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Being Pretentious

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a pretentious poseur, sitting on a chair, holding a glass of red wine

Pretentious. Adjective - attempting to impress by affecting greater importance or merit than is actually possessed.

Anyone can be pretentious if they set their mind to it. However, there's more to it than sitting around in your dressing gown, listening to classical music and reading The French Lieutenant's Woman on a Sunday afternoon. Being pretentious is pointless unless people can see you doing it. Being seen is everything for the dedicated follower of pretentiousness.

Be warned, though. Being pretentious can be damaging to your health. There are people out there who like nothing more than rapping out a tattoo on a pretentious person's forehead. There's a time and a place for being pretentious. Monday evenings down the pub, when the local football team is on the telly, is not one of them.

If you follow the rules, however, you can be pretentious most of the time, drink other people's expensive wine, smoke their cigarettes, mix in the best social circles and have impressionable people falling over themselves to be better acquainted with you.

Stock-up on the Right Kinds of Books

The latest Jackie Collins is not pretentious, so put it down now - unless, of course, you are skilled enough to argue that you're amused in a post-structuralist/post-modernist/post-letterist kind of way by her oeuvre. Incidentally, 'oeuvre' is a superbly pretentious word meaning 'body of work'. Use it in conversation as often as possible. All this takes effort, though, and is only for the experienced student of pretension. You can just about get away with Iain Banks1. You must read them, or at least make them look as if they've been read and re-read - second-hand bookshops are handy for that vital read-to-death look. Nothing gives away a faker more than row upon row of pristine pretentious books.

Dump the Television

Or, at least, hide it. There's nothing more embarrassing than claiming you don't have a TV, to be discovered watching mindless Saturday evening viewing (UK readers will understand) when your pretentious mates call round with a couple of bottles of Nuit St Georges for an evening of intellectual stimulation, wine, coffee and throat-stripping French cigarettes. If you can't live without the box, record something intellectual and keep it handy. In the UK, anything presented by Mark Lawson is pretty good - unless Germaine Greer's on2. For Americans, it's got to be a British period drama. Sorry. When your pretentious circle come a-callin' bang the video in and pretend to be fascinated by what you see. You may miss the latest episode of Star Trek: Voyager, but it's a small price to pay for keeping up your image. You must keep updating what you watch. People will get suspicious if they catch you being utterly absorbed by the same programme every time they call round.

Pretentious People Eat Pretentious Food

A baguette in the bread bin is simply not good enough. Your food must be organic and - for preference - vegetarian. Beware: veganism might be taking it just a little too far. We're talking fresh food and healthy eating here. Your cupboards must be full of the more esoteric foodstuffs. No pretentious fridge is complete without a jar of hummus, a carton of soya milk and the kinds of fruit and vegetable nobody recognises. You must be allergic to a wide variety of foods. Dairy products are good. Just don't get caught stuffing yourself with a cheese-and-pickle sandwich when you think no one's watching, and never frequent McDonald's or Burger King - at least not one where people know your name. The problem these days with pretentious food is that it's becoming much more mainstream. Everyone now enjoys access to global cuisine, which means you must look further and further afield. Rancid yak's butter is still pretty rare outside Tibet, so if you can get your hands on that you're laughing all the way to the top of the Pretentious leader board. Use it in unsweetened black tea with a strange name. Yum.

Drinks (Alcoholic and Non-alcoholic)

Lager - or light beer - is out. If you must drink beer, go for the guest ales in real ale pubs. The weirder the name, the better - you'll spot them easily enough. Become a member of the Campaign For Real Ale (CAMRA). This is a British organisation which bemoans the lack of choice in British pubs, and promotes more, shall we say, 'unusual' beers. Otherwise, as far as alcohol is concerned, you drink (other people's) expensive wines or gin and tonic. If you're caught with any kind of designer (bottled) beer, you will be asked to hand in your union card immediately. For non-alcoholic drinks, your main vice is coffee. None of this instant muck, though. You drink proper coffee. You drink it black. You drink it unsweetened. You drink it strong. You have a pot on the go all day, only making fresh when your pretentious group call round. Keep the jar of Nescafé out of sight under the sink.


