Friday, June 10, 2016

Everyday wear

Here are a few examples of what I wear on the bike around town. Everything is optimised for cycling and for making interactions with other people positive - plus feeling and looking good, but that's a given. Most of what I wear is off the peg and made in New Zealand by Rembrandt and Cambridge. (Ironically, none of the items I've had made for me are in my favourites list.) The hats are all Kangol 504 and the sunglasses Vuarnet 058.

The Berlusconi. Made in Italy by ManiGuy, whoever that is. It looks great in the sunshine and fantastic under artificial light. 
Rembrandt grey-blue pinstripe. I fasten both buttons while riding to prevent tearing around the buttonhole.

Petone Gypsy Fair 2013. The suit was on special - because Wellingtonians don't like colour - and had all its labels removed, but judging by the cut it's probably made by Rembrandt. The self-stripe has a pale blue pinstripe through it, which works well.
Not quite a Prince of Wales check sports coast by Cambridge. It's rather plain but fits well. I wear it a lot.
It was Bad Tie Day at the bank. Not really my thing, but wearing another bank's tie inside out was too good an opportunity to pass up. Needless to say, I didn't win but I thought the whole outfit looked great.
Grey Prince of Wales check suit by Cambridge. Tie worn loose when riding for ventilation.
Need for Tweed 2015 (with Mrs Bryant). Rembrandt jacket, Brax wool trousers, Charles Tyrwhitt shirt, tartan wool tie and 1970s Omega wristwatch.
The Berlusconi with Holland and Sherry tie (and a beautiful shirt that didn't fit.)

This stroller was once part of a suit, probably made in the late 1960s. The cloth is much heavier than you see nowadays and has a nice herringbone pattern with a red pinstripe. The trousers were cut way too low and were never comfortable, so I had them made into a waistcoat. This and the trousers were made by the late Peter Rigby, who worked for Huntsman before emigrating to New Zealand. Perfect cool weather day wear for when things veer towards costume.

Thursday, June 9, 2016

I made the local press

I was interviewed recently for a human interest story which featured in the weekend colour supplements and on Stuff. I'm chuffed that I was the lead interviewee and that the image in the print editions was flattering. I hope people find it of interest.
Credit: Maarten Holl, Fairfax Media

Wednesday, March 12, 2014

How to ride your bike to work

In New Zealand general and in Wellington in particular there is a commuter cycling boom underway. Kiwis are a sporty bunch and the tradition, such as it is, is to ride racing bikes to work, wearing tight polyester clothes upon which advertisements for various products and services are printed.

The tradition incorporates the extensive use of post-ride showers, and a change of clothes in a backpack. Commuters on race bikes are the most common breed of cyclists you'll see in urban areas. To my mind, this is a bit like driving to work in a Formula 1 racing car, with no mudguards, no storage space and sophisticated 7 speed gearbox, then crawling along in first gear getting rained on. Then you get out of your fireproof overalls, have a shower and start work.

However, this breed of racing commuters is being supplanted, thanks to the influence of groups like Frocks on Bikes, by commuters in ordinary street clothes riding sit-up commuter bikes. It's great to see people riding practical bikes, but Wellington is wet, windy and hilly and many commuter bikes are heavy and are not suited to hill climbing. I prefer the middle-ground approach of riding a lightweight sports touring bike, which is quick and nimble yet still has full mudguards and plenty of storage space. Also, I don't change clothes - I ride in what I'm going to be wearing when I reach my destination. I don't get too sweaty and stinky because I don't go hard, I wear merino wool base layers which wick sweat and don't smell and I don't ride (as a commuter) for very long distances. (If I was riding 30 Km or more to and from work I would probably take a spare shirt and treat the commute as exercise, like many Wellington commuters).

Here is a map link showing the route I take.

I am still a bit of a novelty on Wellington roads because I am one of the few people who wears a suit to work while riding a bike. Conventional wisdom suggests this is Simply Not Possible so in the interests of broadening your horizons, here are some pix of me ready to ride to work on various days over the past couple of weeks. It's late summer in Wellington and air temperatures are around 15 - 20 degrees. It rains quite a bit here no matter the season. Despite this, I seldom wear any rain protection because I work in an air conditioned office and I'm always dried out after 20 minutes at work. Being wet isn't a problem because I am still warm and comfortable. The worst thing is that the crease in my pants disappears once they get wet, but who cares. (Also, bear in mind that even a Wet Day, where it rains several times over a few hours, usually doesn't mean you'll actually get rained on - waiting a few minutes for the showers to pass means I only ever get genuinely soaked maybe twice a year).

Best of all, I'm quicker than most of the people who ride faster than me because I don't need to change clothes twice a day just to be able to get to and from work, and I can nip around the city during the day without issue.

If it's warm, I roll my jacket up and stick it in my saddlebag. If it's cold, I add a scarf and gloves. The only thing that will stop me riding to work is wind - the kind that causes flooding, knocks trees over and damages power lines. If I think I'm likely to get blown off my bike due to a gust of wind I'll walk to the station and get a train. I've done this once in the past two years.

Because I live up a big hill and because there is no easy, safe and pleasant way to ride up that hill, I stick my bike on a train when I'm coming home. I usually buy a few groceries from the supermarket at the station, like a tray or two of eggs, a bottle of wine, bread, coffee etc. It's surprising what can fit in an old saddlebag and I prefer saddlebags to riding with panniers.

Despite the compulsory bicycle helmet laws in New Zealand, I wear a hat. I am not worried about hitting my head on anything because I have 30+ years experience riding bikes in rush hour traffic and I consider myself 100% responsible for my own safety. However, I am always at risk of sunburn (koz I'm a baldie) and I like to be able to regulate my temperature by removing my hat from time to time when riding. Also, I can tilt it to block the sun when it's near the horizon, or to prevent being blinded by the lights of oncoming motorists at night. I wear Kangol 504s because they are a design classic, go with the rest of what I wear and fold up into a trouser pocket.

In short, you CAN ride to work in a suit. But make sure it's wool, otherwise you won't be comfortable. Fortunately, New Zealand produces huge amounts of high quality Merino wool and most menswear shops, like Munns on Willis St, have regular sales. A good merino wool suit can be had for about NZ$500, or half that on sale. In other words, for the price of a couple of tee shirts and a pair of jeans, you can wear Actual Clothes!

Prince of Wales check two button sports jacket, blue-grey flat fronted trousers, fine check blue cotton shirt with cutaway collar, sky blue pocket square, grey and blue Argyle socks, black monk strap shoes, black Kangol 504 hat. 
Two button chalk stripe charcoal suit, lavender shirt, black and white spotty pocket square, blue/grey cashmere scarf, grey on black hoop stripe socks, black Oxford brogues.  
Navy blue two button suit, hot pink candy stripe shirt with double cuffs, cashmere scarf, black Derby laceups.
Navy two button knit blazer, lavender shirt, pink and blue paisley pocket square, grey flat fronted flannel trousers,  hoop stripe socks, monk straps.

Monday, January 27, 2014

The Fantastical History of Professor Allen

Anyone who goes to concerts in Wellington more than once in a while must know the face of Professor Cecil Sweet Allen. Professor Allen, the Chocolate Nightingale, Human Submarine, Pearl Diver and Coral Fisher, Submerged Posing Model, Deep-Sea Monster Imitator, waterside worker and celebrity concert attender, under the Royal Acknowledgement of some crowned heads of Europe, one uncrowned one, and one half-uncrowned, is easily the most colourful figure round Wellington.

