Button Differential

Screen Shot 2016-03-28 at 1.01.04 PM.pngWeirdest thing. Went to the market the other day. There’s a little Pakistani guy there with a big smile and a barrowload of clothes labelled ‘grandes marques’. Basically, it means that the stuff that’s left over from sales and outlets and has exhausted all other merchandising opportunities, ends up in his barrow. Put another way, a brand label shirt costing €215 can be bought for €12.50. Or, in my case a Ralph Lauren cardigan for €20. Being a Pensioner (gaaah!) thus financially a tad more challenged than formerly, I seize on the three-for-two bargains and other cheapskate opportunities. But, when I got it home, I noticed that the buttons are on the ‘wrong’ side. Left for ladies, right for gents. It’s for a (rather large) girl. Stop sniggering, because it isn’t. It’s androgynous, cut and tailored exactly as I might have expected had it been bought from a hanger in the quietly elegant male environment where it once resided and with a much weightier price tag. So, what’s with this about buttons? Every day, millions of people are walking around with these little reminders of gender inequality emblazoned on their chests. There are different theories as to why the discrepancy exists in the first place, but all of them come down to this: The Button Differential is a relic of an old tradition that we have ported, rather unthinkingly, into the contemporary world. Let’s start with men’s shirts: buttons on the right placket, the open flap on the left. The most common explanation comes from the fact that clothing, for wealthy men, often included weaponry. Since most men held swords in their right hands, it was more convenient and quicker to use their left hand for unbuttoning. You can see evidence of that in portraiture. All those hand-in-waistcoat pictures popular in the 19th century? They involve, generally, the slipping of hand into an open area of the coat, right-to-left.

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You could also see the right-button orientation as a holdover from warfare more directly. “To ensure that an enemy’s lance point would not slip between the plates,” curators write in The Art of Chivalry: European Arms and Armor from the Metropolitan Museum of Art, “they overlapped from left to right, since it was standard fighting practice that the left side, protected by the shield, was turned toward the enemy. Thus, men’s jackets button left to right even to the present day.” OK. So that goes some way to explain why men’s buttons are on the right. But then, why are women’s on the left?

One theory: babies. Given right-hand dominance, women tend to hold their infants in their left arms, keeping their right arms relatively free. So shirts whose open flap is on the right makes it easier for them to open with those free hands for breastfeeding, on the opposite side, as it were. Think about it for a moment, gents. Alternatively, blame Napoleon. Women activists used to mimic his famous pose with the hand inside the waistcoat, so he ordered tailors to make ladies clothing with buttons on the other side so they couldn’t mock him any more.

So, there we are. A simple and conveniently watertight argument. Unless, of course, you happen to be a Southpaw, when presumably you get to wear your sister’s clothes.



Easter Reflection

Screen Shot 2016-03-26 at 10.33.41 AMIn Jerusalem, in a borrowed garden tomb chiselled out of solid rock, in the quiet, misty glow of a dawning spring day, an explosion of life took place. Soundlessly, the great stone guarding its entrance was rolled aside and its yawning emptiness resounded through the universe. The gates of hell were battered to destruction; a single winding-sheet was all that remained. A woman mistook him for a landscape gardener.

Jerusalem sits on the seam of three continents. From that garden tomb, seismic ripples of new life crossed continental boundaries, and swept on to the ends of the earth, reaching us today. The resurrection was planned before the world began and slotted into place by the Father’s precision engineering. The man no longer, Jesus, threw off the shackles of death as appointed and at the appropriate hour, too big to be a mere miracle. What happened on that first Easter morning arched all future horizons, world-changing, impacting us now.

One day, the guns will be silenced, the missile silos vacant and empty. One day, the valleys will be exalted and every mountain and hill be laid low and the disadvantaged, the downtrodden, the meek, will inherit the earth. One day, the strident political voices will finally be quiet and the lion will lie down with the lamb, the black flags and the suicide vests discarded. Until then, all creation strains and groans in the throes of rebirth. One day…

Safe Spaces

Screen Shot 2016-03-22 at 1.50.28 PM.pngAgain. News floods in from Brussels, this time. Attacks at the airport and a metro station. Result – dead bodies, multiple injuries, extensive property damage and, above all, chaos. Which was the whole point. The bell-wether of the extent of the uncertainty was, of course, the stock market and investors scrambled to get rid of European stocks and head for the safety of gold and Government bonds.

