Wednesday, 31 July 2013

The Book I Read In July

'Benito Mussolini' by Christopher Hibbert
This is an old biography of Mussolini, published in 1962.  It is not bad on specifics but the focus is terribly imbalanced.  I think most readers would expect more on Mussolini's behaviour when in office.  However, what we get is far more on his life before becoming prime minister and 60 pages out of the 392 pages of narrative, focused on his last few months with some chapters looking at a single day.  This detail of Mussolini going back and forth in his final days adds very little to the picture of him. Even his wife and mistresses really only appear in relation to his fall.  We have little idea of how they came into his life or what they meant to it during his rise and at his height.

The material about his character as a young man and his move from left- to right-wing politics is good.  Then for the bulk of his career the book is far weaker with years of things such as his view on foreign or domestic policy, skipped over far too quickly.  It is interesting on Mussolini's relationship with Hitler.  However, this comes over very much as biography-as-story.  There is no need for the specifics of the furniture of the rooms he was confined in or what he ate at particular meals.  Thus, the book feels very unsatisfactory and as if it needed much stronger editing to produce a thorough look at Mussolini's life rather than a clutch of unnecessarily detailed sections against the background of other rushed elements.

Thursday, 18 July 2013

The Male Clothing Disadvantage

As I pull off my tie and unbutton my collar; with sweat coating the body beneath my shirt, let alone how uncomfortable the rest of me feels, as a man I feel hard done by.  I know that the increasingly obsolete nature of men in the 21st century is our gender's punishment for centuries of oppressing women.  However, in this hot weather, I just wish companies were less complicit with making men endure discomfort day in/day out.  A couple of months ago when selecting which shoes to put on to go out, the 11-year old boy who used to live in my house, complained to me that all the shoes he had looked like 'girls' shoes'.  This is not because he has a cupboard full of pink pumps, it is because every style of shoe a boy might wear is now worn by girls.  Yes, girls can wear pumps and court shoes, they can wear calf-high, knee-high and even over-the knee-boots; they can wear them with heels of various types or flat; smooth-soled or with tread; they can be shiny or matt.  Yet, these days it is acceptable for an 11-year old girl to wear trainers (sneakers in the USA), DM boots,  flat ankle boots, basketball boots, worker boots, lace-up or slip-on brogues even wellington boots, all styles once seen as 'boys' shoes'.  No wonder he had no style that he did not feel would make him look feminine.  Gender identity is something we are all conscious of especially when growing up.

In the recent hot weather, I have similarly become very conscious of how many more options my female colleagues have in what to wear to work compared to me.  The can wear a suit and tie the way I am compelled to, whenever they wish.  However, in the hot weather, that is the only option I have.  I could wear a short-sleeved shirt, still with a tie, but immediately would look as if I had become 65, not something desirable in the current workplace.  The best I can do is take my jacket off.  My female colleagues, however, flaunt their freedom and come in a wide range of clothing seen as suitable for the office and which is immensely cooler; many have a different outfit for each day whereas I just have different coloured suits to choose between.  A man is ridiculed if his trousers are above his ankle and yet my female colleagues can come in skirts above the knee, or midi or even maxi so large they can swirl around in them; even skating-style skirst.  They can wear tight or loose trousers, harem pants, long or short culottes, long leggings, cropped leggings, capri pants, pedal pushers, Bermuda shorts, cycling shorts (if matt) and traditional length canvas shorts.  About the only fashion off limits for the workplace are the bum-hugging denim shorts so favoured by female students.  Women can wear blouses with long sleeves, short sleeves or no sleeves; tops with some, a few or no buttons and all of these things in a range of shades. 

The dichotomy between how comfortable a man is allowed to be in this weather and how comfortable a woman can choose to be is shown every morning by the difference between the male and female presenter on the BBC Breakfast programme on BBC1.  This morning the man was in a suit, with jacket on, and a tie; the woman was in a sleeveless dress.  Studios may be air conditioned, but it is very hot under those lights.

