Harry Mount

The Young Fogey: an elegy

Harry Mount mourns the extinction of young men who wore four-piece tweed suits, including ‘westkits’, and loved the old Prayer Book

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They’re playing rap music in the jewellery department at Christie’s South Kensington. In T.M. Lewin, the Jermyn Street shirtmakers, you can dip into a fridge by the cufflinks counter and have a frozen mini-Mars while you are leafing through the chocolate corduroy jackets.

But who is left to mourn these things? In the old days, the Young Fogey, the character invented by Alan Watkins on these pages in 1984, would have been in the vanguard of the protesters, shrieking and whinnying away about the desecration of his haunts. He is silent ...because he is no more.

Twenty years after his creation, the Young Fogey has pedalled off into the sunset on his sit-up-and-beg butcher’s bike, broad-brim fedora firmly on head, wicker basket strapped to the handlebars by leather and brass ties.

He hasn’t actually died. The two archetypes of the Young Fogey mentioned by Mr Watkins – the journalist and novelist A.N. Wilson, and Dr John Casey, Fellow of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge – were only in their thirties at the time, and so are now in their fifties and in rude health. But there is no one following in their footsteps and they have abandoned the whimsical attitudes that once defined them.

The grown-up Young Fogey – now, typically, in a position of power, as are Mr Wilson and Dr Casey – will live in some style, but he’ll no longer be interested in style. You might not even notice him in a crowd. Goodbye, braces with old-fashioned fasteners and trouser waistbands strapped perilously close to the nipple line. Farewell, frockcoats cut for long-dead Victorians. No more the endless pairs of black brogues. Hello, suit of modern cut. Hello, moccasins. Hello, loafers.

The term ‘fogey’ dates from the 18th century, and is related to the slang word ‘fogram’, of unknown origin, according to the Oxford English Dictionary. ‘Old fogey’ was used of old-fashioned people for several hundred years before the Young Fogey came along. Alan Watkins acknowledges that ‘the phrase had first been used by Dornford Yates in 1928’. He also specifically acknowledges that he borrowed the phrase from the literary journalist and Proust translator Terence Kilmartin, ‘who had used it of John Casey’.

But it is Mr Watkins who put flesh – and tweed – on the skeleton. As he wrote in his Spectator piece, the Young Fogey ‘is libertarian but not liberal. He is conservative but has no time for Mrs Margaret Thatcher and considers Mr Neil Kinnock the most personally attractive of the present party leaders. He is a scholar of Evelyn Waugh. He tends to be coolly religious, either RC or C of E. He dislikes modern architecture. He makes a great fuss about the old Prayer Book, grammar, syntax and punctuation. He laments the difficulty of purchasing good bread, Cheddar cheese, kippers and sausages.... He enjoys walking and travelling by train. He thinks the Times is not what it was and prefers the Daily Telegraph.’

There was a significant sartorial element to the Young Fogey. Dr Casey remembers the architectural historian Gavin Stamp matriculating at Cambridge in 1968, at the height of the Paris Revolution, wearing ‘tall collars, very wide lapels and double-breasted waistcoats’. And that fed in turn into Dr Stamp’s architectural interests and the emphasis on High Victoriana – the books on Alexander ‘Greek’ Thomson, George Gilbert Scott junior and the late Gothic Revival.

But it wasn’t just clothes that defined the movement. ‘Roger Scruton had a strong architectural Young Fogey reaction,’ says Dr Casey, ‘but he never followed the sartorial line.’

The Young Fogeys were also concerned with gentle and gentlemanly attitudes. ‘I thought that was more striking than their way of dressing – a genuine idea of gentlemanliness,’ Dr Casey continues. ‘Oliver Letwin wasn’t a Young Fogey when it came to clothes. But at Cambridge he had that gentlemanly air that he still has; that I think goes down very well.’

For a while, the Young Fogey ruled. ‘Everyone went mad,’ recalls Alan Watkins. ‘The fierce Veronica Wadley [now the editor of the London Evening Standard], even then a power in middle-market journalism, declared that for the moment she was interested only in articles about Young Fogeys. I was asked to write a book about them, to be called The Official Young Fogey Handbook.’

Mr Watkins declined, but the Telegraph journalist Suzanne Lowry did end up writing a book on the subject. And for a while after, the Young Fogey had his time in the sun (always the English sun; foreign holidays were not for him). There were buttressing forces at work. The 1981 television adaptation of Brideshead Revisited reverberated in slowly declining waves for more than a decade. When I was at Oxford in the early Nineties, it was still working its effects through a regular crop of about 30 undergraduates a year, who had been 10-year-olds when it was first shown and had been knocked sideways by it, much as other 10-year-olds were overwhelmed by catching the Sex Pistols in 1977 or would be overwhelmed by Michael Jackson’s Thriller, which came out the year after Brideshead.

Seersucker jackets, plovers’ eggs, wind-up gramophones on purple velvet cushions in punts – these were the toys of some of my contemporaries as late as 1993.

‘I had a four-piece light-green tweed suit – without trousers – made when I was at Oxford,’ says Richard De Moravia, 34, now a media lawyer. ‘With a flat cap, jacket, waistcoat and a cloak lined in bright gold. The tailor wanted to make it a five-piece by making me some tweed spats. I thought that was too much.’

Daniel Hannan, at Oxford at the same time and now MEP for South-East England, marvels at some of the lengths the Young Fogeys went to. ‘One particularly recherch