I once had a colleague who was able to bring the most feral of pupils instantly into line, without so much as a raised eyebrow. No one knew how he did it. It was generally agreed on the staff that Mr J- had something – but no one could say what. In many ways he appeared just an ordinary type, quietly spoken, though he did have piercing blue eyes. I watched him with pupils on many occasions, and I still could not figure out how he brought instant docility over every single one. He never raised his voice; he was always unflappably calm, yet alongside the laid-back approach, there was a certain intensity. He certainly had no obvious ‘trick’ or ‘side’ to him – and yet it seemed to work every time. The staff joke was that he was probably unspeakably threatening when no one else was watching; we couldn’t think of anything else that enabled him to have the effect he did.
It seemed that the pupils noticed too – the matter arose from time to time – and it was generally accepted that you didn’t mess Mr J. around, though again no one knew quite why.
When questioned, he gave nothing away. Talking to Mr J- was a somewhat hypnotic experience, but while he didn’t deny the situation, it was never entirely clear whether he realised or understood it fully himself. Maybe that slight air of mystery was part of the secret – but perhaps in reality he was as puzzled as the rest. There was somehow something about this apparently ordinary guy that I can only call Charisma.
I can only think of maybe two or three people whom I have known who had it. One was a former university friend, in whose company life somehow took on an extra shine. In some ways he was not even a particularly nice person, certainly something of an egotist. And yet it worked perfectly. It helped when he landed a plum job in Lausanne, which enabled him to have a lifestyle that he felt appropriate – and yet he somehow managed to work the same trick on the year we shared together in a student digs in a rather mundane British Midlands city. No matter how ordinary the day, somehow it gained extra vitality when J- was around. We both had temporary work after university – but while I was working as a hospital porter, J- somehow landed a job in one of the city’s smarter jewellers…
J- could on occasions be infuriating, and one was often left trailing in his wake, and yet my wife noticed the same thing when they met, as it seems did the many women he captivated, even though he didn’t always treat them well. The last time I heard, he was on his third wife.
At university J- had not been popular, indeed something of a figure for mockery – but I suspect that even some of that was jealousy. He had what I considered a good sense of style; he was his own man – and he carried it off beautifully. He tended towards classic style, had a great sense of propriety, and eschewed the froth of popular fads; yet he was resolutely modern. Indeed, charismatics somehow have a golden touch: like me, J- was also a railway enthusiast – yet there was never a hint of the usual stereotype to be seen. Once again, he set his own terms. I suspect that it was this sense of self-belief, which seemed to be something of a family trait, that was part of the secret: living life on one’s own terms – but still doing it well.
J- and I have not spoken for many years, yet he somehow remains a significant influence on how I live. But once again, J- himself rarely showed much self-awareness of what he had, or how it worked.
Today, I struggle to think of anyone I know who is in that league. That’s no offence to the many good people I know – and in any case I would not want to single out individuals – because I suspect that most of us will only ever encounter a few such individuals in their lifetime; the rest of us are left to trail in their wake. Sometimes it only takes a fleeting instant to identify charisma: I was once briefly in the same room as Nelson Mandela – and was once again left with a strong impression of someone who had some kind of rare personal magnetism. Sadly one is far more often left with an impression of the lack of it, even amongst those in society whose positions might require otherwise: Charisma (and the lack of it) is no respecter of rank.
I’m aware that I have only described charismatic males – which is not to imply that there have been no similar females – just that it is in some ways all the harder quality for a heterosexual to discuss in the opposite sex, thanks to all the other issues that can compound the matter! But the allure of charisma is something entirely different from sexual attraction.
More recently, I have been pondering whether it is only people who have charisma, or whether certain places are somehow charmed too. It is something that seems to be in many peoples’ minds at present, in the case of the British most notably with respect to various bits of the continent that we cannot easily visit at present. Interestingly – sadly – there seems to be much less of the same feeling for our own country.
In my own experience, the best example is indeed the Swiss Riviera – the side of Lake Geneva, where J- lived. Even when I go there these days, it somehow strikes me as being in possession of something that makes you regret that you have to live anywhere else. It is a kind of self-possession, but clearly not the product of a single masterplan, more the happy product of natural blessing and its having capitalised on that. Certainly not anything that in any way rubs you up the wrong way or makes you feel excluded. Despite its wealth and the many celebrities who live there, there are plenty of ordinary folk who were just blessed with having been born on the Lake’s shores. Strangely, the French shore of the Lake just doesn’t have it. Wistfully glancing through the websites of hotels in Morges, my favourite small town on The Lake the other day, I was struck by the same sense of something, that one just doesn’t get looking at hotels in Manchester – or even (perhaps a better parallel) somewhere like Bournemouth or Torquay.
Certain places in Italy seem to have ‘it’ too. Not necessarily the obvious ones, but often less-known places. Bologna is one example – but so is the smaller town of Cremona, and the even smaller one of Barga. It would be tempting to dismiss this as ‘just Italy’ – but I have equally seen plenty of places in that country that don’t have it, too. And it is also to be found, albeit perhaps less frequently, in some of the less obvious candidate countries. It seems to be a quality that transcends individual cultures.
