James Sharpe's taste in music pretty much ends with Edvard Grieg. On days when he feels particularly pessimistic, he laments that Johannes Brahms was probably the last great composer. As for art, "Caravaggio is definitely better than Rothko -- although Rothko isn't too bad." He is particularly exacting about fashion: Savile Row is too expensive for a student, but one can find hand-tailored suits in vintage stores. This takes a trained eye, but Sharpe has been honing his knowledge of menswear since, as a small child, he chose blazers and waistcoats instead of the usual primary-colored poly-blends. Back then, he was imitating the adults he saw wearing suits to work. Now, the adults are mystified by him. "My father gets rather annoyed when I'm wearing silk handkerchiefs," he admits.
For a long time Sharpe thought he might be alone in his antique opinions. It was only when he arrived at Cambridge University to begin his undergraduate degree in history that his lifelong fondness for Baroque fugues, paisley ascots, and conservative politics earned him a label. In Britain, there is a name for this kind of person: James Sharpe, age 22, is a young fogey.
Until recently, the young fogey was thought to be a relic of Margaret Thatcher's Britain; if he still existed in the heyday of New Labour, it was believed, he was drinking his Ovaltine only in the darkest corners of Oxford or Cambridge. Even the resurgence of the country's Conservative Party after a decade on the political margins hasn't given the fogeys much to celebrate: Prime Minister David Cameron came to power in May by crafting the exact opposite image of the British center-right, touting his support for causes such as gay rights and fighting climate change and forging a pan-ideological coalition with the country's center-left Liberal Democrats. The ruddy-faced Tories idolized by Sharpe and his ilk were supposed to be a thing of the past.
But the statistics of Cameron's coalition cabinet -- a survey by the Guardian in May found that 86 percent of its members were male, 59 percent were schooled privately, and 69 percent had university degrees from Oxford or Cambridge -- tell a story of their own. It's appropriate, then, that Britain's new Conservative era has been accompanied by a rebirth of enthusiasm for the old: A new generation of fogeys is unapologetically asserting its taste in bespoke suits, fountain pens, and a nice glass of port -- and political views that are unapologetically disdainful of egalitarianism.
Young fogeys wear tweed, smoke pipes, and revere the monarchy. They fight to repeal the Hunting Act, carry handmade umbrellas, and evince nostalgia for a past they have never actually experienced. Their political sensibilities, for the most part, track their aesthetics: Sharpe, a former chairman of the Cambridge University Conservative Association, describes his own politics as "paternalistic."
Fogeyism has no manifesto or ideology, Sharpe insists, and young fogeys don't announce themselves as such -- to do so would be counter to what Sharpe has called their "studied indifference." But, he admits, "one thing that is of great concern is the overdemocratization of things at the moment -- that whatever is popularly thought good is what's good." The young fogey, says Sharpe, has faith in authority: Bach is superior to Lady Gaga; Alberti is preferable to Frank Gehry; and police chiefs should be appointed, not elected. As the ruling Conservatives present their agenda of government decentralization and sweeping budget cuts on relatively tenuous political ground, this refusal by some young conservatives to adhere to the party's reformed image is inconvenient at best.
The first use of "young fogey" to describe this particular subculture dates from May 1984, when Alan Watkins, a columnist for the conservative magazine the Spectator, wrote the following taxonomy: "He is a scholar of Evelyn Waugh. He tends to be coolly religious. ... 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." The "he" was likely intentional -- although many young women had fogeyish views, a tweed suit was rarely considered a flattering costume for most of them.
British newspapers quickly popularized the term and applied it to a range of authors, politicians, and academics. A guide, The Young Fogey Handbook, edited by Suzanne Lowry, appeared in 1985, the same year that British miners called off a yearlong strike and pundits proclaimed an ideological victory for Thatcher's government. The handbook noted that "the present resurgence of Young Fogey ties up neatly with the re-invention of the class system" and added, with some acidity, that the trend was "locked into the great and incurable English vice of snobbery: explicit in the instant wish of any man who makes a bob or two, or rises in his profession, to ride to hounds, to send his children to [private] school and to live behind a facade." The fogey was not necessarily of the upper class, but he did seem to revere it.