THE IOS INTERVIEW: Lynne Truss: WRITER: The Eff-Off Society ; Whatever Happened to Good Manners? Why Are We All So Horrible to Each Other? the Author of 'Eats, Shoots & Leaves' Reveals Her Theory to Sholto Byrnes
There's that feeling of alienation, that people are treating you rudely and there's nothing you can do about it,' says Lynne Truss. 'There's a fear of confronting people about their behaviour. I know I'm getting out of hand about this; I could be getting into personal danger. Because I want to say things to people. I'll be in a perfectly good mood and then suddenly want to snap at somebody.'
Hold on, hold on; this is all a bit unexpected. This is Lynne Truss, author of the most unlikely publishing sensation of the past couple of years, the whimsical Eats, Shoots & Leaves. Subtitled 'The Zero Tolerance Approach to Punctuation', Truss's guide to the mysteries of the semi-colon and the Oxford comma has now sold three million copies worldwide, delighting both the author and Profile, the small publishing house that found a runaway bestseller on its hands.
Its success was at least partly down to the good humour with which Truss cut through the impenetrable thickets of history and rules that surround English grammar. So when she turned her hand to manners and produced her new book, Talk to the Hand, most expected that she would gently nudge the reader towards a set of sensible guidelines as she did with punctuation. But Talk to the Hand has a much more serious message.
'This is an age of lazy moral relativism combined with aggressive social insolence,' writes Truss in her new book. We live in an 'eff- off society' which has reached a 'state of confusion and decadence'.
The author even confesses that she would like to see graffiti- daubing hooligans 'sprayed all over with car paint and then strung up for public humiliation'.
'It is more serious,' concedes Truss when we meet at Profile's offices in Clerkenwell, east London. 'The intention was not to be comically grumpy, because there are lots of people doing that in books and on television. I wanted to examine why we are outraged by issues of politeness and manners, going on to morality at the end, and whether or not you're a better or worse person for considering other people.'
Truss, a blonde 50-year-old who looks younger than her age and a tad mumsy, seems ever-so-slightly taken aback " and possibly dismayed " that Talk to the Hand reads as soberly as it does. 'I tried to make it funny.' She is funny, and so is the book. But both she and the book have a didactic undertone; she strikes me as a schoolteacher manqu. In conversation she is even graver about how the decline in manners is symptomatic of a deeper moral decline than the new book's subtitle, 'The Utter Bloody Rudeness of Everyday Life', suggests.
'A lot of people are feeling angry a lot of the time,' she says. They're angry that they don't get thanked for holding the door open for passers- by; angry that they get put on hold for half an hour by call centres located somewhere in cyberspace; angry that they're lonely and isolated; but angry if communication with others includes any suggestion that they should modify their own behaviour.
'It could get worse,' says Truss, 'because the reaction to rudeness is a flashpoint situation, and I think a lot of people feel offended a lot of the time.'
This may seem rather a departure for Truss, but in fact it is not. In Eats, Shoots & Leaves she wrote: 'It is no accident that the word 'punctilious' (attention to formality or etiquette) comes from the same original root word as punctuation.' In Talk to the Hand she links the two subjects again. 'Just as the loss of punctuation signalled the vast and under-acknowledged problem of illiteracy, so the collapse of manners stands for a vast and under-acknowledged problem of social immorality.'
I suggest that she sounds like someone who thinks of herself as a liberal, but is worried by her own growing reactionary tendencies. 'I think that's not uncommon,' she agrees. 'You can't talk about 'standards' without thinking to yourself, 'I can't believe I'm saying this. …