You shun mainstream Hollywood movies. They are nothing more than overblown bombast3 with oh-so-predictable storylines. You must maintain that Hollywood movies these days are little more than a series of expensive special effects strung together by a monosyllabic script and inferior car chases. The car chase reached its apotheosis with Bullitt and The French Connection. Anything since is a pale imitation. This has the advantage of being definitive and - quite possibly - true. Actors these days are, generally, over-paid, over-made-up models whose claims to real 'talent' are seemingly rather dubious. If forced, you are permitted to admit a grudging respect for John Malkovich and John Cusack. You think British Shakespearean actors who have taken Hollywood's 30 pieces of silver are prostituting themselves. If you have decided to keep your TV and video, you'll have to hide all those Matthew Broderick films and stock up on as many French movies as possible. Jean De Florette and Manon Des Sources are a must - and are actually quite good, which is a bonus.

A couple of Federico Fellini films add further international flavour. Hollywood is a tricky area. Classic black and white films are OK. Have a favourite director from the golden age - not Welles or Hitchcock, although they are permitted in your collection. Someone less well known - Jacques Tourneur isn't bad. He directed B-movie horror films in the Forties. He could do amazing things with no money, but fell apart completely when given a decent budget. And, other than film buffs and media studies students, no-one's ever heard of him, so you can credit him with pretty much what you like. Billy Wilder is acceptable at a push. Generally avoid Westerns, although The Wild Bunch, The Shootist and Bad Day At Black Rock are fine. Do not be fooled by those who claim certain modern films have self-aware, self-mocking overtones. This is a fallacy. It is well known that most Hollywood bigwigs have no sense of irony, thinking - as they do - that it's a metal.


As with films, you avoid the populist rubbish dominating the charts these days. Britney Spears is unknown to you (extra kudos for everyone who just said, 'Who?'). Avoid folk music like the plague. You'll align yourself with those people in arran sweaters who stick one hand over their ears and warble something unintelligible in certain pubs once a month. Any song which opens 'As I roved out one May morning' doesn't deserve listening time, anyway. Your music of choice can be varied - but should not, by any stretch of the imagination, include anything in the charts. Ever. Jazz and blues are OK to a degree. Classical music is a must, but you prefer to listen to plays and deep-and-meaningful discussions on serious radio channels. Again, Britons have a distinct advantage. BBC Radio 3 is superb for classical music and BBC Radio 4 is the definitive channel for plays, books, pretentious reviews and in-depth discussion shows. It also broadcasts hysterical game shows - but only listen to those when you know no-one's going to call round. Pretentious people are notorious for having no sense of humour.

The Advanced Section

Your bookcase is overflowing with novels by John Fowles and Umberto Eco4, your television is cunningly disguised as a fishtank, you've bought Tesco's entire supply of couscous and your local delicatessen is stocking rancid yak's butter just for you, you've donated all your Schwarzenegger films to charity and have spent most of your salary for the month on French and art house films5. Finally, your record collection is something Leonard Cohen would be proud of and all evidence of Britney Spears and Iron Maiden has mysteriously disappeared, never to darken your stereo again. You think you're pretentious. You've only just started. They say the longest journey starts with a single step. You've made that single step and are now in a position to continue along the path to pretentious enlightenment. Once you have completed this course, you will be so mind-blowingly, interestingly pretentious everyone will want to know your name. Which is the starting point for the advanced part of this course.

Recreating Your Image

It's probably advisable to disappear for a while. Dropping into your local pub in a white linen suit proclaiming yourself to be Peregrine Xavier Monkfish III the evening after you were there in jeans and a t-shirt as John Patterson is bound to provoke some adverse comment, and may lead to a tattoo-rapping-on-forehead scenario. Such things are best avoided, for the sake of your forehead and someone else's knuckles. There were certain clues in the last sentence as to the ideal prententious image. Did you spot them? Of course you did. You're a student of advanced pretension. The basics are name and clothes. Change your name. The more outlandish, generally, the better. If, however, you're already saddled with the unfortunate monicker Peregrine Xavier Monkfish III, tone it down. John Patterson is good - and, let's be fair, everyone will understand. You may even avoid a tattoo-rap if you go to your local pub the day after changing your name. Roy Wood of Seventies glam rock group Wizzard did it. So can you. As for clothing, certain sartorial changes are necessary. A white linen suit is a must. You cannot get away with your old cricket flannels and a white tux jacket. It simply doesn't work. You must also always wear something unique which makes you immediately recognisable. Again, this is an area in which you must be very careful. A wide-brimmed hat with a feather in the brim is OK, as are flowers in buttonholes. Underwear outside your trousers is not. That's just silly. Plain turtleneck sweaters are also handy. They go with almost anything. However, it's important you decide early on a fashion colour scheme, which you must stick to. Avoid all black. It's too Goth. Avoid all white. People will lose you when it snows. Black and white is a touch too Sixties, unless you're aiming for that retro-kitsch look, which is OK for the pretentious fashion-icon around town. The long coat look is good too. Remember seeing John Woo's Face/Off before you became pretentious? Think Nicolas Cage and you're on the right lines, without the guns or psychoses, obviously. The best way forward is to choose the look that most closely fits your existing wardrobe. It'll save you money, too. If you dress in loud colours, keep the loud motif and develop it. If your style is more subdued, go heavy on the neutrals. Avoid too many obvious brand logos. It's the cut of the suit, not its name, which will set you apart from the crowd.


