Magazine article The Spectator

Lessons in Etiquette

Magazine article The Spectator

Lessons in Etiquette

Article excerpt

An acquaintance of mine, John Morgan, has just written The Times Book of Modern Manners. He had a party at the Royal Opera House to celebrate its publication. As I was leaving, the friend I was with was accosted by a beggar. (This was on the street, mind you, not at the party.) He was a very stroppy looking beggar of the sort you thought had gone out of fashion under the Great Jack Straw Terror. He lurched towards my friend and demanded a pound.

At this stage the Home Secretary would have recommended that we do one of a number of things: call a policeman, take down the beggar's name and lack of address or punch him in the face. But my friend did none of the above. He decided to give him 55. This was not out of physical cowardice because my friend is very brave, but from that traditional guilt-tinged feeling that it is bad manners not to help other people. It takes the guilt off the gingerbread, as it were.

Anyway, Straw would have torn his hair out. It is bizarre that it is under a Labour government we are encouraged to tell other people to piss off. Under past Labour governments everyone was very polite to each other. I suppose this was because socialism was a form of politeness. It was a nice middle-class version of communism which was considered rather rude by the genteel. You paid massive taxes and said thank you very much to the government who provided rotten services in return. Thus Tory wets were always courteous in a patronising kind of way, while the dry ones called a spade a blunt instrument. But since the Labour party abandoned its left-wing policies it has abandoned its good behaviour. One knew they were lurching to the right when Labour MPs began to call the Tories gits to their faces. In the old days they used to call them shits, but only behind their backs after a good supper together in the Commons restaurant. Blair caught the gits swearing and ran away with their oaths.

All this sort of invites the question, are modern manners a contradiction in terms? There doesn't seem to be any standard set for manners anymore; just as there is no standard pattern of speech and no common set of slang or phrases. Even Henry Higgins would have had a hard time keeping up with the fragmentation of verbal culture. In any case, who decides what good manners are? …

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