A large percentage of my female colleagues are in sleeveless dresses and sandals, seen as acceptable for the workplace.  If I turned up in a teeshirt (let alone a sleeveless one), even a short sleeved shirt unable of having a tie, and shorts, no matter how much they looked like those worn by the Bermudan police, I would be sent home.  I read some months ago a comment that the tie shown on the novel 'Fifty Shades of Grey' (2012) did not reflect what men actually wore to work.  I have no idea what it is like in newspaper offices, but every day you see men heading to work and indeed in offices (I just walked past an accountants' office full of them) with the ties on.  This is the expectation in many British workplaces, there is no other option when you work in an office.  Pity those compelled to turn up in uniforms fit to work outside in December.

Ridicule and condemnation awaits any man who wears sandals even on his days off let alone at work.  Dressing in a way which would give me some modicum of comfort in work, is liable to damage my standing in the job.  I have two interviews next week.  The interviewees I have seen at my workplace this week have all been in sleeveless dresses, so each probably carrying many hundreds of grams less in weight than I will be compared to do and without it all pulled tight by the top button and the tie.  I will have to drive in these clothes, I will have to sit waiting in these clothes, I will have to concentrate while being interviewed in these clothes.  I am not going to perform as well as my rivals.  In my department there are 7 men and 53 women.  The imbalances of the past can be seen that even though there are so few men two of the four deputy-heads of the unit are men, though the current and past two heads have been women as is her boss.  This suggests that in my industry, though, there is no need to further favour women in interviews, by making the men feel so uncomfortable.

I am not a transvestite.  I have no desire to wear 'women's clothes', but certainly when the temperatures reach a certain level, I think there should be more leeway for men.  We should be allowed to remove ties for a start.  I am tired of having a chafed neck every evening; it is agonising when the sweat pours into yesterday's wounds.  An open-necked, white short-sleeved shirt can be very smart.  For trousers, long shorts in cotton, say in navy blue, again would look smart.  If sandals are unacceptable then slip-on pump-like shoes in a dark shade and allowed without socks again could take a lot of heat off male employees and yet look as if they mean business.  However, I know this is never going to happen in my lifetime and I simply have to pray for more summers like 2012.

I have taken a bold step and looking around the world at what men who want to look smart in hot countries do, I have ordered a white thobe (also known as a thawb, dishdasha, kandura or suriyah), a long loose garment warn in North Africa and the Middle East.  I doubt I have the courage to wear it to work and if I did that would probably be my career over, no matter if it was a 'dress down' day.  In addition, given that I now walk to work, the chances that I would be reported as being 'suspicious' as people travelling on public transport in London are advised to look out for and would be picked up by the police as a terrorist threat before I reach work.  Being bald I had been tempted to buy a skull cap too as my head burns as I walk home; I have worked out a route which is most shaded, to reduce the damage.  However, I may try a brimmed hat, a little like those Australian ones, and hope that the clash of cultures will reduce the apparent threat I pose.

In the mid-Victorian and the Edwardian periods there were campaigns for 'rational dress' for women.  These did not really win through until after the Second World War.  I think we need to introduce 'rational dress' for working men which allows them to work without being endanger of over-heating in the office and having to spend the evening tending to the chafed skin around their necks and other parts of their bodies.  Men have been backed into a single option for office wear and puts us at even more of a disadvantage in the workplace than is already the case.

Saturday, 6 July 2013

Bacchus and I: Drinking in Esher

I am surprised I have not thought about doing this before.  Since the 1990s I have periodically met up with a friend of mine, affectionately known as Bacchus and we have walked around an area, usually in London, trying out a range of pubs and typically having a meal along the way.  Sometimes we do not stray too far, sometimes there is a lot of walking involved.  I should have made more effort to capture our journey in 1995 that began at 07.00 at the 'Hope & Anchor' pub next to Smithfield Market and included a huge cooked breakfast and beer.  It involved going up into the dome of St Paul's Cathedral, lunching close to The Clink in Southwark and finished off in Lambeth around 19.00.   The walking tended to counter-balance the beer intake. Other trips have involved Wapping, Whitechapel-Bethnal Green, Walthamstow, Battersea, Twickenham, Holloway-Archway-Hampstead-Highgate, Charing Cross Road-Tottenham Court Road-Euston, Bloomsbury-Fitzrovia, Holborn, Mayfair, Marble Arch-Edgware Road, Hammersmith with sojourns to Cookham, Oxford, Reading, Norwich, Winchester, Guildford and Bournemouth. My preference is for lager, Bacchus favours good bitters and real ales.