To truly pass your message through the filter of communicative discourse into the coffee cup of collective consciousness, you are obliged to employ polysyllabic linguistic terminology. Or, to put it another way, you gotta use big words. Lots. And never, ever, use just one word where ten will do. Your friends will be oh-so terribly impressed by your obviously massive intellect. After all, only truly intelligent people can use as many long words as you do. Be careful, though. This is a very tricky area. Beginners in the art of pretension often fall into the trap of thinking that, because they've learned every synonym in Roget's Thesaurus and spend their days dropping words such as 'multi-structured' and 'co-terminus' into everyday conversation, they must be creating the right image. They're wrong. Language, sadly, doesn't work like that. You'll look a complete idiot if you use the wrong word or phrase at the wrong time. This is perhaps the most difficult area for potential pretension, and requires a fair degree of effort to pull off successfully - and you may have to endure a certain amount of dignified humiliation when first setting out on the road to pretentiousness. As with most things, practice makes perfect.


It's handy if you live in a university town. If not, move to one. This will also help the recreation of your image. If no-one knows your name, you can tell them pretty much what you like. University towns are full to bursting with impressionable people who find pretension utterly fascinating. This will make your life a whole lot easier. Then, it's simply a case of finding the right pub and sitting in the corner looking intelligent. You will soon be surrounded by the crowd of acquaintances your image demands. The downside of this is that these people are students and, therefore, ill-equipped to afford the level of sophistication you could easily become used to. For Nuit St Georges, read Bulgarian plonk. You get just as drunk, but the hangover's much nastier. And the cigarettes aren't as good either. And you'll be all alone during the holidays. If you decide not to move, your initial task is much more difficult. You may even have to change your habitual watering hole (see Recreating Your Image). Join the local amateur dramatic society. You may find yourself performing in bad productions of great plays, but that's OK. Hardly anyone goes to amateur dramatic productions anyway, and there are enough of the right sorts of people for you to form the nucleus of your pretentious court. Handily, you'll also get to learn a few quotes to develop your stock of other people's phrases and sayings. The local literary society is a pretty good bet, too, for new acquaintances and a ready supply of books to pretend to have read.

Hobbies and Interests

You must have realised by now that pretentious people have pretentious hobbies. No more Sunday mornings on the football pitch for you. On top of the obvious choices of reading, going to the local film theatre for an evening of mind-expanding, mind-bending art house twaddle, taking chess far too seriously and trying to make smoked tofu taste of anything other than burnt pencils, you must have one or a number of even more bizarre pastimes. Bonsai-pruning, for example. Alternatively, the pretentious crowd are among the world's most self-proclaimedly creative people, so art, poetry, writing and pottery are further options with which you can stretch your creatively pretentious muscles. Don't follow convention in your chosen field, either. Anyone can paint a vase of sunflowers or a portrait of a young woman with a bad smile. 'The sound of snow falling' is much more difficult. Manage that in clay and you will have truly found pretentious utopia. Most importantly of all, you can display your art at home - it will provide an interesting conversation piece when you deign to hold parties.

And That's It

So, there you have it. A cut-out-and-keep ten-step guide to being pretentious. Follow this and impressionable people of the opposite sex (or the same sex - that's up to you) will be desperate to get to know you. You will have so many invitations to the best parties you'll have to decide which you decline and you'll save a fortune in cigarettes and alcohol. Can't be bad.

1Note: not his sci-fi. You can tell the difference: his sci-fi books are written by Iain M Banks. Cunning, huh?2NB You must have a copy of The Female Eunuch somewhere, but must also affect to despise it for its outmoded and naive vanity.3Bombast - another great pretentious word - meaning serious or high-minded talk that really says very little at all.4Indeed Foucault's Pendulum is your preferred bedtime reading - if only because it's a fantastic cure for insomnia.5Don't worry if you don't understand art house at first. No-one else does either. In fact, no-one ever has. Not even the directors of art house films.

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