To one half of his familiars, he is the man who sweeps in with a majestical flourish to the front row of the dress circle at any good concert, dressed in his finest things — full evening dress, silk hat, satin-lined opera-cloak, white gloves and monocle, and countless medals and orders. To the other half (or perhaps they are the more numerous) he is the man who swims at the Te Aro baths all the year round, often on Saturdays, diving in and disappearing for a long time, then coming to the surface far away.

The Professor is over ten, but under a hundred (this is all the answer you will get if you ask him his age). His mother came from County Wexford in the West of Ireland. His father was a full-blooded Negro from Barbados. He was the last of 13 children, some of whom died in infancy. He does not drink and never smokes, except under water. He is slight, lithe and very fit. His hair is short, and greying. On the street he wears a black pin-stripe suit, spats, a velour hat (sometimes a pale pink felt), two-colour leather gloves, a silver chain from breast-pocket to side-pocket, and a silk scarf, sometimes a huge white one with green divers all over it. All the visible upper teeth are solid gold. As he puts it, on his printed letterhead, he is a ‘Subaquatic Scientist, Phenomenal, Fascinating, and Unique — Must be seen to be believed ’.

One way to get in touch with Professor Allen is to write care of his private box number. I decided, instead of writing, to inquire for him on the waterfront, where I understood he worked. I went at first to the Wharf Police, who were bound to know him well by sight; probably they would know where he was working that day, and I could approach him in person.

A sergeant and a constable were standing in the sun in the doorway admiring some importer’s brand-new truck. I made my business known. ‘Can you tell me,’ I asked, ‘where to find the Chocolate Nightingale — you know, the underwater swimmer.’ ‘Little Jimmy Allen?’ said the constable; and he said he would ring the Labour Foreman. The sergeant went on balancing on his heels on the doorstep in the sun. Just to make conversation, while the constable made inquiries as a result of something he had been told, I said to the sergeant: ‘He does work on the wharves, doesn’t he?’ ‘Who?’ said the sergeant. ‘The Chocolate Nightingale,’ I said. The sergeant had been concentrating on something else. ‘Oh,’ he said, with a toss of his head towards the constable at the telephone. ‘Thrush’ll find him for you.’ And he turned away and went on balancing on the edge of the step. Little Jimmy Allen wasn’t working that day, the Labour Foreman said, so I thanked Constable Thrush and left.

A couple of days later a letter arrived at the Listener office, on pale green paper, headed: ‘Under Royal Acknowledgment — Professor Allen (The Chocolate Nightingale) — Light Baritone Vocalist, Teacher of Voice Culture and Theory — Concert Programmes Arranged, Musical Numbers Prepared — Radio Speaker to the New Zealand Government.’ This had been applied with a rubber stamp, as also another heading: ‘With the compliments of Professor Allen.’ Below, under a Royal Crown, it said: ‘Professor Allen is the only showman in the world today, eating, drinking and smoking underwater against every internal and external pressure.’ The letter said that Professor Allen had heard the Listener wanted to see him, and he would be glad to give it any information that might be desired about underwater swimming. It only remained to make an appointment.

There are two main divisions in Professor Allen’s interests in matters pertaining to this world. One division includes royalty, gentry, and in general all persons of dignity and bearing. The other includes things done, seen, and imagined beneath the surface of the waters of the globe, whether oceans, harbours, standing waters, or swimming baths. lf he begins, as he did with me, on the first division, one of the first things he will tell you is that the greatest honour ever done to him in this country was done by the Duke of Gloucester before whom he had the privilege to swim.

When you have got Professor Allen to sit down, he will lay his hat and cane on the table, and peel off his gloves with meticulous care; he does not merely pull his gloves off his hands. He makes the process a little ceremony of dignity and composure, peeling each one slowly down, with a look of fastidious detachment on his face. ‘Yes,’ he says. ‘I went to a lot of trouble to see if the Duke of Gloucester would receive me, and his Chief of Staff was very nice — very nice indeed. And I swam before him, and wished him a Happy New Year, and he wrote me some very charming letters.’

The Professor opened a leather case full of letters, his ‘Royal Acknowledgments’. Letters from High Chamberlains, Lords Privy Seal, Aides-de-Camp and secretaries, mostly of painful brevity. ‘You understand they all write very short letters,’ the Professor said, handing me ‘a very nice note’ from a Lady-in-Waiting to the Duchess of Kent, thanking him for his letter. The letters were mostly acknowledgments of his expressions of loyalty and regard. There was a black-edged one from Brussels, in reply to a letter Professor Allen had written ‘when His Majesty lost Her Majesty’. It said ‘Le Roi a été touché profondément.’ There was another from the High Chamberlain at Doorn: ‘His Majesty the Kaiser permits me to send you his best thanks for your loyal thoughts.’ ‘Yes, I had some very adverse comments for communicating with the Kaiser,’ the Professor explained. ‘But of course after I meet them I always thank them for the dignity with which they receive me — I’m only a poor common man.’

He produced a letter from Count von Luckner. ‘I incurred serious disfavour for communicating with that gentleman. Of course there was no war then. But I’ve never been a soldier, so I suppose I view these things with a civilian mind. I’m an international, really.’ We finished turning the letters over. The Professor put on his gloves again and arranged his wrist-watch over the gauntlet. A misty, distant look came into his eyes. He tapped his fingers on the cover of the lettercase. ‘I do wish I could get a position somewhere, a little position of dignity, just three or four pounds a week. I don’t need much, so that I could occupy myself with dignity until such time as I can leave New Zealand. I don’t like labouring work, you know.’

 He seemed almost to have forgotten my presence. His heart was far away in some grand palace, among noble people, gold and jewels, and fine things. But, in a moment, he came back. He took out his wallet, and began to show me clippings and papers mounted on cloth. His own letterhead is unique: Under Royal Acknowledgment of — The late King George V of England, King Leopold II of Belgium, Ex-Emperor of Germany, Duchess of Kent, Duke of Gloucester King George VI of England, Duke of Windsor ‘Professor Allen — The Human Submarine, ’ etc., etc. Then follow six lines of names, the Professor being under the ‘distinguished acknowledgment’ of these persons; the list reads like the list of Irish heroes and heroines of antiquity on page 281 of James Joyce’s Ulysses:

The late Lord Jellicoe, Lord Bledisloe, Lord Galway, the late Lord Rutherford, Admiral de la Périere, Sir Douglas Mawson, Sir Thomas Sidey, Sir Michael Myers, Professor Brown, Professor Hunter; Professor Shelley, Professor von Zedlitz, Herr von Papen, Herr Bactilius, Count von Luckner; Herr von Haast, Lex Macdonald, J. E. Lovelock, Douglas Fairbanks, Yehudi Menuhin, Shion Chaskassky, Bishop Sprott… Mary Pickford, Fraulein Beinhorn, Ellas Shields, ]une Barson. 

The reader’s attention is called to the careful system of grading employed in this list. The Right Hon. M. Savage, in the full original, comes between Bishop Sprott and Mary Pickford. Down the side of the paper (which is pink, the printing red) are the following epitomes:

Demonstrating Blood Pressure and Breath Control —Submerged Posing Model — Expositions of a weird, supernatural artistic act which is wonderful, amazing, adroit, and supreme — Must be seen to be believed — In the civilised world he now stands alone.

