I intended to shoot this video when I was up in Bello last year, on the actual location where the scene I read to you takes place—the Meeting Place Park in front of the town library, the romantic backdrop to my famous attempt to ‘mash a pash’ out of the Norwegian tourist as it was to some of my other (more successful) efforts at seduction.
But I was having too much fun running the gab with my friends in weighty convos as we solved the problems of the world, so the video above didn’t get shot until after my abortive voyage to NSW was over and I was back in Victoria. You’ll have to imagine Geelong’s Johnstone Park—an altogether more grandiose green space—as standing in for the humble Meeting Place Park while you listen to me lube your lugs with the lubricious details of my adventitious adventure date with la Norvégienne.
Your Melbourne Flâneur goes on tour again to NSW from the middle of June—and hopefully this year, it won’t be an abortive experience!
First stop is Bello il Bello, where I alight on 15 June, so to all my friends in Bellingen, you will find me safely ensconced in my ‘office’, the Hyde café, and holding court for une quinzaine de jours from the following day, that feast day sacred to all writers (particularly those of a flâneurial disposition), the holy Bloomsday.
After that, it’s on to Sydney for another dizaine de jours in early July, and then your Melbourne Flâneur gets diplomatic and makes an embassy to our nation’s capital, running amok among the Canberran architecture for two weeks.
But to return to the raconteurial anecdote I unpack in the video above, the escalation of la belle Emma to the bedroom was the most memorable and significant of several such flâneurial encounters I had in the couple of years I lived in Bellingen.
As I say in the video, there are a few places in the world more romantic than Bellingen at night—particularly in the dead of winter, and the Meeting Place Park, which more than once served me as an impromptu boudoir for entertaining some lady-friend met fugitively, always had a resonance of Paris for me.
Indeed, even alone (and there were certain evenings when I went and huddled in the park for an hour or so, enjoying the triste twilight of winter), the flâneur in me could evoke from the trio of lamps in the Meeting Place Park and the façade of the Memorial Hall across the street the memory of the humble little neighbourhood parks of Montmartre—the one in the place Constantin Pecqueur (since renamed the square Joël Le Tac, after a hero of the Résistance), or the square Carpeaux, places I would go to sit on a summer evening before dinner.
At the risk of ‘Byronizing’ Bellingen and having a foule de touristes descend upon it, I’ll go so far as to make the bold claim that, on a winter’s night, nowhere in the world—not even my best belovèd Paris—is as romantic as Bellingen when you have a girl on your arm—particularly when she’s a beautiful Norwegian tourist with dark hair, pale, delicate features, and a smile as inscrutable as la Gioconda’s.
And without wishing to inflate my credentials as a pocket-edition Casanova too greatly, I’m no stranger, as a flâneur and a former Daygamer, to the peculiar pleasure of playing cicerone to some girl I’ve just met, conducting her on an epic escalation that ends in a place and an experience I could not have anticipated when I first tied into this attractive étrangère on the street, this passante I heroically resist passing by but choose to approach.
I’ve given you, dear readers, some hints, some teases of a plot I’ve been plotting since our second lockdown in Melbourne, when the only flâneries I could take were through memory and imagination, transmuting some of the experiences I had had doing Daygame on the streets of Melbourne into my first substantial work of fiction in about fifteen years.
And though I hesitate to tell you more about the literary crime I am plotting, which emerges as an off-shoot of The Spleen of Melbourne project, suffice it to say that, like Thomas Hardy re-entering ‘the olden haunts at last’ in one of my favourite poems, “After a Journey”, I have had cause and occasion in the last three months to re-enter ‘the dead scenes’ of my Melburnian amours and attempt to track, digital sound recorder in hand, the ‘voiceless ghosts’ of myself and some girl I briefly loved lingering in the traces of these places.
Last Tuesday night, for instance, I was up till after 2:00 a.m. in the city, re-tracing with my sound recorder the steps of a flânerie I had taken with a Canadian lady who had tied into me, liking, as she did, the cut of my dandified jib, from a certain cocktail bar in Swanston Street to a point, in Elizabeth Street, which ended in enigma and mystery for me.
I have written elsewhere on this vlog of the immense pleasure that nighttime flânerie gives me when I go out, analogue camera in hand, to bag some image of beauty that has caught my eye in other wanderings, how the walk takes on an intoxicating momentum of its own, leading me to other prospects, other potential images. In the last three months, I have found a similar, but even more rarefied pleasure in retracing my night walks through Melbourne with women using the sound recorder.
There’s a fair amount of ‘method acting’ involved even in the passive process of recording: four times between midnight and 2:00 a.m. last Tuesday, I retraced the steps I had taken, arm-in-arm, with la Canadienne. I was reliving in my memory what I had actually experienced with her and simultaneously imagining myself in the fictional version of our flânerie, which is altogether more surreal and sinister.
