On Sunday my godson Richard, having married Mark, with whom he has lived for some time, invited us to a party to celebrate their wedding ties. It was in the West End in one of those slightly anomalous spaces, a room upstairs from a restaurant being put to profitable use, knowingly traditional but the coldness of the beer an indication that the tradition was being packaged for sale not to us but to Americans. I was talking to Richard’s father, Michael, and we were saying how agreeable it was that at occasions of this sort it was no longer necessary, as it would have been not so long ago, to wear a tie. Michael was wearing an open-necked shirt and my sweater was black and polo-necked.
Not everyone rates black polo-necked sweaters. Some think them old-fashioned. I first took to them in the early 1960s. I would wear them with crisp grey slacks and hope that people would say that, since I had thick black-framed glasses too, I looked like Manfred Mann, whose first band was then becoming popular. People quite often did. I suppose that that is another way of saying that they are indeed old-fashioned. But I hedge my bets these days: it is a Yohji Yamamoto black polo-necked sweater.
Manfred Mann had hits with Do Way Diddy Diddy and Pretty Flamingo. I liked them partly because of the black polo-necked sweaters and the black glasses and partly because Mike Vickers played Roland Kirk-style flute, which I was attempting to master. We didn’t then realise that Jack Bruce was in the band; he died last year and was probably the greatest rock bassist of them all.
Michael simply doesn’t like wearing a tie. My own feelings are more complex. At one level, ties were part of my uniform for over forty years as a lawyer and it has been nice to put working clothes to one side. Where I work now, ties are only rarely necessary. But there are more disturbing elements to them too. As we chatted, the memory of an encounter flooded back. It took place not a hundred yards from where we were, not in the 1960s, but a decade later, when I had recently started working as a solicitor. I was in a clothes shop trying on a suit. I won’t tell you which shop. It is still there and there are a number of other branches but my encounter was with a man whose name was over the door, although only in the sense that the shop was named after his father, who owned and ran it. I was being served by Young Mr Grace, as it were.
I admired myself in the mirror. One of the glories of the written word is that you can imagine me in a contemporary suit, something sharp but suitable for the office, something by Hugo Boss perhaps, a simple single-breasted coat with a single button, hanging perfectly. In fact, since it was the early 70s, it was an object horrendous to contemplate, with science fiction reveres, assisted shoulders and the trousers flared: David Bowie meets Hepworth’s. But we were not to understand this until later.
I was wearing the shirt and tie that I had worn to the office that morning with my existing suit, which was now resting over the back of a chair.
“Tie,” said Young Mr Grace, as I shall continue to call him.
“I’m suited, thank you very much,” I said.
“No pun intended,” I added.
Young Mr Grace did not laugh. He looked at me intently, and then roughly pulled my tie off.
“Stand still,” he said. “Don’t speak.”
He went to a drawer and returned with three or four in his hand. Again, the historical perspective is important. When I gave up the day job, I threw out a whole assortment of more or less grubby neckwear. I kept two or three only, and they are slim, discreet and elegant. Forty years ago those on offer would have been far bigger and more colourful: you would probably say blowsier. Possibly there was a feel of William Morris. Certainly they were of silk, flowers were depicted on them and they were generously proportioned. Young Mr Grace tied one around my neck. He did not trouble to place it within the collar of my shirt, so that it sat proud, like the scarves that men wore in those days but much plumper. He stood back, admired it and pinched it between finger and thumb, feeling the resistance of the silk.
“Mr G, it’s…”
Very deliberately he tied the other two over the first one. My appearance was that of a Regency dandy, but incontinent in a manner that such a man would never have permitted himself. As he worked away I noticed a line of sweat on Mr Grace’s top lip. Again he stood back.
“Mr G, I …”
He sank into the chair on which my suit lay. He seemed exhausted by his efforts and did not bother to avoid creasing it. Indeed, my trousers he simply sat on.
“Ah, ties,” he said. “I can do without sex – and Father would rather that I did – but I could never do without ties. A lovely floral tie like yours, the second one down, lovely yellows, lovely and plump to touch, lovely silk, it makes me come, just like that.”
I glanced at his trousering, but it was impossible to tell whether he spoke figuratively.
With a groan he hauled himself up and staggered away. Glancing round to make sure that I was not observed I removed Mr Grace’s suit and replaced my own. One is never at one’s most assured when wearing someone else’s trousers.
“Mr G!” I called. “The suit?”
“Bugger the suit,” he grunted, from behind a curtain.
When David Cameron and Ed Miliband appear on the television with their neat jackets and their passionless open-necked shirts, this story is one more reason why I despise them.