Quote of The Week

“It is curious – very curious – that physical courage should be so common in the world, and moral courage so rare.”

Mark Twain


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The South Will Rise Again

A couple of years ago we were driving through southern England on our way to yet another airport, when we left the main highway and plunged into the country lanes in search of a place to have lunch. Actually not much searching was involved, because we already knew where to find the best lunch in the area. We stopped as usual in the village of Ockham, at a pub called the Black Swan, which rather perversely has a white swan on its sign, and is known locally The Dirty Duck.

As we stepped out of the car we were greeting by the unmistakable sound of gunfire, which is not usual in English villages, even in these exciting times. Two groups of men were lined up on opposite sides of the field behind the pub, loosing off volleys of rifle fire at each other. At first we thought it was one of those village disputes about fox hunting, or who grew the biggest marrow for the agricultural show, that had just got out of hand. But, when we moved out of the line of fire and took a closer look, it was clear that the combatants were wearing old-fashioned uniforms, and the flat popping sound of their muskets suggested that they were firing blanks.

It was my wife who, having the benefit of a good American education, recognized the uniforms. We were looking at a re-enactment of a battle from the Civil War. We heard rather feeble rebel yells and shouted orders as the two sides marched and counter-marched across the field. The uniforms and equipment looked quite genuine, and perhaps the action was too. For example, many of the Confederates were in the pub drinking beer during the battle which, if it’s an authentic re-enactment of those events, may explain the débacle at Appomattox in 1865.

What confounded me completely was the fact that a bunch of Englishmen (and some women) chose to re-enact the American civil war in an English field behind an English pub. England had a perfectly good Civil War of its own in the 1640s – lots of slaughter, many atrocities, nice costumes, great fun. Other important battles were fought close to this very place, including one against the invading French in 1066, which the English lost for once. Why not re-enact that one, and perhaps change the ending?

Nursing my pint among the boisterous Confederate troops, I reflected that geographical anachronism was only half the puzzle. I can see the attraction of re-creating a slice of history. It’s theatrical, it’s educational, and it must be fun. But why choose the most dismal, nasty and brutal moments of the past? Why not re-enact peace?

I know, peace is dull, and war is exciting and even romantic – but only if you choose your war, and your battle I don’t see anyone re-enacting the Tet offensive in the Vietnam War, for example, or the collapse of the Maginot Line. How about a re-enactment of some of the great moments in intellectual history – the Lincoln/Douglass debates, for example, or the debate over the Bill of Rights. That would really be educational.

I wish history enthusiasts would choose to re-enact our moments of collective sanity, instead of our (alas) much more frequent moments of madness. But I’m not holding my breath.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Fear Itself

Franklin D. Roosevelt was being wildly optimistic when he said: “We have nothing to fear but fear itself.” He should see us now. The last months have produced a regular apocalypse of fear-making events – extreme weather, catastrophic fires, and now the open-ended threat of the Coronavirus. It’s like something out of the Book of Revelations. I can scarcely wait for the Jehovah’s Witnesses to come to my door, so I can agree with them for a change. But they’re not allowed to come to my door any more. It must be very frustrating for them.

The religious crazies have come out of the woodwork for yet another Great Awakening, warning that we are “Living in the last days,” just as they did in the 1730s, the 1820s, and the 1880s. Even more sinister are the “fear entrepeneurs” who are feeding on these events to sell products or political programs. We went through this circus before the Year 2000. Surely we can recognize it for what it is this time around?

Obviously we can’t, because we don’t want to. All of us animals have the same basic needs: food, procreation, territory: that’s what survival is all about. If our species has any claim to distinction, it is our uniquely human need to worry. Scientific researchers have spent a lot of time studying how and why we worry, and they have come up with two useful facts.

The first is that worrying is inversely correlated with risk or, in plain English, that the more we worry about something the less reason there is to worry about it. Some people can spend hours fretting about Radon in the basement or mercury fillings in their teeth, yet step into a car without a moment’s trepidation. But driving a car is just about the most dangerous thing you can do, short of hang gliding, or ordering Seafood Surprise in a cheap restaurant.

