Why I love wearing a tie

This is something I wrote last year for Boisdale Life magazine:

I owe my high flying career in publishing to the tie. It was the early 00s and I was a lowly PR assistant at Hodder & Stoughton. I’d been there for three years and I was going nowhere. Senior editors would patronise me, journalists would ignore me and authors would look at me askance wondering what happened to that bright efficient blonde who used to do their publicity. Then one day on whim I decided to wear a tie to the office. The effect was amazing: within a couple of weeks I was invited to meetings because people were interested in my opinion, at parties people would assume that I was in charge and literary editors would seek me out saying that we should have lunch. In an industry as scruffy as publishing wearing a jacket and tie marked me down as someone important even if I wasn’t. Even better, some days I’d wear a suit and tie for no reason at all and then smile mysteriously when people asked if I had a job interview.  A year later I was put in charge of the literary imprint. . . . and it was all downhill from there.

Ties don’t just look smart and mark the wearer out as someone professional but they say to whoever you are dealing with that they are important. The tie has reigned triumphant since it emerged as distinct from the bowtie and the cravat in the 19th century. Everyone used to wear ties. The only time I saw my grandfather without a tie was when he was on the golf course. Now, however, it looks like the tie might be going the way of the hat or the codpiece, once mighty items of clothing that disappeared almost overnight. Wear a proper hat such as a trilby today and it just looks like an affectation, and try wearing a codpiece to a job interview and see how far you get.

Clothes have been getting less formal since the 60s but I think the two harbingers of the demise of the tie were Tony Blair and hip hop music. Before hip hop, even as recently as the 1980s, pop singers, soul singers and the like used to dress up. I particularly liked the funky stockbroker look worn by Alexander O’ Neal and Robert Palmer. Hip hop stars who emerged in the late 80s, in contrast, wore baggy jeans, track suits and trainers. Young people lost their tie-wearing role models. At the same time Tony Blair, the archetypal trendy vicar, ditched the tie in order to be down with kids. His official portrait unveiled in 2008 was the first of a male British prime minister without a tie. Where Blair led Cameron followed. The Notting Hill set look was suit and white shirt worn without a tie which made them look like they’d always just finished work, apt I suppose. Now John Bercow, the pint size Speaker of the House of Commons, has said that ties and jackets are now no longer mandatory in the chamber.

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Businesslike and funky

It’s the end of an era. Now no one wants to look like members of the establishment, especially members of the establishment. People in professions such as advertising would not be seen dead in a suit and tie. You often see them, middle-aged ad men, skateboarding down Charlotte Street in skinny jeans. At hangout for the self-consciously creative, Shoreditch House, they don’t allow ties but they have to allow in the suits to pay the bills for so you have the peculiar sight of dozens of heavy set city types removing their ties as they go in. I fell foul of this rule one night and was told by a doorman to take off my tie. Later the manager came over and apologised, apparently the rule wasn’t meant for me, a trendy type (as I was then), but for the suits.

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“You are important”

Some of the last holdouts for ties are not in traditional gentleman’s clubs, many allow you just to wear a jacket, but in service industries. Waiters in smart restaurants wear ties as if to say that your pleasure is a serious business. And a tie is still part of the uniform for professionals such as lawyers and accountants. When I meet with my fund manager, it’s reassuring to know that my money is being slowly lost by an ex-army officer in a suit and tie.

Not all ties, however, are so respectable. In the 70s the enormous kipper ties worn by Noddy Holder from Slade parodied the sobriety one associates with tie-wearing. How you wear your tie says a lot about you. Schoolboys subvert the tie by wearing theirs either very long or very short. And if a tie says trust me then estate agents with their enormous Windsor knots in shiny pink or silver say the opposite. The Duke of Windsor never actually tied his tie in a Windsor knot, his were just made of very thick silk so he had a naturally large knot. In From Russia with Love Bond has his suspicions about a British agent because of his tie: “Bond mistrusted anyone who tied his tie with a Windsor knot. It showed too much vanity. It was often the mark of a cad”. The Windsor wearer turned out to be a Russian spy.

For me a tie should always be tied in a schoolboy knot, it should be silk, not too thick and hang down to the belt, not inches below like George W. Bush. The right tie can lift an outfit. At Hodder most of the time I wore a rather shabby corduroy jacket but with a splendid tie. A tie is one of the few ways that a buttoned-up Englishman can express himself. I have a magnificent blue and red polka dot Chloe tie that belonged to my grandfather. He was a rather forbidding figure but that tie showed that he had a playful side.That’s what I love about ties, they are a way of dressing up, showing off and being a bit of dandy without looking like a ponce.

Ties tell a story. There are old boys ties, regimental ties, livery ties and club ties. I know a few people who would kill to have an MCC tie.  They can have sentimental value too. As well as a number of my grandfather’s I have an old Oratory tie that belonged to a favourite uncle. As I didn’t go to the Oratory, I’m probably not supposed to wear it but I haven’t been pulled up on it yet.