By the third time I set off from my ‘first position’ and passed the security guys in front of The Toff in Town, treading stealthily so as to get as little sound of a solo set of footsteps on the recording as possible, they must have thought I was some fou and wondered what the hell I was up to.
One woman with whom I shared a few beautiful flâneries de nuit in Melbourne used to call me ‘Puss in Boots’ due to my dandified prowling. The nickname confused me at first. Dredging up a dim memory of the fairy tale from childhood, I asked her: ‘Wasn’t he some kind of con man?’
Bien sûr, and she was savvy enough to intuit my Machiavellian admiration for these artists who are, as David W. Maurer calls them in The Big Con (1940), ‘the aristocrats of crime’. But more than that, she was savvy enough to tell me, in that intuition, what my ‘totem animal’ is: at night, I am the cat, that furry flâneur who is the urban hunter of big cities, as aristocratic a prowler as the little black panther who treads stealthily through Saul Bass’ title sequence to Walk on the Wild Side (1962).
I can’t wait to get up to Bello and do some night shooting. All the time I lived up there, the magic of midnight in Bellingen seemed so much a part of life it never occurred to me to record an instance of it. When I was up there last year, on my final night, loitering in Church Street after even No. 5 had closed, I knew I had had too much fun—I had been so run off my feet with it, with my Proustian obligations to be the literary social butterfly of Bellingen, that I had forgotten to haul out my camera even once to capture the ‘dead scenes’ of all my amours.
If you would like to read how it turned out with la Emma, you can purchase a personally inscribed and wax-sealed copy of Follow Me, My Lovely… below.
“Follow Me, My Lovely…” [softcover]
Personally signed and sealed by author. Comes with custom bookmark. Price includes worldwide postage.
“Follow Me, My Lovely…” [eBook]
PDF viewable on any device. Portable and easily stored.
Worldwide delivery within 24 hours.
A cartridge of expired Kodachrome 40 Type A film of indeterminate date; a Chinon Super 8 motion picture camera dating presumably from the 1970’s—these two bounced and lunged with the movement of the 58 tram, Toorak-bound, as it turned left—that is to say, eastward—in an S from William street into Flinders lane, and thence almost immediately right—which is to say, south—into Market street. Of this elegant manœuvre, the only instance where one of Melbourne’s 25 tram routes proceeds for even one short block along any of the ‘little streets’ or laneways which accompany the city’s major thoroughfares, neither film nor camera (which were then in operation to record this unique spectacle) captured anything. Instead, during the ninety-second journey, both film and camera were fixated upon another image of uncertain definition, whether a scratch in the glass pane directly in front of the operator, through which he was filming, a mark too fine to be clearly perceived upon its surface except by film and camera held close to, or else a hair or fibre, itself of unusually elegant curvature—almost the only thing, despite its abstraction, with sufficient force of being to impress itself with permanence upon the expired film, rendered nearly blind by time, as a clearly discernible object—one which happened to lodge in the camera’s gate at the commencement of the journey, shuddering in consonance with the movement of the tram, and alighting coincident with the end of the trip at Flinders and Queensbridge streets, it is difficult to say with certainty.
Thus history, in its nearsightedness, chooses to record the passage of odd figures upon a background it retrospectively reduces to rheumy grain.
—Dean Kyte, “Objectif”
I got a nice surprise on Christmas Day: a cartridge of ancient Kodachrome Super 8 film, which I sent to Film Rescue International in Canada to have developed in October, was now ready for download.
I had low expectations for this film: my guess was that, at the time when I opened the cardboard box, cracked the mint-condition foil wrapping, and snapped the magazine into the butt of my Chinon Super 8 camera, the cartridge was at least thirty years old—probably closer to forty.
The cartridge of expired Kodachrome came with the camera, which I picked up for $20 at Hunter Gatherer, the boutique op-shop in the Royal Arcade. The shop assistant sliced ten clams off the price because I almost ruined the white shirt I was wearing just in handling the camera: the rubber eyepiece had melted all through the case and had gotten onto everything—including the box of film.
That gives you some sense of the conditions in which the film had been stored.
Nevertheless, I wanted to see if anything could be gotten out of three-and-a-half minutes of ancient Kodachrome. I locked and loaded my prize and went hunting for sights to clout.
I took it to Ballarat and prowled all through the Art Gallery, spending a lot of those precious frames on the two enigmatic Norman Lindsay paintings housed there. We took what I intended to be our own “Trip Down Market Street” together—(Market street, Melbourne, that is)—and various other things I don’t recall.
The problem is that you can’t get expired Super 8 film developed in Australia: the good folks at nano lab, in Daylesford, who have the domestic market cornered on this expensive obsession, won’t do it. Instead, they’ll refer you across the pond to Film Rescue International.