This document naturally opened our conversations in Division II of The Professor’s interests, topics connected with the water and its denizens, the most remarkable of whom is Professor Allen himself, strange monsters of all kinds notwithstanding. He showed me clippings from the papers, reports of occasions when he had rescued watches from swimming baths, given demonstrations of underwater swimming, and so on. One, a short report of a coroner’s inquest, referred to ‘a very sad incident — I went over to Blenheim, you see, and gave a demonstration there, and most unfortunately a young boy afterwards said that he could do what I had done, and tried to imitate me. He met his death trying to do it. That was how I came to go on the air.’ The Professor flicked some dust off the table and leaned back in a pose which he later told me was ‘The Professor in a mood of nonchalance.’

‘Yes,’ he said, ‘when the boy was drowned, Mr Savage wrote to me. He asked me to go on the air to warn the people of New Zealand against the dangers of underwater swimming. I went on the air. My number was: “The Dangers of Underwater Swimming.” I was also on the air later, as Mr Cecil Sweet Allen and the title of my talk was “A Diver Amongst Monsters of the Deep.” You see, not only do I eat and drink and smoke under water, but I also do imitations of all the sea—monsters I have seen...’

Professor Allen rolled the names of strange monsters from his tongue. He leaned forward, and looked into the distance beyond my shoulder. His eyes were half-closed, and his mind again was far away from the little room we sat in. It’s when this mood comes on him that The Professor is at his best — ordinary existence here and now is transcended, he is in another world; and the chief characteristic of life in this other world is that nothing told there is a lie. His genius for the fantastical has full play and you believe, you must believe, every word he says. (Later you readily agree with him when he tells you that he never deceives the public. He may be fantastical, imaginative, he told me later, but he will never speak an untruth.)

The names of a dozen weird monsters rolled from his tongue in his cultivated, sonorous voice. ‘Ah, Professor,’ I said, ‘you're going too fast for me.’ ‘I’m sorry,’ he said very dreamily, without so much as a glance at me, ‘I didn't know you were taking it down.’ He closed his eyes, and began the list again. This time it was totally different — the baby whale, the sea snake, the devil-fish, the Javanese death-crab, the giant octopus . . .

‘And I also do what I did for the Duke of Gloucester — it’s very rare. I do imitations of the sculptures and paintings of the world’s greatest artists, under water — I do the poses and give replicas of these great works. I do The Boyhood of Raleigh — very pretty under water.’ And the Professor leapt on to his chair and sat with his arms round his knees, an innocent boyish smile on his lips. In a moment he was facing the other way — he was the Elizabethan sailor, pointing out to sea. He straightened up, and took out his wallet again. ‘My agent,’ he said, ‘has told me that this act is unique.’

He showed me the letterhead of his agent, Dave T. Meekin, who ‘Annually searches the Universe for strange humans, freaks and novelties.’ Then he found the document ‘Pose and Mien, by Professor Allen,’ which is a list of the Great Masters imitated by him under water: 

(1) I awake from Love’s Sickness to Fly, by Fraser-Grange, the English painter of the A.R.A. fame. 
(2) A Virgin Worship the Sun, by the Great Dutch Painter Van Dyck, R.A. 
(4) The Sleeping Beauty, by the world’s greatest painter Michaelangelo, R.A. 
(7) Youth’s Golden Hours, by the Austrian Sketch artist, Herr Adolf Hitler (The artist made two sets, Opus 1, Opus 2.) 
(9) The Coward of Form II, by the Scottish painter McGruer R.A. 
(20) Beware of that Woman, by the Great Greek Sculptor, Lastisus. 


One was by an unpronounceable Welsh artist. Professor Allen explained that he was also an R.A., ‘but they took it away from him afterwards; he disgraced himself.’ The sketch by Hitler, he said, he had got in Hungaria.

New Zealand Listener 26 June 1946 AA

[This amazing story was taken from The Listener's book of interviews, published in 2004. I've posted it here because there is no other copy of it on the web. Any copyright issues? Please let me know and I'll remove it. BBBB]

Friday, October 21, 2011

How to go touring

Lisa has requested that I write up something about bicycle touring, so here goes.

I will conduct this writeup in the form of a question and answer session. Soundtrack: Avishai Cohen
Q. What is cycle touring really like?
A. Imagine you're riding your bike... Yep, that's it.

Q. What sort of bike do I need?
A. Whatever you have at present is fine. If it can't take a carrier rack, tow a trailer. Choose one of the popular ones.

Q. How much stuff will I need?
A. About 3 Kg's worth. What I have in my saddlebag on my commuter bike is what I take touring, plus a sleeping bag, tent fly and mattress. Because I have so little gear, I can load up on food, antique shop bargains, books etc and still have a light bike.

Q. How much stuff will I actually take?
A. Initially, about 3-10 times as much.

Q. What are the Three Stages of Caring as regards to how much gear to take?
A. I'm glad you asked. The Three Stages of Caring are as follows. 

     1. You fret about forgetting your warm jacket, the chain breaker, your phone charger and about having the wrong sunglasses. You spend a lot of time stopped at the roadside, repacking. 
     2. You fret about the stuff you brought but didn't use - the tent, the video camera, the extra pair of long johns, the spare pair of shoes, the jeans and the books. 
     3. You just throw some stuff into a bag and ride. After day 2 you post most of it back home. 

Q. What should I wear?
A. Whatever you'd normally wear. If that doesn't sound reasonable, try smearing yourself in lard or something. After all, casual is in, right?

Just wear whatever you like and replace uncomfortable items on an ad hoc basis. I don't particularly wear helmets, but I always wear a hat koz I'm a baldie. I like Kangol cheesecutters, in a tropical weave. They let your head breathe but still retain some warmth. And the peak can be adjusted to keep the sun or car headlights out of your eyes. They're polyester, so machine washable. In the heigh of summer I'll wear a well ventilated straw trilby. The small brim won't flap around in the breeze and it won't get sucked off your head during fast descents because the ventilation holes let the air through and out.
Since you're likely to to get caught in a rain storm at some point, it's good to wear layers of something insulating, like wool or polyester. Fine merino wool is very nice. Polypropylene or polarfleece is fine, sartorial considerations aside. I like Kathmandu merino boxers to ride in. A thermal tee shirt or singlet is a good base layer. 

Okay, listen up you young-at-heart types: Cotton hoodies are no good. They catch the wind, they're bulky, they soak up water and provide no protection from cold when wet. Worse yet, they have no collar, so you lose heat from your neck and face, even with the hood up. Very poor insulation for the weight and bulk.

Wool, unlike cotton and polyester, doesn't retain odours and being in some ways a living material it is to an extent self-cleaning. What this means is you can wear the same woollen clothes day after day, whereas you'd smell (and feel) disgusting doing that with cotton and polyester. Being able to wear the same clothes all day every day is great if you're touring, because it means you don't need to take a change of clothes. This will significantly cut the amount of stuff you need to take. And pack. Or lose. 

Try a $40 merino tee shirt, with a brushed cotton bush shirt on top. It will keep the sun off your arms and neck (and now you don't need to bring as much sunscreen, choarce). For bottoms, I wear Dickies shorts. I like having my usual wallet, keys, coins, phone etc in their usual pockets. In cooler temperatures I'll wear merino pants, aka dress trousers. These are available everywhere at any price point you wish. Vintage fabrics will be heavier - match weights to temperatures. Again, keeping the sun off your legs is a good thing if it's not uncomfortably hot. Wear wool trousers with trouser clips, to keep the cuffs out of the chain. You'll find the crotch seam much more pleasant than you'd find riding in denim jeans (which also soak up water and are bulky and heavy). 

