Though the Philistines may jostle ...

May 16, 2015

These days, when I walk down Piccadilly, it is seldom with a poppy or a lily, but to visit Waterstones and Hatchards. But almost inevitably, drawn by the lodestone of influence, I find myself making a detour into Jermyn Street by way of Piccadilly Arcade. At the Jermyn Street end of the arcade stands the 2002 statue of Beau Brummell by Irena Sedlecka, of which I recently took this photograph. The brass plaque reads:


Beau Brummell, 1778 - 1840

‘To be truly elegant one should not be noticed.’


When I was a seventeen-year-old student busy with A-levels at one of London’s colleges of further education, a canny English Literature tutor wrote, at the bottom of one of my essays: ‘If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me, Why, what a very singularly deep young man this deep young man must be!’ At the time, I didn’t recognize the quote, but soon discovered the line was from W.S Gilbert’s ‘The Aesthete’ which, in turn, is from the Gilbert and Sullivan operetta Patience.


Patience was later used as an armature for The Nephilim, one of my Lord Soho stories, a generational, sword-and-sorcery romance or ‘time opera’ of tales based on various operas and operettas.


Dandyism, in literature, is something I have always been interested in, and have, I suppose, tried to emulate in writing a kind of science fiction, or fantasy, that might have been penned by Baudelaire, or Wilde.


But this has been, and continues to be, a delicate balancing act. To achieve elegance in writing, as in fashion, one indeed should not be noticed, otherwise—as the seventeen-year-old Calder quickly discovered—one becomes the subject, rather than the singer, of Gilbert’s song:


If you're anxious for to shine in the high aesthetic line,
as a man of culture rare,
You must get up all the germs of the transcendental terms,
and plant them everywhere.
You must lie upon the daisies and discourse in novel phrases of your
complicated state of mind,
The meaning doesn't matter if it's only idle chatter
of a transcendental kind.
And everyone will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
‘If this young man expresses himself in terms too deep for me,
Why, what a very singularly deep young man
this deep young man must be!’


Be eloquent in praise of the very dull old days which have
long since passed away,
And convince 'em if you can, that the reign of good Queen Anne was
Culture's palmiest day.
Of course you will pooh-pooh whatever's fresh and new, and
declare it's crude and mean,
And that art stopped short in the cultivated court
of the Empress Josephine,
And everyone will say,
As you walk your mystic way,
‘If that's not good enough for him which is good enough for me,
Why, what a very cultivated kind of youth
this kind of youth must be!’


Then a sentimental passion of a vegetable fashion must
excite your languid spleen,
An attachment à la Plato for a bashful young potato,
or a not-too-French French bean.
Though the Philistines may jostle, you will rank as an apostle
in the high aesthetic band,
If you walk down Piccadilly with a poppy or a lily in your mediaeval hand.
And everyone will say,
As you walk your flowery way,
‘If he's content with a vegetable love which would certainly not suit me,
Why, what a most particularly pure young man
this pure young man must be!’

W. S. Gilbert




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