I must have been about eight when I thought I knew what a gentleman looked like. I probably didn’t even know the word ‘gentleman’ then, and certainly lacked the capacity to understand what it meant. But there it was, the image of an archetypal gentleman towering over me in a darkened theatre as I munched on candied peanuts with my granddad, as we watched James Bond in A View To A Kill.
I didn’t grasp it then, but it must have been the tuxedo, the gadgets and the girls. The way Roger Moore’s Bond seemed to always have them at his disposal and looked so at ease flaunting one or the other. My granddad had promised me action and adventure. Little did he know that I would go home thinking about suits and (yes, even at eight!) sexy ladies. I insisted we watch the movie again the next week. And we did. He brought me to another screening, me munching away, staring at the screen, not knowing what hit me.
It was a lot for a young boy to take in. In my eight-year-old world, men were simply men. My dad was a mechanic. He loved his beer, bet on horses, and was a strict disciplinarian. My granddad worked at a restaurant. He had a day off every Thursday, and he would take me to the movies. They would almost always be an action or martial arts flick. Regular, normal men. But boy, that James Bond. So sharp, suave and well-spoken. Of a different class. His image was seared so strongly into my memory that, even decades later, it would be invoked every time I saw or heard the word ‘gentleman’.
And that word sure came up a lot as I grew up. As a teenager, people would tell me that I had better learn to be a gentleman. It would help me go far. Once, my aunt pointed to a wealthy distant cousin, who had just graduated from university, had a good job and was supposed to personify one.
The word really stuck after I started working in ‘lifestyle journalism’. Back then, the company I was with published magazines about men’s fashion, watches, cars, and all the kind of stuff that were supposed to embody masculinity at its best. And so, ‘gentleman’ started getting on heavy rotation.
At first, the word was like a friend that I could turn to whenever I was short. ‘Distinguished gentleman’, ‘dapper gentleman’, ‘astute gentleman’, ‘sporty gentleman’ – a ready and reasonably useful noun to fill in the blanks and plump up an adjective. The Bond allusions that informed me as a kid were a constant, too. It helped that James Bond’s long shadow was cast over fashion brands that had aligned themselves with the movie franchise and, with that, a constant demand for pages, which I was tasked to fill.
Meantime, more types of ‘gentlemen’ started to crowd the definition. They were there, writ large in invitations to black-tie soirees, as well as on press communiques hawking shoes, pens, timepieces, restaurants and even grooming services. A ‘gentleman’s facial’ was one of those I was sent to review. It felt good, scrubby and expensive.
In time, though, the more I conjured the ‘gentleman’ at work, the less I knew who – or what – he was. He could be George Clooney sipping a cup of Nespresso. Leonardo DiCaprio wearing a TAG Heuer watch. That chiselled model in a Brioni suit. The idea of a man who’d love that new Alfred Dunhill scent with tobacco middle notes. And yes, eventually, the seventh James Bond.
It sounds dramatic, but I’d even wrestle with the idea of the word. I became annoyed with it not only because I had used it so often, but did so to wilfully to tint its meaning. The point hit home when, no thanks to the circles that ‘lifestyle journalists’ move in, I encountered far too many men who were typical consumers of the lifestyle I was peddling, flaunting those suits, fragrances and watches, but often behaving in ways that fell short of what it means to be a gentleman.