I will often wear a wool bike jersey. It's good to have the pockets at the back for food, a camera, maybe an extra bottle. But then again, with a decent pair of pants, you may not need pockets in your jersey. I rode 40 Km over the Okahukura Saddle in a pair of gray flannels, single pleat, the pockets of which contained a hanky, my phone, spare phone battery, phone charger, camera, 2 spare camera batteries and (as I discovered once I got off the bike) a very large banana I'd bought in Taumarunui. I hadn't even noticed it was there. Normal clothes are normal for a reason. They're more practical than you might think. 

I use toeclips and straps. My favourite shoes are leather dress shoes with thin rubber soles. They fit the pedals and the clips perfectly, and I can shuffle my feet around any way I like. I've tried everything else - rubber block pedals, BMX platforms, LOOKs, Times, many forms of SPD. Expensive SIDI mountain bike shoes with sprigs on them. I still find dress shoes, road pedals and toe clips with leather straps the best all-round choice for all-round riding.

Take 2-3 pairs of socks and merino boxers. Wash the off-day pair in a sink when you happen to use public toilets, or dip 'em in a river (and have a swim too!) Dry them on the bike. merino and polypropylene can also be put on directly when wet - your body heat will soon dry them out. Oh, and take a balaclava, made of merino or polypropylene. They are cheap as chips and pack down to nothing but will keep you warmer than, well, a half kilo cotton hoodie, for starters. Very good on cold, windy days and when sleeping; it's a hat that can't fall off. I generally wear it all the time, with the hood pulled down, as a scarf. It's a good idea to keep your neck warm. If you have a warm neck, you can dispense with a layer (perhaps). Keeping your neck warm with a rolled-down balaclava is much cheaper and simpler than lugging around, say, a puffer jacket with no proper collar around its neck. 

I have often considered taking a down puffer jacket. They have a very high warmth/bulk ratio - down is great as a sleeping bag filler. Problem is, down jackets are really only useful in a very limited set of circumstances - namely cold, dry conditions with little wind. How much of New Zealand has weather like that? Not Wellington, that's for sure. Your expensive puffer will just get rained on, ruining its insulating properties and turning it into a veritable albatross of cold and wet hanging around your exposed neck, like a cotton hoodie except more expensive - and not machine washable. 

You can't really ride wearing a puffer jacket, because they don't breathe well enough to deal with the sweaty you inside it (unlike wool knit, the traditional material of bike jerseys). And they make you look fat, which should be a consideration but clearly isn't for most people. I've tried sleeping in mine, in lieu of a proper sleeping bag, but I found it uncomfortable around the armpits; body too hot, legs too cold. However, I would like to try a sleeveless down vest, but I've yet to find one with elasticated arm holes which would actually keep the heat in. Most puffer vests just ooze hot air out of the armholes, all the time. Doesn't have to be like that. These sort may be more practical to sleep in.

When it does actually start raining, I'll put on a Ground Effect rain jacket. Get a jacket which is cut closely to fit you, so it doesn't flap. Make sure it has a close fitting hood, where no wind can get in. Don't get one in fluro yellow unless you want to look like a fucking retard (evidently most people do, but that is no reason to emulate them). I've got some cheapo not-really-breathable rain paints from the Warehouse, $20. I hardly ever use them but they are in the pocket of the jacket if I have to do a long descent in freezing rain or something - or if I get stuck somewhere and have to wait it out. Keeping feet dry is always problematic. I've had good results from green rubber gardening overboots, available for about $15 from Mitre 10. They are 100% waterproof and windproof (until you rip them, but what the hell). I'd prefer it if they went a bit higher up the leg, but they're way better than nothing. Good for field hopping out in the crunchyside. 

Remeber the old adage: if you're warm enough for the first 20 minutes of your ride, you're overdressed.

Finally, I'll state that in my experience, tight-weave merino gloves are significantly warmer and windproofier than polypropylene gloves. 

Q. What time of year is good for cycle touring in New Zealand?
A. The so-called shoulder seasons of spring and autumn are ideal. Personally, I like cool temperatures. I've done midwinter trips through the central north island - carefully avoiding any signs of bad weather - which were very pleasant. The country is very clean and green when it's wet and as it's pretty much 5 degrees and raining all the time, you can just wear all your clothes and all your wet weather gear all day and all night and be comfortable. 

I generally avoid high summer due to people, traffic, temperatures, humidity and sunburn, though it depends exactly where and when. 

Parts of the south island are not navigable during winter, eg the Molesworth and Rainbow roads and much of central Otago. Even in mid summer, the top of the south can have cold nights and that means you need to take hot weather clothes AND cold weather clothes AND a warm sleeping bag, which all weighs more costs more and takes up more space.

Q. Where do you sleep?
A. Anywhere I like.

Friend's houses. Country hotels. Campsites. Beaches. DoC shelters. Tinpot railway stations in the central north island where trains never stops. The side of the road, preferably somewhere where, even if I'm quite visible, nobody can stop and bother me. In commercial pine forests, off the road. (If you're going to camp on private property, make it a commercial owner, not some poor soul who knows nothing of your intentions and will feel obliged to investigate, causing both of you unnecessary stress. Get off the road into the pines until you can't be seen. Don't light a fire in case you burn the place down. Enjoy the peace and quiet). 

Also consider camping inside hedgerows around well-groomed country parks. If the park is in good condition it implies it isn't frequented by hooligans at night, so you're unlikely to be disturbed. It's usually impractical to use a tent in these circumstances as it's a bit too visible, but I have camped in a hedge inside a bivi bag and I couldn't see my campsite from one metre away outside the hedge, even with car headlights shining directly at it. 

I sometimes carry a tent, if I think I'm actually likely to use it. It's an Australian branded twin, single pole, a door on each side. Weighs 2 Kg and is very good for the price and weight. Most trips I've taken a tent and haven't used it, which is dumb. Nowadays I'm more likely to take a rectangular fly sheet with several tie-down points. Weighs about 300g. 

I've tried a Macpac bivi bag, made of a waterproof breathable fabric. Weigs 1 Kg, which is great, but ultimately it doesn't actually work. If it's raining, you have to zip yourself up in it completely. You can't leave a gap open in the front flap by your head because it would let the rain in. But if you zip it up, the condensation is immediately noticeable, so you're still getting wet and more to the point you literally can't breathe. Conversely, when it's not raining, you can have the front flap wide open and breathe all you like. But if it's fine, why do you need to be in a bivi bag in the first place?

I reckon a better compromise is a tent fly carefully rigged to deflect as much wind as possible. It doesn't have condensation problems. It's also good as a sunshade and you're more likely to use it spontaneously than you would a tent. The biggest downside it it's draughty, which is bad in cold weather, and it doesn't keep out insects. A separate mosquito net could be justified in certain circumstances. Traveling without a tent means you need to be a little more careful than you might otherwise be in selecting a campsite. Generally down at sea level near water means you'll get sandflies. On a valley floor you'll get cold, as the cooling air falls down to the bottom of the valley. Up on a ridge means you'll get cold winds. Somewhere in between is usually good.

For bedding, I like the Thermarest Prolite 3, their smallest and lightest self-inflating mattress. Weighs about 380g. Worth the expense; check online auction websites. Yes, it's thin and doesn't have much insulation - you could stick some bracken or ferns underneath for more of both. It takes me a day or two to adjust to sleeping on a thin mattress, but I always feel great once I've acclimatised.
Sleeping bags, I'll usually take a super light 1 season synthetic sleeping bag, an Australian brand, weighs about 300g. A down sleeping bag liner would also be a good choice - light, compact and cheap. Although a heavy sleeping bag is more luxurious, it's good to be able to save weight and bulk, as you aren't using it constantly and if you're staying with friends or in a cabin you can probably get better bedding onsite for free or for a dollar or two. If you're prepared to sleep in some of your clothes (eg socks, long johns, long sleeve top, balaclava) you will be just as warm, almost as comfortable and maybe a kilo lighter.

