The Sunday Times, Uncategorized

June 26th, 2005

The tie and the kirby grip aren’t so trivial

So farewell, then, to the tie. Last week the editor of Tatler magazine reported that Sir Andrew Turnbull, the outgoing cabinet secretary, made a speech in which he welcomed a future without ties and hinted that civil servants will soon be wearing open-necked shirts. If Turnbull was right and not momentarily maddened by the exceptionally hot weather then perhaps the disappearance of the tie may finally be upon us.

Perhaps civil servants all secretly wish they were Tony Blair, with his open-necked shirts and exciting sex life. On the other hand it may simply be that they have realised they don’t matter much or at least that nobody trusts them much any more and so they don’t need to bother with this last accessory of respectability.

After all, the people who started the trend of going tieless were people whom nobody trusted in the first place — artists, film producers, media executives and junk-bond traders. The few people whom we need to trust — our doctors, lawyers and accountants — still have to wear ties (unless they are women). But no doubt even this is disappearing and before long our consultants will examine us in blousons and bomber jackets and undertakers will dispatch us in sober designer casuals.

I find myself oddly sorry. It’s not that I particularly like ties. I had to wear one for many years at my secondary school, with a high-collared pinstripe shirt, and I know how uncomfortable they are. In weather like last week’s it is cruel and unusual to expect a man to wear one, or a schoolgirl for that matter. What’s more, many ties are irritating, carrying silly secret messages that I can’t decipher about clubs and sports and things to which I wouldn’t want to belong even if I knew what they were.

Besides, though they may often be a mark of belonging and superiority — Guards, Eton, high fashion or whatever — they are at the same time an emblem of repression as well. The tie is the outward and visible sign of an inner and internalised middle-class submission. This, incidentally, includes all those Guards, Etonians and others who are not in fact middle class or would not like to be thought so. I mean a submission to a grown-up and bourgeois sense of duty, to an idea of respectability. Putting on a tie was a sign of identification, right down to the level of Mr Pooter, with people who matter. People who did not matter, such as women and proletarians, went tieless.

So there’s an obvious sense in which it would be absurd to regret the passing of the tie. Besides, an overpriced coloured ribbon round the neck is not the only, or even the best, way for a man to look cool and couth. Men can look wonderful in classic suits with ties, but I prefer the deconstructed men’s suits that appeared in the 1980s in beautiful materials, worn tielessly with elegantly plain white T-shirts or Nehru-necked shirts from Issey Miyake — another uniform, certainly, but much more elegant and practical.

Even so, despite logic and sense, abandoning ties feels to me like yet another abandonment of a discipline that might not matter in itself but which, taken with other rapid castings-off of similar little disciplines, is perhaps part of a more general loss of manners and civility.

You see it everywhere. There was a time in my teens when there were quite strict standards about how respectable people behaved in public. That has been largely abandoned, along with the idea of respectability itself. The streets where I live in London are swarming with people behaving badly and looking worse.

Rich or poor, educated or semi-literate, they wander about dressed like slags or hoodies or trailer trash with exposed bellies and thongs and distressing piercings, sucking obsessively at plastic bottles like babies, chewing compulsively on gum, masticating on smelly junk food from cartons that they throw onto the pavements, with their toxic chewing gum, cigarette butts and bottles, talking dirty with a ferocity once restricted to the upper classes and the racing fraternity.

Unable to endure a moment without oral or aural stimulus, they listen ceaselessly to music on their earphones, causing a maddening cacophony of hissing and buzzing on public transport, or shout about their private lives into their mobiles, quite indifferent to the assault on others of the noise they make. These are the egalitarian bad manners of advanced democracy.

This abandonment of public modesty has been rapid. A few years ago it would have been considered unthinkably vulgar for the prime minister and his wife to canoodle in public and talk about their sex life as the Blairs do. Perhaps we can look forward to civil servants doing the same.

Women have abandoned the high — admittedly very rigid — standards of Royal Ascot. Thousands of them go dressed like the silliest of slags, exposing unappetising flesh, stray bra straps and rat-eaten hairstyles and get roaring drunk. Privileged schoolgirls go about dressed like jailbait.

Nurses in hospitals have abandoned the high — admittedly very rigid — standards of matron, with hierarchical uniforms and never a hair out of place. Today their hair is uncouth and unkempt, flopping unrestrainedly (and unhygienically) over their faces and their patients. In offices, too, people have abandoned old-fashioned — perhaps rigid — hierarchies, in favour of first names and matiness and equality, which is profoundly confusing to all and sometimes rather disastrous. Nurses complain that there is no proper chain of command on wards.

When I was a teenager I was excited by the new informality. It seemed much better that people should be less formal, less inhibited. “Damn braces, bless relaxes,” as William Blake said and as student revolutionaries all quoted. Had I been a student nurse I am sure I would have been demonstrating against compulsory kirby grips on hair.

Blake was wrong, too. A civil society needs quite a lot of braces and cannot entirely relax its standards. Minor bad manners are at one end of a continuum with seriously bad antisocial behaviour and social breakdown at the other extreme. Civilisation will no doubt survive the disappearance of the tie (and the kirby grip) but it will not survive the abandonment of all the minor restraints of social convention; they are not as trivial as they seem.