Magazine article The Spectator

Understated Elegance

Magazine article The Spectator

Understated Elegance

Article excerpt

Sorry! The English and their Manners by Henry Hitchings John Murray, £19.99, pp. 392, ISBN 9781848546646 A man raised by apes is discovered in Africa, recognised as an English lord, and escorted home. At a formal dinner, he raises a bowl of soup to his lips and slurps noisily. His grandfather, noting consternation among the other guests, immediately does the same, murmuring, 'Quite right! Quite right! I hate spoons.'

This scene in the strangely underrated 1984 movie Greystoke: The Legend of Tarzan, Lord of the Apes (with a wild-eyed Christopher Lambert as the apeman, and a wild-haired Ralph Richardson as his lovable grandfather) illustrates, I think, the two defining components of good manners:

etiquette and decency. Occasionally, as here, they come into conflict, in which case (as Richardson shows) decency comes first.

The essence of manners, after all, is to put the other person at their ease.

This isn't to dismiss the purpose or profundity of etiquette, whose rules are usually decent, at least in origin. Hat-tipping, Henry Hitchings suggests in his new book Sorry! , may go back to a time when a man raised his helmet's visor to reveal his identity. (Similarly, I'd argue, sunglasses should always be removed in company, even if only temporarily. ) Hitchings is most comfortable writing about linguistics and the past. We are reminded that 'Goodbye' is a short form of 'God be with ye', relic of an age when this would have been a genuinely welcome blessing. The more recent rise of 'Hello', meanwhile, was prompted by the arrival of the electric telephone. Its inventor Alexander Graham Bell advised users to adopt 'Ahoy!' as their opening gambit. Thankfully, this lost out to the suggestion of his rival, Thomas Edison. 'Hello', like its progenitor 'Hallo', was originally an expression of surprise, as if to say, 'I didn't expect to hear from you' - which in the early days of the long-distance conversational device must have been apt.

Some points of etiquette are less easily explained. It's normal in England, when asked how you are, to reply, 'Fine thanks', regardless of your state of health. Is this an instance of stiff upper lip - a reluctance to admit pain, even as you're nailed to the cross? Not only. It's also a linguistic quirk (neither named nor fully explained by Hitchings) known as a phatic exchange: an unwrapping of verbal formulae, like small gifts. Other examples might be remarks on the weather ('Nice day'; 'Yes, isn't it? …

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