There are a couple of reasons for including such exploits on here.  Not on the basis of boasting of how much alcohol I can consume.  My limit is usually 4 pints, perhaps 6 if spread over a longer period and alternated with tomato juice.  Bacchus has protested that too many people 'spread their lives all over the internet', something of which I am now worried about doing.  I am torn by seeing it as egotistical yet the whole purpose of this blog was for me to cast stuff out into the internet in large part for my own benefit.  Latterly this has become a tool for mentally sticking my life back together.  Along the way I have found I actually lost more than I realised.  Along with the house and chickens went probably my only chance to ever marry.

The main purpose of covering such activities on here is a bit in the line of the flaneur approach, i.e. recounting what you might encounter walking through various parts of the country and also may suggest to you some pubs and even restaurants you might want to try out or in fact avoid.  On this basis, I certainly recommend breakfasting at 'Hope & Anchor'.  A visit to 'The Mitre' in Holborn, if you can find it, is worthwhile doing as it is the closest you will get to a Harry Potter like pub in how concealed it is.  I know Bacchus would mention 'The Prospect of Whitby' in Wapping.  I have also returned to 'The Sussex Arms' in Twickenham which actually plays records and sells a wide range of beers and ciders, always changing.

So, today's posting is about our trip to Esher.  We went on a Sunday, so it was pretty quiet, there was no horse racing on which changes the whole nature of the town.  The first thing to note is that it a 20-minute walk from the station and there is just busy residential road and then the horse race track to get passed before there are any commercial outlets, bar a branch of 'CafĂ© Rouge' which ironically we ended up eating in.

On this trip we visited three pubs.  The first was 'The Bear' which says it is a hotel but has a substantial bar area with stripped wood floors and a mixture of sofas and high stools.  It looks pretty much like a stylish wine bar and maybe the attitude of the staff come from that.  Being stockbroker belt Surrey you are not going to pay less than £4 (€4.60; US$6.12) for your pint of beer.  There is a reasonably large outdoor area.  The staff were young and while seemed to be good enough at doing their jobs, seemed to view the customer as the least of their concerns, they would rather play around with people.  For Esher the clientele were quiet.  I was surprised they were not doing more business selling food being a Sunday, but maybe their prime time is evenings.  I bought peanuts and they were very expensive, you only get a small dish for paying £2.50, I would rather have a packet.  However, I guess I was not the kind of customer 'The Bear' is looking for; it might have been different if I had bought wine.  The range of lagers was not particularly good; Bacchus very much disliked the place.

We crossed the very busy road to 'The Albert Arms'.  The exterior was being refurnished, but did not really impinge on the experience.  In some ways it reminded me of a narrower version of 'The Three Kings' in Twickenham, with bright wood flooring.  Its range of beers was better than 'The Bear' opposite.  Perhaps this was why, in contrast to 'The Bear' where women had been in the majority, this was dominated by men, some of whom were loud and very pretentious, but again, what you would expect in most places in Esher, they are bred like that.  I could have tolerated this place.  Bacchus is not usually overly picky about the environment, especially if the beer is reasonable.  However, we pressed on to the best pub of the day.

'The Wheatsheaf on the Green' as the name suggests is in a quieter part of Esher, it is worth walking up the low hill from the high street to reach it.  The interior somehow reminded me of a colonial hill station refurbished around 1965, but that was nice compared to the samey looking pubs you find everywhere.  Whilst we do not eat there, food seemed popular with the locals and they had a good range of Thai dishes and seemed to be doing very good business.  The attitude of the staff was in sharp contrast to the previous two pubs and we stayed here for another feeling very comfortable.  The pub managed to straddle successfully between dining families and serious drinkers like us.  Overall, a pleasant place to be and I would not mind returning.  It is pictured below with Bacchus pixelated to spare his discomfort.

As it now seems possible that I will be leaving London for the South Midlands, this may be my last review from this region and you will see others from elsewhere.  It might be of no interest, but this posting has been enjoyable and I regret not capturing my trips of the past.