The radical cults of Islam have one thing in common; the propagation of a mindset of not feeling safe anywhere. One never knows where the Lions of Islam, or whatever the nom du jour happens to be, are going to strike next. It might be a repeat of the somewhat clumsy but effective targeting of Israeli tourists on Istiklal Cad in Istanbul, or a more disruptive and spectacular attack on the infrastructure of a city, as in this case. In the next few hours, somebody, probably holed up in a war zone somewhere, is going to proudly emerge as the spokesman for the group responsible, doubtless using revenge as the primary motive.

But, revenge is a convenient and transparently false scapegoat. Radical Islam does not distinguish between civilians and military targets, to them, the enemy is all and everyone outside of dar al Islam with whom, by definition, they are at war. It makes no difference whether people are capable of defending themselves or not, the objective is to terrorise everyone thus driving them into the submissive jaws of Islam. An artificially manufactured story of revenge is a smokescreen to disguise the truth.

At the risk of extrapolation of the conspiracy theories with which the Internet is so infested, I have sometimes wondered whether the creation and proliferation of the many-faceted monster that is radical Islam has been orchestrated and managed in some hitherto unknown fashion. Shadowy, global puppet masters, meeting in secret, with boundless wealth and influence all over the Muslim world have set about a determined propagation of a radical, perhaps Wahhabist doctrine and in so doing have let slip the dogs of war with the explicit purpose of creating havoc. Extrapolitical, unknown to the governments of their respective homelands, they work towards a restoration of the Ottoman Empire and a recapture of long-lost territories in Europe. This may only be the beginning. Their ultimate objective may be too appalling for anyone to actually contemplate.

The massive migrations of refugees, both economic and political, is unprecedented since the Second World War and nobody has a coherent strategy for managing it. Under cover of the chaos, so carefully manufactured, it is almost certain that those with murderous intent have slipped uninvited into our midst, sheltering in the safe havens that the Europeans have so conveniently provided. It is deeply unfashionable here in France to even suggest that such places exist, but exist they must, since the assembling of explosives, planning and tactical operation requires cover and, if not outright connivance, a conveniently blind eye when required. What better than to hide in plain sight with people of one’s own kind? The problem of Islamic extremism is caused – astonishingly enough – by Islamic extremism. As France, Belgium and many other societies can now attest, the larger the Muslim population, the larger the Islamic extremism problem. Not because most Muslims are terrorists. Obviously not. But because that “small minority” we always hear about grows proportionally bigger the larger the community is. What matters is the numbers, the density (thus their ability to hide and be hidden) and the type of Islam that is followed. In jihadist launchpads like Molenbeek, radicalism flourishes. Given Europe’s current demographic trajectory this constitutes a terrifying problem which we’ll have to face up to one day. But in the meantime it remains so much more comfortable to blame the only people we’re kidding. Ourselves.

One disturbing consequence is noticeable all over the democratic world. People have begun to polarise politically, abandoning centrist politics which has served very well in times of comparative security. It has been replaced by disproportionate gains by the far Left and Right, from Marine le Pen and Nigel Farage, to Bernie Sanders, Jeremy Corbyn and others. The unspoken psychology of huddling together and seeking safe political spaces is a function of the threat level that people experience. The fact is that, for most of us, the nearest we will ever get to a terrorist attack is via the vicarious empathy of the media and such is its influence our own safe spaces seem smaller and more fragile, and our instinct, like threatened but often ill-equipped marmosets, is to throw up earthworks to protect ourselves.

