Posts Tagged ‘football’

Bantering through The Remains of the Day

June 17, 2013

The Remains of the DayVery excitingly I will be hosting a book club at the Southbank Centre on Thursday night, where we will be discussing The Remains of the Day by Kazuo Ishiguro.

I was talking to a friend yesterday, who I shall call, somewhat cryptically, ‘S’, when the book came to my mind as being particularly apt. S was saying how extraordinary it is that men share a common bond of football. Her new husband, for instance, can talk to her father for ages about it. It’s true, I reflected, football is a remarkable common ground, which means that whenever men come across each other – in a shop, in a bar, in a taxi, at work – they have something light and bantering to say to each other.

We women don’t have an equivalent bantering common ground. At best, we can exchange a comment or two about clothes (I really love your jacket / thanks, your dress is very pretty / thanks, where’s your handbag from? …), which is somewhat limited and involves a weird sucky-uppy personal dynamic which is altogether absent from football banter. I wish that we women could find more common ground for the sisterhood! It’s a real absence. Perhaps books? We do, after all, read far more novels than men.

It seems, however, that this masculine aptitude for banter did not always come so easily. In The Remains of the Day, Mr Stevens – the butler and narrator – is forever lamenting his uselessness with banter. While he hadn’t needed to exchange bantering remarks in the glory days of Darlington Hall before the Second World War, now, in 1956, his new employer – Mr Farraday, who is, needless to say an American – indulges his bantering habit rather often. Stevens is thrown by this, doubly anxious because he can’t do it and because he thinks it might be one of his new professional duties:

It is quite possible, then, that my employer fully expects me to respond to his bantering in a like manner, and considers my failure to do so a form of negligence. This is, as I say, a matter which has given me much concern. But I must say this business of bantering is not a duty I feel I can ever discharge with enthusiasm. It is all very well, in these changing times, to adapt one’s work to take in duties not traditionally within one’s realm but bantering is of another dimension altogether. For one thing, how would one know for sure that at any given moment a response of the bantering sort is truly what is expected? One need hardly dwell on the catastrophic possibility of uttering a bantering remark only to discover it wholly inappropriate.

As you can see, poor Stevens is utterly at sea in this new post-War world of bantering.

Before the War, it was ‘dignity’ that Stevens strove for, emulating his father with his unwavering loyalty to his employer and conscientious hard work. There was no need to say much at all, aiming to be a near-invisible presence existing only to aid the smooth running of the house. Stevens’s desire to be as dignified as possible is put to great comic effect when Lord Darlington asks him to explain the facts of life to his twenty-three-year-old godson. Stevens tries to broach this rather undignified subject, ‘ladies and gentlemen differ in several key respects,’ and of course the godson fails to understand his euphemism, which is his attempt to dispatch the task with dignity. Oh if only they had some banter to fall back on!

Back to 1956, when a certain Mr Harry Smith tries to discuss politics with Stevens in a village, where Stevens is marooned for the night after his car breaks down. Smith gives a markedly different definition of ‘dignity’:

…it’s one of the privileges of being born English that no matter who you are, no matter if you’re rich or poor, you’re born free and you’re born so that you can express your opinion freely, and vote in your Member of Parliament or vote him out. That’s what dignity’s really about…

Stevens disagrees with this opinion, seeing dignity as tied to knowing one’s place, respecting one’s betters and being utterly loyal to one’s employer. That Lord Darlington ended up acting in such a thoroughly undignified way (I don’t want to spoil the plot for you so I won’t go into details) gives a sad irony to Stevens’s unflinching loyalty towards him.

‘Dignity’ has changed but Stevens hasn’t. The world has changed, and yet Stevens clings to the past. He is an anachronism. Yet, even Stevens can see the remarkable power of this new phenomenon of ‘banter’, observing at the novel’s end that: ‘in bantering lies the key to human warmth’.

Today, Stevens’s idea of dignity is almost entirely lost, sacrificed, perhaps, to this great masculine art of banter.

Daphne with The Remains of the Day

Here is my very beautiful Folio Society  edition of The Remains of the Day (now sadly out-of-print). Need I remind you that Daphne is a highly intelligent and very dignified tortoise, even if she offers little by way of banter.

On not liking

June 14, 2010

I don’t like football. Not even the World Cup. I don’t like Jane Austen either.

It’s hard to admit to not liking something. Especially if that something is liked by almost everybody else. One doesn’t want to be a spoilsport.

The World Cup is the more timely example. On Saturday, everybody I knew was watching the game. Usually, when it’s World Cup time, I make an effort. I tell myself – go on, it’s not just football, it’s an England match, you’ve got to watch it. I sit down with some friends and a luke-warm beer, often in a hideously over-crowded pub, and try to groan in the right places.