This is just ordinary human perversity. We can squeeze more worrying time out of a million-to-one risk than an almost-guaranteed disaster, just as lottery tickets are more fun than tax free bonds.

The second useful piece of research confirms something I have suspected for years: that every person has a fixed capacity for worry – let’s call it the “A.Q.” or Anxiety Quotient. Our Anxiety Quotient stays pretty much the same throughout life. It’s one of those basic personality traits that we can’t change. So each individual will always worry at about the same level, regardless of whether everything in their life is perfect, or there’s a nuclear war going on. When one worry is disposed of, the next immediately drops into place, like those multiple CD players, to keep the worry level constant.

The Anxiety Quotient is probably recorded in our genes. When the complete human genetic code is finally deciphered, there will be a “worry gene” in there somewhere. In some people, it will be below the level of microscopic visibility. In others, I will be the size of a dinosaur’s egg.

Some people have real, serious things to worry about: poverty, bad health, the police and so on. They don’t need any help with their Anxiety Quotient. Others can create anxieties out of thin air. Let them win a twenty five million dollar lottery prize, be lying on a beach in the Bahamas with the perfect companion, entirely surrounded by epidemiologists and security guards, and they’ll sit up and say: “I wonder if I turned the iron off back home…” or “Suppose my hairdresser is closed when we get back.” These are Olympic class professional worriers. They don’t need any help either.

The people who do need help are those in the middle. They have comfortable lives with no stress, but their Anxiety Quotient is high. They have to resort to really improbable fears, like the electromagnetic fields from overhead power lines, or the arrival of killer comets from outer space. Worrying about things like this makes a person look stupid. It’s obvious to everyone that they have nothing to worry about, and are grasping at straws.

It is these people who really need and enjoy the kind of daily news we’ve had lately. Suddenly they have a million new things to worry about. I just wish they would do it more quietly.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Forever Uncool

Another significant birthday came and went this winter, pushing me into an age group which I used to imagine was inhabited only by doddering, drooling old wrecks with hearing aids and grumpy attitudes. I have the hearing aid, but I haven’t started doddering or drooling yet, or at least nobody has mentioned it. As for a grumpy attitude, judge for yourself.

It’s providential that the frontier of old age moves along as we get older ourselves. When you’re a teenager, thirty seems unimaginably ancient. When you reach thirty, you understand that old age doesn’t begin until fifty. Now, it seems to me, eighty-five is the real frontier of decrepitude. My mother, at ninety-five, worried aloud about what she would do when she got old.

However, at the same time, every birthday seems to mark the end of something – either an activity or a fantasy. Over the years I’ve given up motorcycling, smoking, vodka, loose women, skiing, moving furniture, shoveling snow, and cooking with hot peppers. I’ve also given up a lot of fantasies: being a bestselling novelist, an actor, an internationally famous intellectual, and the owner of forty-eight cats. My wife put a stop to that last ambition.

All these dreams have been set aside one by one, and not many are left. The one I gave up this last birthday was the hope that somebody, some time, somewhere, would find me cool.

In my long and unsuccessful struggle to master the American language, the word “cool” was a minor stumbling block. I had thought it to refer to a subjective measure of temperature or emotion, as in: “You’d better not take the radiator cap off until the engine cools down,” or “You’d better not go back home until your wife cools down.”

The more I think about it the more complicated it becomes. Cool is apparently related to hip, but my mother has hip problems so I don’t want to get into that, it’s too personal. But cool has also become an attribute of things and places – not as you might imagine refrigerators and Antarctica, but un-relaxed, fast things like cars or computers, and hyperactive places like Estonia or the Seychelles

But the Oxford English Dictionary, at the bottom of a page of definitions, gives: “Cool – slang: to calm down, relax, go more slowly.” This explains the common usage that had so puzzled me at first. When young people refer to one of their contemporaries as cool, it is not a diagnosis of hypothermia but a value judgment. Individuals so labeled do seem calm almost to the point of coma, relaxed, especially in their dress, which hangs from their bodies and around their ankles in great cool folds , and very slow moving, both physically and mentally.