Back to the Good Wife

Big respect toScreen Shot 2016-03-12 at 10.37.26 AM Michael J Fox. From Marty McFly to Louis Canning,  From Back to the Future to The Good Wife, bingeworthy and almost uncannily predictive. It’s wittily edgy and exploits everybody’s inner advocate; we are flies on the wall in the offices of Lockhart Gardner, or more appropriately, Stalin and Associates. It’s so easy to take sides, booing at the pantomime and siding with the underdogs, so cleverly manipulated by the magisterium of the law. MJF actually manages to make Parkinson’s disease a politically relevant phenomenon and his portrayal of the Machiavellian Canning – even the play on words is quietly satisfying in the way that a rather shamefaced frisson of schadenfreude makes us feel – is both exploitative and a metaphor for political office.

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Art, if such can be described, mirrors life. Alicia Florrick, the not-so-good wife has matured, or rather, aged, less than gracefully, and she now has a brittle edge to her, a willingness to stick it to the bad guys and twist the blade more grittily in season 7 than she did in season 1. Who are you really, Alicia? It’s almost impossible to imagine that CBS scriptwriters didn’t have the Clintons in mind. Husband has slipped and slid downwards then upwards, a new Comeback Kid, against all odds and momentum to become State’s Attorney, then Governor and is making a play for the Big Job, dodging political piranhas at every step. A few little peccadilloes in the bedroom department…oh, Peter. Pretty interns aren’t just there for your personal satisfaction, you know. Yes, we’ve figured out who you are supposed to remind us of. All smiles and mendacity.

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Which brings me to the other elections.

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It’s clear who the main protagonists are. Remember Biff, the bully, from ‘Back to the Future’ who isn’t very bright? People will vote for him because he makes them angry. Angry people make poor decisions, Donald. You might care to remember that when you’re ticking people off in public.

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Then, there’s Doc Brown, an Orwellian throwback from the 1930s with wild hair and a passionate oratorical style. I’m just waiting for Bernie to exclaim ‘Great Scott!’ when crossing swords with his nemesis, a Hillary, even an Alicia honed to wicked sharpness by nastiness and betrayal. I wonder if his pacemaker is powered by a flux capacitor…Oh, what fun it all is. Or, it would be, were it not so frighteningly real.



Blood Sports

Screen Shot 2016-03-05 at 10.16.34 PMWilliam Webb Ellis, the renegade day boy at Rugby very probably was not the first to ‘take up the ball in his arms’ and run with it. All over Europe, archaic forms of football, typically classified as mob football, would be played between neighbouring towns and villages, involving an unlimited number of players on opposing teams, who would clash in a heaving mass of people struggling to drag an inflated pig’s bladder by any means possible to markers at each end of a town. By some accounts, in some such events any means could be used to move the ball towards the goal, as long as it did not lead to manslaughter or murder. Both Oxford and Cambridge banned it.

Woodcut images show protagonists bloodied and with broken limbs. High passion was no doubt a feature on both sides. It still is and a glance at a newspaper when visiting England this last week revealed an article about bloodstained clashes between Arsenal and Spurs supporters. The high drama on the pitch gets carried out of the stadium remarkably easily, it seems. There has been much determined bleating from senior doctors about banning tackling in Rugby football in schools on the grounds that it leads to torn ligaments, broken bones, concussive head injuries and any number of other grievous bodily harms of greater or lesser severity. Our Big Sisters and Brothers, who manage the budgets of the health services, reason that the less opportunity young men have to damage each other in contact sports, the healthier we shall all be.

People, especially young men, like to take risks, sometimes ill-advisedly. They take drugs which they know is unhealthy and sometimes life-threatening. They drink far too much alcohol and brawl in public places. Because to some extent they are programmed to do so. Taking risks pushes the envelope of progress, it causes us to reach a little beyond ourselves, and in games like Rugby, reminds us that we hunted mastodons and saber-toothed tigers in groups, so we learned co-operation and what used to be called ‘character’ or ‘team spirit’. If there is no element of risk in a contact sport, young men may find less attractive ways of oxidizing their enraged hormones, like cage fighting. No, it should not be made compulsory for hundred pound delicates to be trampled to splinters on bone-hard Rugby pitches on freezing February afternoons but neither should a nanny state take away the sheer exhilaration of stampeding over a try line with the opposing forwards trying to tear your shorts off.