Dennis Munday – Paignton – 1966
In the long history of human civilisation, very few interesting things have ever resulted from the near mandatory work Christmas lunch. At one end of the spectrum lie destroyed careers and relationships, and at the other, thumping headaches, empty wallets and food poisoning. For me, the work Christmas lunch of 2019 may just have been an exception.
Over an otherwise unremarkable afternoon, alcohol-assisted conversation alighted on the thorny and normally polarising topics of personal styling, food and music. It soon became clear that my view on what good looks, tastes and sounds like was something of an outlier at the table. On the evidence of my assured and unnecessarily strident wine-induced opinioneering, it also seemed that my opinions were far more important to me than my colleagues’ were to them.
What began as a discussion soon evolved into a series of quick-fire stylistic questions posed of me by my table mates, “Pink suit, right or wrong?”. Many of the questions (like the one about the pink suit) didn’t really need an answer, but others were on the face of it more marginal calls. Not for me. The aesthetic advice just kept on flowing. As if channelling some gobby, dogmatic higher power, I fired off dozens of sartorial, gastronomic and musical proclamations like some kind of cultural Gatling gun. One after the other they came, each supported by an unnecessarily complex rationale. I noticed it, and I think it’s fair to say my colleagues noticed it. They were clearly amused and just a little taken aback. It wasn’t lost on me that their laughter was at times more of the at me rather than the with me variety. For a couple of hours, I drunkenly walked the very fine line between amusing my lunch companions and bemusing them. That didn’t matter one bit. I was on fire. To all intents and purposes, I was unstoppable. I loved every bloody second.
I’m certain we all enjoyed the conversation that afternoon, and as my head cleared on the last train home several hours later, I reflected on this brief interlude. Why were the answers to these questions so easy for me, and why did I feel the need to find them at all? I concluded that there was something quite revealing buried deep within this aesthetic pub quiz. The discovery of an objective truth every bit as binary as that present in physics and morality. Beauty may not always be in the eye of the beholder. Some things might be beautiful simply because they are beautiful. What excited me was that within the small circle of very bright colleagues assembled that lunchtime, only I appeared able to perceive it.
Over the following days, I questioned myself further as to how and why this might be. Nurture rather than nature was my generous benefactor. I wasn’t born with the ability to distinguish beauty from the beast. To a great extent, it seems I’ve learned it. Not by relentless study either, but through a passive process of absorption. The only contribution I made was in having the wisdom to choose in 1979 to attach my then teenage self to a subcultural movement. Modernism. My heightened discernment is the product of a forty-year affiliation with Mod, and the influence of what has become a fascinating, multi-layered and increasingly sophisticated way of engaging with the world around us.
Proper – A Modernist Guide to Impeccable Taste explores the prehistoric origins of heightened discernment and its more recent custodians in the modern age. By analysing in detail a few specific examples from nature, design and popular culture, the book teases out what it is that makes one thing beautiful in this context and another less so.
Like any subculture, Mod developed its own identifiable style and symbolism over the years. This book isn’t about that. The purpose isn’t to showcase the music, clothing or cinema beloved of Mods. That would fundamentally miss the point. Instead, through a series of short essays, lists and observations Proper applies core Mod thinking, and its sensitivity to both historical and contemporary aesthetics, to a range of topics from vegetables to Volkswagens. Some loosely connected with Mod, others not so much. The aim is to learn how to appreciate things like a Mod, not how to be one. Beauty can be found everywhere. Through Modernist eyes, this book aims to show us where to look.