So “Cool” appears to be an insult, but it’s not. It is the most desirable thing, a universal fantasy. “Cool” simply replaced words like “sophisticated” or “insouciant,” because nobody could spell them any more. But the pose is as old as history – a kind of lazy, fashionable, insolent facade designed to annoy one’s parents and attract girls. I always wanted to be cool, even before I knew what it was. As a teenager I tried living in Paris and wearing nothing but black. Unfortunately I spoke bad French, and had dandruff. Then I tried powerful motorcycles – very cool – and all kinds of other poses and accessories, with no result. I never achieved cool. I was always too busy, and I never quite mastered the emotional indifference that is so central to being cool. I had enthusiasms, I expressed my feelings occasionally: not cool. The aged Mick Jagger may be cool, but I am eternally stuck in the un-cool zone, at about 98.6 degrees Fahrenheit.

Now, with that birthday behind me, I officially declare that my ambition to be cool is over. It’s too late even to fake it and, frankly, I don’t care. I’m cool.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Suburban Legends

My mother told me a lot of stories when I was young. Not all of them stood up to closer examination. For example she told me that cows sat down in the fields because rain was on the way, that the moon was made of green cheese, and that the bogeyman would come for me if I was a bad boy. These all proved to be incorrect. I’m still checking out her improbable tale about Father Christmas.

We human beings are credulous creatures at any age. We love to believe in marvels and miracles, and sometimes I think we will believe anything. In fact, the less likely it is, the more we want to believe it. I’m thinking of politics, of course, and the stock market, and media like the National Enquirer and certain TV news programs. The psychological mechanism that allows us to swallow the most implausible rubbish is very simple, and has been understood since ancient times. Julius Caesar expressed it succinctly, although in Latin, two thousand years ago: “Men will gladly believe what they want to believe.” And I’m sure that women have the same talent.

The remarkable ability of our species to believe the improbable and the impossible helps to guarantee the survival of our major institutions and, on a less exalted level, allows all kinds of amusing and usually harmless myths to flourish. Some of these have acquired the label “urban legends” and we’ve all heard them – alligators living in the sewers of New York, innocent travelers who are drugged and wake up minus a kidney, contaminated phones, mysterious vanishing hitchhikers: these are the fairy tales of our age.

In the French village where we once lived, the locals firmly believed that you had to place two plastic bottles of water on your doorstep, to keep cats away – a village legend unique to this place, as far as I could discover.

Out here in the subdivisions, we have our own suburban legends. Back in 1956 the novel Peyton Place, plus two movies and a TV series, created an erotic myth about our steamy suburban lives that has still not gone away, even though nothing could be further from the truth (unless I’m missing something). We believe that bad things will happen to people who don’t cut their lawns, but nothing happens to those few brave rebels. We even believe that sales are sales, that discounts are discounts, and that the plumber will call right back.

The frontiers of credulity are constant being expanded. There are tens of thousands of Internet hoaxes and conspiracy theories: Osama bin Laden is teaching sociology at Harvard, there are mutant chickens in your fast food, aliens have brought Elvis back to life and he’s living in Omaha, and so on, and so on.

Is there really no limit to our capacity for self-delusion? Some people even believe that our brilliant leaders will save us from global warming, terrorism, and the coming energy crisis. Faith can move mountains, says the proverb. But it seems that not even a mountain of facts can move a stubborn faith.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Beethoven and Me

I woke up one fine morning to discover that, quite suddenly, the volume in my right ear had been turned down by fifty percent. At first I attributed this partial deafness to the cheap local wine (we were living in France at the time), but when a few bottles of the expensive stuff failed to bring it back I decided to see a doctor.

Doctor Bec’s offices were in an ancient apartment building in Montpellier, but his technical equipment was modern enough. He confirmed my own impression. “You’re going deaf in that ear,” he said. When I asked why he said, in the brisk way that French doctors have: “You’re not so young any more.” That was the diagnosis. No cure was suggested.

(I know it’s not politically correct to use the word “deaf.” I should say “hearing impaired.” But that’s just silly. Words mean what they mean. My mother isn’t “hearing impaired.” She is, as she says herself, as deaf as a post. It must run in the family.)