So what is, under normal circumstances, a prohibitively expensive hobby becomes more expensive still with expired film stock. There’s the cost of international postage to consider, and dealing in Canadian dinero, which adds a bump to the price.
Plus a long lead time, as you wait for your parcel to get across the pond and for Film Rescue to queue it into their bimonthly processing regimen.
Plus the fact that the colour dye couplers for Kodachrome no longer exist, so Film Rescue has to process your film in black and white.
All good excuses for me to procrastinate getting the film developed, and as I exercised my procrastinating skills, my cartridge of Kodachrome suffered further mistreatment: I stuffed it in my duffel (which, with my peripatetic lifestyle de flâneur, does not stay stationary for long), and for two-and-a-half years I lugged it all around the country under all kinds of weather conditions.
But finally, during lockdown, I decided to send it across the Pacific to our confrères in Canada and pay the price of discovering what, if anything, was on my cartridge of used and abused film.
Not much, it turns out. Apart from three very washed-out seconds at the end of the reel showing a tram passing before the Elizabeth street entrance of Flinders Street Station, the only clearly visible thing on the reel is the odd figure in the film above.
As I say in the short film I made of this miraculous mistake, I’m not altogether sure what it is, but it accompanied me all through my tram trip along Flinders lane and down Market street, an unwelcome passenger I did not see at the time, but almost the only thing on the whole reel that my film and camera did see.
I had just finished reading Alain Robbe-Grillet’s collection of short stories Instantanés (Snapshots) (1962) the day before the reel of Kodachrome turned up in my inbox, ready for download. When I saw this curious figure sketched on the otherwise blank film, the only image clearly preserved for posterity on a reel of film which is probably as old as I am, and which required decades of abused waiting and movements through space and time before its life intersected with mine so that we could both fulfil our destinies together as recorders of images, I was reminded of Robbe-Grillet’s ambiguous ‘court-métrages en mots’, and thought I would have a go at writing something in his style to accompany the short film I made of the out-take above.
I scored Instantanés off Amazon during Melbourne Lockdown 2.0, when the level of unread words left on my nightstand was verging on blinking red light territory. I was sold on disbursing my dough to the Bezos monolith after watching this discussion on Robbe-Grillet in which English writer Tom McCarthy intriguingly describes the first story in the collection, “Le mannequin” (1954), accompanied by his own ‘cute-crappy’ illustrations of it. (His exegesis of “Le mannequin” is between 4:28 and 7:15, if you’re interested.)
If you’re unfamiliar with Alain Robbe-Grillet, it’s probably not surprising. I find that most French people I mention him to don’t know who he is—at least not until you mention his most famous assignment as scenarist of L’année dernière à Marienbad (1961)—and even then, they tend to confuse him with the film’s director, Alain Resnais. This despite the fact that M. Robbe-Grillet was elected to the Académie française in 2004, to take his place among ‘les Immortels’ of French literature.
I guess having the magick formula ‘de l’Académie française’ after one’s name doesn’t count for much with the average Frenchman these days.
His writing is definitely an acquired taste, and the taste is difficult to acquire, because M. Robbe-Grillet is the most bitter, asper of all writers. There is no sweetness at all in his implacably ‘objective’, almost anti-human, novels, which focus obsessively on a world of external detail. Against these backgrounds, delineated with almost geometric precision, his ‘characters’ move, like the chess-piece people of L’année dernière à Marienbad, as vectors, algebraically quantified by letters (‘A’, ‘X’, ‘M’, etc.) rather than qualified by names.
M. Robbe-Grillet was the foremost exponent and theoretician of the nouveau roman (or ‘new novel’), a typically French literary movement of the fifties and sixties which rejected the humanist assumptions of the classical nineteenth-century novel, the novel of human-focused drama and intrigue with its roots in Balzac. You can well imagine that such a rigorously experimental literary movement would appeal to the French and that it would have little appeal or traction in the Anglophone world, for whom the premier nineteenth-century novelists are writers like Austen and Dickens—people deeply interested in other people.
So while M. Robbe-Grillet and his coterie (including Nathalie Sarraute and Marguerite Duras) made some strategic incursions into the Anglosphere, the nouveaux romanciers were largely a phenomenon restricted by the language of a culture—and thus of a particular place—and seem, in retrospect, to be very much a product of their time. They were part of the first generation of postmodernists, and in their work of rigorous deconstruction, they did for French fiction what writers like Foucault, Barthes and Derrida were doing for French non-fiction at the time.
And as we have seen with the poisonous fall-out of postmodernism in the Anglosphere, these ludic games with language that French intellectuals like to play—and which the wonderfully supple French language allows—do not translate well into English. The airy structural ambiguity of French, with its genders and tenses, collapses into oversimplified terms in English, which is a much more pragmatic language of ideas than French, focused as it is on material reality, efficacy of practical outcomes, and the terse eloquence of clipped statements that convey facts with no wastage of words—all the virtues of our ‘scientific’, ‘journalistic’ language which have made Hemingway, since the 1920’s, the supposed ideal of Anglophonic literature.