Q. Food?
A. Read a few magazine article about cycling nutrition (so you get a sense of where the mainstream opinion is at), then just eat what you like. If it doesn't seem to be working, try something else. Or eat more. Or eat less. I've done a four day tour while fasting, consuming nothing but juice. This was around Motueka, where there is lots of fresh fruit juice available everywhere. I felt great and am looking forward to doing it again.

Inspect your food packets. Look at the amount of energy contained, per 100g, in various foods. Generally, carbohydrates - simple or complex - contain about 1500Kj/100g. Proteins contain about 2500Kj/100g and fats contain 3500Kj/100g. The point is, proteins - like beans, nuts and peanut butter - are very good sources of energy. Also, since most of us are overweight, why eat when we can just burn our own fat? Avoiding carbohydrates and just cruising along at an easy pace means our bodies will start turning body fat into glucose to keep us moving. If you just load up on carbs, your body will use them first (because they're easier to break down than body fat) and the fat burning will be stopped.

Q. What if...?
A. If? If? There is no if. If you have to get back to town in a hurry, just get off your bike and stick your thumb out. I did this in Tasman recently. First car I stuck my thumb out to stopped - a Ford Explorer SUV, room in the back for Africa. I was at pains to explain, "Thanks for stopping - there's actually nothing wrong with my bike, I'm just in a hurry to meet a yacht in Nelson...". If you get into trouble, get to a road. Roads have cars, cars will take you to civilisation. 

Q. Is it worth taking a computer?
A. It depends. Your first priority should be keeping your phone battery charged. I've experimented with dynamos charging lights and phones via USB but have never got it to work properly; however that says more about my electrical skills and perseverancelessness than the validity of the concept. Smartphones with decent displays and fast 3G networks mean that convenient Internet/GPS mapping is a reality - but only if you can keep your batteries charged. And you need to keep everything dry, of course. I take a Kindle ebook reader with me everywhere, including and especially when cycle touring. I'd really like a tablet of some kind, primarily to use as a map. As of this writing (September 2011) there are a few products worth considering. 
  • Apple iPad - clearly nice to have but battery life may be an issue. 
  • Asus EEE Tablet Transformer + keyboard dock - a 10.1 inch Android tablet which clips into its own keyboard full o' batteries. Goes for days without a recharge. Looks good to me. 
  • A nice smartphone with GPS and maps.
Q. What about spare parts?
A. I take a small toolkit - enough to fix tyres, tweak spokes, remove cranks and tighten any bolts. I don't take tools to remove bottom brackets or adjust threaded headsets (which most of my road bikes have). I also take a hanky or two for wiping greasy hands with. A small spray bottle of degreaser is good for hand cleaning. Even better is a small quantity of washing machine powder, or dishwasher powder. These get your hands really clean without needing much water or feeling really soapy.
Q. How will I feel?
A. On the first day you'll probably feel quite good and be glad to get out of town. On the second and third days, you'll be feeling knackered and will have sore bits here and there. On the fourth day you'll be starting to get into the swing of things and after that you should have a rhythm going nicely. After that you probably won't want to come home and why should you!
Q. What about traffic?
A. Best avoided, of course. Explore the little back roads, even if they're much less direct than a state highway (this is why computer maps are good to have - road atlases and topomaps don't have the level of detail to label every singel road). Sometimes there's no option other than a highway - eg to get from Taumarunui to Wanganui you really have to take SH4. If you're concerned about traffic, why not ride that section at night? It's easier to see other vehicles as they'll have their lights on and if you start late you'll probably have an easier run than you would during the day. Commercial drivers - ie the big trucks - do these roads every night and have a much lower accident rate than the general population. I'll put on a hi-vis vest and do the Desert Road at night; not as much fun during the day, especially during holiday periods. Might as well get the highway riding done in the wee small hours when you can enjoy the night.

I often find that leaving city, if you live in a big one, can be more pleasant at night. Getting out of Auckland or Wellington starting from midnight during the week gives you a clear run to get out of town all night. Then you can stop and watch the sun come up, have a shot of whisky then crash out in the sunshine as they day warms up. There's no better way to sleep!

Q. Can I take my bike on buses/trains/planes/ferries?
A. Short answer is Yes. Long answer is Depends. Breaks down like this:
  • Commuter buses - no, except maybe certain buses in Christchurch
  • Intercity Bus/Naked Bus - yes, as long as you remove pedals and make a few other concessions for packing it in the luggage compartment.
  • Commuter trains - contact the operators for details, as it's situation dependent
  • TranzScenic trains - yes, book ahead, pay $10. I haven't tried taking a tandem with trailer, but I reckon they'd take it. Ditto a tadpole trike, a bikeish-looking moped or an electric bike. Very useful - you can get way out of town quickly and relatively cheaply.
  • Planes - yes. Ask nicely at your local bike shop for an old cardboard bike box. Call a few days before you need it as many shops will chuck out boxes on a weekly basis. Remove your pedals, seat, handlebars and probably the front wheel until the bike fits inside OK. Pad it a bit with old newspapers or old cardboard boxes you don't need. Then tape it up. As long as it weighs less than 23 Kg you're fine. Just check it in with your 7 Kg carry-on bag - which is whatever you didn't manage to cram into the box - and stick it in the Weird Long Things part of the baggage handling system. You can buy bags from Ground Effect et al which are good too, but I like not having the weight and bulk of the unused bag with me while I'm touring. I just unbox at the destination airport and stash the box somewhere tidily near a rubbish bin. Perhaps you could leave it somewhere and come back for it and reuse it at the end of the trip.
  • Ferries - most commuter ferries in New Zealand will take bikes free. The Interislander and the Bluebridge charge $10. 
Q. Anything else?
A. No, other than to recommend you forget everything I've just said and make up your own rules and guidelines. May you never want to go home.



Saturday, July 23, 2011

Cycle safety: ur doin it rong

Visibility is incidental to cycle safety.
   - J Edgar Whoever

Much has been written and spoken about safe cycling. Most of it, in recent years, has centred on helmets and visibility. In my opinion, neither of these has much to do with being safe on the roads. Helmets don't keep you safe; all they can do is mitigate head injuries. Far better not to crash in the first place. It's much easier to not crash in the first place and furthermore it's something that's entirely under your own control. Any collisions you have are your own responsibility. There's no point in being extra-visible if you're in the wrong place at the wrong time, you're still gonna get nailed. And I'd like to observe that they don't collide with you; you collide with them, regardless of which direction they're coming from.

So this is what I do. It's unorthodox, perhaps, but it's always worked for me. I've been learning these techniques since I was ten years old, riding to school. 30 years later, I ride to work every day and do open-road touring and I still use these techniques.

The most important thing to understand is the mental attitude which makes you safe. Cycling is the safest thing in the world. It's as safe as sitting in an armchair in your lounge. As long as you don't collide with anything or fall off - and that goes for armchairs too - you're essentially invulnerable, at least when viewed on a moment-by-moment basis, which is how things work when your state of awareness is what it is while cycling. You need to be alert in order to take whatever action may be necessary to Avoid Collisions.

Expecting other people - eg motorists - to be partly responsible for your own safety (and advertising it by wearing special hi vis clothing in broad daylight) might seem like a sensible idea, but it's only addressing secondary considerations. Being visible has little to do with avoiding collisions. You don't want to be colliding with anything - cars, other cyclists, gutters, lamp posts, anything at all. And who has the final say in what you collide with? You do. You're in control. If you take 100% responsibility for your own safety, you're half way to being genuinely safe on the road.

