Brian Viner: Brown kipper jobs lie in wait for dress code miscreants

The secretary also supplied jackets; mine was too short in the arms
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My old friend Dominic was my guest last Thursday at the Lord's Taverners' balloon debate and dinner, a splendid annual event about which I have written before, and which takes place in the hallowed Long Room at Lord's.

One of the highlights of the evening is a quiz, set every year by stalwart Taverner Nick Stewart. In this space a week from now I will reproduce Nick's excellent questions, and the reader who gets most right will receive a magnificent prize not unrelated to a year's supply of ale.

Anyway, on the morning of the balloon debate I phoned Dominic to ask if he had remembered to take his dinner suit to work. "Yes, I have my black tie with me," he said. There was a pause, followed by a predictable gag. "No suit, just a black tie." The dinner and debate are always preceded by a reception in the museum at Lord's. While awaiting Dom's arrival I meandered round, looking at the exhibits, one of which reminded me of his quip earlier in the day. It was a cartoon by Jak, published in the Evening Standard in 1975. A bunch of monocled and/or moustachioed MCC members are socialising the Long Room.

They are all naked but for their MCC ties. Another chap is entering the room, wearing a smart blazer over his cricket flannels, but no neckwear.

Several of the assembled throng are barking furiously in his direction. And the caption says simply: "TIE!!!" It's an exquisite piece of work, containing, like all the best cartoons, a kernel - or in this case perhaps a colonel - of truth.

After all, sport is essentially a frivolous activity. It may borrow military phraseology - rearguard actions, attacking formations, flak flying and the like - but nobody gets shot or blown up. Discipline matters less in sport than it does in the army, because sport matters less than war. Yet no regimental sergeant major was ever as pernickety about standards of dress as some of the sports club secretaries I have come across.

I've shared my Aldeburgh Golf Club experience before in this column, but Christmas, with all those Brussels sprouts, is a time for repeating.

A few summers ago, some friends and I ventured into the Aldeburgh clubhouse for a sandwich. It was a warm day; we were all wearing short-sleeved shirts with smartish trousers, and looked perfectly presentable. But a secretary out of Jak's cartoon looked at us disdainfully, and all but shouted "TIE!!!"

Unsurprisingly, we didn't have ties with us. So he dished some out, with the result that we all immediately looked ridiculous. Mine was a brown kipper job, which clashed horribly with my blue shirt. He also supplied jackets; mine was too short in the arms. Having arrived as someone you wouldn't look at twice, I ate my lunch looking like Fred Karno's brother.

Anyway, back to the Long Room, where everyone was dinner-suited apart from the former British Lion Roger Uttley, who wore a lounge suit. Whether this was because nobody had informed him of the dress code or because he dislikes conformity, I don't know, but I liked to suppose it might be the latter and silently applauded him for it.

From his portrait on the wall, W G Grace looked imperiously down on us, but slightly more imperiously at Uttley, I couldn't help thinking. Not that Uttley, bless his Cotton Traders socks, appeared to give two hoots. Rucking against the 1974 Springboks must have knocked all the self-consciousness out of him. He is an admirable fellow.

He was one of the debaters, along with the former captain of Sussex CCC, John Barclay; the Conservative MP Tim Yeo; and the cartoonist Bill Tidy.

The concept of a balloon debate - if you don't remember them from Mr Whittaker's English lessons circa 1974, as I do - is that a hot-air balloon is sinking fast and three of its four passengers must be ejected if it is to stay aloft. Each debater chooses a passenger and champions his or her right to stay airborne. Uttley argued on behalf of his fellow Lion, Willie John McBride, while Barclay advanced the cause of his former Sussex colleague, Imran Khan, and Yeo that of the golfer Joyce Wethered.

All three did a fine job, but there could only be one winner, the irrepressible Tidy, whose champion was a fictional ancient Chinaman, Wo San the Lame. If I remember the details correctly through an alcoholic murk, Tidy affected to have been told Wo San's story by his friend Bert Kwouk, the actor, who cited it as proof that China's heritage is innately superior to England's.

Wo San was a bashful lad who took part in the Chinese Wall Game, the object of which was to propel a ball of granite over the Great Wall of China. Each game took several years to complete, but Wo broke the stalemate in the epic against Inner Mongolia by drop-kicking the ball over the wall.

As there were only 14 weeks left, there was no time for Inner Mongolia to reply. Wo became a national hero.

"Have you," asked Kwouk defiantly, "got anyone like that?"