Given our cultural taste for the concrete and material, you might think that M. Robbe-Grillet would have found more popularity in the Anglosphere. It’s true that he had, with Richard Howard as his translator, the best possible letter of introduction to our world at the height of his intellectual respectability in France.
But despite the rigor of his factual, objective style, M. Robbe-Grillet is not merely a French Hemingway, and the deleterious narrowing of our ideals of good, clean, English prose does not adequately prepare us for the sum that cumulatively emerges from M. Robbe-Grillet’s laboriously delineated parts.
His French is not at all ‘simple’ as we might say that Hemingway is the epitome of good, simple English prose. He was a scientist, an agronomist, prior to becoming a novelist, and because his language is so precise, M. Robbe-Grillet’s French vocabulary is surprisingly large, studded with technical terms of art which further tax the English reader as we attempt to mentally construct the spaces described sentence by sentence in his novels and stories.
To give an example of how complex his deceptively simple language is, here is my translation of probably the most famous single passage in the whole of M. Robbe-Grillet’s œuvre—the description of a slice of tomato in his first published novel, Les Gommes (The Erasers) (1953):
A truly flawless wedge of tomato, machine-cut from a perfectly symmetrical fruit.
The peripheral flesh, compact and homogenous, of a handsome chemical red, is regularly thick between a band of shining skin and the cavity where the seeds are magazined, yellow, well-calibrated, held in place by a thin layer of greenish jelly along a bulge of the heart. This heart, of a slightly grainy, attenuated pink, commences, on the side of the lower depression, through a cluster of white veins, one of which extends itself towards the seeds in perhaps a little uncertain manner.
On top, an accident, barely visible, has occurred: a corner of skin, peeled away by one or two millimetres, raises itself imperceptibly.
Alain Robbe-Grillet, Les Gommes (translated by Dean Kyte)
Alors, you get the sense in this snippet of the formality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language, which I haven’t substantially changed, just transferred across to English, and his use of the present tense and passive voice as a means of rendering an ‘objective’ present.
It’s almost impossible to adequately translate ‘d’un rose atténué légèrement granuleux’ which, as an adjectival phrase juxtaposing softness and roughness, lightness and slightness in four words, appears almost to contradict itself when one starts, from a literal place, to render it in English. Moreover, you get a sense of the technicality of M. Robbe-Grillet’s language with the ‘heart’ of the tomato sitting inside its ‘cavity’ (‘la loge’). I’ve been a little creative in availing myself of the very obsolete English verb ‘magazined’ as a translation of ‘où sont rangés’ in an attempt to give my vision of the seeds, ‘bien calibrés’, of this tomato ‘découpé à la machine’ as being almost like the bullets of a well-balanced automatic weapon.
If a prose poem dedicated to a quarter of a tomato doesn’t turn you on, you won’t get much kick out of the stories of Instantanés, published after L’année dernière à Marienbad, with its long tracking shots, its sculptural tableauxvivants, and its unreliable narration, had demonstrated what M. Robbe-Grillet’s very cinematic style of writing ‘looked like’ when translated to film.
But what I like about these super-short stories is that he seems to do in words something similar to what I try to do with my short films: they are descriptions of locales in which nothing (or nothing of dramatic import) happens, and yet there is a vaguely sinister air about the environments he describes, whether it’s the unattended room of “Le mannequin”, the theatre of “Scène” (1955), or the Métro station of “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain” (1959).
And in a couple of stories, like “Le remplaçant” (1954) (in which a dull history lesson is juxtaposed with a boy’s attempt to jump up and grasp the leaves of a tree outside), or “Le Chemin du retour” (1954) (which ends with an embarrassed trio failing to communicate their gratitude to the boatman who rescues them from an island), there is a sense of an ultimately more satisfying, more sinister moral emerging as a function of Robbe-Grillet’s description of the plotless, undramatic actions of everyday life—more satisfying and more sinister because the morals of these ‘fables of the everyday’ seem even more obscure.
I think it’s no coincidence that M. Robbe-Grillet (along with his nouveau roman colleague Marguerite Duras) is really the only writer to have ever made a second career for himself as a filmmaker: more than merely being boring ‘photographs in words’, the ‘snapshots’ of Instantanés are deeply cinematic short films.
In “Scène”, for instance, the description of a theatre performance, you can almost sense the placement of the camera in M. Robbe-Grillet’s words: for most of the story, it feels fixed at a point you might regard as the natural placement for a camera photographing a play—a master-shot that frames the whole proscenium, with maybe a telephoto lens affixed which allows us to see some of the smaller details alluded to in the text.