For years I put off doing anything about it. But I wish people wouldn’t mumble at me. They never mumbled before and, in recent months, it seems as if nobody in the world can speak clearly. I can’t deny Doctor Bec’s diagnosis any longer – I must be getting older. I never believed that I could stay young forever, except briefly in 1977 when I was living in southern California and was almost convinced by the local health religion. Then I tried yogurt and vitamin pills and jogging, and decided that even eternal life itself wouldn’t be worth this kind of torture.

After taking several audiology tests, all of which showed a curve like a bad week on the Dow Jones Industrial Index, I took myself along to the office of Doctor Martinetti, on the principle that an Italian doctor might be more sympathetic than a French one. He was.

Hearing aids have come a long way since the days of the ear trumpet. There’s lots of choice. Economically speaking the principle is the exact opposite of buying an SUV. With hearing aids, the smaller and more efficient they are the more they cost. The smallest are the size of deer ticks and cost a fortune. If I didn’t care at all about size I could rig up some sort of personal amplifier with surplus radio equipment, but it would require a backpack to carry around.

I chose something in the intermediate size range. It’s about as big as a dime, and ounce for ounce about the same price as gold. My research had told me that the most sophisticated top-of-the-line hearing aids these days come from Denmark, the land of the Vikings. I don’t know why this should be, unless those big helmets with horns on top are bad for the ears.

I must confess that I was feeling a bit sorry for myself at this point. I’m much too young to need a hearing aid. But then I remembered the most famous deaf person in history, Ludwig Van Beethoven, who ironically was also one of the greatest composers who ever lived. He began to go deaf when he was only twenty-six, and was totally deaf by middle age. In May 1824, at the première performance of his Ninth Symphony, Beethoven himself conducted. Since he couldn’t hear a thing the orchestra kept it’s own tempo, and the maestro was still conducting after the symphony had ended and the applause had begun. One of the singers had to gently turn him around to face his audience, and receive his ovation.

That’s a real human tragedy. My little hearing aid is just a bad joke.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Taxing Times

If you have already finished and mailed your federal tax return, you are probably feeling rather smug right now (especially as the date has been put back to June 15). If not, you are probably feeling paranoid. My own emotions are mixed. I’m happy that our taxes are done but, as happens every year, I’m full of resentment about the process of doing them. I might feel better if we qualified for a refund.

I resent the peremptory, authoritarian nature of the tax demand. A democratic government shouldn’t address its citizens in the tones of a medieval king addressing a bunch of peasants, but it does – never a “please” beforehand and never a “thank you” afterwards. A little politeness would go some way towards making me feel better about paying my taxes – but not much better.
What would make me feel much would be a bit of budgetary control. I want to decide what my tax money will be used for – to choose some expenditures and veto others. It’s the very least we can expect in a country where consumer choice is almost sacred. If you think that the federal government knows best how to budget your money you haven’t been paying attention to the daily news, or indeed to anything.

I resent the impossibly complicated nature of the tax system. Even our accountant was confused by some details this year. It shouldn’t be so difficult to understand. The basic principle is pretty simple: we have money, they want it, they take it. So I suspect that the complexity is a mere smokescreen behind which the very rich and big corporations can contrive to reduce their taxes almost to nothing. Sixty per cent of large corporations pay no federal tax whatsoever, in spite of making huge profits. I don’t know how they do it, but I wish I did! We won’t even mention the tax breaks that give back tens of billions to those who need it least.

To say “It’s not fair,” is irrelevant, of course. Taxation was never designed or intended to be fair. It’s a traditional device for transferring wealth from the poor to the rich. But, on a personal psychological level, taxes really hurt. The painful financial self-examination forced on us each April is like surgery without the anesthetic.

The tax authorities equate freelance writers with small businesses, although my job seems to lack the distinguishing feature of a business, namely profit. We are lumped together with independent contractors, retailers, roofers, consultants, mobile veterinarians, lawn services, and so on. It’s doubly unfair because so many small business people are paid in cash. Nobody ever offers me a bundle of twenties for my services, although I wouldn’t refuse it.

