Rites of passage . . .

I remember that I first wore a necktie to school at around the age of 4 years old. It was part of a uniform of grey shorts and shirt and the tie was red. In contrast to this vague date, I know the exact day on which I first donned a pair of cufflinks: 2 February, 1989. It was the day on which, in a small medieval village in Burgundy, Flavigny-sur-Ozerain (later to be made famous as the location of the Johnny Depp-Juliette Binoche movie Chocolat), I received the tonsure from a bishop, becoming a cleric of the Catholic Church and received the dress proper to my order, an ankle-length black cassock. I might add that it was bespoke, made for me by Houssard of Paris. I had four others for normal wear, this one being reserved for Sundays and feasts.

I remember this day well. I had dreamed of becoming a priest since I was 14, and this was a major symbolic and concrete step towards that. Hereinafter I would wear clerical dress -either a cassock in Europe or a black suit and Roman collar in the UK- for the rest of my life. It turned out to be two years, in the event. The tonsure ceremony was mixed in with the celebration of Candlemas and so it ended up being a hefty three-hour pontifical Mass. My mother had come from the UK to be there, and the eccentric priest Father Quintin Montgomery-Wright, who had a parish in Normandy and had been the subject of a BBC documentary and Sunday Times feature, also drove down, motoring my mother and her friends back to Paris. His driving terrified them. He later died in a car crash.  My mother took the photograph below with a disposable camera of my walking through the village.

I decided to obtain cufflinks and wear them for this ceremony for the first time in my life. It was, quite literally, a rite of passage. They were simply not in fashion, particularly not for a teenager. I obtained them from a gentlemen’s outfitters in Carlisle and was most likely their youngest customer not only of the day but probably the year. Now, things have changed. Thanks to retro chic and series like Mad Men, cufflinks have made a comeback. As a sign of this, Express now offers a range of French-cuff shirts once more after discontinuing them several years ago. I wanted to start wearing cufflinks since it would be the only way in which I would be able to express my individuality given that the details of my dress were carefully laid down.  So, cufflinks hold a particularly powerful resonance for me. What I did not realize at the time and should have done was that the forceful desire to retain this part of my identity and to express it publicly was a robust sign that I was not cut out to be a priest. It took me another two years to work that one out. When I did leave France, my dreams of being a good, effective priest were left there with me. What I took with me was the French language and cufflinks!

Back to cufflinks. Today’s offering are two concave disks made of hammered sterling silver. They  were crafted by the Scottish designer Emma Chalmers and I bought them three years ago on the isle of Iona. In June of this year, my mother bought me a pair of cufflinks at the same shop, and these would be my last present from her since she passed away during the following month. Cufflinks, then, might be a small and apparently insignificant item but they have played a not insignificant role in my life.

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