Finally there’s a secret about the tie which the tieless hoards are missing out on, far from making you look stuffy and pompous, women love them. Very few women pick up on an expensive watch but I’ve lost count of the number of compliments that Chloe tie has received. If she plays with your tie, you’re probably in luck and a tie is custom designed for pulling you in for a kiss. Ties are sexy, dammit. We’d be mad to let them go without a fight. So wear a tie, even in fact especially when it’s not necessary. You’ll be happier, wealthier and sexier.

 

What happened to all the quiet restaurants (and pubs)?

This article originally appeared in the Oldie magazine:

The other day I went for lunch with an old friend at a fashionable Peruvian place in Soho. The food was nice, the noise was appalling. It was more like being in a nightclub than a restaurant. Afterwards my ears were ringing and my voice was hoarse from shouting. Admittedly my hearing isn’t the best. Deafness runs in our family. In her later years my grandmother would answer all questions with the word whisky. My friend though has perfect hearing and she had the same complaint. We swore afterwards to go somewhere quieter next time , but where?

Restaurants used to have tablecloths, cushions and curtains which all absorbed sound. Things began to change with the opening of Kensington Place by Rowley Leigh in 1987. This restaurant not far from Notting Hill Tube quickly became fashionable; Princess Diana was a regular. I went once and left feeling like I’d spent an hour in a cement mixer. It was a vast room full of steel, tiles and glass, reflecting the noise of a hundred Absolutely Fabulous types relentlessly pitching at each other. Nobody was doing anything as old-fashioned as listening nor indeed was it possible to.

Where Kensington Place led others followed. From then on restaurants had to feel buzzy, a synonym for noisy. Terence Conran’s 1990s empire, Quaglino’s, the Blueprint cafe, Le Pont de La Tour, shared this feel. This minimalist look began to take over the humble boozer around the time that Tony Blair was on the rise. Blair won the 1997 election with a manifesto entitled New Britain: My Vision of a Young Country. There was no place in the New Britain for class distinctions; out went the public bar, the snug and the saloon. Partitions were torn down. We were all now in one big room so let’s remove the curtains and let in the light of the new dawn.

From then on it was bare boards all the way. A couple of years ago I went back to a much loved pub in Cornwall that I’d last visited in 1995 and found that it had been gutted and replaced with bleached wood. The smoking ban of 2007 was the final nail in the coffin of the pub carpet. Once there was no smoke, landlords realised that their carpets stank and tore them up.  This cleansing took place in the home too. Laminate flooring  came in so that now you can hear every noise from the neighbours above. IKEA’s 1996 ‘chuck out your chintz’ advert campaign caught the spirit of the times.

The popularity of the minimalist trend might be because such places are cheaper to fit out and they save on laundry bills. The trend in restaurants is for tiny spaces where diners are expected to share plates. They promise value but once you’ve had some tapas, a few drinks, some nuts and olives, end up being almost as expensive as Le Gavroche. They all look very similar inside: bare brick, cramped tables, mismatched wooden furniture and tiles for maximum noise reflection. They’re restaurants for the under 30s. It also helps to be a little drunk to put up with the  din.

Many pubs are now more like bars with music played at deafening volume for the amusement of the staff who do not respond well to requests to turn it down. No one else seems to mind. They’re full of excitable young people shouting at each other. Quite a few of them will be on cocaine. Blair’s premiership coincided with rocketing cocaine use in Britain. In 1996 less than 2% of people admitted to using it in the past year. By 2006 it was over 8%.  In the late 90s early 00s I began to notice drug use in the most unlikely places such at the pub in the village where I grew up in Buckinghamshire. People on cocaine aren’t listening. They are just thinking of the next thing to say.

Not that all these new style places are full of coked-up media types. Some are rather good. It’s great that you can eat proper Barcelona style Tapas in London rather than microwaved gloop in brown earthenware dishes. In the new pubs the food is better, there’s more choice in beer, and they welcome children. But the noise! Our local in Blackheath South London on a Sunday is brutally loud. Imagine a nursery school run by drunken teachers.

What we need is a Campaign for Soft Furnishing. It would be like CAMRA (Campaign for Real Ale) for those who savour a bit of quiet with their beer or a meal with an old friend. Rather than the Cask Mark, the symbol would be a wingback armchair. Inspectors will pay special attention to things such as curtains, carpets, large dogs, and tweed. Anything that absorbs sound. In short, if my father and I can have a conversation without shouting ‘what?’ at each other then it passes and they can put up a plaque.

It will be a while before the campaign takes off. Fortunately, I’ve found the ideal pub not far from my house. It’s an old 30’s boozer complete with a carpet, banquettes, nick-nacks and partitions. There’s four real ales, no music and the TV is only switched on for big matches. No, I’m not going to tell you where it is.

The campaign that ruined a thousand homes.