All my accounts are recorded on paper. There’s no income I can accidentally forget. I was brought up to be honest about money – a fatal weakness at this time of year. Honesty is not only not the best policy, it is the dumbest policy you can imagine. In the process of going through the accounts I relive my life and work literally day by day, and every small extravagance comes back to haunt me. Did I really need that new computer? Could I really have spent almost $1,000 on office supplies in 2019, and $561.33 on postage? What did I think I was doing?
The final calculation is the worst part – the depressing arithmetic of profit and loss. Form 1040 says it all: I would have been slightly better off, and the government would have been slightly worse off, if I had stayed in bed all last year.

Copyright: David Bouchier

The Plague

In The Plague, a 1947 novel by Albert Camus, the citizens of Oran in Algeria are decimated by a dreadful infectious disease, which (having no choice) they bear with heroic stoicism and endurance. Clever literary critics say that the plague described in the novel is a subtle metaphor of the German occupation, or of evil in general. But I read it as a much more transparent metaphor of the common cold.

The common cold knows no boundaries, respects no persons, and loves this winter season when our immunity is at a low ebb. It has been a plague of the human race forever, and it’s strange to think that Alexander the Great, Napoleon, Caesar, Michelangelo, and Shakespeare all knew these symptoms intimately. Beethoven caught a cold when he was going to visit his mother on a freezing winter night, and died.

Some sufferers try to dignify their common colds with more impressive names: it’s a virus, they say, it’s flu, it’s an upper respiratory infection. But no, it’s just a cold, totally unimpressive and unimportant, except to the one who has it. We get no sympathy, and really deserve none. Friends try elaborately to keep their distance, without making it too obvious. We the victims have to sneak around avoiding company, handshakes, kisses and all friendly human contact.

I’ve always believed that people with colds, myself included, should just stay home, and stop spreading the germs around. I hate those valiant souls who crawl into the office, or the classroom, coughing and sneezing like explosive Typhoid Marys, just to show how dedicated they are. There’s an argument to be made for voluntary or even compulsory quarantine for cold sufferers. It’s estimated that workdays lost through colds cost $17 billion a year. Keep people from infecting their fellow workers or students, and that figure might drop all the way to zero.

A cold takes about ten days to run its course. There’s no treatment. Antibiotics are worse than useless. Vitamin C, as recommended by Nobel Prize winner Linus Pauling, seems to be largely a mythical cure. The only comfort I know is to stay in bed with the radio, some DVDs, a pile of good books, a couple of cats, and a hot toddy made up of whiskey, hot water, lemon and honey. Modern technology has given us some small consolations: paper tissues, and those strange green medicines that help us to breathe at night. But on the whole, it’s a rotten medieval kind of disease with no redeeming features.

I can claim that I once played a very small part in the losing battle against the common cold. Fifty years ago, as an impoverished young writer (the description still applies, except that I’m not young now), I spent weeks at an establishment called The Cold Research Center near Salisbury in England. It was a perfect getaway, and the deal was that we were human guinea pigs held in complete isolation for the duration of the experiments. They tested whether we could catch cold by being wet or chilled, by sitting in a draft, or even by having live viruses inserted into our noses.

I survived all these tests and treatments without so much as a sniffle, and left my solitary confinement at the Cold Research Center rather proud of my part in this great humanitarian medical enterprise. Almost immediately, I caught a cold. The plague, as Albert Camus understood, is other people.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Spring Forward

It’s not just your imagination: time really does move faster as we get older. Research shows that, from middle age onwards, we steadily fall behind the clock. For a senior citizen, half an hour feels like forty minutes, so actual clock time seems to be moving faster and faster.

This sense of vanishing time is made all the sharper by the beginning of Daylight Saving Time. A whole hour evaporates in a flash, although it seems like only the day before yesterday that you set the clocks back for winter.

Daylight Saving Time reminds me just how many clocks we have: one in each car, one in the living room, two in the bedroom, one in each bathroom, two in the kitchen, and no fewer than four in my office. Then there are traveling clocks, clocks in the computers, the radios, the fax machine, the DVD, in the microwave and even a speaking clock with a nasty robotic voice in the answering machine.

But the twice-a-year re-setting of the clocks is a great waste of time in itself, especially since clocks and watches have become so complicated. It used to be so easy. Wristwatches could be changed by pulling out the winder button and twirling the hands into position. On larger clocks, it was a simple matter of opening the case and pushing the hands around with your finger until they pointed to the right numbers. But now, re-setting the time requires a degree from MIT, as well as an uncommon amount of physical dexterity.

