It was one of my backpacking trips to Italy in 1982 that I visited the excavations of the ancient Roman city of Pompeii. Its well preserved ruins are still nestling near the coast, and overshadowed by the outline of Mt. Vesuvius which looms nearby, the source of the city's destruction in AD 70. This was when the peaceful looking mountain blew its top in what the vulcanologist refers to today as a Plinian Eruption, after it was recorded in detail by eyewitness Pliny the Younger. At least he was fortunate enough to survive by escaping from the scene of the disaster in good time. As with me however, this 1982 visit was not my first, I actually set foot on the site nine years earlier in 1973, when international backpacking was to me a very new and exciting experience, and a source of a wealth of knowledge.
According to archaeologists, there is evidence that an election was looming when the disaster struck. Like at present, candidates posted their credentials with the intention of meriting votes for the local Senate, the equivalent of a Member of Parliament in the UK at present. Of course, I was familiar with the ancient Roman Government. Statues and busts of prominent people were plentiful in Pompeii, and coins had the inscription of the current Emperor, just as our currency carries the head of our Queen. But none of this had connected with the reality of the Roman Senate - until I came across a picture of the city's Council.
To be honest, back then I gasped at the image. When considering politicians of the present day, I automatically dress them mentally in a suit, shirt and tie. This is because, as I have seen throughout my life, that was always the way a fellow in such a calling had dressed, as I have taken as normal without question. So to see an equivalent of Parliament, members of Government, dressed in Roman Togas with loose necklines, was something of a culture shock. But much of this culture shock was from a failure on my part to properly connect the numerous bronze and marble busts found preserved in Pompeii with the reality of Roman life in the 1st Century.
I can't imagine any of our members of the Cabinet sitting at Parliament dressed in a Toga with such a loose neckline as depicted by the bronze figure above. But back then it was as normal as breathing and nobody batted an eyelid.
So I was rather amused at a couple of scandals, both reported by the Daily Mail newspaper, which took place within a week of each other, which prompted me to write this blog. The first case was about the British motor racing champion Lewis Hamilton. During the tennis tournament, he received an invitation to watch the Wimbledon men's final at the Royal Box. He was dressed in a colourfully patterned shirt buttoned up to the neck, but with no tie or jacket. He was refused admission, and had to watch the match from the nearby hospitality enclosure. Speculation arose among the online comments forum whether he was offered a jacket and tie, or at least a tie, and refused to accept them, and so the debate raged on, with the vast majority of contributors laying the blame on Hamilton himself. Shortly after, the England World Cup football player Gary Lineker, rose to defend the humiliated celebrity, only to be set upon by the baying crowd for daring to accuse the Wimbledon officials of snobbery and remaining stuck in the past. Ah! Such as the benefit of reading a newspaper article online instead of from the actual paper. On the computer, the reader's thoughts and opinions are fully displayed, as opposed to the hidden silence, only slightly disturbed by the rustling of pages while on board a commuter train or in a public library.
The second incident was very similar to the first, and it was about the BBC cricket journalist Jonathan Agnew being present in the Long Room of Marylebone Cricket club with his shirt open at the neck and without a tie. The media reported a telling off in a form of a letter delivered to him by a club official, however, this may have been done more in jest rather than a serious accusation of breach of the club's dress code. But this did not stop the long trail of vilifying comments aimed at the besieged reporter, accusing him of falling standards, a lack of respect, scruffiness, without discipline, and lacking of class. Not to mention the degradation of Britain as a one-time great Country and Head of Empire. So according to these online comments, it was the custom of an average man wearing a tie during his waking hours that had made England a great country, was it? Pity the Romans then, who did not know any better.
The fact that such, what I would consider as insignificant trivia, making it into the Press speaks volumes about our national attitude over something as simple as a tie. A few years ago, this same paper was very critical of the BBC News team allowing their reporters overseas to appear on camera wearing shirts open at the neck. So the paper launched an appeal to all its readers to send to its editorial office a spare or unwanted tie, and they will dispatch the load to the BBC, to be distributed to all its reporters. Unfortunately, the result of such a project was never disclosed, and since not only has foreign correspondents continue to report "looking scruffy" in front of the camera, but many home journalists are at present appearing dressed down as well. Perhaps the paper's intended project was meant to be tongue-in-cheek. Like in a pre-Christmas article which appeared in the same paper last December. Although written with an element of light-heartiness, it advised anyone planning to throw a party not to insist invited men to wear ties, as men don't really like wearing ties. But what I have seen over the years, many a truth is spoken in jest.
