Bow ties crafted from fine silk, and a boat fashioned from broomsticks, bedsheets and a tin bath.
“Bow ties are not worn – they are flaunted,” so said a former editor and bow tie aficionado some 60 years ago as he viewed my first attempts at tying what is little more than a rather large shoelace knot – though with a wide ribbon that enlarges at both ends. In conservative Cape Town the bow was regarded as the affectation of wannabe aesthetes in the young, or the ultimate badge of fustiness in anyone over 50.
I was neither, I happened to like the look of bow ties, and – as I remarked to anyone whom I thought might have a sense of humour – a bow tie could never accidentally flop into one’s soup. As wit, the remark failed, and most of those who listened wrote me off as just another messy eater.
In London, or so I was warned by Col. Roger Hallam (an MI 6 ‘spook’ masquerading as a trade representative on the UK High Commissioner’s staff in South Africa, when I set off for Fleet Street) I should avoid the use of public lavatories if wearing a bow, for it was a badge of the – then illegal – status of being ‘gay’. In fact, I should never wear a bow while under the age of 60, he advised, and I should also shave my beard, as this was too bohemian – even for Fleet Street.
I took his advice on the beard and ignored that about bow ties – in both of which Colonel Hallam was proved wrong – something I should have expected. For, if secrecy is a prerequisite of a spy, he was not very good at his job – every journalist and politician in South Africa knew he was a spook.
In Fleet Street, several of my colleagues from the News Chronicle (and, later, The Times) wore bow ties, and, as far as I could tell, were not gay; nor were the bearded journalists and photographers more bohemian than their shaven colleagues.
In Gibraltar, probably for several years, only the late Momy Levy and I wore the bow daily. But since leaving a brace of editorial chairs where I felt – as many lawyers and chartered accountants still do – some sort of tie was de rigueur, I’ve become sartorially lazy and prefer open-necked comfort, save for very special occasions. Which may be just as well. Other than the clip-on or pre-tied bows – which are anathema to the true aficionado – I would have to travel to Madrid or Barcelona for a new tie, or so I was told by an up-market men’s outfitter in Algeciras… and then it probably would have an adjustable neck-band, he added.
My first bow ties were hand-sewn to measure, and though these have long since passed their ‘worn-by date’, among the dozen or so still draped on a special hanger in my wardrobe is a bow sewn for me by my younger daughter more than 30 years ago. She crafted it from the elderly remnant of fine silk dressing-gown. Though today’s bow ties are made in a variety of fabrics, from silk to artificial fibres, their true ancestors were of coarse linen – scarves worn by 17th century Croatian mercenaries during the Prussian War to hold together the openings of their shirts. Dubbed the cravat (derived from the French for “Croat”) the style was adopted by fashionable upper-class Parisians where it flourished among the fashion-conscious in the 18th and 19th centuries. Quite how it evolved as the bow tie which, in its hey-day was flaunted by Victorian gentlemen, is uncertain… and who cares, for evolve it did – most gloriously.
“To its devotees, the bow tie suggests iconoclasm of an Old World sort, a fusty adherence to a contrarian point of view,” so wrote a recent contributor to the New York Times. “It hints at intellectualism, real or feigned, and is worn by magicians, country doctors, lawyers and professors, and by people hoping to look like the above.”
To this list he might have added ‘Colonial District Officers’, for it is in the tradition set by one of these that each year the bow tie is flaunted at its finest. For – without collar or shirt – it is central to the formal wear at the annual dinner of the Royal Wajir Yacht Club. As unique as it is improbable, the RWYC meets in the heart of Kenya’s Northern Frontier District – an outpost hundreds of kilometres from the sea where there is neither lake nor river, and, in most years, the only water is pumped from a desert borehole.
The NFD is a wild, semi-desert area on the border with Somalia inhabited by nomadic Samburu – a tribe which, when I was there more than half a century ago, held the unenviable record in having the most limbless people in the world.
The numerous packs of hyenas in the NFD would attack Samburu herders sleeping in the open with only a fire to protect them from nocturnal prowlers. And a fire is not enough to deter a hungry hyena, whose powerful jaws can snap off a careless forearm of lower leg with one bite. The only clinic in the area was at Wajir, where in colonial days, a District Officer and a dozen African askaries enforced the law and administered justice. Those hyena victims lucky enough to survive an attack near Wajir were treated at the clinic, those attacked further afield often didn’t make it.
Wajir was probably one of the most remote places of administration in what then was still the British Empire and, with little company other than occasional Samburu and a bi-monthly change of African clinic nurses, District Officers tended to become eccentric. Apart from loneliness, they faced constant heat and lack of rain where years could pass without a single short shower.
But in the mid-1930s an abnormal change of weather and winds somewhere in the Indian Ocean brought weeks of incessant rain to the NFD; mud dams which had been empty for years overflowed, dry gullies turned to streams filling lower parts of the desert, and the land suddenly became a carpet of green vegetation. In Wajir, a sunken area that was thought to have been quarried for iron ore a thousand years earlier was quickly filled by the rains.
The District Officer at the time was not only more eccentric than most, but had been a keen yachtsman in his youth and saw this sudden private ‘lake’ as a great opportunity to go sailing again. Although he had no boat, there was a large tin bath in which he had his weekly scrub, and with a couple of broomsticks for a mast and a bed-sheet for a sail, the D.O. launched his boat. The entrance to his brick office block and living quarters he painted a sign: The Wajir Yacht Club.
The sudden rains had coincided with a visit to East Africa by the then Prince of Wales whose tour included a hunting safari in the NFD, during which his party arrived unannounced at Wajir, where they came upon the D.O. in his sailing tub. The Prince, who was himself a keen yachtsman, was so amused (or so I was told) that he insisted on trying it out, and at dinner that night he promised the D.O. that he would be sent a patent giving a royal blessing to the club. Months later, the patent arrived… hence the name.
A colleague in Nairobi who went there with a television crew to film what had become the club’s formal annual dinner told me that the framed Royal Warrant still hung in the main administration building, and that the compulsory dress for those at the dinner was still as eccentric as the club’s founder – a wrap-around kikoi, no shirt… but a formal black bow tie.