Then there are the individual premises that just seem to ‘work’ – individual shops, cafes and the like that somehow have hit a sweet-spot where others didn’t. Sometimes they depend on capturing the zeitgeist, but the best become lasting institutions.
Oddly, it is sometimes possible to identify specific “ingredients” that sweep one up: and yet somehow one still fails to capture the sum of the parts and attempting to recreate (dare I say “copy”) it is doomed to failure. When it comes to places, lakesides seem to be one of the key ingredients of a charismatic place: the same goes for those in Italy and elsewhere. Even the few big lakes in the UK make a stab at it, though they mostly fail: too self-conscious again, to do it properly.
I’m not sure what the rest of us can do about it. There must be something about those places and people that make them what they are. And yet I wonder whether it is even any more than chance. I guess the whole nature of Sprezzatura is that sense of effortless style that can somehow put an everyday encounter onto another plane – and yet I wonder whether it is actually any more than a happy accident. By no means all of those who attempt Sprezzatura pull it off; in fact perhaps only a few do. In recent years, the rise of Pitti Uomo Peacocks has shown that Sprezzatura overdone rapidly just degenerates into vanity, and loses its appeal. Maybe the whole thing about charisma is that it is unconscious. As soon as you try to have it, or become aware that others think you do, then you instantly lose it. Because the instant killer for charisma is trying too hard.
I think this is where Britain fails. The majority of people in the U.K. seem content to live down-beat existences. Most homes seem to be little more than spaces where people exist; most food for most people is still just fuel – and while I saw a comment some days ago to the effect that the great effect of lock-down is that “nobody had to think about what they wear any more” I must admit that I laboured under the belief that that was, in any case, the norm in this country of shabby dressers. If what I encounter on the streets passes for what this nation considers to be good wear, then I despair…
Where in Britain it is otherwise, we tend to go to the other extreme and try too hard. That is the problem with the smarter residences, shops and eateries: they are far too self-consciously trying to be smart – and as I said, that is pretty much enough to guarantee they fail. Besides, smartness in Britain often carries too many class connotations of exclusivity to be truly charming – and is regrettably why too many people seem to do it. I struggle to think of much true charisma in Britain; even where one might have expected to find it, it is too often absent. Chelsea and Notting Hill are, at the end of the day, just more parts of over-built London, at least unless you have to odd billion or two to splash around. Same bad roads, same poor air.
The problem with smartness in Britain is that it is not the norm – and one feels that it is only done for reasons of snobbery or over-charging. Too often, one senses that noses will be looked down on entering such places without a Rolex and an Amex Platinum. Which is definitely not part of charisma; quite the opposite.
The difficulty here is that real charisma exists purely on its own intrinsic terms. The moment it is done to impress, to make money, or just for show, it degenerates into mere pretentiousness, even churlish one-upmanship. People and places that are truly charismatic carry on doing it even when no one is looking – for they are just being what they are. This may also explain how very ordinary things can be charismatic: a coffee served in a stylish cup is, to my mind, infinitely more appealing than the same coffee served in a chipped mug; all the better if it is properly made, rather than instant blend (though I suspect a true charismatic would get away with serving the latter…) But as soon as you know it is just being done for show, it too is ruined.
I don’t know what we mere mortals can do. Perhaps the answer is nothing, except perhaps bathe in reflected glory. The moment we try, by definition, we will fail. And yet, the wisdom of Sprezzatura also knows that the nonchalance requires (unseen) work. It is a fact that those stylish places need to be maintained; decisions need to be made about how things are done there. The same goes for individual lifestyles: given that we are not really talking about the financial constraints here, people make decisions about how they do things, some do one way, others the opposite. Often in Britain, the default seems to be downbeat, as though everyday life just isn’t worth it – and then people vainly try to dress things up for ‘special occasions’ – and all too often end up just looking crass. Perhaps they should try looking at the whole of life as a special occasion and stop worrying about whether anyone is watching or not.
On the other hand, if it remains true that real charisma is effortless and unconscious, does this really mean that the rest of us can’t work at our own? Ultimately it depends on attitude, and what perhaps puts many people off is the suspicion that charisma is egotism. While that can be the case (self-confidence can be beguiling), I think the words of Michael Bywater are significant: he dismissed it by saying that in effect it is a courtesy to others: a sign that you consider people and life – others, as well as yourself – worth the effort.
Here we have again the contradiction, that charisma just is what it is – and yet it is largely experienced by others. Maybe it is simply impossible for people to experience their own charisma – which may make you question why bother – and perhaps the whole construct in the first place. The same with places: while they exist on their own terms, you come away somehow feeling that they have done you a good turn, but you can still wonder whether life there would really be as good as it seems.
Yet that seems like a perfectly legitimate and affirmative worldview to me, one that says that any life can be made charming, if only you take the trouble. The same goes for charismatic places: it ought to be possible for charming places to exist anywhere – if only we make them so. There are plenty of humdrum places that have been given a lift; what is less certain is how well conscious effort works, and whether it successfully takes on its own life in the longer term.
In the end, it is perhaps just a mindset that makes the difference. And as for me, the very fact that I feel the need to ponder and write these things probably means that I’ve lost before I’ve begun…