Then, at a point far advanced in this brief story, the implicit ‘camera’ of M. Robbe-Grillet’s prose draws back appreciably: the ‘master-shot’ through which we have been watching this performance is not the true master-shot at all. That shot would encompass the auditorium as well as the stage. By introducing an unexpected line of dialogue into the text, he creates a ‘cut’ that changes our perspective, a new placement in space that simultaneously alters our conception of the time at which the performance is occurring.
That line’s a bit of a spoiler, and I’m not going to give it away here. Infinitesimally slight as it is by comparison with the traditional plot twists the dramatic mechanics of the nineteenth-century novel have taught us to expect, the slightness of that revelation makes it all the more satisfying in reading and is an example of those sinister and obscure morals about the hidden order of the world which seem to emerge as the natural function of M. Robbe-Grillet’s implacable commitment to objectively describing the visible.
Moreover, certain of the stories, like “La Plage” (1956) and “L’escalier mécanique” (part of the triptych “Dans les couloirs du métropolitain”) evoke, as cinematic images, one of M. Robbe-Grillet’s abiding themes, that of temporal recursion.
If he will permit himself a metaphor (and Alain Robbe-Grillet is so dogmatically unromantic a writer that he will permit himself very few), the one metaphor that comes up time and again is the equation of the infinite repetition of space with the endless loop of time. The slow, stately tracking shots through the mirrored corridors of the château in L’année dernière à Marienbad is the visual evocation of this theme, which is equally present in the improbable recursive structure of Les Gommes, in which a detective sent to a city to investigate the murder of a man the night before ends up assassinating him exactly 24 hours later, with all the clues he gathers in the course of the day pointing to this unpredictable yet inevitable fait accompli.
Like Borges, the visual metaphor of the labyrinth, the repetitive extension into space which symbolizes the infinitely ramifying extension into time, obsesses M. Robbe-Grillet as a perfect geometric arrangement to describe the hidden order of the objective world. As in Koyaanisqatsi (1982), the cinematic image of people riding up an escalator in the Métro in “L’escalier mécanique” leaves us with the uneasy sense that the five people we watch getting on the conveyor belt at the beginning of the story are the same people we watch getting on again at the end of the story.
At the end of a fascinating, funny, and delightfully informal lecture at San Francisco University in 1989, M. Robbe-Grillet is challenged on the influence of the cinema upon the nouveau roman. A young man who is not easily dissuaded by the great man’s Gallic shrug of indifference presses his point: surely the nouveau roman, with its concern for surfaces and objectivity, is a reaction of the novel itself to the medium of cinema, just as Impressionism was a reaction against the objectivity of photography?
‘Ouais, j’n’cwois pas,’ M. Robbe-Grillet drawls, indulging the possibility, but clearly antagonistic to the idea, albeit humorously so. He shrugs with all the Olympian Gallic boredom he can muster—De Gaulle-grade stuff—and shakes his head. ‘Cwois pas.’
The cinema, he says, is more of a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence: it’s there in the culture, one of innumerable major landmarks which have erupted in modern life—like Marxism, or psychoanalysis, for example—and one which had equally influenced Surrealism and Existentialism before the advent of the nouveau roman.
It seems a remarkably facile—even disingenuous—remark for a novelist almost unique in having had a second career as a film director.
It’s indeed inevitable, as M. Robbe-Grillet admits, that the novel, after the invention of cinema, should adapt—or seek to adapt—itself to the innovations in the grammar of storytelling which are natural to the visual medium. But his style of writing (like that of his nouveau roman colleagues) is more deeply engaged with visual storytelling, with the problematic assumptions of objectivity which clear depictions of external surfaces allow, than would have been imagined without the referent of an economical visual storytelling medium for literary storytelling to react to.
For myself, as a wordsmith who is, paradoxically, primarily a visual thinker, a writer whose first love is film, not books, and who enjoys making short films as a relaxing creative alternative to the mental rigors of crafting perfect words, it’s not an error in my process that I make my films before I write the scripts for them.
I’m deeply marked, as a writer, by the grammar and conventions of visual storytelling. It is indeed a ‘meta-linguistic’ influence upon my books, but in terms of my films, they must work first of all as films—as the cinematic unfoldment of visual images across time—before I write the prose poems, ficciones or video essays I will read over them as narrations.
Even in the film above, where the image is no image, where I can’t say objectively what it is that has made this permanent imprint upon the fifty-foot conveyor belt of film as the only thing that can be clearly seen, the image comes first.
And there is, for me, a satisfying, albeit sinister moral about the hidden order of the objective world in that the one film I could make from those fifty feet of ancient, expired Kodachrome was a film in which the one objective image was a mistake that must be subjectively interpreted.