Consider the so-called mountain biker. The notion that "the tree jumped out and knocked me off my bike" is as ludicrous as it is childish, yet people say almost the same thing about urban car/bike crashes as if the car (or driver) is at fault for running into you. You could have avoided the collision, but you didn't

It's you and your bike, moving together through a landscape of predominantly inanimate objects, be they trees, parked cars or anything in between. You're in control. When riding, everything is moving relative to your frame of reference. You don't want to hit a parked car any more than you want to hit a moving car. 

If you are involved in a collision, you did something wrong. 

I have never had a bike crash that wasn't entirely my own fault. For the record, I averaged one crash which involved being knocked off my bike every year when at high school. The the following decade, I fell over a few times when trackstanding at lights and I once hit a gutter (at low speed, but I still fell off) which I couldn't see because I didn't have any lights. 

I've never been clipped from behind and until recently had never been doored. (The dooring occurred at 5:30 pm on Courtenay Place; an SUV discharged a front seat passenger while stopped at a pedestrian crossing. In retrospect it was pretty obvious that this was likely to happen, with people picking up and dropping off at that place and time quite frequently, and rearward visibility in the car being poor due to the rain. In the event the door just clipped the edge of my mudguard bolt, which pinged off. I was lucky I didn't catch my knee). How could I have avoided this? Simply by avoiding that stretch of road and going a different route, with more space.

Sometimes, motorists will open car doors in the path of oncoming cyclists without realising that the cyclist is there. This can be fatally dangerous. I've read numerous tales of the rider swerving out into the traffic to avoid the door, then getting run down by a truck or bus that they didn't seem to notice was in the process of overtaking them at the time. I expect that if these unfortunate dead cyclists could run through the scenario again, they'd probably have opted for just crashing into the door, sacrificing a front wheel and quite possibly the frame and fork, but probably walking away without broken bones or head impacts.

The cylists was in the wrong place at the wrong time. Not in a general sense - only at that precise second where the space they has been moving into was already taken by something else. They should have taken the hit on the door and not swerved out into the traffic; or they should have been riding in the middle of the lane where the door wouldn't reach them. 

The second half of cycle safety is when you realise that taking 100% responsibility for your own safety isn't enough. I will explain. My policy is that no only am I responsible for my own actions, I am also responsible for everyone else's actions as well. 

Adopting this attitude automatically makes you more communicative to the rest of the traffic. As I am not separate from the traffic - in this sense meaning all the other vehicles and pedestrians within visibility or earshot - I move with it, a distinct unit yet a part of an undifferentiated whole. Traffic. Consider. It's difficult to judge at what rate a cyclist is decelerating when coming to a stop. Pedestrians need to eyeball you for a couple of seconds to gauge where you'll be on the road when they walk out to cross. I demonstrate to the peds that I'm slowing down and intend to stop by not only braking, but by unclipping one foot and sliding forward on my saddle, pedal leg straight, soon about to put a foot down, can't possibly accelerate in that posture - therefore safe. The pedestrians can confidently step out, knowing that the guy on the bike is under control.

By doing this, I control the behaviour of the pedestrians, at that moment, because I am responsible for the pedestrians, at that moment.

Consider taxis. The pull out on you unexpectedly, they don't indicate, they block a lane of traffic outside a hotel and you have to look over your shoulder to see if anything's coming to wipe you out when you overtake it... The first and most important thing to know about taxi drivers is that they work really long hours and make really low incomes. If you enjoy the luxury of being able to ride your bike to work, you are almost certainly on a higher hourly rate than all the taxi drivers you saw this morning. Taxi drivers need our love. 

More than this, taxis are Good Practice. Being professional full-time drivers, they are much safer on the roads than you might think. Sure, they often spend much of their time edging around at very low speeds, attention on potential fares, with their indicators in various states of display. And sure, that's a bit of a hassle and something you need to deal with. So deal with it: taxis are like that, so give them the room they need. Expect the taxi to do its taxi business, maybe hang back a little in the middle of the lane so the driver can see you clearly through the centre rear view mirror. He'll be looking for you and you can indicate, through body language, which side you're hoping to pass him on, or that you're turning and not overtaking, or whatever it is. In this way you control the taxis, because the taxis need you to show them where you're going.

Buses are long, wide and have engines in the back, which makes them difficult to hear. Fortunately, they are easy to see and have predictable habits. Also, the driver has great forward visibility and big mirrors to see behind with. 

You need to get into the habit of looking over your shoulders (both sides equally well). Do it every few seconds; in dense, fast traffic you'll be doing it constantly. On a seemingly empty country road with good visibility, every 30 seconds or so. This gives you snapshots of the road conditions behind you. Some people like mirrors, but I prefer to see the scene directly; also the regular spine twist is good exercise, especially in the long term.

You should be able to tell a riding companion, real or imagined, what is happening behind you at all times. <glance> there's a bus... <glance> can hear it now... <glance> about 10 seconds away... <glance> ah, bus stop coming up - it'll overtake me then pull over to the left and stop <glance> the bus driver knows I'm aware of the bus - stop pedalling so he/she knows I expect the bus to pass me <bus overtakes> looking ahead, I can see the driver in the bus's left mirror, driver is looking at me, all good <glance> hmm, another bus coming up behind me and a third coming the other way - not much room there; I'll hang back and let the buses pass, then overtake the one at the stop.

Another hypothetical example. You're on your bike at an intersection and there's a bus. You're on different streets and you are both stopped at red lights. You and the bus driver can see one another. The bus has right of way, but the driver, based on her experience in the job, wouldn't be surprised if you, the cyclist, takes off early before your green light, in order to beat the traffic behind you.

In this situation, I do one of two things. Generally I will anticipate a green light by watching the lights on the other streets in the intersection. If it's an intersection I know well, I'll generally ride through the red a couple of seconds before the cars get their green. There's a very important reason why I do this. 

Cars and bikes accelerate differently. A bike can take off quicker than a car and will maintain a lead for about 1-2 seconds. After that, the speed of the car has matched the speed of the bike, which at this point would be about 5 Km/h. If the cyclist is able to get into a higher gear and push really hard for a couple of pedal revolutions, he can still lead the car for perhaps another second, but not longer if the car is accelerating to a speed above which the cyclist can easily match.

In city traffic, from a standing start, a bike has perhaps 5 seconds to get as far away as possible from all moving and non-moving objects. You can only collide with something if you're touching it. If it's nor near you, you can't collide with it. If it's on a course which won't intersect with your course, you can't collide with it. If you start off a couple of seconds before the cars do, no only are you placing yourself as far away from all possible collision objects, you are also making yourself maximally visible to all the cars in the intersection, who will be easily able to see which way you're going. 

The main problem with the strategy of anticipating green lights and taking off a second or two before the cars behind you do, is that there is a small but non-zero chance of colliding, in the middle of the intersection, with another cyclist who is using the same strategy. 

Conversely, if I don't want to anticipate the light, I will indicate this to the bus driver and anyone else who's looking at me by Not Doing a Trackstand. Sometimes you won't need to do much at all to indicate that you're giving someone else the right of way at a red light, or even on a side street or driveway. Try these techniques, in order:
  • look the driver in the eyes, then look away
  • keep one foot on the ground
  • get off your saddle
  • take your hands off the handlebars
  • fold your arms
  • look away while keeping your head straight and turning your shoulders
If that sounds like the Horse Whisperer, it should. If you want the driver to take the lead, there should be no ambiguity about it. There's nothing less classy than a cyclist doing a trackstand in front of an Alfa Romeo, both hesitating, neither prepared to take control. You, the cyclist, are in control. Lead, follow or get out of the way.

