I have long held the opinion that women are to blame for forcing men into black tie. The simple reason is that they desire an austere backdrop against which their own exotic garments can be displayed to best advantage. For example, Mrs W claims I look my best in evening wear, but this is batty. The only man who looked like James Bond in a DJ was the young Sean Connery; the rest of us look like a crummy bunch of cheap-suit serenaders. On close inspection, you never see a dinner suit which actually fits the wearer. The jacket is usually impossibly tight, the sleeves are risibly short and the trousers are baggy everywhere but the straining waistline, with the crotch descending midway to the knee. Virtually every bit of the damn thing is awkward and uncomfortable, from the exasperating requirement to insert cuff-links through impossibly small and impenetrable holes (my attempt to use Sellotape as a substitute fastener was less than successful) to the agony of rarely-worn shoes. On the final occasion when I unwillingly donned black tie, my excruciating footwear ended up in a rubbish bin somewhere in Covent Garden.
The only item for which I have a fondness is the ready-made bow-tie, dangling on its elastic ribbon like a tethered black butterfly. The irresistible temptation when wearing the tie to pull it out and twang it against one's Adam's apple is the sole redeeming aspect of the whole seedy regalia. You may recall that this mannerism was adopted by the bellhop in Some Like It Hot when pursuing the curvaceous Tony Curtis ("I like 'em sassy!"). The most celebrated bow-tie twanger was John Betjeman, who affected the habit at a posh do at the Savoy, where he had been invited by his fiancee's snobbish parents. "John went to amazing pains to get a made-up tie sewn on elastic," Osbert Lancaster told Bevis Hillier, the poet's biographer. In the Thirties, only waiters wore such ties. "Throughout dinner, he plucked the bow forward six or seven inches and let it snap back - purely to annoy his future mother-in-law." Hmm, maybe there's something to be said for black tie after all.
Let me take you on a journey that links ley lines, those mysterious alignments of ancient sites, with Bertram Wilberforce Wooster, the amiable noodle-brain created by the incomparable PG Wodehouse. My thoughts were prompted by a feature in last week's Sunday Telegraph by Christopher Somerville about his attempt to trace a ley line on the Welsh border discovered by Alfred Watkins, who was the first to describe these phenomena in the Twenties. In his seminal work The Old Straight Track, Watkins takes a very down- to-earth view of "leys" (from the Saxon word for woodland clearing). It was only his loopy successors who came up with the notion that ley lines form a kind of supernatural National Grid positively crackling with mystic energy waves.
Scrambling through the Herefordshire countryside, Mr Somerville couldn't decide whether Watkins's ley line - four prehistoric structures aligned over five miles - really existed or not: "After an uphill struggle through brambles and undergrowth, I made it to the earthworks, nearly 600ft above the vale, to find once more the treetops frustratingly hid the view... case unproven." As an old ley hunter myself, I could have told him that he was on to a loser. It is far more agreeable for an investigator to pursue the old straight track in an urban environment. There are no nasty thorns on which to snag one's suiting, nor are hostelries so distressingly thin in on the ground.
Ley lines certainly exist in the city. I refer you to the chapter on "Water Sight Points" in Watkins' celebrated volume: "From the actual steps of Covent Garden Market, Thames water can be seen down Southampton Street and the narrow Carting Lane, the ley (for it certainly must be such) passing the corner house bearing the ancient name of Coal Hole." It's perfectly true. You can catch a glittering glimpse of the river through a narrow cut which runs from the market across the Strand and down to the Embankment. What Watkins fails to point out is that Carting Lane, flanked on one side by the kitchens of Shell-Mex House and on the other by the kitchens of the Savoy Hotel, is a bit on the whiffy side. Despite its venerable associations, this ancient route is distinctly wanting in the romance department (though a Shell exec once rather implausibly told me that Bob Dylan filmed his famous promotional clip for "Subterranean Homesick Blues" down there). However, the Coal Hole pub makes a convenient resting place after puffing one's way up the hill from the river.
Nearby, the great Watkins insists there is another, more significant urban ley, running along the Strand, through the churches of St Mary-le- Strand and St Clement Danes to Fleet Street. And this is where Bertie Wooster comes in. You'll doubtless recall his advice to an assembly of giggling schoolgirls in Carry on Jeeves: "My old Uncle Henry gave me the tip when I first came to London. `Never forget, my boy,' he said, `that if you stand outside Romano's in the Strand [we can substitute Simpson's], you can see the clock on the wall of the Law Courts down in Fleet Street. Most people who don't know don't believe it's possible, because there are a couple of churches in the middle of the road, and you would think they would be in the way. You can win a lot of money betting on it with fellows who haven't found it out'. And, by Jove, he was right, many a quid have I..." I tested this out by standing outside Simpson's and, because of the curious alignment of the churches, it is indeed possible to see the clock on the Law Courts. But, despite my best efforts, I've never won a single penny.
Here's a treat to look forward to. According to Time magazine, Mike Myers, the Canadian comedian made famous by Wayne's World, possesses a "deep-seated anglophilia" - hence his latest movie venture Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery, in which he plays an English fashion photographer- cum-secret agent who has been deep-frozen since the Swinging Sixties. Apparently, much of the "humour" in the film stems from the longstanding American preoccupation with the terrible dental condition of their British cousins. "The English won the war," cracks Myers, "and lost their teeth." Hilarious. Just because we don't subject our young, during the delicate years of adolescence, to walking round with a gleaming mouthful of orthodontic ironmongery, we have become a laughing stock. It's enough to make you gnash your gums. Well, I'd just like to remind that gob-proud nation that its founding father and saintly role-model, George Washington, was the proud possessor of a set of wooden denturesReuse content