Some time ago, my wife and I decided to upgrade the internal doors in our apartment. The advice about getting floors, doors, walls and windows right being the key to a good interior is, in my experience correct – and this was the last element in need of attention.
We replaced the inherited developer-standard panelled fake-Victorian moulded hardboard delights with some walnut-veneered doors in a plain finish. True to the principles of modernism, the beautiful colour and grain of the wood is all the ‘decoration’ needed. We also bought some brushed-steel bar handles which we felt would complement the richness of the wood very well. In short, while we hardly went for de luxe, we took the trouble to choose properly.
Unfortunately, over the following two years, the handles first sagged from the horizontal and then gradually pulled loose – and eventually one came away in my hand. ‘Proper’ comes in many shapes and forms, and it is surprisingly disconcerting to use a loose and saggy handle on a door. And I mean away: not just the handle from its spindle, but the entire mounting just pulled right out of the woodwork.
Investigation revealed that there were two options for mounting the handles: one consisted of holes for two bolts that would pass right through the mountings and door, linking them on either side and clamping everything solid when the nuts were tightened. The other was four screw-holes for fixing into the timber. In both cases, grub screws tightened the handles onto the spindle, providing secondary securing.
When I removed the cover, it turned out that the second method had been used – only instead of four screws, each door had only two – and in some cases just one screw holding the handle in place. Over two years, a little slack on the spindle had simply allowed the whole thing to pull loose. We suspected (correctly) that the doors were also just board beneath the veneer – but the holes for the handle mechanisms had been made in such a way that many of the screws also had little more than fresh air on which to purchase. Pulling the handle out had left it with nothing whatsoever.
A programme of re-working has just been completed, whereby the handles were secured using the first, mechanically-superior method, and we now have doors whose handles are both satisfyingly firm to the grip, and which won’t risk leaving someone stranded inside the bathroom.
Call me obsessive if you will – but all I am discussing here, really, is doing things properly. I’m very tempted to say that you would never find this problem in Switzerland, but then I am clearly biased. The fact remains, though, that I admire that country largely because of its culture of doing things properly. I have only once ever encountered a Swiss interior that might have been called shoddy – and that was because it clearly had not been updated by the elderly owner in several decades.
‘Properly’ is, however a difficult concept. It implies judgement against some kind of benchmark, and it is something that is also an occupational hazard for a teacher, whose very existence is to some extent predicated on assessing how other people’s efforts compare against an arbitrary set of standards. It can make one very judgmental.
I am not so dogmatic as to insist that my personal standards are in any way absolute, though they are often strongly-felt. To begin with, the guy who originally fitted those handles presumably had a set of criteria of his own. It just wasn’t mine. He was probably more concerned with time being money and getting home a little earlier that evening. The handle surviving for long enough to blunt any dissatisfaction of mine with his work when it eventually failed might also have been in the mix somewhere.
And yet the concept is a powerful one. It is not difficult to find a fair amount of consensus amongst the aficionados of, say, door furniture as to what constitutes Proper. The same can perhaps even be said when it comes to much more difficult matters such as bringing up and educating children. We might use it yet again when looking at the workings of the Law, Medicine, engineering, running a transport system or a government, and civil society more generally. Somewhere in the fog of personal interpretation there seems to lie a core of reasonably widely-shared values.
Slowly, however, these things do also evolve – and can certainly weaken – over time, and a disconcerting by-product of growing older appears to be the way the goalposts move without one noticing. Some of what I consider Proper seems now to be out of date.
I was struck by this while reading Richard Goodwin’s article in last week’s Observer about the demise of formal dressing for work. Like Goodwin, I appreciate ‘proper’ mens’ tailoring. I am not a luddite who yearns for some previous era, but for me looking smart is a pleasure in its own right quite apart from any signals I might want to send about my credibility – and, as Michael Bywater once observed, it is also a courtesy to others in the effort one takes both to delight their eye and to present oneself in a way that says you take your interactions with others seriously. Not having worked formally for several years, I still mourn the lack of openings for occasionally sporting a nice suit and tie. Even the traditional shirt and jacket seems to raise an eyebrow these days.