The temporal labyrinth of film records an endless loop of nothing but one inscrutable mistake that perfectly repeats itself each time, like a Rorschach test which is also a koan about the simultaneously objective and subjective nature of reality.
What I subjectively saw through the Chinon’s viewfinder as we bounced through Flinders lane and down Market street was not what it and the Kodachrome were objectively seeing at the moment when we three were realizing our destinies together as recorders of images.
As M. Robbe-Grillet says, the essence of his writing, and what, I think, brings it closer to the medium of film than that of any other writer, is that his rigorous objectivity is but a mask for the most rigorous subjectivity. It is both simultaneously. And only film and literature working together can realize each other’s strengths as both objective, and subjective, storytelling media.
Being a Daygamer myself (albeit one who considers himself ‘retired’ from the Game), your Melbourne Flâneur is a very tough cookie to crack: knowing every trick and technique for stopping a stranger in the street, you can’t arrest the flow of my flânerie if I don’t want to stop for you.
But photographer Alfonso Perez de Velasco (@alfonsoperezphotography on Instagram), ‘loitering with intent’ near the corner of Lonsdale street, caught me on a good day as I sailed confidently down Elizabeth street, and I couldn’t turn down his sincere and complimentary request to snap a portrait of me, the photo you see above.
It’s perhaps too much of a cliché to say that this talented Madrileño now living and working in Melbourne has painted me in a typically Spanish light, with shades of Ribera about me, but I think he’s captured something essential about your sombre, sombrero’d scribe, that blend of light and dark inside a single look which is eminently Goyesque.
With my humour and melancholy, my Machiavellianism and my empathy, I am nothing if not contradictory, and I think Alfonso captures that ambiguity nicely.
I was wearing a black shirt with a grey-and-white floral pattern, dark silver tie, black display kerchief with grey Martini glasses on it (courtesy of Fine And Dandy and Brisbane Hatters), and a dark grey vintage Stetson Whippet to cap the ensemble. The slightly clashing touch of chocolate-coloured scarf and gloves was my only concession to the tardy onset of the Melbourne winter. I had my Dunn & Co. trenchcoat slung casually over my Czechoslovakian officer’s map-case, which serves as a stylish satchel for porting my tablet.
I was everything the well-dressed writer-about-town ought to be.
I wasn’t, as Raymond Chandler says, ‘calling on four million dollars’—(tant pis)—but I was just about to call on Elite Office Machines Co. in Carlton to pick up my freshly serviced Silver Reed typewriter.
So I was feeling O.K. that day.
During lockdown, I had a chance to catch up on some reading, and one of the books that came my way was Jocks and Nerds: Men’s Style in the Twentieth Century (1989), by Richard Martin and Harold Koda. It was written at the tail end of the ‘Greed is Good’ eighties, so there’s a touch of quaintness about the authors’ commentary: though acknowledging that standards have slipped since the 1960s, Messrs. Martin and Koda have no clue as to how far they will descend in the thirty years up to the present day.
Their thesis is simple yet compelling: ‘We believe that men are knowing in making choices among style options, and that they dress to create or recreate social roles. Both men and women seek to realize roles and identities, but since men’s options in dress would appear to be the more acutely restricted, perhaps selecting a role has assumed more importance for them than it has for women. A man’s role is his operative identity; style choices follow therefrom.’
I like the phrase ‘operative identity’, for it points to the fundamental ‘uniformity’ of men’s style, the basis of almost every garment in the masculine wardrobe in an historical military analogue.
Indeed, Martin and Koda identify twelve such ‘operative identities’ that we men tend to take on as the social rôles by which we choose to be known, and their book is arranged in an ascending hierarchy of these ‘types’, from the ‘Jocks’ and ‘Nerds’ of the title, through the ‘Military Man’, ‘Hunter’ and ‘Sportsman’, up to the ‘Businessman’, ‘Man about Town’ and ‘Dandy’.
The argument seems true that, due to the mobility of action that is the masculine prerogative, at a certain point early in a man’s life, he chooses the rôle that he is going to play, the branch of ‘the Services’ he is going to go into.
Is he going to be a soldier? a blue-collar worker? a white-collar worker? a professor? There’s a ‘uniform’ for every métier that men undertake, and even the most récherché uniform, that of a literary dandy like yours truly, is thoroughly—albeit subtly—based in a military antecedent.
Martin and Koda go on to say: ‘Conventional wisdom has it that men dress to be conventional, but those with insight into male dress might hold that men dress to realize dreams, to be themselves through being someone other than themselves. If, as Shakespeare would have it, “apparel oft proclaims the man,” perhaps it is true that it both claims and proclaims him.’
I agree, for not only do we know a man by the uniform he wears, but the key point is that, unlike for the dames, our trade, boulot or profession is our operative identity: a man is the job he does, and in subscribing to the uniform, he subscribes equally to the professional etiquette of the rôle.
