The Young Fogey: An Elegy
Harry Mount mourns the extinction of young men who wore four-piece tweed suits, including ‘westkits’, and loved the old Prayer Book
They’re playing rap music in the jewellery department at Christie’s South Kensington. In T.M. Lewin, the Jermyn Street shirtmakers, you can dip into a fridge by the cufflinks counter and have a frozen mini-Mars while you are leafing through the chocolate corduroy jackets.
But who is left to mourn these things? In the old days, the Young Fogey, the character invented by Alan Watkins on these pages in 1984, would have been in the vanguard of the protesters, shrieking and whinnying away about the desecration of his haunts. He is silent ...because he is no more.
Twenty years after his creation, the Young Fogey has pedalled off into the sunset on his sit-up-and-beg butcher’s bike, broad-brim fedora firmly on head, wicker basket strapped to the handlebars by leather and brass ties.
He hasn’t actually died. The two archetypes of the Young Fogey mentioned by Mr Watkins — the journalist and novelist A.N. Wilson, and Dr John Casey, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge — were only in their thirties at the time, and so are now in their fifties and in rude health. But there is no one following in their footsteps and they have abandoned the whimsical attitudes that once defined them.
The grown-up Young Fogey — now, typically, in a position of power, as are Mr Wilson and Dr Casey — will live in some style, but he’ll no longer be interested in style. You might not even notice him in a crowd. Goodbye, braces with old-fashioned fasteners and trouser waistbands strapped perilously close to the nipple line. Farewell, frockcoats cut for long-dead Victorians. No more the endless pairs of black brogues. Hello, suit of modern cut. Hello, moccasins. Hello, loafers.
The term ‘fogey’ dates from the 18th century, and is related to the slang word ‘fogram’, of unknown origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Old fogey’ was used of old-fashioned people for several hundred years before the Young Fogey came along. Alan Watkins acknowledges that ‘the phrase had first been used by Dornford Yates in 1928’. He also specifically acknowledges that he borrowed the phrase from the literary journalist and Proust translator Terence Kilmartin, ‘who had used it of John Casey’.
But it is Mr Watkins who put flesh — and tweed — on the skeleton. As he wrote in his Spectator piece, the Young Fogey ‘is libertarian but not liberal. He is conservative but has no time for Mrs Margaret Thatcher and considers Mr Neil Kinnock the most personally attractive of the present party leaders. He is a scholar of Evelyn Waugh. He tends to be coolly religious, either RC or C of E. He dislikes modern architecture. He makes a great fuss about the old Prayer Book, grammar, syntax and punctuation. He laments the difficulty of purchasing good bread, Cheddar cheese, kippers and sausages.... He enjoys walking and travelling by train. He thinks the Times is not what it was and prefers the Daily Telegraph.’
There was a significant sartorial element to the Young Fogey. Dr Casey remembers the architectural historian Gavin Stamp matriculating at Cambridge in 1968, at the height of the Paris Revolution, wearing ‘tall collars, very wide lapels and double-breasted waistcoats’. And that fed in turn into Dr Stamp’s architectural interests and the emphasis on High Victoriana — the books on Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, George Gilbert Scott junior and the late Gothic Revival.
But it wasn’t just clothes that defined the movement. ‘Roger Scruton had a strong architectural Young Fogey reaction,’ says Dr Casey, ‘but he never followed the sartorial line.’
The Young Fogeys were also concerned with gentle and gentlemanly attitudes. ‘I thought that was more striking than their way of dressing — a genuine idea of gentlemanliness,’ Dr Casey continues. ‘Oliver Letwin wasn’t a Young Fogey when it came to clothes. But at Cambridge he had that gentlemanly air that he still has; that I think goes down very well.’
For a while, the Young Fogey ruled. ‘Everyone went mad,’ recalls Alan Watkins. ‘The fierce Veronica Wadley [now the editor of the London Evening Standard], even then a power in middle-market journalism, declared that for the moment she was interested only in articles about Young Fogeys. I was asked to write a book about them, to be called The Official Young Fogey Handbook.’
Mr Watkins declined, but the Telegraph journalist Suzanne Lowry did end up writing a book on the subject. And for a while after, the Young Fogey had his time in the sun (always the English sun; foreign holidays were not for him). There were buttressing forces at work. The 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited reverberated in slowly declining waves for more than a decade. When I was at Oxford in the early Nineties, it was still working its effects through a regular crop of about 30 undergraduates a year, who had been 10-year-olds when it was first shown and had been knocked sideways by it, much as other 10-year-olds were overwhelmed by catching the Sex Pistols in 1977 or would be overwhelmed by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which came out the year after Brideshead.
