Looking into the life of a contemporary English writer, I happened upon a reference to the “young fogies” of 1980s England, an assortment of men then in their first decade or two of adult life who held to the most emphatic traditionalism in various cultural and aesthetic matters. Being not only of such inclinations myself, but a confirmed Anglophile and Europhile, I was immediately fascinated. There are few things which I will find more congenial than a group of males, who at the age I now find myself, were devoted to great literature, classic architecture, and tweed sport coats long after such things had ceased to be fashionable.
Though I must use the term “movement” for lack of superior alternatives, it is one which implies more coherence than the fogies ever had. “Young fogey” merely implied certain general tendencies shared among a noticeable minority of their nation’s populace, and was often used either in a critical or in a tongue-in-cheek manner. Who could and could not have been classified as such is debatable. John Betjeman and Auberon Waugh (son of the famous novelist and an important journalist in his own right) both had the moniker applied to them, despite the former having been in old age and the latter in middle age by 1980. The truly young fogies were those of the post-World War II generation who attempted to follow in the footsteps of such traditionalists, and were in some cases personally associated with them.
Traditional views on religion and politics were widespread but most emphatically not universal among the fogies. High Anglicanism was most common in matters spiritual, followed by such traditional approaches to Roman Catholicism as a preference for the use of Latin in the celebration of Mass. Prominent conservative writers included not only Betjeman and Auberon Waugh but Roger Scruton, architectural historian Gavin Stamp, and Charles Moore, the latter being editor of The Spectator at the time and subsequently becoming official biographer to Lady Margaret Thatcher. Sympathy for Lady Thatcher was limited among the fogies, criticism usually coming from an old High-Tory perspective or that of idiosyncratic conservatism, while others flaunted their support for the Labour Party or held more or less strictly to the religious, political, psychological, and other beliefs of a 1930s leftist. Simon Heffer has argued in favor of Christianity as a positive moral, social, and cultural influence from an atheistic perspective. A.N. Wilson moved from Christianity to atheism and back again, writing books against religion during the middle phase. One would not wish to turn to the movement as a whole for reliable, or even for respectable, views on the most important questions of human existence.
It was the fogies’ approach to various aspects of daily life—secondary and even non-essential matters but still ones whose importance too often goes unrecognized—which was the distinguishing and unifying feature of the fogey movement. Preservation and restoration of old buildings was a favorite “cause,” with living in the same favored when possible. Formal clothing, at times including three-piece suits and ties as everyday attire, was a typical characteristic. Tweed was particularly beloved. The more extreme wore such outmoded fashions as wingtip collars or even the occasional frock coat. Travel by foot, train, or old bicycle was preferred. Often enough the combination resulted in living as if it was still the first half of the twentieth century, bringing to mind the observation of fogey hero Evelyn Waugh that “one is naturally inclined to regard all periods but one’s own as a conservative Utopia.”
During the 1980s this movement amounted to something of a minor phenomenon, aided by the similarity of their views to those of Prince Charles and his then-new spouse, Princess Diana, herself a leading light of upper- and upper-middle-class female circles, which could be described as “traditionalist chic, “emblematic of the height of fashion where the fogies were deliberately dowdy, devoted to traditional non-intellectual pursuits where the fogies were devoted to classical erudition—yet both close enough in their broad traditionalism. There was even a Young Fogey Handbook published.
Since that time, both the demise and the return of the young fogey have been announced, perhaps neither claim being entirely accurate. The attempt by the original fogies to preserve the world into which they or their parents had been born is almost entirely gone and, fortunately, seems to be gone for good. Even the greatest exemplars of the movement have admitted that it was an exaggeration—but an exaggeration based on legitimate preferences and legitimate concerns. It is the latter, the opinions and the instincts behind the fogey movement, which have survived and which have seen a revival in their visibility if not in the numbers who share them. These now manifest themselves in attempts to live in continuity with the past, accepting developments in continuity with it rather than either accepting the cultural revolutions of the 1960s and 1970s or simply putting on a charade of older days. So, for example, notable formality in dress will be maintained but it will manifest itself as “contemporary classic” rather than as archaic, though there is also a “trendy traditionalist” who will wear slim fit tweeds and undersized, tightfitting Barbour jackets. Traditional modes of transportation may be embraced to enjoy the scenery, for exercise, or out of environmental concern, rather than to ride around on a half century old bicycle in order to look like one is being filmed for a costume drama.