We have certain expectations of the cowboy, just as we have certain others of the lawyer, and the man who inhabits the uniform of either trade will seek earnestly to inhabit the professional expectations we have of him.
Indeed, for most men, it is a point of honour that their behaviour and comportment is congruent with the deportment of their life’s rôle.
But is there, you may ask, really a ‘uniform’ for a writer?
Well, Martin and Koda are instructive on this point, for not only is their book liberally seasoned with pictures of men of letters, but it opens with a spread lifted from the pages of Harper’s Bazaar Uomo in which a contemporary spin is placed on the ‘looks’ of such literary giants as James Joyce, F. Scott Fitzgerald, and Henry Miller, among others, demonstrating that men who spend their lives ‘off the stage of life’, cloistered in their studies, may be equally ‘leaders of fashion’ to other men.
‘Would a businessman care to walk in the shoes of James Joyce?’ Martin and Koda ask. ‘In the intimacy of a clothing decision, he might, signalling an affinity with the writer. … [T]he male chooses a family tree, a heritage, a sense of identity or likeness that is most compelling because it is not enunciated but simply visually implied.’
And indeed, surveying this spread and the other portraits of writers in this book, one sees a subtle uniform ‘visually implied’: the rakish chapeau, the tie—whether straight or bow—which is more alluring than the usual garotted neckwear, the suit of emphatic cut, or of bold stripes or mysterious patterns, the raincoat which is ported quixotically in all weathers.
I have observed elsewhere on this vlog the unusual number of writers who tend to be dandies. Why should we men of letters, cloistered away from celebrity-hungry eyes in our airy towers of intellect, be so passionate about such an ephemeral subject as fashion?
Well, as I said in my post on ‘What is a flâneur?’, there is no better prima facie indication of an orderly mind than the attention to detail that a man pays to his deportment. If a man cannot order the outer world of his person—(or, worse still, declines to do so, for this betrays a manque of strategy in his thinking)—it is doubtful whether he possesses the energies to order his abstract inner world through words.
In his book Legendary Authors and the Clothes They Wore (2017), fashion journalist Terry Newman made a close reading of thirty authors and their sartorial style, arguing that the distinction between the ‘outer’ and ‘inner’ man of letters is not really as invidious as one might think at first glance, with an analogue of the writer’s unique literary style manifesting in the arena of his personal style.
Reversing the lens, is there anything that could be divined about my style as a writer from how I dress?
Well, judging from Alfonso’s pictures, I probably look like the man who runs the Melbourne underworld. More than once have others compared my sartorial style—the love of loud pinstripes and clashing contrasts of dark shirts and light-coloured ties—with that of Al Capone.
As Philip Mann observes in The Dandy at Dusk: Taste and Melancholy in the Twentieth Century (2017), the gangster, like the dandy, masters the sober uniform of the Businessman and pushes it to a récherché extreme, beyond the conventions of conservative rectitude, to the point of parody. The gangster, like the dandy, is the rebellious ‘inversion’ of the rôle of the Businessman. But whereas the dandy in some sense ‘satirizes’ the hypocrisy of the bourgeois Establishment, the gangster savagely exposes the blood on the Businessman’s hands, making no bones about the fact that the easy wealth of his ill-gotten gains comes from ‘making a killing’.
Certainly, the rather Italianate character of my prose, full of mannerist touches, might have an analogue in my Medicean love of outrageous intrigue.
It’s interesting to note that the Businessman eschews black in his wardrobe, whereas the gangster and the dandy both revel in it. As Martin and Koda say, ‘The rebel wears black. … Black serves as a sign of social militancy and provocation for men in a way that it does not for women. … [M]en in this century have worn gray or a limited palette of colors in deliberate avoidance of black. When black enters the wardrobe, it arrives with arresting authority and with a social goad.’
It’s the colour not merely of the transgressive Businessman personified by the gangster, but the colour of artists and poets, according to Martin and Koda. Citing Valerie Steele’s Paris Fashion (1988), they describe the ‘triumph of black’ habitually ported by Charles Baudelaire as a ‘bohemian black’ which synthesizes the poet’s aspirations towards the Establishment of the French Academy with his inescapable outcast nature as an unreconstructable renegade.
And in its rebellious association with men who are intellectual threats to the established order of their societies, there is not merely something ‘clerical’ in the nature of black, according to Martin and Koda, but something perversely ‘spiritual’ about this most abjured colour: there is an almost satanic ‘purity’ and ‘cleanliness’ about black, and the man who takes on the rebellious rôle of artist or poet takes on the uniform of an heretical priesthood, dedicating himself to ‘l’art pour l’art’.
