Monday, 4 January 2016

When your builders start to turn up in Rolls-Royces, it’s time to sell yours

A friend told me that her mother’s second husband, who was a property developer, once said “When your builders start to turn up in Rolls-Royces, it’s time to sell yours”. One of the un-itemised skills of the aristocrat and the elite is knowing when something has been adopted by the wrong people and must, however reluctantly, be dropped. If once there were written rules about what to do, now there are unwritten rules about what not to do, and it is the ability to discern what not to do, what must be abandoned to the masses, that makes the in-crowd. (Rolexes, for instance. As GS Elevator says: "Wearing a Rolex is like driving a BMW 3-series. It says you've got some money, but nothing interesting to say.”)

The journalist Katherine Whitehorn, an old-school Second-Wave feminist, once remarked that whenever she saw women getting into positions of power, it turned out that the men had moved the power from those positions. Many women want to play the boys’ games because they hate the way that women play women’s games. So they move in to something - law, or management - and for a while get the benefits they want. But then some tipping point of female participation gets passed, and men no longer go into that area, and those in it move on to the Next Thing, so that the original women are left with the very type of women they were trying to avoid for company, and the feeling that, once again, all that is Masculine has slipped away from them.

It’s this ability, not so much to roll with the tide, but to move on to the next beach, that marks out men. The English do it very well, because being English is not about being any one thing, it’s about being able to absorb new things, and drop old things, and yet somehow be the same. The English language is a hotch-potch of words and ideas from every civilisation that either conquered the Anglo-Saxons, or was later ruled by or in business with them. Which is to say, almost everyone. English “culture” is the same: a hotch-potch of something-from-everywhere, but put together in a way that turns it from context-laden, consequential culture to weightless, just-another-item-on-the-menu style. One trick is not to be serious about anything, but nevertheless to be trustworthy, competent, reliable and creative, and in an understated way - until you present the far from understated invoice. The other trick is to be where the majority is not: not because they are noisy, badly-dressed, drag their screaming children around with them, and eat smelly food (though there is all that, and more) but because if the majority can appreciate it, it isn’t on the edge, it isn’t new and it isn’t challenging. And being involved with the new and challenging is what marks out Us from, well, Them.

So when women start moving in on something, from superhero comics to finance, it’s a sign that those things have matured and become known quantities, and that it’s time to find something else to do. Any form of engineering, computing, mathematics and science will always be too far an island with too steep cliffs for most women to climb. Women have had the same time to hack into programming that they have to hack into marketing, the legal profession and accountancy, and everyone can see the choices they have made. The hard sciences and engineering are exactly about developing new tricks, skills and techniques, are exactly about moving on to the next beach. All the time.

The commitment is never to a content, nor even a form, but always to the principle of change and creation. If you want that in one man’s career, look no further than Miles Davis. He changed or was at the heart of change in music four or five times (be-bop, Cool, modal, time-no-changes, and the whole Filles de Kilimanjaro to Get Up With It period) and yet was always essentially Miles. John Coltrane did something similar over a shorter time-span, and so did Picasso over a longer one. On a smaller scale, so did the novelist Gavin Lyall, husband of Ms Whitehorn and author of one of my favourite thrillers, Midnight Plus One.

(So quit whining about how women are spoiling your Star Wars and Superman series. If the women are there, that’s God’s way of telling you that it’s time to move on.)

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