Friday, 26 July 2013

Part XLIX - A Kinder Society

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Thirteen is titled "Survivals of the Non-Invidious Interests".

The first time I saw that chapter title, my brain went ‘Whaaaat?’  Basically he means to say something about ‘nice people’; the ones who aren’t going to cheat you out of your money or step on your head as part of their social climb, people who aren't quite so competitive. Strangely, he sees the business of the industrial world eroding the former system of status, thereby creating an environment where non-barbaric people can get ahead.   According to Veblen, the decay of the original forms of devout observances and of the class system which demands personal subservience has allowed the development of ‘alien motives’ which he labels as charity, social good-fellowship, conviviality, the sense of human solidarity and sympathy.

While Veblen seems to feel these attributes are alien to the religious outlook, he recognises they are part of the modern practice of church-going.  It almost sounds as though he’s saying that society has improved because churches aren’t so religious but I doubt this can be quite right.  It may be that he’s saying the leisure class was losing its dominance of the religious structures and that religious organisations were increasingly ‘of the people’. 

Another idea that he espouses is of a ‘non-reverent sense of aesthetic congruity with the environment’ which indirectly shapes people’s thinking along away from the self-centredness of the earlier regime of status.  This ‘aesthetic congruity’ removes the  
"the antagonism of self and not-self which has previously insisted upon the divergence between the self-regarding interest and the interests of the generically human life process.  This non-invidious residue of the religious life — the sense of communion with the environment, or with the generic life process — as well as the impulse of charity or of sociability, act in a pervasive way to shape men’s habits of thought for the economic purpose."

Doesn’t Veblen have a marvellous way of using lots of long words?  Imagine having a conversation with the man…but I digress.  Coming at this from a distance, it seems the short version of Chapter 13 might be that the industrial revolution brought about a growing middle class, the creation of jobs, etc.  This meant the modern world was not quite as ‘dog-eat-dog’ as before and so people could afford to be kinder to one another.  However, this being Veblen, we can't do a short version.  Also, my interpretation may be over-simple and some of his observations are too funny to miss.

Veblen describes the development of modern society (as of 1899) from the standpoint of the leisure class and, for them, it's looking fairly disastrous.  The usual leisurely pursuits are vanishing:  the decline of war, the disappearance of large game to hunt, the ‘obsolescence of proprietary government, and the decay of the priestly office’.   However, 
"Human life must seek expression in one direction if it may not in another; and if the predatory outlet fails, relief is sought elsewhere."

You may or may not be aware that one of the main activities of very well-to-do people is to engage in ‘charitable events’.  If it's not being a patron of a charity or forming a foundation, it's throwing a ball or organising a fete.  For others its joining the Junior League, the Masons, the Rotary clubs, volunteering for this or that cause.  Veblen describes these activities as being ‘reversion to a non-invidious temperament’, something even more likely among leisure class women, being the most protected from any economic stress.  

In his day the charitable organisations were semi-religious and tended to be promoting temperance, prison reform, spreading education or support for pacifism.  He also names sewing-clubs, art clubs and even commercial clubs (no idea what that means), all endowed by wealthy individuals or through collections from persons of smaller means.  Now, he still maintains that much of this work is primarily to enhance the reputation or their promoters, particularly with the foundation of something like a library or hospital wing with one’s name plastered on the front.  That sort of thing is all over the US, but you don’t see it much at all here in Britain, I’ve noticed.  There is a big ceremony and PR splash when the Duke of this or that donates a piece of land or the like, but if there is any label, it is a smallish plaque or an etched foundation stone, not names that can be read half a mile away.  Be this as it may, Veblen still maintains there are ‘motives of a non-emulative kind’.  The fact that reputability is sought through charitable works shows that society has shifted a great deal.

Thursday, 25 July 2013

Bernard's Birthday

Funny how writing my 'remembering' posts pushes me to think about how well I knew some people in my family.  There was much about my Uncle Bernard I never knew, after all he was nearly 40 years older than I (and he would have corrected me had I said 'me').  What I remember about Bernard was how he treated me; that was generally pretty nicely.  

In some of the family things that I seem to have kept were several pages of sheet music.  I'm still looking for how Rudy Vallee and Janet Gaynor are connected (something he wrote on an envelope from a place that sold dance costumes).  I can't find YouTube videos for all of his sheet music, but I did find this one.