I suffer from an obsession with time and timepieces. It is a hereditary disease. My father’s hobby was repairing watches and clocks. The family home was always full of other people’s clocks, all ticking away at slightly different rhythms and showing slightly different times. My father would disembowel them on the kitchen table, picking his way confidently through hundreds of tiny wheels and springs, in a passionate but always-doomed search for perfect accuracy. My atomic clock would seem like cheating to him.

So when all my clocks are correctly re-set to Daylight Savings Time I feel a certain deeply biological sense of satisfaction. It’s all self -deception, of course. We can’t save daylight, any more than we can save time. Barring some massive disruption in the solar system, there will be exactly as much daylight as there ever was, and time will keep ticking along at a steadily accelerating rate.

Our crazy obsession with time is all the fault of a mad Dutch mathematician, Christian Huygens, who invented the pendulum clock back in the 1600s. Once time could be accurately measured, everybody wanted to know exactly what time it was all the time. Public clocks were set up in every city, and soon pocket watches and wristwatches allowed us to carry time around, so we would know when to commence the cocktail hour, eat, sleep, wake up, and complain about other people not being on time.

Time addiction is a serious disease, and invariably fatal in the end. When I get up at seven on the first day of Daylight Saving Time I can’t help thinking that is really six in spite of what the clock radio says. And I can’t help feeling annoyed that, in spite of my efforts to set them right the previous evening, the living room clock is a minute fast, while the clock in the car is three minutes fast, and all of them going, faster and faster.

Copyright: David Bouchier

NASCAR Nation

For years I never paid any attention to NASCAR. But, recently, the mysterious acronym began to appear everywhere. The airwaves were full of NASCAR Dads, NASCAR Mums, NASCAR Babies, and even NASCAR Nation. On the whole, this seemed to me to be a good thing, although rather puzzling.

To tell the truth I had confused NASCAR with NAFTA (The North American Free Trade Agreement). I was surprised but pleased to hear that, apparently, so many people were getting involved in the international debate about this highly controversial economic policy. But I was wrong, or just over-optimistic. It seems that NASCAR is a kind of stock car racing. I checked it out on a television sports channel, and there indeed were some very strange looking cars zooming around a track, very fast: round and round and round and round. My vertigo kicked in and I switched to the History Channel.

Stock car racing is a fairly harmless sport if you watch it from a safe distance. I enjoyed it when I was young, but then it was completely different. The tracks were bleak and windswept, spectators were few, and the cars were recycled clunkers, rebuilt by the people who raced them. They cost at most a few hundred dollars. Since then the cost and sophistication of stock cars has escalated out of sight. Now it’s more like an arms race than a sporting race.

A modern NASCAR racer costs about a hundred thousand dollars and is pushed around the track by a five hundred horsepower engine. Don’t even ask about the gas mileage (about 6 m.p.g. if driven carefully). NASCAR is a young man’s sport, at least for the drivers. Dale Earnhardt Jr., who won the prestigious Daytona 500 in 2005, was just thirty years old. He drove twenty-nine laps before making his first pit stop. Older men would have to make pit stops more often.

The excuse for building these monsters is that racing technology improves the design of regular cars. But what’s the point of that when the speed limit is fifty-five? What most suburban drivers want is not a two hundred miles an hour top speed and six miles a gallon but video in the back seat for the kids, and a built-in radar detector.

During my brief and dizzy encounter with NASCAR racing on the TV screen I observed that the trackside, the stands, the cars, and even the drivers were covered in advertising slogans. It seems that fans are very loyal to the brands that sponsor their sport, although how they can read the brand names as the cars flash by at 190 m.p.h. I don’t know. All I know is that they are sponsored by huge companies, not by Joe’s Tires and Wrecking down the street.

Other loyalties may be involved. NASCAR culture includes a dash of old-time religion, a dash of patriotism, a dash of militarism, and an easy tolerance for destruction and enormous waste. It’s all a bit of a macho power fantasy, and it’s no accident that President Trump went along for a photo opportunity this year.

