Howard Jacobson: The wearing of a tie will tell you more than you need to know about the man behind it

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Lost a debate last week. Sex, Civilisation and the Sixties. One of those Intelligence Squared events at the Royal Geographical Society which are the highlight of the intellectual week if you happen to live in London. If you happen to live anywhere else I can't imagine what you do instead. But that's another debate.

When I say "I lost" what I actually mean is that my side didn't coax enough voters away from their original prejudices. About 150 of the 700 people there changed their minds in our favour, giving us what everyone acknowledged was a moral victory, but moral victories aren't as good as immoral ones. Hard to explain why we didn't do better. We had truth in the wind of our cause. The Sixties made monkeys out of us, we argued.

Literally monkeys. We might have been swinging from trees, so given over to the satisfaction of our animal instincts did we become. The irony being that although we thought we were thereby expressing our natural selves, we were actually dancing to the tune of a German philosopher. Herbert Marcuse, author of Eros and Civilization, the great Sixties bible of personal and societal revolution. If we swung from trees, Marcuse argued - I paraphrase for the sake of brevity - capitalism would collapse. But what Marcuse failed to anticipate was that capitalism would just buy the trees and charge us to swing from them.

So how could anyone vote against a critique as trenchant as this? A German philosopher of the Frankfurt School had ordered us to make the Sixties a decade of fun and here we were, 40 years later, governed by depression, riddled with sexual disease and more the slaves of capital than ever. Boom boom! Seven hundred votes to zero. Only that wasn't what happened. We didn't win the debate; we lost it. And the reason we lost it, I have now decided, is that I didn't wear a tie.

Too hot for a tie, I had decided. In fact, it is never too hot for a tie, but I supposed everyone else would think it was and didn't want to look out of place. Big mistake. There was only one man on the other side and he wore a tie. Not my sort of tie and not worn as I would wear it, but a tie. And they won. And we didn't. Never before have I lost and never before have I not worn a tie. Ergo, the tie swung it.

Ties bespeak gravitas. By which I mean seriousness of mind, strictness of intellectual purpose, not mere traditionalism of the sort Sir Andrew Turnbull has now, along with the tie, decided the civil service can ditch.

For that sort of formalism I have no more time than Tony Blair, though I still believe a prime minister should keep his jacket on and his shirt buttoned, whether or not Geri Halliwell is coming to tea. No, the seriousness I am speaking of addresses the dualism of our natures (a dualism that was betrayed in the Sixties), and in the tie finds an analogue for the war that is always being fought within us between order and chaos.

The animal man is under control, that's what you are saying when you wear a tie. The beast is on its leash. You wouldn't expect a footballer to wear a tie because a footballer is all beast. But chess players wear ties, as did, when the game was in the hands of doctors of philosophy from Prague and Budapest, table tennis players. You can trace the decline of table tennis to two innovations: the sponge bat and the open-neck shirt. Now table tennis players run about more, but the game has lost its wisdom and its wit.

The beast is tethered and yet look at what is tethering it. I would not be so crude as to invoke the tie as phallic symbol, but you tell me what else it is. I know phalluses don't as a rule have regimental stripes or little lions on them, and I know men don't make a practice of tying them in knots, though trust me when I tell you that some men would if they could.

But that flagrant splash of demonstrativeness and colour in defiance of the staidness of the suit; the amount of touching of the tie that goes on in public places, especially if the wearer is by nature bashful; the unconscious habit women have, after helping a man to straighten or otherwise reorganise his tie, of giving it a companionable little pat; and the patently obvious sexual inadequacy of the man who tucks his tie into his trousers - all these speak eloquently of the tie as proxy phallus.

When a man's tie is too loud we know him for a spiv. When his knot is no bigger than a peanut, we know him for an invert. Equilibrium is everything. Chosen and worn with an eye to equilibrium, the tie exemplifies the civilised man's compact with the chaos which is sex: reserved, respectful, granting what is owing to etiquette and decorum, but alive still to the tongue lick of desire. You wear a tie, in other words, to be in an argument with yourself.

A tie is a gesture made to irony and ambivalence. Which is why the cleverest comedians favour them. No man was ever wise or funny in a T-shirt. The one exception, Billy Connolly, merely proves the rule. For my money, John Cleese was more hilarious when he looked like a demented tax inspector than when he loosened up. He took his tie off and found peace of mind. The only trouble is, peace of mind isn't funny. And isn't serious either.

In the street in which I grew up a man charged with a sexual offence hanged himself on his tie. I always thought there was an exquisite moral symmetry in the act. He died by his offending part. In a nod to the dualism he had failed to honour in life, he went to his final resting place simultaneously tied and tieless.