This isn't his usual tap dance music (he was a choreographer and a dance teacher for a while) but perhaps it was for a ballroom style dance.  He and mom did exhibition ballroom dance when they were very young.  Or maybe he just liked the music.  This is from a 1929 film.

Friday, 19 July 2013

Part XLVIII - The End of Religion

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Twelve is titled Devout Observances.

Veblen makes some more sweeping statements about what parts of society are more or less religious.  He says this is another trait that the upper and lower classes share, just as they are both conservative.  He views devoutness as definitely old-fashioned and notes that
“In the older communities of the European culture, the hereditary leisure class, together with the mass of the indigent population, are given to devout observances in an appreciably higher degree than the average of the industrious middle class, wherever a considerable class of the latter character exists.” 

He says there are some places where there is no discernable middle class and pretty much everyone is religious.  Italy was the first place that came to my mind, but I wonder if much of southern Europe wouldn’t have fit this bill in 1899.

He also says that 
“…it is becoming somewhat of a commonplace with observers of criminal life in European communities that the criminal and dissolute classes are, if anything, rather more devout, and more naively so, than the average of the population. It is among those who constitute the pecuniary middle class and the body of law-abiding citizens that a relative exemption from the devotional attitude is to be looked for.”

Does this fit the stereotype of old-time mafia?

Veblen is convinced that religion is on its way out of modern society.  In looking for economic reasons for this, he uses America as an example and he makes a statement that made my mouth fall open.  Rather than try to paraphrase this ugly thought, I’ll let you read his words:
“As a general rule the classes that are low in economic efficiency, or in intelligence, or both, are peculiarly devout — as, for instance, the Negro population of the South, much of the lower-class foreign population, much of the rural population, especially in those sections which are backward in education, in the stage of development of their industry, or in respect of their industrial contact with the rest of the community. So also such fragments as we possess of a specialized or hereditary indigent class, or of a segregated criminal or dissolute class; although among these latter the devout habit of mind is apt to take the form of a naive animistic belief in luck and in the efficacy of shamanistic practices perhaps more frequently than it takes the form of a formal adherence to any accredited creed.”

He then observes that the ‘artisan class’ is falling away from religion because of their exposure to the ‘modern organised industry’ which requires matter-of-fact, cause-and-effect thinking.  This class is also sufficiently wealthy that they are not too over-worked or under-fed to manage ‘the work of adaptation’. 

The lower middle classes, he says, are still attending church, but mainly the women and children.  The men still give ‘reputable assent to the outlines of the accredited creed under which they were born’ but they are also more in contact with the industrial way of common sense thinking.  Letting the women attend church is a form of vicarious leisure, as though she can attend to this duty on his behalf.  Women, according to Veblen, are more religious than men because their absence from the industrial life, as stay-at-home wives, shields them from having to move away from archaic ways of thinking.
“…the woman finds herself at home and content in a range of ideas which to the man are in great measure alien and imbecile. Still the men of this class are also not devoid of piety, although it is commonly not piety of an aggressive or exuberant kind.”
Oh, did you ever observe men talking down to women when you were growing up, as though they were 'alien and imbecile'?

Men in the upper middle class are more likely to attend church than men of the artisan class.   They are also to a large extent a sheltered class, according to Veblen, enjoying the ‘patriarchal relation of status’ in the their home life; the presence of servants may also help conserve the ‘archaic habit of mind’.  Veblen also says that the middle class American man with a status occupation similar to the ideas of status of the upper class will have predatory economic habits, be accustomed to ‘arbitrary command and submission’ and engage in ‘shrewd practice, remotely akin to predatory fraud.  This outlook is ‘on the plane of life of the predatory barbarian, to whom a devotional attitude is habitual.’