If we take seriously the contention of Russell Kirk (whose own lifestyle was that of an American young fogey) that conservatism is not only—not even primarily—a political philosophy but, rather, an overall way of life, then we will be likely to sympathize with the young fogey movement even while smiling indulgently at its more eccentric extremes. Efforts at cultural conservation, broadly understood, ought to be of concern to all who wish to be truly conservative.
Within the past several months a major real estate developer on Long Island purchased a restaurant dating back to the seventeenth century, sparking fears that a building almost as old as any in the former thirteen colonies might soon be demolished. After much effort on the restaurant’s behalf, it has since been resold and its indefinite future is now secure. While its future was in question, one petition to preserve the restaurant was featured on the left-wing website “change.org.” Think about that. Preservation of our architectural tradition against change was being organized by a website devoted to “change.” Just where in the world were the conservatives? Worse yet, how many self-professed “conservatives” would have allowed the building to be destroyed out of an exaggerated and, it must be said, erroneous concept of limited government, or out of commitment to “capitalism,” “the market,” “prosperity,” or “economic growth”?
How many conservatives give thought to a classic aesthetic, or even to any attempt at an aesthetic, in the purchase and furnishing of their own homes and how many are content with uniform suburban sterility and cheap particle board? How many are interested in fine old houses or in fine old furniture? How many have an interest in passing such furniture or sets of dishes or anything else of value from generation to generation? Instead we live in what has rightly been called a “throw-away culture,” in which everybody wants to start out with all their own things, things which will be lucky to survive in one piece long enough to be sold at a yard sale after their purchaser’s death, without the attachment to family tradition, family past, family possessions, or, for that matter, to grandma herself to take over that old couch which she inherited from her own grandmother and which will still be in once piece long after much junk has disintegrated in a landfill. Even one of the most horrendous attacks on old architecture and old family houses in history, that carried out by the upper classes of nineteenth century England, resulted from a misguided notion of traditionalism—a desire to build in the neo-Gothic style advocated by those who wished to immobilize tradition in the Middle Ages.
Historically, people dressed as well as they could afford and as the activities in which they were engaged would allow. Today it is de rigueur to look like a perpetual adolescent at best and like an absolute slob at worst. How many conservatives have sufficient interest in a basic aesthetic and basic maturity in their appearance to wear, as everyday attire, something as basic as a polo shirt and khakis, let alone a sport coat, rather than the ubiquitous t-shirt and jeans?
I once heard an excellent priest explain how the celebration of Mass ought to be permeated by traditional reverence and traditional formality, comparing it to the way in which people do their best to be formal for such special occasions as weddings—a perfectly valid point but one which fewer and fewer people will understand, as these occasions are increasingly marked by casual, even deliberately anti-formal, behavior. I have heard that for new spouses to throw cake at each other during their wedding reception is not uncommon. Much ink has been spilled examining the intrusion of the casual into what ought to be the sacred. The extent of deliberate childishness throughout much of life, marked by such apparently irrelevant things as common sartorial choices, and the extent to which any aesthetic and any formality are not appreciated in today’s society must come in for consideration in analyzing the trend of turning the sacred into the casual. It is hard for people to see the importance of beauty and of formality in what is most important if they fail to recognize the importance of beauty and of formality as such.
Psychology suggests that experiences of beauty can aid in the overcoming of narcissism in one’s personality. I can easily believe that. Today we live in what may well be the most narcissistic age in the history of the world. It is also an age in which concern for beauty has largely disappeared in favor of a bland utilitarianism.
We need not return to the days when conventions of formality were so strict that women did not leave the house without wearing the right type of glove. We ought not to simply ape the past after the manner of the more extreme of the young fogies. But to see the basic unity of life and of all aspects of culture, to recognize that it is best if preservation of what is most important in our tradition is accompanied by a preservation of an overall traditional way of life even in secondary matters, and to make some efforts towards such preservation, ought to be beliefs and efforts dear to the heart of every conservative.