The Gentleman does not swagger

As a small boy of five years, I was sometimes taken by my mother along with her to a nearby grocer’s shop. While she was buying the things, I looked at the jars and tins in which the grocers then kept their goods: tea, sugar and so on. I could read, and I noticed that everything in the shop was very good. Finest Demerara Sugar, Choice Darjeeling Tea, Selected Brazilian Coffee Beans., and so on. I did not know what Demerara or Darjeeling was, but I wondered what happened to the sugar and tea which was not so fine, or to the beans which were not selected. I had seen in one of my father’s books a picture of the Greek Judge of the Dead; his name was Rhadamanthus, and he has a face like an iron mask, stern and unrelenting. (Many years later in Japan, when I saw a painting of Emma-O, I remember thinking: That’s him!).

Anyway I had this child’s fantasy of the coffee beans passing before someone like Rhadamanthus, who simply threw out many of them, leaving only the best to come to our local grocer’s shop. I asked my mother once, `How are the beans selected, and what happens to the others?’ My mother had three small boys, and was used to answering our questions. She said: `Oh I supposed some of them are the wrong shape or colour, and then they are sold very cheap, or given away.’ Then she gave a tiny smile, and went on, `But I don’t think there would be many of those, Trevor.’ She used my name, which she did when she wanted me to remember something. And I did remember this, a first little warning not to believe everything which business people say.

The incident must have impressed me, because several years later it came to my mind when there was an argument about judging a candidate by appearance. One senior businessman said: `If his tie is not properly in the centre, I don’t consider him further. If he is careless with his tie before an important interview, he will be careless with everything. He will always give a bad impression.” I thought this ridiculous, but I came to realize that he was speaking of the real world of business. I suddenly thought of selecting the coffee beans by their colour or shape, though the true test is how they taste.

But as a matter of fact, as a young man I had the experience of being `not selected’ just because I was not of the expected colour and shape. Or at least, so it appeared at the time.

The experiences were particularly clear because in my first twenty years, I radically changed my outer appearance, my colour and shape so to speak. My father was a brilliant violinist, and when he saw that I had a talent for music, he arranged piano lessons for me with first-rate teachers. Up to the age of fifteen I was mad on music: I practised for the teacher an hour each day, and then played for myself probably another couple of hours. I took no exercise and had no physique. My health was bad, and I even wore glasses at that time. I wanted to become a professional pianist. My father, however, forbade this. `Music is a wonderful hobby (he said) but a terrible profession.’ I know now that he was right, but at the time I was really furious. I had played (as one of a sextet) a couple of times on the radio, and had a 15-year old’s fantasy of a brilliant career. That prospect was now dead: one has to begin intensive training when young.

Blazing with anger, I gave up the piano completely, and went into an opposite field. Athletics; then I discovered Judo, just beginning in the West. I trained with great determination, building up a good physique and technical skill. I suppose the smouldering anger gave me unusual one-pointedness. By the time I was nineteen I had developed a strong physique, clear and shining skin; I dressed like a sportsman – sports jacket and grey flannel trousers. So I suppose I can say that I looked the part.

I was rather pleased about the complete change I had made, and it was some time before I realized that there was another side to it. People did admire my out-of-doors look, and I got some compliments about that. But I slowly came to see that when I met new people, they often seemed to assume that I was a bit of a fool. My opinion was not sought, or even listened to, on matters intellectual, aesthetic, or even matters of common-sense. At first I thought it must be some sort of joke, but soon I saw that some of them really did think I was a fool.

It came out clearly, in so many words in fact, in one incident. A friend had invited me to go with him to a students’ party at the spacious home of one of them. He introduced me, but was almost immediately called away for an hour or so, leaving me among a crowd of students whom I did not know. However I mixed in with them and the party went fairly well. Then the host, who liked to think he had musical tastes, announced that he would play to us a newly issued record of a famous pianist, Rubinstein playing some short pieces. Some were extremely difficult, but others quite manageable. In fact, in my music days, I had myself learnt to play one of these, a Seguidillas dance by the Spanish composer Albeniz. I still remembered a couple of remarks which he had made about Albeniz and this Seguidillas. So during the little discussion that followed the record, I repeated them, though as my own opinion of course. I wanted to impress.

However, the student host happened to hear it, and instead of being impressed, he burst out laughing. `What do you know about music? How can you say anything about that piece?’ he shouted. I was annoyed, and snapped back; `Well, I can play it, so why shouldn’t I say something about it? You talk about it – well, can you play it?’Now he was annoyed. `You can play it? There’s a piano in the next room,’ he said menacingly. `Shall we test you?’ – this with a triumphant grin.

He was taken aback when I said: `All right. Care to have a bet on it? Will you bet five shillings that I can’t play it?’ (Five shillings then was quite a bit of money for a student: it could buy three full meals at a cheap restaurant.) He stared with slightly puzzled contempt: `Done! You have never played anything in your life but Rugby.’

By now most of the other students were gathering round: they love this sort of confrontation. He escorted me to the next room, saying sarcastically: `Gangway for the Rugby Rubinstein!’ To revenge myself I fussed about adjusting the stool, and then stroked the keys without sounding them, while they all watched with amusement, waiting for me to collapse and admit I could not play a note.

Then I began. Now the Seguidillas is mostly on the black keys, which makes it look difficult, and it has an introduction which though in fact relatively easy, sounds like a cascade of diamonds. Though I had not played for four years, I managed to dash this off, and get through the first short section. Then I stopped, turned round on the stool, and held out my hand. He looked thunderstruck, and quietly paid up. Then he said: `Well, I’ve seen a wonder.’ At first I took it as a compliment, an admission that he had been quite wrong. But that would not have been a `wonder’. No, he still thought I was a crude Rugby player, but – amazingly – one who could play the piano. He had not changed his opinion about sportsmen at all.

Although I had scored at the time, it made me think, and later there was another exchange. Near the Budokwai Judo club (founded in 1918, the first in Europe) I was waiting for a friend. There was a shop which sold paintings and reproductions; on the summer afternoon, the old proprietor put out some paintings outside the shop on racks for passers-by to see. That day there were some abstract paintings. With nothing to do, I strolled over, hands in pockets, and looked at them. The old man was pottering about. Nodding dismissively at the abstracts, I said: `These seem pointless. What do they represent?’ He had a good look at me, and replied gently: `You have dreams, Sir …….. I suppose?’ I got the irony of his calling a much younger man `Sir’, and then the implication of his last two words `I suppose?’: perhaps even a splendid animal might be intelligent enough to have dreams. I walked away thoughtfully.

I suddenly came to realize that the adverse judgement against sportsmen comes not from our appearance but from our behaviour. It is our unconscious or conscious arrogance of the strong animal (as he rightly implied) that is stupid, because it relates only to the body, a small part of the human being.

The final case was in a rather dimly lit corridor in a big department store where I saw a well-built man walking towards me who looked somehow a bit aggressive. I automatically prepared myself for a confrontation, and he seemed to be doing the same. As we came up, I found it was my reflection in a mirror.

After this, I radically altered my behaviour. I no longer walked or waited with my hands in my pockets. I did not roll my shoulders, or stare directly. Indoors I kept my voice down and did not bluntly contradict people.

Now their attitude too changed. My opinions were now treated like those of anyone else, and not written off. They had down-graded me not because of my physique and healthy look, but because of the unconscious arrogance. I saw the truth of the maxim:

The Gentleman does not swagger.