A few other observations. 

Cycling in groups is risky. Racing is dangerous, even if you're just pretending. If you're in the middle of a group, you must match the speed and direction of the people around you: no other course is possible. Your forward visibility is restricted. So when a car crosses the centreline and ploughs into your bunch, there's really not much you can do about it except pray. I've read too many stories about cyclist losing lives and limbs to this sort of accident. So what can be done? Although riding it groups can be fun, you have to realise that in a emergency you don't have many options. I almost always ride alone, or at least well separated from any companions with the same destination. I maintain good visibility of the road ahead by not tailgating trucks and buses. And I try to stick to wide roads. 

For example, one sad story from a few years back in Wellington involved a lady going under the wheels of a vehicle rounding the corner in John St, which connects Taranaki St to Newtown. I very seldom ever take John St, as it involves climbing a hill just as the road narrows to one lane in each direction. Cars are wanting to accelerate past you up the hill while you are going increasingly slow due to the gradient. There's no room for error. Being visible is all very well, but if you're on a collision course and you have nowhere else to go, you're going to collide with something and that is what you should be avoiding. Better to go through the Basin Reserve and up Adelaide Rd, it's flat and much wider.

Don't put yourself in a position on the road where somebody can hit you. And if somebody is actually trying to run you down, then it's up to you to be aware of it well before it happens, because you know what's happening behind you because a few seconds ago you looked over your shoulder and saw what's happening behind you and you can hear what's happening behind you. Awareness and responsibility. Maintain awareness of the entire situation you are riding in and you will be able to take 100% responsibility for everything within that situation, as it happens.

And finally, to say something about dress - who do you think gets more appreciation on the road? This lady?

Or this one?


Keep looking over your shoulders - both of them. You'll never know what you'll see there unless you look.

Friday, June 24, 2011

Rethinking Black Tie

H'imagine! Yuh dress up yuh inna di latest gear
Put on yuh Versace cuz di tight pants deh wear
Yuh come out an' hear a rastaman seh "Bun dung a queer!" 
Yuh feel like yuh wan disappe-a-a-ear

     - Beenie Man, Better Learn (2006)

"It would kill me to have to live in New York," he went on. "To have to share the air with six million people! To have to wear stiff collars and decent clothes all the time! To——" He started. "Good Lord! I suppose I should have to dress for dinner in the evenings. What a ghastly notion!"
I was shocked, absolutely shocked.
"My dear chap!" I said reproachfully.
"Do you dress for dinner every night, Bertie?"
"Jeeves," I said coldly. The man was still standing like a statue by the door. "How many suits of evening clothes have I?"
"We have three suits full of evening dress, sir; two dinner jackets——"
"For practical purposes two only, sir. If you remember we cannot wear the third. We have also seven white waistcoats."
"And shirts?"
"Four dozen, sir."
"And white ties?"
"The first two shallow shelves in the chest of drawers are completely filled with our white ties, sir."
I turned to Rocky.
"You see?"
The chappie writhed like an electric fan.

Trying to figure out what to wear of an evening is a problem to vex even the most rabid clotheshorse. However, it ought to be borne in mind that decisions in this regard are essentially unnecessary. There are rules, which, once understood, may simply be bent to suit the occasion. Woe, however, betide those who ignore these rules or, worse, know not that they even exist.

In this piece I shall endeavour not to reinvent the wheel by reiterating what has already been iterated many times before on other blogs. 

Nor too shall I be posting pictures of Barack Obama looking justifiably uncomfortable in a poorly thrown together white tie ensemble, nor even shall I upload a clip from Jeeves & Wooster S02E03 15:30 - 16:00 demonstrating black tie at the roller derby. Incidentally, when viewing Period Costume Dramas such as this, do bear in mind that the operative term is indeed costume - these are not the clothes you're looking for, they are modern interpretations designed to illustrate and embellish the story. 

Far better to look up actual illustrations or photographs from the period you want to be influenced by. Personally, I tend towards the 1930s. The 20s are also nice, but the 30s are better because you get all the style of both decades at the same time. The 40s, of course, were marred by war - more on what this means in a minute - the 50s were the Beginning of the End and the 60s and after have been a complete write off. I blame Socialism and the Inversion of Quality, which led to such deviance as wearing mining clothes (denim jeans) when you're not a miner, underwear as outerwear (tee shirts), sports shoes when you're not playing sport and no hats (a conspiracy of pharmacists intending for everyone to catch cold).

Do not take your cues from the people around you, nor from photographs in contemporary magazines. There are very few well dressed people willing to be photographed by the paparazzi; you are far better to stick to historical images, as the bad stuff has already been weeded out by the sands of time.

The principle effects on clothes of the 1940s, if we examine the British tradition, were the result of fabric rationing. This led directly to the demise of the waistcoat and its substitution with the knitted vest (a la Duke of Windsor, or more familiarly, Monty Python's Gumbies). The rise of Italian tailoring post-war cemented in the no-waistcoat, as much of Italy has a warm climate which makes the extra layer unnecessary, I guess you could say. Waistcoats are also notoriously difficult to sell off the peg, as they almost always don't fit at all and need to be tailored, as you will have noticed. 

"But I'm a hideous fattie, ill suited to such garb", I hear in translation. I would direct such opinion to photographs of Winston Churchill, or better, Richard Griffiths, which demonstrates just how dashing a vast protuberance can be when girt with an accurately cut waistcoat. As David Hockney rightly said, don't go to the gym, go to a tailor. There's no need to reshape your body when you can reshape your clothes. Who do you think you are?

Nobody notices that I too am a hideous fattie, as I keep my jacket on. When viewed from the front of from behind, the waist is accentuated by the broadening of the shoulders and the flare of the, er, skirt, I suppose you'd call it. Viewed from the side, the top button (on a two button SB jacket) or the middle button (on a 3 button) should occur at the natural waist, creating a slimbening effect. 

Anyway, back to black. As I said, there are Rrruelles which, if followed, will see you right. Say it's Saturday night and you're off to a party. You want to feel relaxed and want the girls to at least not totally shun you, protuberance or no. At the same time, you don't want to draw undue attention to yourself by being massively overdressed. Read on and learn how you may remain massively overdressed yet not out-Herod the hostess or get mistaken for a waiter. 

I won't go into the history of black tie, its relationship to white tie, Edward VII or midnight blue as these topics are covered exhaustively elsewhere. What I will cover is how we might consider and employ evening wear today, in 2011.

To my mind, there are a few inviolable rules which absolutely must be adhered to. Break any of them and you will look like a Complete Tool. The reason is simple. Servants on a pre-war Ruling Elite country home - being essentially a sort of privately held hotel - were dressed by the owners in a hodgepodge of assorted Very Nice Clothes. It was important they they we well turned out, but equally important was that they were not mistaken for anybody important. The way this was achieved was by dressing them in a nonsensical mixture of evening dress and morning dress. You can still see this today in the better hotels - women wearing waistcoats and men's neckties, for instance. Porters wearing silly hats. Don't go there.
  • The ensemble must consist of black trousers and a black jacket. Midnight blue is acceptable only if you have cause to own more than one black tie outfit, which you probably don't.
  • The shirt must be white and it must have double cuffs with cufflinks. Novelty cufflinks are made to be sold, not bought.
  • The tie, or its substitute, must be black. Coloured ties are absolutely wrong and to be scorned. White is also wrong, as this only goes with a tailcoat and I don't care what the costume designer for Boardwalk Empire says.
  • Evening clothes are not to be worn before 6pm koz duh. 
However, there are other rules which I feel we may now safely bend or ignore.

