Howard Jacobson: It's over – masculinity of the old school


I grow old, I grow old...I shall wear the bottoms of my trousers rolled. And my trousers are not the half of it.

I thought I knew how I would dress in my declining years. I had my writerly models – Tom Sharpe for garden parties, Ernest Hemingway for messing about in boats with my grandchildren, John Donne for lying in my coffin, only instead of a white shroud with an elaborate top-knot I'd be in my dinner suit, with a grosgrain bow tie. Like many working-class northerners, I am never happier than when dressed formally. A dinner suit irons out all social uncertainty and makes us equal to every occasion. And so I would look at the end – a man appropriately attired for whatever solemnities awaited him: meeting God or meeting the devil. But suddenly I'm told that a bow tie with a dinner jacket is passé.

"Yes I know the invitation says black tie," my hostess told me a couple of months before the event, "but I'm assuming everyone knows black tie means black tie no tie."

Talking of John Donne, I have to say I find black tie no tie a concept almost too metaphysical to grasp.

"Let me see if I've got this," I said, "you only stipulate black tie in order that I should not wear one. Why don't you just say, dress informal?"

She has always been very patient with me, my wife's cousin's daughter. Beautiful women often possess this gift. They take their time with you because they know you are happy to spend hours looking into their eyes. "It's not informal," she said. "It's black tie no black bow tie."

"I've got a red bow tie."

"Most of the men won't be wearing a bow tie at all."

By "the men", Michelle meant her friends from Borehamwood and Elstree. This is not a part of London I venture into without trepidation. If you think the past is another country, you should try Borehamwood and Elstree. They do things differently there. I'd always known they were not like the rest of us, but not to the extent of using language so differently that when they specify a thing they mean its opposite. Wear a black tie, only don't. Come for tea, only stay at home.

"There is actually a bar mitzvah," I thought I'd better check. "You're not inviting us to an event that isn't?"

"There is a bar mitzvah," she assured me wearily. "And you can wear what you like for it."

I understood the imputation. You're an old man with no fashion sense, but as no one will be looking at you anyway, you might as well come in your pyjamas.

I checked out black tie no tie on the internet and discovered that what Borehamwood and Elstree do yesterday, Hollywood does tomorrow. A Hollywood black tie event means that you wear an open shirt with your dinner jacket, or a conventional black kipper tie, except that it won't look any good unless it more closely resembles an eel than a kipper – long, thin, slippery. It would seem that in Hollywood and Borehamwood, only the antiquated wear what I wear. George Burns, for example. And he's been dead 15 years.

So I bought a black tie no tie from a gents no gents formal informal outfitters. But halfway down the stairs on the day of the bar mitzvah party I realised I couldn't go through with it. I've been a bow tie man all my life. I still have the first one I owned, midnight blue, very narrow and Hitlerian, like horizontal Brazilian. I wore this for my own bar mitzvah and have understood myself through its symbolism ever since. The day I became a man I wore a bow tie. Unless I am to cease to be a man I must go on wearing one.

Apart from two or three guests who suffered the same malaise de vieillesse I did, the men (and that included the bar mitzvah boy and his pals) were black tied no tied. Michelle's husband Mark was even spectacularly DJ'd no DJ'd in a silver suit worn with an eyelash wide luminescent eel tie – an ensemble which I see no point in pretending I didn't secretly covet. Men, I have finally come to accept, no longer dress, which means they no longer see themselves, as I did. It's all over, that delicate tracery of shyness, stiffness and decorum which was post-war masculinity. That had already been made evident to me the day before in Shenley – where the hell is Shenley? – at the bar mitzvah ceremony itself. No sooner did Miles finish reading his portion of the law than he was mobbed by chums who embraced him as no chums had embraced me in the Fifties. "I love him," one of them declared in a brief and unselfconscious oration. At which point I knew the age of stiff boys growing into stiff men was over.

The next day at the black tie no tie party I saw the future. Boys not only not embarrassed to be showing affection to one another but not embarrassed to be showing it to girls. Girls! They knew girls! Unless the girls were their mothers. Here again the difference between now and then could not have been more pronounced. When I was bar mitzvahed, mothers were remote and unapproachable creatures whose dresses touched the ground. I would have been shocked to see the heels of my mother's shoes. Now you could see – well, let's just say you could see behind their knees. Is it right that a boy should see the back not just of his mother's knees but of his friends' mothers' knees as well?

"Make some noise!" the DJ shouted, though there was no more noise to make. A DJ? In my youth the musical entertainment was provided by the Nat Bernstein Trio which alternated quiet foxtrots with inaudible waltzes. "Why so much noise?" an elderly aunt or uncle had only to complain and we'd send the trio out to play in the hall. Now I'm the elderly uncle. And the mermaids do not sing for me.

'Whatever It Is, I Don't Like It', a collection of Howard Jacobson's 'Independent' columns, is published by Bloomsbury on Monday