Howard Jacobson: First the Mobot, then Kate Moss. It's like we snatched defeat from the jaws of victory

The women athletes beat the men (literally) hands down in the matter of modesty and reserve

Share
Related Topics

Remember Norman Hackforth, accompanist to Noël Coward and the "mystery voice" of Twenty Questions, the BBC radio quiz which kept the likes of me entertained from about the age of five until... well, I would say until the age of now if only the programme were still being broadcast.

It was Hackforth's job to whisper, as though from the cellarage, like the ghost of Hamlet's father, the word or object which the panellists had to guess. I thought of him the other day when I was listening to a more recent BBC radio programme, Amanda Vickery's History of Masculinity – a subject in which I retain some residual interest. Discussing Baldassare Castiglione's The Book of the Courtier, Professor Vickery introduced a word with which not every listener would have been familiar, and in my mind's ear I suddenly heard Norman Hackforth speaking it, as though it were a secret between him and the nation – "And the next word is sprezzatura".

The brilliant Anona Winn, with whom, aged five, I was in love, would of course have guessed it immediately. "Is it sprezzatura?" she'd have asked out of the blue, while Gilbert Harding was still sorting out the differences between animal, vegetable and mineral. Ah, the golden age of radio!

Forgive the nostalgia, but it is a proper accompaniment to my subject which is manly grace, the means of keeping or acquiring that quality which Castiglione calls sprezzatura, meaning nonchalance, not to be confused with spazzatura, meaning trash. Translate sprezzatura into "cool" and the astute reader won't need me to point out how much is lost. Musicality is part of it, the abundance of vowels suggesting all the time in the world, a certain measured stateliness of movement enjoyed for its own sake, free of ostentation or effort.

While "cool" thinks it's on a similar errand, in fact it evokes true effortlessness neither in the saying nor the performance. Cool is now, and probably always was, so mortgaged to style and showing-off that it defeats its own purpose, as witness, in ordinary life, the wearing of sunglasses when the sun don't shine and, in extraordinary life, the behaviour of those Olympian alpha males who went into the sporting equivalent of St Vitus' Dance whenever they saw a camera looking their way.

Make no mistake, Castiglione does not seek to promote soft manners at the expense of athleticism or bravery. "I am of opinion that the principal and true profession of the Courtier ought to be that of arms," he has his friend Ludovico da Canossa advise, "and to be known among others as bold and stern." But, while to be bold and stern in the face of the enemy is essential, let him "in every other place, [be] gentle, modest, reserved, above all things avoiding ostentation and that impudent self-praise by which men ever excite hatred and disgust in all who hear them".

It should surprise no one that Usain Bolt, a magnificent and still young athlete with an audience to please, a career to bolster and merchandise to sell, should play the braggart, fill his mouth with "impudent" hosannas to himself, steal the limelight from fellow gold medallists, and seek every opportunity to be photographed pulling faces and striking poses likely to delight, and then to be emulated by, pre-adolescent boys; but that grown men and women paid by the BBC to commentate on what they see should describe such mental commotion as "cool" only reminds one of how far the corporation has sunk, when it comes to vocabulary and discernment, since the days of Norman Hackforth and Anona Winn.

It was furthermore sad, I thought, to see Mo Farah, who more nearly approximates to Castiglione's ideal – bold but gentle, strong but modest – feeling he had to find some matching body-logo of his own to ensure notice. How much the more susceptible, then, will boys be who have no prowess yet to recommend them other than the powerful longing to proclaim their cool on Twitter?

Unburdened by any obligation to the neuroticism of macho, the women athletes, winners and losers, beat the men hands down (literally) in the matter of modesty and reserve. The most touchingly dignified moment of the 2012 Olympics for me came when Christine Ohuruogu shrugged off the banal consolations of her pestiferously upbeat interviewer, lowered her eyes, and admitted she was "heart-broken" to lose her title. Just that. Heart-broken. There was nothing more to say.

Victoria Pendleton, too, in trying circumstances – I'd have been screaming "Cheat!" in that sprint final myself – inclined her head to second best. She is reported as wanting to swap heroism for the glamour of Strictly Come Dancing. I'm sure she'd be lovely to watch, but may she change her mind.

Legacy, Victoria. Remember inspiring a generation. I know, I know, legacy went out of the window ere the funeral baked meats for the Games were cold, with a closing ceremony honouring the very culture of celebrity for celebrity's sake which everyone had hoped aloud the grandeur of the Games would for a while at least, if not once and for all, eclipse.

Here was true effort, we were saying; here was skill, absorption, endeavour, a dedication and seriousness that would surely show our sad, star-struck young the vacuity of the unearned fame they craved, winkle them out of their beds of daydreams, get them into kayaks or on to taekwondo mats, demonstrate not just the virtue of exercise but the pleasure, the joy, of commanding something other than the wandering attention of those entrepreneurs of spazzatura who grow fat on their fantasies.

And so what do we do? We wheel out Kate Moss, Naomi Campbell and Posh Spice. The languid, the petulant, the sulky. The antithesis of all we've marvelled at for a fortnight. And in a flash our memories of the pommel horse and the keirin (not that I can yet claim to understand the keirin) are trashed.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

QA/BA - Agile

£400 Per Day: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: Our client are currently seekin...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per annum: Randstad Education Luton: Early Years, KS1 & 2 Prim...

Primary Supply Teacher

£121 - £142 per day: Randstad Education Luton: Primary supply teacher Hertford...

KS1 & KS2 Teacher

£115 - £130 per day: Randstad Education Luton: We are looking for infants and...

Day In a Page

Read Next
 

Ebola virus in the US: How did the disease ever spread this far?

Sophie Harman
 

The most common question I am asked is 'How do I become a YouTuber?' This is my reply

Jim Chapman
Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

The children orphaned by Ebola...

... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

Are censors pandering to homophobia?

US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
The magic of roundabouts

Lords of the rings

Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Why do we like making lists?

Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

Paris Fashion Week

Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
10 best children's nightwear

10 best children's nightwear

Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

Manchester City vs Roma

Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

Trouble on the Tyne

Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

Last chance to see...

The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

Truth behind teens' grumpiness

Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

Hacked photos: the third wave

Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?