Finally, I was interested in reading Veblen’s observation of America's southern culture at the turn of the last century, just thirty odd years after the Civil War: 
“There is no hereditary leisure class of any consequence in the American community, except in the South. This Southern leisure class is somewhat given to devout observances; more so than any class of corresponding pecuniary standing in other parts of the country. It is also well known that the creeds of the South are of a more old-fashioned cast than their counterparts in the North. Corresponding to this more archaic devotional life of the South is the lower industrial development of that section. The industrial organization of the South is at present, and especially it has been until quite recently, of a more primitive character than that of the American community taken as a whole. It approaches nearer to handicraft, in the paucity and rudeness of its mechanical appliances, and there is more of the element of mastery and subservience. It may also be noted that, owing to the peculiar economic circumstances of this section, the greater devoutness of the Southern population, both white and black, is correlated with a scheme of life which in many ways recalls the barbarian stages of industrial development. Among this population offenses of an archaic character also are and have been relatively more prevalent and are less deprecated than they are elsewhere; as, for example, duels, brawls, feuds, drunkenness, horse-racing, cock-fighting, gambling, male sexual incontinence (evidenced by the considerable number of mulattoes). There is also a livelier sense of  — an expression of sportsmanship and a derivative of predatory life.

There is much that Veblen writes that would be unacceptable in this present day, but I do find that he accounts for some things I’ve observed in my life time, which is why I found his book so fascinating.  With the post we are – finally – finished with Chapter Twelve.

Monday, 15 July 2013

Sewing for a 1950's Tea Party

Our WI had its annual 'fayre' yesterday and the organising committee chose the theme of a 1950's tea party.  For most of them, of course, this is quaint vintage stuff, vaguely reminiscent of their grandmothers, the Queen's coronation and, of course, cute vintage clothing which seems to be making a comeback. At least I assume so, I can't remember the last time I shopped in an actual clothing store instead of a charity shop.

Preparations begin

Anyhow, this meant that we were asked to dress in '50's inspired clothing.  In desperation I bought a vintage French dress pattern on eBay, though I wasn't certain it was actually the right size and I don't speak French. Bill remarked I don't half like to set myself a challenge.  I since learned that my friend, Meriel, from the craft group is a former French teacher AND she sews the costumes for a local theatre group; she offered to help me, but I dithered.  I'd convinced myself it was more of a 1940's look, something I prefer to the 50s, but not appropriate for the fayre.

Lovely Helen shows off her £5 outfit from a thrift shop - great buy!

I found instructions for a circle skirt in a 1961 text book for a home ec class here in Britain. Apparently this sewing book was one of two for the class, the other being about cooking and food hygiene. A person can get by in the world without sewing their clothes, but without cooking at home?  Never mind, that's a rant for another day. Turns out the instructions weren't that detailed, so I gave that a miss.

Adorable vintage car...

Has anyone seen The Great British Sewing Bee? It was a short series that ran a few months ago and I was glued to the TV for it.  We even managed to see it on YouTube in France when we were on holiday.  YouTube sometimes lets me watch things and sometimes not, but I'm guessing that you might be able to watch this series there if you haven't seen it already.  There will be another series sometime and I know I will again be glued.

More bunting...and balloons!

I have longed to sew my own clothes for years now, but just have never sat down to do it. The patterns that were within my skills didn't interest me and the ones I wanted to make were well beyond hope of a good outcome.  I procrastinated... 

Old-fashioned sweeties - in the jam jars I mean!

This fayre was the trigger for me to DO something. I went to the library and found the sewing book that followed the TV show.  Most of the patterns can be down loaded from the publisher's website. I'm not sure how great these patterns are, but my circle skirt turned out OK.   My main rule for myself was that I was not going to go out and spend a lot of money.  Sewing can cost a lot if you're not careful, so I decided I had to make do with what I already had.   My outfit was mainly made from a 100% cotton curtain I'd bought years ago at a charity shop and squirreled away in the attic.  I loved the print, I just didn't know what to do with it...yet.

Love the polka dots and flowers!

In addition to the circle skirt, I took an old long-sleeved white t-shirt.  I'd already cut off the neck band and hemmed it.  No matter how hard I try not to get make up on the neckline of my white t-shirts, it just happens.  The crew neck line was now a slightly wider circle, without ribbing.  I'd recently worn the cut-down tee with a 3/4-length jacket and found it irritating to have the sleeves too long.  The weather here has been incredibly warm the last couple of weeks; I keep thinking I've immigrated to the southern Europe and taken my house with me.  It's just so unlike the North of England I'd not be at all surprised to see a white rabbit with a pocket watch.  Anyhow, I'd chopped the sleeves to 3/4 length and now I chopped them a bit more.  I made some bias strips - another first - from the curtain fabric scraps and sewed them to the neckline and the sleeves.  It turned a wide circle into a sort of stand-up bateau neck line, very 1950s.

