Tuesday, September 2, 2008

The old school tie

I remember being very concerned about that tie.
I was four years old and it was blue and yellow and grey and I knew that somehow I would have to master the art of putting it on. It had hung on the bedroom door handle for a week, along with the rest of my uniform, and I had eyed it nervously every time I passed in and out.
I made a few half-hearted attempts but the “knot,” such as it was, came apart if I looked at it. What on earth was I going to do when the Big Day arrived?
Thankfully Dad came to the rescue and the night before my first day in school, we went through the procedure until I had it perfected. Left hand, little end. Right hand, big end. Big end six inches longer than the little end. Hold out little end in left hand. Pass big end in between tie and arm, let go, catch it and go around again. Second time, come up by neck and down through the gap in the tie just created. Raise knot to neck and adjust to correct size.
Soon I was able to do it subconsciously and without looking in the mirror. If it had been an Olympic event, I’d have qualified easily and would doubtless have been in contention for a medal place.
Like every other schoolboy, I soon learned the trick of pushing the thin end of the tie through the buttons of my shirt, ingeniously overcoming the need to redo the knot if the thin end was too long. I recall excitedly imparting this information to anyone in earshot, with all the eagerness of Sir Isaac Newton explaining the laws of gravity.
Of course, the state of the tie leaving the house was a far cry from the state of it on my return, much to my mother’s frustration. Red-faced and sweaty, I would bound in through the door with the tie loose around my neck and tilted over to the side, or else it would be rolled up in a ball in my pocket along with all the fluff, sticky sweets and other treasures I had managed to accumulate during the day.
The school tie was great for tying around your head and pretending to be an injun. In fact, I would say that any passing Cherokees or Mohicans would have to look again to make sure we weren’t compatriots, such was the uncanny resemblance of the blue, yellow and grey school tie to traditional Native American headwear.
It was also great for tug o’ war, though mums doubtless tended to disagree. You could also tie your mates to their chairs and, in the summer, when jumpers weren’t worn, they would also do for goalposts, though disputes often broke out over their exact delineation.
Over the years, the way that the school tie was worn reflected the fashion trends. At the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies, it was considered “hip” and “groovy” to make the knot as large as possible, often the size of a small football and obliterating the very wide lapels on the shirt. It was a great source of amusement to us in those days to grab the thin end of someone’s tie and yank it very tightly, until it was down to the size of a marble and impossible to undo without the aid of a chisel.
This practice ceased with the advent of punk rock when it became distinctly uncool to wear the knot of your tie large and floppy. It was much more anarchic to yank it down to the size of a cherry stone and the more frayed it looked, the better. These were the days when the honour of the school was repeatedly invoked in order to stop the growing trend of cutting other people’s ties with a pair of scissors. Doubtless the founding fathers would be rotating madly in their respective sarcophagi at the carry-on.
By the end of my secondary school career, I was thoroughly fed up with the old school tie, both in a literal and also a symbolic sense. I found it rather difficult to convey respect to a bit of cloth that you wore around your neck for merely decorative reasons just as I was developing a rather deep antipathy to the notion of a school as a kind of father figure that should be venerated due to having been in existence for many years. I had toyed with the idea of going to the doctor, Alex Higgins style, and claiming that the tie chafed my neck but in the end I spent my money on going to see the Clash instead.
The worm, naturally, turns. As a father myself, I was rather looking forward to helping my son master the intricacies of cravatology (okay, I made it up) on his first day at school but it was not to be. My wife returned home with one of those ties with the elastic around it that you simply slip over your neck. What kind of fun is that? Yet another labour-saving device that means schoolchildren now have an extra ten seconds to play with at the start of every school day. And if you try wearing it on your head, any self-respecting Sioux or Navaho would spit on the ground contemptuously.
I could not however share my wife’s righteous indignation when my son returned home with the tie rolled up in a ball or full of mud stains. This was partly due to the fact that it was not me who washed and ironed it but also I was secretly rather pleased at my son’s antipathy to the state of his tie.
My secondary school tie went out in a blaze of glory on my final day at school. It was a cheap and unimaginative shot but it felt good, as though the flames were cleansing my soul.
I did however come across my old primary school tie in the attic recently. My mother must have packed it away with my three-legged race second place certificate and my certificate for swimming twenty five yards without drowning. Despite the battering it had suffered, it still seemed in remarkably good shape and I realised that it was probably the article of clothing that I had worn most often in my life.
Wow, I thought sentimentally, and threw it in the bin.

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