Seersucker jackets, plovers’ eggs, wind-up gramophones on purple velvet cushions in punts — these were the toys of some of my contemporaries as late as 1993.
‘I had a four-piece light-green tweed suit — without trousers — made when I was at Oxford,’ says Richard De Moravia, 34, now a media lawyer. ‘With a flat cap, jacket, waistcoat and a cloak lined in bright gold. The tailor wanted to make it a five-piece by making me some tweed spats. I thought that was too much.’
Daniel Hannan, at Oxford at the same time and now MEP for South-East England, marvels at some of the lengths the Young Fogeys went to. ‘One particularly recherché affectation was to use old constituency names; so instead of saying Mid-Staffs or South-East Staffs, they’d say “Lichfield, Rugely and Stone” or “Tamworth”. A similar thing today, which I admit I’m rather in favour of, is consciously to convert all prices into the pre-euro currencies when travelling in Europe. But I think it’s all in decline now. Fish need water to swim in. To sustain a few people with silver-topped canes and monocles, you need a critical mass in cords and shiny brogues.’
There’s hardly a teddy bear or a bottle of Madeira between the undergraduates at Oxford now. When I returned there at the end of last term, on a boiling hot summer’s day, there wasn’t a single boater to be seen.
Look in vain round St James’s these days for the etiolated 30-year-old making his way from London Library to Georgian terrace home in Islington, sniffing the evening air for incense seeping under the doorway of All Saints, Margaret Street: ‘Decidedly north German in effect — strong whiff of the Marienkirche at Lübeck, don’t you think? Or maybe Freiburg im Breisgau.’
He’s gone for good.
John Casey, the original target of Mr Watkins and Mr Kilmartin (‘I didn’t mind. I thought it was amusing’), agrees. ‘There are a few undergraduate Young Fogeys left at Cambridge, but any organised body of sentiment attached to the ceremony of life has gone.’
The Young Fogey had looked as though he’d last much longer than a decade. He was certainly robustly built to withstand the buffeting of the years, with his thick, thornproof tweed jacket, matched with a waistcoat — pronounced ‘westkit’ — the bushy mutton-chop whiskers lovingly cropped at Trumper’s, doused in pomade and bordered by baby-pink skin shaved with badger-hair brushes, shaving soap and cut-throat razors.
Why has he gone? It’s not that Britain is no longer fogeyish or that the institutions the YF took to — the National Trust, Latin Masses, the Georgian Society — have disappeared; they’re flourishing. Gentlemen’s clubs are as difficult to get into as they have ever been. ‘The waiting list for the Garrick is eight years’ long,’ says a spokesman for the club. If you walk down Pall Mall, you’ll see a huge glossy poster that spans the full façade of the RAC Club showing its Turkish baths in all their newly refurbished beauty. Croquet is as popular as it has ever been since its heyday just before the first world war. The Daily Telegraph does a brisk trade in boxed DVD sets of Brideshead Revisited and The Forsyte Saga. And more children now attend public school than ever before.
That very success killed off the Young Fogey. Like the SDP wilting after its great triumph — forcing the modernisation of the Labour party — there’s nothing left for the Young Fogey to fight for. ‘It was a rebel movement,’ says Dr Casey, one that developed in reaction to the naked materialism, the blurring of class boundaries and the boxy, square-shouldered, belted suit of the early Eighties.
‘It was a reaction to bohemianism, too,’ says Craig Brown, the satirist. ‘People are much more work-based now. Then there were many more people being bohemians, and the Young Fogeys took against them. I noticed the other day when I was dropping my daughter off at Marlborough, the children all seemed conventional. They all looked the same and were thinking about what jobs they were going to do.’
The in-yer-face, ‘I love 1830’ Young Fogey spirit — as vigorous in its way as the Club 18-30 spirits of the Faliraki partygoers — had to disappear once everybody came round to its way of thinking: to buying Regency rectories, coating them with National Trust paint combinations and taking holidays in Landmark Trust follies.
‘I joined the Travellers’ Club at a very young age as a sort of rebellious gesture,’ says Craig Brown. ‘And I suddenly got worried that I’d got to the stage where I had become the real thing, so I gave up my membership. It was the same sort of thing with A.N. Wilson — no one could ever call him conventional.’
The Young Fogey was as cut off and contrary as the Millwall fan. The hooligan’s cry — ‘Nobody likes us, we don’t care’ — might just as well have applied to the Edwardian-suited architectural historian of 1984. When the public started to love him — and even imitate him — he had to shuffle out of his Huntsman suit and head for Armani, perhaps mournfully fishing a frozen mini-Mars out of the T.M. Lewin fridge on his way over.
© 2003 The Spectator.co.uk