My neighbour, lovely inside and out.

Vivien and I had been cruising charity shops in Whitley Bay a few weeks ago - just an excuse to walk around and chat between lunch and tea - and she found a black hat for £5.  It looked great on her and would go with her outfit so I convinced her to buy it, promising I would also wear a hat. I'd planned to make a simple bow, but it didn't work.  A 57-year-old woman in a floral circle skirt with a bow on her head just seemed a bit creepy to me.  So I looked at vintage hats on the internet for a while and came up with an idea.  Just about anything perched on my head would keep my promise to Vivien.  

Jules brought flowers to decorate her stall...which turned out to be outside!

I cut some more strips (not bias) and braided them for the base of a round hat, then cut a circle and stitched it to the braid.  It was sort of an unstructured pillbox shape, from the same curtain fabric. Other accessories included (real) pearl earrings that Mom gave me years ago, a (fake) pearl necklace that belonged to my aunt Rita (her sewing stash also provided the thread and zipper for this project).  A pair of cream coloured leather gloves that belonged to Bill's mom.  I wore them tucked into my skirt waist band, it was far too hot to wear them and I'd have felt stupid anyhow.  I had a pair of taupe ballet slippers with bows on them and some sheer tights, also a long-owned white half-slip just in case the cotton curtain wasn't thick enough.

Our table rated with Danielle, our President (nicked this photo from Facebook)

Of course, I made some mistakes:

--> If the pattern calls for a 9" zipper, don't cut the 22" zip down to 12" - longer is not necessarily better).

--> Finish the seam edges before you put in the zip; that way you won't accidentally let the serger cut into the fabric next to the zipper, causing you to have to applique (another new experience) a flower on top of the 'owwie'.   

--> Nicking the knit of a cheap white t-shirt also involves applique to cover the hole.  Turns out I really liked the 'band-aids' a lot!  Just as well, since I seem to need a lot of them.  

Competition for garden arrangements in trays or tea cups.

On the morning I was rushing around to get myself ready and things in place to load up Vivien's car when she came.  Naturally, I managed to get something, make up I think, on the white top, just below the left boob. Not a place for yet another appliqued flower even had I time.  So I grabbed an old pink cardi out of the crafting box and pressed it.  I managed to wear it about an hour before it came off in the heat.  By then the bleach I'd applied had dried and lessened the stain.  I held up my gloves for photos...  I don't do perfect, it's just not in my repertoire of behaviours. Maybe this is one of the reasons why I've never fancied the 1950s, everyone was under such pressure to conform to some idea of perfection.

Jam, herbs, vintage patterns and elderflower cordial for sale!

As to our table, we were asked to run a 'tombola' (a raffle of sorts) for jars of old-fashioned boiled sweets.  Now, my parents both had false teeth at a fairly young age and when I came along I wasn't allowed candy.  My grand parents were threatened with not seeing me if they offered me candy.  I grew up thinking the stuff was evil.  I have eaten candy, of course, like the occasional bit of caramel or white chocolate, but it's not part of my lifestyle and I wouldn't ever offer it to a child as a treat.  I thought I was going to feel a bit like a drug dealer:  
"Step right up and get your sugar rush, kiddies, right here!  Let's top up your taste for gambling, that's great!  Get your empty calories, your extra-extra energy!  Get those little teeth rotten and ready for the N. H. S. dentist, yessir!  Get your fix right here, right now, only 50 pence a hit! Yeah!"

Anyhow, we had a preparatory gathering with neighbour and fellow-WI member, Julia (and with snacks and wine), to dress up and stuff our jam jars.  Jules was doing a 'chocolate bran tub' and decided to gift wrap her chocolates.  I never heard of a bran tub til coming to Britain - apparently you bury nice things in some sort of filler and people dig around to find the prizes, in this case chocolate bars buried in styrofoam packaging material.