There are however, two inescapable truths in here. One is that my ability to do what I think is proper is constrained to some extent by the expectations of others. My efforts to dress well may in reality pass them by completely – and even worse, may simply send the (I hope incorrect) message that I am just an outdated old geezer. Maintaining what I consider ‘proper’ standards risks making me stand out for the wrong kind of reasons.
The second is that there is no way in which other senses of Proper (which I suppose I had really better call Propriety, although that in my mind has subtly different connotations) are in objective terms any less acceptable than my own. Ultimately the meaning that we attach to the word derives entirely from personal expectations and cultural norms. The same extends to matters like one’s use of written or spoken language, where propriety still in many countries depends on conformity to a predefined norm, whether that be the Queen’s English or the pronouncements of the Académie Franҫaise, to the ridicule of certain regional dialects.
The more one ponders this matter, the more perplexing it becomes. One can extend the notion even further, to matters of social groups. Traditional matters of Class in Britain depended on one’s adherence to a particular set of behaviours by which one could be seen to belong or otherwise – but which were very different from one group to another. Ejection from such groups depended to a large extent on one transgressing notions of ‘proper’ behaviour. (I am aware of the word used pejoratively to criticise someone as stuffy).
Wherever you go, the same thing crops up. Even in my arcane (to English eyes) field of Irish traditional music, much is made of playing ‘properly’ – even though doing so is often enough to make a classically trained musician tear their hair – and it still relies on a set of ultimately arbitrary norms. Yet quite far-reaching judgements are sometimes made about the standards of ‘proper’ that one’s fellow musicians personally express.
We might go further still by considering whether those expectations are even reasonable in the first place. In music, standards might reasonably differ between professional and amateur musicians, not to mention the opportunity one has had for formal training, or one’s ability to have purchased a high-quality instrument (judgements about which are, themselves, dictated why what is deemed to be ‘proper’…)
And yet, I can’t help but feel that there is some underlying truth that goes beyond personal differences or cultural norms. The most obvious is that a door handle which is not properly fixed is sooner or later going to present a practical problem. It may be that the musician who has not learned ‘proper’ technique will eventually find themselves limited by poor habits. In those senses, ‘proper’ is to some extent defined by the collective consciousness of overcoming past difficulties. When it comes to the way that door handle feels, maybe that sense of solidity that I wanted was subconsciously determined by my need for confidence that the handle would function well. The same might go for a firm handshake – or none at all. It is somehow about gravitas.
It becomes a lot more difficult in matters of aesthetics, taste and personal behaviour. But perhaps underlying even these is a ‘truth’ that certain behaviours make for greater confidence between and within individuals that are somehow connected to a desire for certainty or security. One of the good things about being in Switzerland is the sense, from all that Properness, that things are generally well with the world. Even where the avant-garde is embraced, the underlying principles of confidence are maintained. And while that may on occasions be illusory, on a day-to-day basis, I think it is quite important for our mental well-being.
When it comes to matters like speech or dress, as Richard Goodwin suggests, maybe our tendency to opt for a rather superficial ‘comfort’ betrays a lack of willingness to make the effort required to achieve anything more demanding. And in any case, comfort is a state of mind, not dress – even without the problem that dressing down can impose its own tyranny on those who would prefer things otherwise.
The sense of insecurity that a loose and wobbly door handle can create is perhaps more of a common and significant experience than my fitter understood – and one that he might have done well to think about, as I am now less inclined to employ him again. I am no apologist for maintaining the stuffy status quo just for the sake of it, but perhaps more thought ought to be going into the underlying values which various courses of behaviour transmit, because throwing the baby of long-established truths out with the bathwater of redundant propriety really is no better.
A telling footnote to the door handle episode was the difficulty that I had in finding bolts to fit. I visited five different local outlets, where I was told that such things were not obtainable “because no one ever bothers to do it like that”. In the end I had to order them online, and they turned out to have been imported. So much for such things not being culturally-defined.