There's a good Chap

A pair of modern-day dandies long for a return to good manners, real food and fine tailoring. And tomorrow they take their protest to the city streets. Will they be welcomed or run out of town? Iain Aitch joins the Chaps on a London stroll
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The Independent Online

Tomorrow, multinational chains such as McDonald's, Starbucks and Gap will face a new wave of actions against their homogenisation of our high streets. The protests will come not from rowdy mobs of anti-globalisation campaigners sporting dreadlocks and combat trousers, but from polite, well-spoken gents dressed in bespoke tweed suits and hand-stitched brogues.

Marching under the banner "Civilise the City", these self-styled Chaps will disrupt the normal day's business at global chains by enquiring about the availability of devilled kidneys in fast-food outlets and asking to be measured by the head-cutter at clothes shops more used to dealing in S, M, L and XL. Neatly printed banners bearing slogans such as "Give three-piece a chance" and "All proper tea is best" have been made in preparation for the day, the aim of which is to restore good manners, real food and fine tailoring to our city centres.

Organising the protest are Gustav Temple and Vic Darkwood, the mildly eccentric and always well-turned-out editors of that other gentlemen's quarterly, The Chap. A kind of Dada-dandyist journal celebrating the likes of David Niven and Stephen Fry, as well as giving tips on everything from choosing a manservant to pipe-smoking and trouser semaphore, The Chap often has its tongue lodged as firmly in its cheek as its editors' feet are in their elegant shoes.

Waiting for the Chaps to arrive at our allotted meeting-place, outside Selfridges, on Oxford Street, central London, I do feel somewhat conspicuous in my second-hand tweed three-piece. Temple and Darkwood have invited me to join them as an initiate to their cause on a trial run of Civilise the City, and issued strict instructions that they weren't prepared to be seen around town with anyone wearing jeans and trainers. "We are not home to Messrs Nike and Adidas," Temple had admonished me on the phone. "As Oscar Wilde said: 'To be a work of art, you must wear a work of art.'"

When they arrive (precisely on time, of course) Temple is toting a cane and wearing a green trilby, while Darkwood sports subdued tweeds and swings a long, tightly furled umbrella. Both carry a pipe and are dressed as if they have come from the Forties, rather than Bond Street Tube station. Temple looks me up and down, examining my hastily assembled outfit. "You are doing exceptionally well," he says. "One criticism is that you are wearing black shoes with a tweed suit. It is wrong, though some eccentrics will deliberately wear them."

As we set off down the thoroughfare that they feel best represents what they are up against, the author Tony Parsons walks by. Darkwood hoots derision at his black leather blouson. "I thought it was a German tourist," Temple says, rather cattily. Walking east along Oxford Street, we arrive at the easyInternet café, a large, uninspiring room filled with computer screens, situated above a foul-smelling sandwich bar. Temple doffs his hat, before attempting to speak philosophy with some of the foreign students who make up the majority of the café's clientele. Most shift uneasily in their seats, though one does warily pass the time of day for a few minutes before Temple shakes his hand and invites him to "get on with watching your television".

Out on the street, the pair continue with the hat-doffing and invite me to join them in wishing a hearty "Good day" to anyone we pass. This being Oxford Street, we pass about 200 people every minute, and nearly all of them stare back in bemusement or ignore us. It seems that only American tourists welcome our gesture of civility. As we cross the street toward that trainer-junkie heaven Foot Locker, Temple spies a woman in her seventies and attempts to accompany her across the road, only to be rebuked with the line: "I'm a Londoner - I don't need any help." Far from downhearted, he traverses the pedestrian crossing several times before a woman finally allows him to take her arm.

In Foot Locker, Temple catches the eye of an unsuspecting shop assistant, whom I can't help but pity as he wanders over. "Good day," Temple chirps, extending his hand. "I should like to purchase some plimsolls for a specific training regime."

"We don't have many plimsolls as such," the employee says. "What are they for?"

"I am being trained for the life of a boulevardier," says Temple. "Each morning I must walk along Jermyn Street at a brisk pace, turn left into St James Street, pausing to select the evening's cigar at Davidoff's before ambling to my club, where I shall spend the rest of the day ensconced in an armchair, reading The Times."

"Well, something soft would probably be best," says the shop assistant, seemingly unfazed. "Do you have a style in mind? What about old school?"

"Ah, yes, that sounds ideal," interjects Darkwood. "Which school would that be? Do you have them in Eton colours?" That sparks a lengthy explanation of the term "old school" from the shop assistant - but no sale. He scores highly for civility, though, as well as the ability to keep a straight face.

In Gap, Temple befuddles another shop assistant by asking to see the head-cutter, but we are dealt with politely and efficiently. It is a similar story at Phones 4U, where a request for a car phone for Temple's (imaginary) vintage Daimler, in either Bakelite or solid walnut, leads to a lot of head-scratching and scurrying-about in the basement from Karim, our enthusiastic salesman. "Perhaps he is calling Mr Nokia's head carpenter," Darkwood muses, though Temple suspects he may be hiding.

Fifteen minutes later, Karim emerges, looking flushed, having obviously been calling around. "We don't do anything like that here, but if you try Selfridges, they can customise any phone to your requirements," he says. "It can even be diamond-encrusted, if you like."

Temple grasps Karim's hand, Darkwood raises his hat and we leave, once again surprised at the willingness of a member of staff to strive to provide satisfaction. Perhaps civility is beneath the surface in every city centre if you scratch hard enough.

It is a different story at McDonald's, where our requests for a dry martini are met with looks of confusion and a "please leave now" approach. "Is it because you are out of vermouth?" Temple asks. But the question goes unanswered. Similarly, Starbucks staff are loath to discuss why they are unable to serve a pot of Lady Grey or provide china cups and saucers.

As we head off Oxford Street, up Regent Street toward a Chap-approved eatery, the pair seem optimistic about their day of protest. They even moot the possibility of a Chappist prime minister, a role that they feel could be carried out admirably by either Boris Johnson or Tony Benn. Chaps' political debate generally tackles such issues as "single- or double-breasted?", rather than "right- or left-wing?".

But their bubble of sanguinity is soon burst by the sound that most Londoners, never mind most Chaps, dread above all. "Can you spare a minute for Cancer Research?" asks a young woman swathed in jeans, body-warmer and charity tabard.

Quick as a flash, Darkwood counters as only a Chap can. "Can't you see I am undertaking my own research?" he says, raising the bowl of his pipe aloft as he steps past - another small victory on the road to the charmed uprising.

Civilise the City meets tomorrow at 8.30am by the Oscar Wilde statue on Adelaide Street, London W1. 'Around the World in Eighty Martinis' by Gustav Temple and Vic Darkwood is published by 4th Estate on Friday, priced £12.99