Nobbut laiking: Ross Brewster

Date: Monday 7th August 2017

COMMONS Speaker John Bercow’s pronouncement just before the end of term that ties are no longer mandatory in the House came as a fashion body blow to those of us who have drawers full of the blighters.

Stripy ones, plain ones, spotty ones, black ones for funerals, club ties, sporting ties, kipper ties, skinny ties, ties bearing traces of dinners past, ones with migraine-inducing designs, ones that play Frosty the Snowman at Christmas. Yes, I’ve got ‘em all.

An expert in sartorial elegance once told me that, if you could only afford one good suit, wearing a different tie every day of the week, and a clean white shirt, would at least make people think you had a modicum of dress sense. But those were the days before people went shopping at the supermarket in pyjamas.

When I started work I remember turning up one day tieless and being called into the boss’s office for a quiet word like “don’t bother coming in again if you intend being a scruff”. He was right. Going to court, interviewing people about the death of close relatives, it was all about respect. Dressing appropriately.

I reckon I’ve got around 100 ties tucked away, most of them rarely, if ever, worn. Some smart ones and some right horrors. Joke ties are definitely out. When I get round to a good clear out a charity shop will be given the near impossible task of finding a buyer for Frosty.

Ties these days are seen as a fusty tradition. Who still wears them? Those egg and bacon ties favoured by slumbering elderly members at Lord’s. Ties that chaps wear to let other chaps know they’re in the same club. Vaguely recognisable actors with their pink and lime green Garrick Club ties. It’s an old man thing. And this old man has got to move with the times, albeit reluctantly.

Already high-end menswear labels have spotted a niche and their designers are creating shirts that are meant to be worn without a tie. According to research group Packaged Facts, the number of men who buy more than one tie a year has slumped since 2009 and only a third of male British office staff regularly wear a tie to work.

Dispensing with the tie is all very well for John Bercow to recommend to sweating male MPs on hot days in Parliament when the air-con has broken down yet again. But there’s more to going tieless than you think.

Top fashionistas speak of flyaway prevention, stiffeners, second buttons and collar point widths. At all costs we fellows should never show a hint of chest hair and, sin of all sins, man boob. Chief executives at Silicon Valley, Richard Branson and George Clooney favour the open collar style, but as Emma Willis says, and she’s boss of shirt label in London so she should know, there’s many a slip between a cast off tie and a scrawny neck.

But we live in changing times. Speaker Bercow might recall how, on a hot summer’s day in 1986, one of his predecessors, Speaker Weatherill, reminded a couple of MPs who entered the chamber tieless: “I think that, in tune with what goes on outside this place these days at dinner parties and so on, members should come into the chamber wearing a tie.”

Bercow’s latest edict has already been blamed on Jeremy Corbyn’s relaxed attention to dress. What next? Rory Stewart addressing overseas questions in Bermuda shorts and sandals? Tim Farron, newly liberated from leadership responsibilities, showing up in a replica football kit and Kiss Me Quick hat, a souvenir of a hedonistic day out in Kendal?

ME AND MUSSOLINI

GO on, admit it. You’ve probably done it yourself, either in the name of curiosity or vanity. Checking out just how many famous celebrities and figures from history share your birthday.

As last Saturday was my 70th, I thought it might be a good time to look through the columns of the posher papers, the ones that list who has died, had a birthday, been awarded a title and royal engagements.

I learnt that, when it comes to sharing 29th July, with the great and good, I’m on fairly stony ground. That’s unless you count Sally Gunnell, who could shift a bit.

Turns out the most famous, actually the most infamous, sharer of my birth date is Benito Mussolini, politician, journalist (never at the Herald, thankfully), and fascist dictator, who was Prime Minister of Italy from 1922 to 1943, and chose to ally himself with Hitler. What a mistaka to maka, as the over-decorated Italian army officer was wont to lament in TV’s ‘Allo ‘Allo.

Mussolini, known as Il Duce, the leader, came to a decidedly sticky end when captured by communists while attempting to flee to Spain a few days before Hitler and Eva Braun met their own end. They shot him and despatched his body to Milan where it was hung upside down from the roof of an Esso filling station and stoned by the locals.

Although we share a birthday, that’s where my connection with Mussolini ends. If readers of this column decide to take exception to the contents one day, I only hope they adopt a less extreme approach to letting me know that I have become persona non grata. Never mind the firing squad and the petrol station roof, a snotty letter will suffice.

CARLISLE’S BEST

WISH I had a fiver for every time I have been asked who I rate Carlisle United’s all-time best player. Most supporters think Balderstone or McIlmoyle. Beardsley perhaps. They are a bit surprised when I tell them it’s none of these.

He played only 33 times for Carlisle, but Stan Bowles was, for me, the most gifted natural talent of them all. United only got him because of his naughty boy image. He had been playing for Crewe when they snapped him up for a song in 1971.

Bowles was a football maverick, as happy in the betting shop and down the dog track as on the pitch, and Carlisle inevitably had to let him move on to QPR for whom he made more than 300 appearances and five for England.

Sadly Bowles, at 68, is in the grip of Alzheimer’s and former players are helping to raise money for his future care. I once saw him score a marvellous hat-trick for Carlisle against Norwich City. How tragic that life has taken such a cruel toll of one who, in his own eccentric way, illuminated it in those magical years when he was touched in equal measures by careless profligacy and carefree genius.

FRESH CONVENTION STORM

AS a lad I was brought up on tales of Keswick conventioners ordering a pot of tea and six cups in local cafes, causing a run on contraceptives during their week-long stay, grabbing the seats in the pub and making a half of beer last all night, that sort of thing. I imagine, among the thousands attending the annual Christian event, there are a few black sheep. I’ve heard the tales, but I’ve never seen it myself. I believe most of the stories are apocryphal.

There’s always been an uneasy relationship between town and Convention. In recent years at least both parties have been talking. But now it’s burst out into the open with allegations that the Convention, and therefore its followers, are having a “parasitic” effect on business.

Plans to hold what is now a three-week gathering totally within the school holidays do appear to be a rather arrogant fait accompli on the part of organisers. Clearly they want to maximise use and income from their move to the former pencil factory site. Keswick wants the Convention taking out of the busy streets, but is less happy about it becoming self-contained on the new site. Even Solomon and his wisdom would struggle to have it both ways.

However, the use of words like “parasitic” are offensive and I have to say make me ashamed of being someone born and brought up and living in Keswick. I have no great brief for the Convention, but the people who visit Keswick annually deserve better than this insult, even if they aren’t big spenders. Is the Lake District to be a privilege afforded only to locals and well-heeled tourists?

Disaffected businesses can doubtless produce the figures to back up their case. But remember, during most of the 140 years of the Convention, Keswick had a very limited tourist season. I remember the town virtually closing down during the winter, whereas now tourism is a 12-month operation and likely to be more so with world heritage status.

Without tolerance on both sides, I fear this nasty little episode will rumble on and another generation of Keswickians will one day sit their children on their knees and tell them tales of teapots and cups.