The waist, it is traditionally said, must be covered with either a waistcoat or a cummerbund. I've never liked cummerbunds. It's a dumb word, the idea of pleats facing upwards is just weird and they tend to come in colours other than black. Also, there is no daytime equivalent, and I like equivalence. Waistcoats are very nice but not absolutely necessary. The idea behind a covered waist is that the body presents a nice regular silhouette, not being cut in half at the waist. I doubt anybody has seriously considered this in about sixty years and I think it looks fine to have the shirt visible around the waist. But - and it's a big but - the shirt needs to be cut so it has no extra fabric to bunch up and ooze out of your trousers. If it does it really will spoil your nice profile. Skinny boys don't have much of a problem with this but they do tend to find keeping their shirts tucked in a challenge. A nice black brocade waistcoast will keep your shirt out of everyone's way.

Black tie, being less formal than white tie, employs an unstarched shirt, traditionally with studs instead of buttons. I have never even heard of anybody who knows how or where to get a shirt starched; just forget it. Studs are nice, but I think it's good to also have a white shirt with fancy buttons. It helps normalise things. It is the 21st century, after all. Wing collars which show the whole of the tie are considered anachronistic in British usage and I am inclined to agree. They often crop up in Americicia, which speaks for itself. A conventional fold-down attached collar which won't collapse with the top button undone is the way to go. Choose a French placket front: it's not a business shirt. Eschewest thou the fly front, you'll look like Jenny Shipley. Finally, the shirt front should be sufficiently opaque to hide what's behind it, be it a singlet or your scrawny body.Very fine fabric on the sleeves can be rather nice, though, if you have the arms for it. 

Tautologically speaking, black tie is not black tie without a black tie. Omit tie; embrace Toolhood. However, ties of any sort at any time of day are pretty rare these days, due to Socialism, television and the notion that the tie serves no practical function (thank you Nassim Nicholas Taleb - you only get away with the black polo neck because you're Lebanese). I declare the tie shows whether or not the wearer has imagination, is interested in knot theory and can coordinate colours. It allows him to differentiate himself from his peers, if he has any, and it also keeps the neck warm (see pharmacists, above). I'm given to understand some ancient Chinese aphorism exists advising keeping one's neck warm and as a cyclist, where there is usually a cool breeze, I agree. Tracheotomees may wish to either cover up or possibly show off their special neck styles but please, if you plan on leaving the ballpoint pen in place, make sure it's black.

Morgan Freeman has been seen sporting a black cravat with his evening clothes at an Oscars - not a bad result, though even as a habitual cravattie I would hesitate for evening wear as it's perhaps just a bit cazh. New Zealanders may wish to substitute the tie with a piece of dark greenstone, which I think is quite classy and also says something about the wearer. A dog collar of sorts could almost work, as could a velvet choker if you're gay at heart. Use your imagination.

So in essence you have a black suit and a white shirt. As black has not been an appropriate colour for day wear since Queen Victoria abandoned mourning dress, it is reserved for after dark. Black in the day makes you look like an undertaker and even ethnic goths can do better. Prince Albert's death plunged the whole Empire into mourning, to a large extent, and such late Victorian fancies as silk or grosgrain lapels on morning coats are now thoroughly forgotten, especially among the under-25s. Is it therefore acceptable to omit silk facings on the dinner jacket? If it's adequately cut, I think so. And if it's not, why the hell are you wearing it in the first place? Similarly, the concomitant silk stripe down the leg can be omitted too. Personally, I'd opt for a muted silk in each case, and would be inclined to keep the stripe as slim and subtle as possible. It shouldn't be the first thing you notice; the wearer should be the first thing you notice. 

The fabric should be solid black, with no stripe, herringbone or check. A velvety texture or perhaps some tiny spotting to add visual interest is worth considering. The fabric shoul be heavy enough to keep you warm enough but no more. Your local climate should be your guide. Then again, much has changed since Edward's day. Decent heating and air conditioning is now the norm and practically everywhere is illuminated with electric light. This ubiquitous daytime we have invented for ourselves really means that daywear is now wearable all night, but it's nice to wear something special in the evenings when you settle down in front of the monitor with a nice torrent. After all, you gotta wear something, so why not wear something sensible? 

Since the suit jacket is indoor wear, you're unlikely to have sufficient excuse to remove it, especially in the cool of the evening. If it's cold outside, wear an overcoat in any colour you wish as long as it's black. SB overcoats match an SB jacket, a DB overcoat for a DB jacket. I favour single button, single breasted peaked for both, as it's as simple and therefore elegant as you can get without looking like Daniel Craig in Casino Royale. Notched lapels on a dinner jacket is as underwhelming as a Bond movie with no jokes. Never forget that Vespers chose the jacket for him! If he'd had the guts to stand up to her there and then the movie might have been saved. (And none of this complicated martini recipe nonsense either. Go with the house mix and if you don't like it, just leave the drink pointedly unfinished).

Such ready to wear DJs as are presently available, at least in this town, appear to be exclusively of the shawl collar variety. Embrace it if you will, though personally I don't like it as there's nowhere to put the buttonhole. A small cornflower or equivalent is nice as a way of adding colour; the girls will notice. Alternatively, a small brooch - a chrome trimmed black star or a silver weta, perhaps, continuing with the Wellington theme - could work as long as it won't snag on anything.

Ciaosers should be suspended with black or white braces, if a waistcoat is worn, or trimmed with hip adjusters if not. Although a belt could work in theory, I'd advise against it. This is not a lounge suit, this evening wear and you're not at work.

The shoes are inarguably the easiest thing to get right and the easiest to get wrong. Closed lacing and no broguing are key. Pumps are unobtainable and also completely crazy. Patent is good, but not easy to find; any smooth and polishable calfskin will do. Nothing too square or too pointy, as they don't seat well in the toeclips. If playing host, Pope slippers are a classy choice. Billy Conolly wears them fly fishing, you know. Socks should be black and sleek - you'll need sock garters, which are enormous fun if you've not tried them.

Tradition legislates that once in full fig - all the usual plus boutonniere, hankercheif etc - it is pertinent to balance the ensemble by taking one thing off. Trousers are the preferred choice, but it's heavily situation dependent. Dare to dream.

Hats are a grave problem and have been in crisis since JFK's inauguration. In a perfect world, I'd opt for a Hancock style Homburg, though these are so rare nowadays as to be unidentifiable even in name (I'm just using a pointer to an image, really, I don;t know what they're called either and they're not really Homburgs, in my opinion). By day, I favour the Kangol 504 as it's very much a design classic. In the tropical cloth it breathes nicely when on the bike and affords good sun protection. As evening wear, however, I am dubious and Samuel Jackson's uptake of same, while interesting, isn't really doing it for me. Top hats are wrong, fedoras too slouchy. I like fezes (fezes are cool) but they break the rule of not attracting the attention of the reggae artiste when he feels he must reiterate his sexual orientation, often several times in a given verse. I'm not sure of the answer to the hat problem. Possibly a black wool fedora with a slim snap brim? 

In conclusion, it ought to be stuck in head that you should look like a nice guy in a dark suit with a white shirt and nothing more. The clothes dress the man, not the other way round. The fact that you're "wearing a tuxedo", as other people will inevitably put it, should be tertiary to your looking classy and feeling on top of your game. You might say you should look good despite wearing what you're wearing. It's like being noticed for riding a tandem, rather than for not wearing a helmet.