Ayn Rand and J.K. Galbraith may have occupied the opposite ends of the political spectrum, but they agreed on one thing at least: that there is an inverse relationship between being well turned out and having something to say. Rand talked about people whose careers “depend on keeping faces bland, remarks inconclusive and clothes immaculate”. Galbraith worried that the most important qualifications for success in business were“ a nicely conformist nature, a good tailor and the ability to articulate the currently fashionable cliché”.
As one of the world’s worst-dressed people I enthusiastically endorse this view. My suits develop creases as soon as I buy them. My jumpers seem to come pre-stained. However much I brush my hair, it sticks up all over the place. However carefully I tuck in my shirt, it always contrives to flap around. Yet I know deep down that the Rand-Galbraith view of the world is only half true. Slovenliness isn’t a proof of cleverness nor good tailoring of banality. Joseph Schumpeter, one of the greatest modern economists, and the man who lent his name to The Economist’s business column, was a clothes horse who spent an hour a day dressing. But the notion of an inverse relationship at least helps to reconcile me to the malfunctions that seem to haunt my wardrobe.
Last year I visited several of America’s leading companies, including General Electric and Corning. My tour got off to an unfortunate start when, on getting out of bed, I trod on my glasses and broke them in two. I quickly improvised a solution by buying some super-glue and gluing the glasses back together. The operation wasn’t perfect – I used far too much glue and managed to stick my fingers together – but by the time I reached my first appointment the glasses were once more in working order and my mood, which had darkened substantially during the spectacle fiasco, had lifted.
My first interview went swimmingly. The interviewee was forthcoming. The coffee and biscuits went down well. I was working my way towards some devastatingly clever question when my glasses fell apart, one side falling on the floor, the other hanging from my ear. I tried to explain what had happened – how I’d stepped on the glasses that morning and then super-glued them together. My interviewee made some polite noises about how it could happen to anybody. But I could tell that my credibility was shot to pieces. I spent the rest of the day going from interview to interview, with my broken glasses in my pocket and my pride in my boots, too embarrassed to ask anything but the most softball questions.
On another occasion I was delivering a lecture on globalisation to a group of American executives. It is a ponderous subject and I was pleasantly surprised by the warmth with which my speech was received. The more they smiled the more I pranced around the stage, and the more I pranced the more they smiled. Over dinner my hosts explained their good humour. That morning I hadn’t been able to find a vest so I put on a T-shirt, given to me by my children and designed to mock my growing bald patch, “too sexy for my hair”. My shirt was on the thin side. The stage lights highlighted the word “sexy”. The contrast between my subject and my attire, and perhaps between the message and the messenger, was evidently hilarious.
My most unfortunate malfunction took place at a prize-giving ceremony in New York. Every year the leading lights of American business and finance journalism gather in New York for the Gerald Loeb prize, a jamboree that involves a lengthy cocktail party, a formal dinner and lots of speeches. This year I was nominated for the commentary prize and pitched up in New York for the evening. I networked energetically and, when I heard I had won, bounded up onto the stage, delivered a barnstorming speech about “creative destruction”, shook hands with the various judges, circulated a bit more among my fellow journalists and then trooped off for the official photograph.
When I finally sat down at my table, feeling rather self-satisfied, the official photographer approached. She wondered if I would mind being photographed again. I said that I’d be delighted but wondered why we needed to repeat the procedure. She explained delicately that it would be good to have a photograph in which my fly was zipped.