It may be pure nostalgia, but I think it was more fun to watch races between amateur drivers in unsophisticated cars with nothing more painted on them than a number. It was also more exciting because those cars fell apart more often. Exploding engines and disappearing wheels were commonplace. No great damage was done because nobody was moving very fast. In my long-ago youth I was quite keen on it, and even went out on the track a couple of times, but it was immediately obvious that my eyesight and my co-ordination weren’t up to the challenge. I was left with nothing but a few interesting memories, a lingering affection for the smell of racing oil, and some minor physical damage.

Huge numbers of people love this sport, and I can’t argue with that. But personally I would sleep more soundly in my bed if those seventy five million fans put their spare cash and passion into cycling, or ping pong, or even debating the North American Free Trade Agreement.

Copyright: David Bouchier

Back to Basics

Is it, I wonder, politically incorrect to regret the decline of luxury? We’ve lost the last chance of luxury air travel with the disappearance of the Concord and the appearance of universal security paranoia. The stylish old luxury ocean liners are being phased out and replaced by floating resort hotels full of slot machines and all-you-can-eat buffets. The luxurious mansions of Newport or Palm Beach seem more and more like relics from a bygone age.

Luxury, like the Golden Age, always seems to exist in the past. The luxuries of yesterday, like the private automobile for example, have become the commonplaces of today. The luxuries of today seem rather tacky. First-class air travel is advertised as a luxury, and we were lucky enough to be upgraded on a recent flight. Was it luxurious? No. Did we get a four-poster bed and a private bathroom? No. Were our fellow-passengers stylish and fashionable members of the power elite? Absolutely not – they were exactly like the proletarian crowd back in economy class. This may be a democratic phenomenon – wealthy people don’t like to flaunt their money the way they used to. Or it may be simply a kind of conformity – nobody wants to stand out.

As Thoreau remarked, we have to live up to our pretensions, and very few people want to make the effort. Luxury is not just a passive condition – it’s a lifestyle and an activity, and it can be hard work. On the old ocean liners everyone had to change for the formal dinner, and the ladies might change their outfits four or five times during the day. It’s easier just to wear a tracksuit.

Luxury also carries a whiff of decadence, which is why the word is so heavily used in advertising. The Oxford English Dictionary defines luxury as: “Excessive, self-indulgent, voluptuous.” Well, that sounds good! But it also sounds potentially embarrassing in our world of PC and thinly veiled Puritanism.

So luxury has been displaced by mere comfort. If luxury is hard work, and perhaps morally suspect too, comfort is the opposite. Comfort is an absence, a negative.

Comfort is not about being warm: comfort is not feeling the cold. A comfortable chair has no bumps or sharp edges. A comfortable hotel is one without character or surprises. Not even the most rigorous moralist can object to comfort. Comfort can’t get you into any trouble. Luxury, on the other hand, is an intense experience that activates all the senses and can very easily get you into trouble, if you’re lucky.

The result of all this confusion is that we scarcely recognize real luxury when we see it. Hotels like to boast of their “luxuries” which means that they provide and charge for a whole lot of unwanted services – intrusive air-conditioning, multiple phones, excessive toileteries, enough towels to wrap a mummy, and nasty video games.

There are two ways to experience luxury, one expensive and one cheap. The expensive way is to seek out unique products or rare experiences. That’s why true luxury must always stay one step ahead of the crowd. When every suburbanite can wear Calvin Klein or drive a BMW real luxury must move up out of reach. How about an exclusive seven thousand dollar dress from Zoran Ladicorbic, or a hand-built McLaren sports car for around a million dollars? Never heard of them? That’s the point. When everyone can go on package cruises to the Caribbean, luxury is hundred foot ocean-going motor cruiser to take you to your personal island.

But another kind of luxury is to be found in small pleasures that are equally exclusive but that come cheap or free. For example, one Christmas we stayed at an old-fashioned English hotel. The bathroom room boasted a full-length bath – a small luxury in itself. But it also had brass faucets set low above the tub, the kind remembered from childhood. Unlike our slippery modern hi-tech faucets, these were of the antique but practical design that you can turn on and off with your toes without moving out of the water, thus prolonging a hot bath more or less indefinitely.
That’s luxury.

Copyright: David Bouchier