I don’t know that I’m so habitually ensconced in black as I am in Alfonso’s photos, but certainly the Velázquean voluptuousness and elegance of black, its noirish, tenebrist radiance—with all the ambiguity and contradictions it suggests—makes it a staple of my wardrobe, a colour that synæsthetically resonates with my nature.
It’s a colour which symbolically connotes a man—whether he be gangster, spy, priest or poet—engaged in some shadowy enterprise, and as I said above, a writer’s work takes place ‘off-stage’, in the ‘backstage’ of life.
Nevertheless, there is a subdued ‘flamboyance’ about the writer: taking the stage only retroactively in the imagination of his readers, the deeply introverted, dandified man of letters perhaps sublimates his repressed performativity in the dark radiance of his uniform.
The trenchcoat, that outrageously démodé relic of the First World War has, ‘[i]n an almost inexplicable combination of meanings and implications,’ according to Martin and Koda, become inextricably associated with men who make their living by the pen and the typewriter, whether they are reporters or writers.
It has transformed itself, they say, from its weatherable functionality as a dependable part of an officer’s uniform, to the ‘sign of the individualist’ in civilian life.
‘It has since come to be identified with good taste,’ Martin and Koda write, ‘but with romantic overtones associated with writers, artists, and individualists…. Defying the convention of the wool overcoat, some men have insisted on wearing the trench coat as standard outer wear, not waiting for rain to justify the versatile and quixotic coat of the visionary….’
On the day Alfonso snapped me, I had just conveyed my freshly relined woollen overcoat to the dry-cleaner in anticipation of the Melbourne winter, so I just had my trenchcoat with me as a potential topcoat.
I would have had it anyway, for in Melbourne, one needs to be prepared for any eventuality—even at the risk of appearing ‘quixotic’—and I rarely step out the door without my trusty Dunn & Co. raincoat, which can equally serve as sufficient insulation against an autumnal Melbourne breeze.
I think the ‘visionary’ nature of this article of apparel probably stems from the ‘quixotic’ tendency of certain careful men (as any man of letters should be) to port it in all weathers, as a dependable, respectable, all-weather topcoat.
Winston Churchill, visionary individualist as a statesman, though quixotic to his contemporaries, was the writer not only prescient enough to foresee ‘the gathering storm’ of the Second World War from a long way off, but was the historian capable of compassing its complexity in retrospect, and he stubbornly ported his Aquascutum in fair weather as in foul.
With certain American writers—Henry Miller and William S. Burroughs among them—the trenchcoat has attained to the status of a signature element in their wardrobes, its patrician associations with officer’s garb and its democratic appropriation after the First World War suggesting a reversal of these writers’ pulpy American origins and their take-up by sophisticated Parisian publishers.
The trenchcoat’s style, like their literary styles, suggests the ‘down-at-heels’ elegance of a declassed gentleman.
For myself, being fundamentally a Parisian at heart, the trenchcoat is an ‘incontournable’ part of my uniform as a flâneur. It’s both strange and a testament to its hardiness and adaptability that this fundamentally British article should undergo so many transatlantic crossings, becoming indissociably associated in the public imaginary first with America, as the garment-of-trade of the intrepid reporter and gumshoe, and then with the French capital, as the grey flag of world-weary existentialists like Camus and Sartre, the tails of their raincoats flapping against the grey Parisian sky.
More than London, the trenchcoat, as article of choice of both Philip Marlowe and Jef Costello, seems as much the symbol of rainless L.A. as of perennially grey Paris, and Melbourne, sharing something of the atmospheric effects of the latter, is also a city in which the incognito camouflage of its mysterious greyness is appropriate for the writer-flâneur, a man whose profession is to be an ‘undercover reporter’ of life.
The thing about a trenchcoat is that, like a hat or a good pair of shoes, it requires the patina of age to look elegant. As Messrs. Miller and Burroughs demonstrate, a trenchcoat needs to look fashionably rumpled—like those gents themselves.
I’ve had my dun-coloured Dunn & Co. almost all my adult life—and it’s probably older than I am, since I acquired it in an op-shop on the Gold Coast when I was a mere gamin of twenty, by which time the venerable British brand had gone the way of all fashion.
It has traipsed with me through the jardin du Luxembourg, as my sole insulation against miserable days in Paris, just as it has served as an improvised blanket under which to do some fooling around with demoiselles Daygamed in Melbourne’s Treasury Gardens.
The Fedora and the trenchcoat, as the crown and the gown of your Melbourne Flâneur, this ‘prince qui jouit partout de son incognito’, as M. Baudelaire says, are probably the key symbols of my style, both personal and literary.
I’m most grateful to Alfonso Perez de Velasco for his handsome portraits of me, and I recommend that you check out his Instagram or visit his website to see more of his photographs, including Melbourne street scenes, other denizens of our fair city, and interesting travel pictures from around Asia.