room. You should go to the sauna.”
“Who says?” says one of the new guys.
“I read it in ‘Men’s Health’.”
“So why is that?”
“I don’t know.”
The other new guy says “They just make it up.”
The water bottle guy says “Right. You shouldn’t believe all this stuff.”
Look at these guys in the street: why do they walk so funny? It seems to be a new thing: men under the age of 25 appear to be experiencing fundamental problems with the mechanics of ambulation. Their legs point in the wrong directions, they limp (without apparent medical cause), they shuffle, their legs are unnecessarily bent, the toe-heel relationships are shot, they are fairly slow and sometimes one leg will be used in a style unlike that deployed by the other. This isn’t the rickety Dickensian London Poor, this is 21st Century white, Asian, black youth on the hoof. Ethnicity isn’t the issue and neither is class – posh and middle class kids are stumbling and waddling all over the place alongside their less fortunate fellows.
Despite the concealing nature of the roomily tailored sportswear that generally denotes an absence of sport in the personal curriculum, it is plain to see that a walking crisis is afoot. Obviously these guys learned to walk at the usual time and dashed around the playground in a normal manner. Somewhere along the line the line ran out: tips for further walking were somehow missed or were not readily available. This is hard to credit – there are countless older or other guys walking in interesting ways that could be profitably studied.
Around puberty it becomes important to affect a cool gait – fashions among peers will mould the legs in any number of ways that may be awkward or transparently affected but sooner or later the walker settles for something that feels right, gradually personalises it then usually locks onto it for the duration. Film stars, pop stars and sportsmen are all handy, conventional points of reference for the novice gait builder.
This last assertion is currently debatable, however. Somehow the kids are not picking up on the diversity of available models. Certainly one thing the current gaits have in common is the appearance of wastedness. This can be taken both in the medical sense of muscular atrophy and the street sense of wiped out on drugs. Which is not to say that drugs are doing it to the kids. They are, as we all know, doing it to folk-hero Pete Doherty and he is widely admired for several of his distinguishing characteristics, one of which is a languid lope. I’ve seen one or two decent attempts at this in Camden Town but it hasn’t really caught on as yet; this may be due to the complex tension in the Doherty gait between that which depresses (the smack), that which elates (the smack) and what seems to be, beneath the opiate billows, the subject’s chirpiness.
Most wasted gaits (the title of my next novel, as it happens) lack elation, however. This is because life for the people of the world is thin on elation at the moment. Despite the relentless, ubiquitous and hysterical spectacle of the celebrated and their divine characteristics, the following of role models requires a certain energy, the expenditure of which is inspired by expectations of reward. Can it be that some of the youth can’t give a fuck, even about acquiring a gait that signifies they don’t give a fuck? Perhaps the new shambling is a way of rejecting not just the current range of role models but all role models. This would be a second order of wastedness: the first is the familiar one where you simply imitate someone who is so worldly or worldweary that they don’t give a damn for convention, don’t care what people think, wish to communicate their indifference to the tight, focused postures of the employed, capitalised body blah blah. The second order, however, is actually an authentic one – it signals the fact that you’ve lost the will to imitate.
If this is so, does it indicate an emerging autonomy, a simple postponement of the rite of gait acquisition or a diminution of self-esteem sufficient to dissuade the youth even from simulating the appearance of self-esteem?
My effortless natural pessimism inclines me to the latter explanation. The business of being inspired is no longer inspiring with the result that young men in search of gait, instead of modelling themselves on a model, are reduced to an attempt to align themselves with generic maleness – a nebulous conception that eludes capture because it is an idea bereft of forms. Where would you start?
Of course, it’s not really gait that is being sought, it’s some sense of certainty within the parameters of a gender. So much certainty has evaporated that the project is rudderless. In olden times, as we have observed, the novice male would either use imitation or locate a mentor. The problem now is that previously respectable roles have come to appear pantomimic. This need not mean that all role models are suddenly untrustworthy, rather that an awareness of everyday performance has reached a critical intensity in public perception. The gap between the performance and its performer is no longer an esoteric quantity – everybody can see everybody manufacturing themselves. It’s not special or clever anymore. It’s what you have to do.
This awareness of the business of show is enhanced by the way in which the celebrity magazines have acquired a second order level of hysteria. The first level is the one where the mags simply create hysteria in their readers. The second level sees the creators of hysteria grown hysterical themselves. So exercised are they by their circulation struggles that they fail to punctuate and correlate their stories properly. Thus we will see conflicting accounts of, say, Victoria Beckham’s current weight problems (it is a problem if she either gains or loses weight) on the covers of a number of mags displayed on the same stand on the same day. This means that some of these stories are not true! If these stories are not true this means that the whole thing is a panto. We knew this anyway but we do expect a good script. When the people in charge of the script get the scenes in the wrong order or fail to spot major inconsistencies then we are nudged over a line that generally we prefer to ignore. The possibility arises that there is only script-writing and that there is nothing that it is about. This is not the same as it being about nothing, which is acceptable – it’s an aspect of a diverting charade that we are pleased not to examine too closely. If the panto actually refers to nothing then its manic episodes are not even lightweight, they are tissues drawn across a dark void.