This year, I decided that I wasn’t going to give up those hours to pretend to follow and enjoy something that I have absolutely no interest in. While Saturday’s match was going on I was reading in the bath. (It wasn’t Jane Austen)

But, frankly, who cares if I like football or not? Conversations about likes and dislikes are almost always unbearably dull. Take, for instance, the following conversation about seeing a film with a friend. You are both leaving the cinema:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘Yeah I really enjoyed it; I thought it was great.’

‘Oh yeah, me too. Although I found X a bit annoying.’

‘Really? I quite liked him.’

‘Why? How could you like him?’

‘Don’t know, just did. I thought it was all really good.’

People’s opinions, obviously, vary; people, of course, like and dislike different things. It’s almost impossible to go anywhere interesting with a conversation when it’s reduced to this. Saying that you like something is so pointless, you might as well say nothing at all. Why not have a conversation more like this:

‘So, what did you think?’

‘God, I couldn’t believe the bit when X happened. It was so crazy. It was really scary.’

‘Yeah, I know – it was such a weird thing to happen. I totally thought Y was going to happen instead, I was really taken by surprise.’

‘Yes, I think it’s because after B you just sort of assume Y will happen next. I wonder why they made X happen instead?’

You have a discussion and instantly it becomes clear that it doesn’t matter if you like it or not.

So I try to avoid admitting that I don’t like Jane Austen, or football. It’s so boring. I’d only do it if I could launch a discussion from it and talk about it in a looping, digressing, anecdote-filled way. For football, for instance, I could say:

I don’t like watching lots of people chase a ball around in a confined space. I don’t like admitting to the knowledge that England are never very good. I don’t like that collective feeling of failure and gloom that settles over the country after the inevitably second-rate performance. I don’t like the beeriness – the chanting and the fights. Once I was on the tube after a football match and there was a crowd of men all draped in England flags, singing and jumping around and being generally antisocial. And then one of them vomited on the floor about six inches from my feet.

That at least is the bones of an argument and a funny(ish) story to boot. I can hear ten of my male friends wanting to jump in … ‘But…’ ‘But how can you say…?’ ‘But what about …?’ I can even a hear a few girl friends wanting to get in there too.

And I suppose the argument wouldn’t be completely absolutely dull. I might learn a little bit more about the off-side rule, I might be persuaded into having a little more faith in our country, I might admit that it’s quite special for everyone to be bound together in collective hope for ninety minutes. But I don’t think it would be a particularly nice conversation. Either I’d annoy people who really like football. Or someone would agree and we’d spend half an hour mouthing it off, being extraordinary negative and snipey and nasty.

But it’s better than saying, ‘I don’t like football.’ ‘Why not?’ ‘I just don’t.’

I really believe that this theory of the irrelevance of likes and dislikes holds for most things. But what happens if you find yourself in a situation where you absolutely have to say whether you like something or not?

When I worked in publishing, one of the jobs given to us underlings was the awful business of writing rejection letters. We’d have to deal with the pile of unsolicited, unagented submissions that ranged from miscellanies of unusual medical words to sixth unpublished novels about Vikings. We were instructed not to say anything remotely encouraging or even to really engage with what had been written. The last thing you want, I was warned, is for them to write back offering to change it, adapt it, improve it for your reconsideration.

I was faced with a blank piece of paper, which had to be filled by saying, essentially, ‘I don’t like this.’

We were given examples and templates to follow. They went along the lines of:

Dear X,

Thank you for sending me Y to read. It was an interesting submission but I’m afraid it just wasn’t one for us, so I’m going to have to say no.

I wish you the best of luck finding a home for it elsewhere.

Yours sincerely

To begin with I tried to change this. I tried to write letters enthusing about aspects of the work, saying that I liked it (I often did) but the higher powers didn’t (they never did). Unsurprisingly, these were never allowed to be sent out. I can see that encouraging someone who is probably never going to be published is not particularly helpful. Cruel to be kind, I was told. Small consolation for the guilt as I sealed the envelope on a letter of approximately two sentences saying, bluntly, ‘I don’t like your work,’ knowing that it would be opened by someone who would feel upset and useless and that their work is completely unvalued.

But then, is it really useful to reject something, or someone, and justify it with spurious reasons? The worst break-ups are the ones which go into painful lists of what you don’t like about each other, pulling up examples of past arguments, dissecting disagreements. It’s open-heart surgery without an anaesthetic. Why bother to slice through things, to cut it all open, to rehash all those old fights all over again? You, or the other person, have decided that you don’t like each other enough. Leave it at that. Walk away. Use a euphemism, an excuse … lie. It is far better to say some rubbish like you’re not feeling able to commit to someone at the moment than to say I think you’re a real drip and you never make me laugh and all your friends are losers. Any discussion is instantly too personal, too painful, far too upsetting.

Opinions are the murderers of conversation. Most of the time they should be avoided. But occasionally, when it gets personal, when conversation should be avoided, then it’s absolutely best to rely on their power. If the answer’s no, the answer’s no. No need to make it any more horrible, upsetting or nasty than that.