There has been no other place where I watched the fervent decline of the neck-tie throughout the last two decades than at my home fellowship, Ascot Life Church. And this was not confined to the younger generation either, but right across the age board. This was something I felt as a sense of relief, having no qualms. But until recently, I always thought that our fellowship was the most radical in casual wear throughout Sundays, on the principle that implementing or even suggesting a dress code would put off many in the street from attending church, and therefore blocking any prospects of receiving salvation through faith in Christ. A twelve week sabbatical has proved my conclusions about Ascot being unique, wrong.
In the last twelve weeks I attended a different church each Sunday. This consisted of six Baptist churches, four Anglican churches, one Pentecostal church, and one Independent Congregational church. Of these, I saw a few older than myself wearing ties in a couple of Anglican churches, and in one Baptist church I saw a few there. It was the Pentecostal church where a saw a greater number of mature men wearing ties despite this being the smallest congregation. But I'm not understating when I say that the number of younger men wearing a tie in church was virtually zero, as was the case in all twelve churches.
The principle that casual dress in church to make the Sunday service less unappealing to the younger generation can be verified by my own experience as a boy. During the early to mid 1960's, it was mandatory for a Catholic youngster to take First Communion, and to be Confirmed. In both these cases I wore the Sunday Best - a formal suit, white shirt and tie. A picture taken at First Communion sees me having a stark resemblance of a groom about to marry. On Confirmation Day, I had to be accompanied by my late godfather, Dad's older brother, who not long before gave me a severe telling off for going out to the shops "looking scruffy" on a Saturday morning. He then insisted that I wore a tie in his presence throughout the weekend. So the Sunday Best was obligatory on Confirmation Day under my Uncle's eager eye. Even one morning at school while at the boy's changing room adjoining the gym, the P.E. instructor thrust his finger down the front of my shirt, and growled,
Why aren't you wearing a tie?
Frightened, I could not answer, but I made sure that I arrived at school properly dressed since then.
What was the final outcome of all these things? Did I become a devoted Christian, fully committed to Jesus Christ? No, rather I went the opposite way - I spent my teenage years as a devout atheist. But although I called myself an atheist, and even encouraged my younger brother to be the same, I knew in my heart that God existed and I hated him! Throughout those years I refused to go near a church, any church. I even recall when I first entered college on day release in 1968. In front of the main hall, which was also used as a student restaurant, there stood what looked to be a pulpit. I felt my heart drop and my body shudder. Not those dreaded morning school assemblies again...
Perhaps it's no coincidence that while this blog is typed out, there is a two-part drama series broadcast on the BBC, The Outcast. This movie is based on a novel by Sadie Jones, and set in 1950's England. It is about a young boy who had lost his mother in a drowning accident. But what was so devastating for the lad was that his father met and married another woman while his mother's body was still warm in the grave. On one occasion, the distressed boy wrapped his arms around his father's waist in a hope for some consolation. Instead, the senior pushed him away with the words of rebuke,
Now, son, we'll have none of that!
The scene could not be more English than that depicted here. For a distressed boy to show any level of emotion was simply not British, and certainly thought as unmanly. Meanwhile Sunday after Sunday saw the lad packed off for the morning service at a nearby Anglican Church, where all were dressed up to the hilt. And whether what happened later in his life, during late adolescence, is recorded in history, here I can't say. But the author was certainly able to identify with my own heart as a disillusioned teenager. At eighteen years of age, the young man crept into the deserted church in the middle of the night and set fire to all the furniture within, starting with the Bibles. Eventually the roof came down, the windows exploded, and the building was completely destroyed.
So how do I feel about wearing a tie? These days I would wear it if the occasion calls for it, such as at my father's funeral last year. But the main reason why I don't like ties as a whole is because of its tightness round the neck, making me feel constricted and therefore generally uncomfortable. But worse than that, the neck-tie has the social stigma associated with it. I believe that I would be far more accepting of the tie, if it was not such a symbol of social status, respect, discipline, class, and as proof of the wearer's higher academic profession as opposed to manual labour.
The ancient Romans may have gone about their daily lives with a loose neckline, but we can't deny that many saw the love of Jesus Christ within the churches of the day, were drawn in, and were saved.