Suave. Sophisticated. Cool. Debonair. These are just some of the words that describe other people. I know this, but in what I like to think of as a laudable refusal to accept an unpalatable truth, I do sometimes aspire to a level which could charitably be described as presentable, yet, with monotonous regularity, I fall short.
For example; Mrs J – who always looks the epitome of elegance, despite what might be described as the headwinds of association – and I once partook of pre-dinner cocktails in the Placa Reial in Barcelona. Pictured below, it is a pedestrian square just off Las Ramblas surrounded by bars and restaurants, where people go to watch the world and the jugglers, the beautiful people and the musicians.
I made a real effort. I was dressed in black, my outfit brushed so that the white cat hairs which had inexplicably but inevitably travelled with us hardly showed at all. Creases down the arms of the fresh smelling shirt; creases down the front and back of the trousers. All sharp enough to win a repartee contest. A black belt with a hint of silver in the buckle just to emphasize the very blackness of the ensemble, and shoes like shiny midnight to complete the effect. I half expected one of the entertainers to pass me a guitar and request a rendition of ‘I Walk the Line’.
We ordered a half bottle of wine and sat outside the bar, at the edge of the action. I leaned back slightly, confidently welcoming the attention which must surely have been drawn my way. And so it was that, within seconds, a bilious pigeon emptied the remains of its lunch – now white – onto my shoulder, chest and thigh. It was precision bombing. This must have been the Top Gun of Spanish pigeonry; a thought which was neither uppermost in my mind nor, at that moment, particularly comforting. The admiring stares, of which, admittedly, I did not have confirmed sightings, changed in moments to smirks, hands over mouths, nudges to companions followed by silent head-nods in my direction, and the occasional escaped snigger. I was instantly transformed into a figure of ridicule, and for a few eternal seconds, was far more interesting than any of the intentional entertainment.
Back in my familiar world, rebuked by Mother Nature herself for my temerity in thinking that I could escape, like a lifelong episode of The Prisoner, I sought the positives. And do you know what? I found them.
Why do we dress up to impress? Why do we try to act cool? Why do we attempt to appear urbane? Why, to emphasize a point, are there so many synonyms for the same thing? Why is it so important to us?
Consider some of the other species which take up Mother Nature’s time when she isn’t busy making me look a fool. Bower birds build extravagant nests trying to outdo the rest. Silverback gorillas compare the relative expanse of their silver backs. Cats stare silently at one another, only rarely resorting to the fights favoured by antlered elks. But it’s all about establishing their place in society, their ranking in the pecking order.
And there is your answer. My great-something grandfather was a sort of monkey-like creature, who, like everyone else in his pack, tried to rise up the hierarchy by whatever means were available to him. Fortunately for me he must have been successful enough at least to attract my great-something grandmother. Clothes were unlikely to have been part of granddad’s armoury, but had they been available, like feathers on a peacock’s tail, he would have used them. Our clothes are our plumage. That’s why we dress up when we sit in the Placa Reial and sip wine. It is not because we’re sophisticated, it’s actually the exact opposite, as we are displaying innate animal behaviour.
So, recognising this, the most refined among us – those of us who have come the furthest from our primitive ancestors – would regard the pigeon poop and would both wipe and laugh it off at the same time. And that’s exactly what I did.
All right it isn’t; I slunk into the toilet, dampened some toilet paper and used it to turn the deposit into a thin paste which I then clumsily managed to spread over at least twice the area it had already ruined, meaning that I spent the rest of the evening in the darkest corner of the dingiest restaurant I could find. But that’s definitely what I’ll do next time it happens. And, trust me, it will.