Young men do not, of course, read celebrity mags as much as their female counterparts, so it’s not the mags themselves that are making young men walk funny. Nevertheless, the hysteria of those whose job it is to spread hysteria has become unbecoming and constitutes a new development. The pilot is not drunk, he has actually left the plane. In the meantime the passengers will do the best they can. The plane is losing altitude. It will not, however, ever hit the ground.
A guy in Bar Italia is wearing an unusual jacket. It is new but all its edges are frayed instead of hemmed. The jacket looks as though, in part, it has worn out through excessive wear.
The jacket is part of a notional ensemble of distressed clothes that are being worn around town at the moment. In TopMan in Oxford Street I inspected a pair of gentleman’s lace-up shoes that bore heavy scuff marks and other signs of enthusiastic wear. I asked the assistant what he thought of the look. “The trouble is,” he opined, “you have to change your whole outfit to match the shoes or else everybody thinks you’re a scruff. It’s tricky.”
Presumably when pre-distressed garments are worn enthusiastically over a period of time they begin to show signs of wear and tear. It is interesting – well, mildly so – to consider how one would evaluate the genuine distress from a health and safety point of view. Would one tend to err on the side of a misreading wherein real wear marks appear more advanced due to their proximity to false ones, leading one to dispose of the garment before it is necessary to do so? I am aware, of course, that those who buy into the distressed look may well, as a matter of fashion course, dispose of garments months before it is necessary. I’ve had my Sam Walker black classic casuals for five years now. But I am not a young person.
The opposite case is equally likely. The wearer may neglect dangerous loosenings of fundamental stitching or under-sealing in the belief that these were designed in. He might be running along the road when suddenly ‘Clop!’ off comes the shoe and falls down an open manhole. Suddenly clop. It is clear that pre-distressed garments are destabilising in more ways than one.
When I was a fledgling beatnik in 1959 a precocious school-friend acquired a pair of blue jeans from an American serviceman. The jeans, a garment none of us had ever seen before, were made of tough denim and manufactured by a company called Levi. They had fly buttons and rivets on the pockets. So very hardwearing were these jeans that initially they felt uncomfortable for several weeks, compelling the wearer to walk in a stiff and unnatural way. One of the first acts of domestication involved taking a bath in the jeans so that they would shrink to a perfect fit. At least two friends were pulled semi-conscious from tepid water at this time, their legs having lost all feeling as a result of massive constriction of the inguinal area.
After this baptism one was in it for the long haul. Months would pass as the stout fabric resisted its daily catalogue of distress. Eventually, after dozens of washes the beatnik’s mother would observe that the colour intensity of the jean was appearing to diminish. At last! The jeans were acquiring the highly prized fade that signalled not only one’s affinity with the honest workman but also with the hitch-hiking outcasts of America whose beatified lifestyle precluded the ownership of a change of trousers.
In those days it could be said that the jean owner did actually walk the walk: he may have been living with his Mummy and Daddy but his jeans were distressing in real time. The significance of the fadedness, after all, is that it indicates that you have owned the garment long enough to have faded it and have therefore been cool for that period of time. The signification may have been misleading but some dues had been paid.
So what message was the guy in the Bar Italia sending with his coutured fray? To a limited extent he was telling us that he had been round the block but times have changed since either manual labour or dropping out were considered admirable or a sign of authenticity. In fact the guy was saying more emphatically that he hadn’t been round the block but didn’t give a fuck. This constituted the block around which he had walked. He had the money to purchase a garment that suggested, in its quality couture, his discrimination and, in its artful fray, his disdain of that discrimination. However, rather than place himself outside a world in which discrimination is valued, he demonstrates a higher discrimination that includes both the display of refinement and its negation. This, in turn, places him beyond the game without his having to experience the loneliness of the outsider. There are no outsiders now, so the coolest statement is the one that acknowledges this, ironises the sense of loss and enacts, in a knowing yet still nostalgic way, the pathos of the disconnection between the couture and its distress.
The look would be powerful were it not mass produced. The mass production is predicated on a constituency of consumers who wish to articulate some of the above yet do not wish to, or lack the opportunity to, experience the narrative of the fray. The garment imparts a degree of rebelliousness to the wearer, suggesting that he is above or indifferent both to fashion and to what others think of him. The problem now is that the wearer may not wish to be seen in this way – as observed earlier, some time has passed since such a stance was worthy of esteem. The tension is resolved if the wearer is able to regard the fraying not as signifying anything in particular but as a pleasing design detail.
The consumer of the garment is not even a butterfly pinned on a board, he is caught in a web of pantomime that toys with his comprehensively powerless situation in a stagnant, inconsequential game of quotations and appearances.