I bought a striped sheet from a charity shop for £2 which we used as a table cloth.  I had made some bunting and contributed to the bunting effort for other tables.  My friend Meriel runs the Age UK knitting group and she loaned me their knitted bunting - miles of it - that went around the entire parish hall.  Someone contributed boiled sweets in a large plastic jar with a lid and we used that jar to hold the raffle tickets for people to draw.  I dressed it with extra-wide ribbon that the Tuesday sewing ladies had thrown out - miles of 6" wide turquoise ribbon in the trash, imagine!  

On the day, it turned out that kids don't have much spending money and most of our customers were adults, grandparent age, and so my conscience was clear.  There was one very large lady who cruised past our table on a mobility scooter and I noticed neither Vivien nor I touted to her.  We did both work in public health, after all.   I was pleased when Vivien told me that several grandmas told her their grandchildren weren't allowed candy, either.

We made about £19, which the fayre organisers seemed quite happy with.  I calculate that's about how much we spent on candy, etc., not counting what we spent at the fayre on second hand books, scones and cakes, raffle tickets and elderflower cordial (delicious stuff).  So we could have saved ourselves the bother and just forked over the cash to the WI.  Then again, I wouldn't have re-discovered the joy of sewing clothes and Vivien wouldn't have worn that excellent hat...which Jules will be wearing to a wedding with her lovely black and white polka dot dress.  

Have I mentioned that my friend Vivien is very lucky?  I don't mean to have me for a friend (ha!), but that she won a jar of jam, I think it was, at the very first WI meeting she came to. At the Christmas party a couple of years ago, she won the big prize of dinner and wine at a posh local restaurant.  Last Christmas she won the champagne being raffled.  She won - and rightly so - the Victoria sponge bake-off, for which she was awarded more champagne.  Four of us, including Lucy and Julia, formed what Jules dubbed 'the Champagne Sub-group' to help her with her winnings.   Yesterday she won the big raffle prize again:  bed and breakfast at Matfen Hall.  I keep telling her she needs to buy a lottery ticket...

Friday, 12 July 2013

Part XLVII - Religion and the Military

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Twelve is titled Devout Observances.

It’s easy to get kind of lost in all the apparent side-topics Veblen discusses in this chapter but just remember that religion, sports, gambling, military, etc. are all occupations that Veblen has placed firmly in the camp of the leisure class. Indeed, the Queen of England holds many honorary military titles  and is also 'Defender of the Faith and Supreme Governor of the Church of England.'

In an earlier post we touched on the military style of some young peoples’ organisations promoting religion and sports.  Veblen was also concerned about the military leanings of these organisations.  If you read about the beginnings of the Boys’Brigade here in Britain, the military background is obvious. 

Veblen reminds us of his earlier explanations of priest, ie leaders of religious services, in the role of vicarious leisure and vicarious consumption.  He also says there is a war-like facet of some religious observances.    
“…in characterizing the divinity and his relations to the process of human life, speakers and writers are still able to make effective use of similes borrowed from the vocabulary of war and of the predatory manner of life, as well as of locutions which involve an invidious comparison.”

I must admit, this hymn sounds pretty military to me:

“Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord: He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored; He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword; His truth is marching on.” 

Have you ever noticed this link between religious and military thinking? 

Friday, 5 July 2013

Part XLVI - A Different Twist on Holidays

This is a series about a book, Theory of the Leisure Class, written by American economist Thorstein Veblen and published in 1899.   Chapter Twelve is titled Devout Observances.

In economic theory, according to Veblen, sacred holidays are a period of vicarious leisure performed in the name of a divinity or saint.  The prohibition from all useful human effort on these days is to increase the good reputation of said divinity or saint.  In the case of fast-days, compulsory abstinence includes consumption that would contribute to the comfort or ‘fullness of life’ of the consumer.  He says
“Un saint qu’on ne chôme pas [a saint that is not idle - or perhaps just one that doesn't have their own holiday?] is indeed a saint fallen on evil days.”

Veblen points out that even secular holidays ‘shade off’ from those of a religious nature.  They tend to be marked by the birthdays of ‘kings and great men who have been in some measure canonized’ or to add to the good repute of some notable event or act, or to aid some striking fact whose good fame is in need of repair, eg Labor Day.  

I’d never given much thought to Labor Day until a friend from Slovakia remarked about how touchy people were about May Day.  It was a revelation to me that this ancient spring festival is also International Workers’ Day.