Henry Hitchings has written a book entitled “Sorry! - the English and their manners” which sounds rather good. Certainly we thought the review by the Sunday Times's Christopher Hart included one of the best summaries of the English character we have seen ...
The English are humorous but melancholy, law-abiding but loathe being bossed about, and say “Still, mustn't grumble!” after a lengthy grumble which cheers them up enormously. We eschew flowery language but use endless evasions and circumlocutions that sound polite to us, but are maddeningly vague to others. We love saying “I think”, “I gather”, “I would suggest”. Ed Miliband always starts by announcing “I guess what I'm saying is”, but everyone finds that annoying, not just foreigners. We say “presumably”, “possibly”, “arguably” and “perhaps”, qualifiers meant to be considerately unassertive. But then, as Hitchings points out, politeness too can be an assertion of social superiority, and exaggerated, glacial politeness a sharp weapon indeed.
We love understatement, a word first used in 1799, says the Oxford English Dictionary, but Hitchings might have added that it is a feature of Anglo-Sazon poetry. In general, we avoid plain speaking unless we're the Duke of Edinburgh who said to the President of Nigeria in his finest nightie-type national fig “You look like you're ready for bed”. Others might think it, but presumably you have to be in the line of succession to 16 different thrones to blurt it out loud.
The contradictions of Englishness are still more marked if viewed historically. The Elizabethans were dressy, loud and colourful, the Georgians coarse and drunk, but then by George Orwell's day we were famously quiet and polite, even in football crowds, and an Englishman would form a queue even if he was on his own, said the great author George Mikes. Today, perhaps we are becoming loud and coarse again, judging from any five minutes of reality television.
Obstacles to traditional good manners, suggests Hutchings, include dotty ideas about child-rearing, with parents now trying to win the respect of their children, not vice versa, producing only a “cosseted, bratty ego-mania”. Yet along with immense self-esteem and a sense of entitlement, there is much talk of trauma, stress and addiction. Might these things be related?
As for any attempts at old-fashioned chivalry, it's a minefield. Hitchings recalls helping an old lady in the street with her heavy shopping bags, and earning this from a passing female cyclist: “Don't think you're something you're not, you sexist prick!”
The GOS says: I particularly like the thoughts – not sure if they're the author's or the reviewer's – about the link or otherwise between self-esteem, entitlement and trauma etc. It is absolutely true that a politically-driven culture change has taken place, with colossal emphasis now placed on the entitlement of every person to all the goodies of this world – education, free health care, “respect” for one's every foible and peculiarity, money, a nice house, a car, foreign holidays and so on. We even feel entitled never to be criticised – look at the way the judges on “Celebrity Come Dancing”, surely our most repellent TV show, are howled down if they attempt to offer even the smallest bit of constructive criticism. We have created a world our grandparents wouldn't recognise and would probably distrust.
At the same time we seem to have developed a habit of victimhood. Whenever something goes wrong, we bleat and complain and expect “them” to help us out. And we're all sick: we have this complaint, or that allergy, or the other phobia which prevents us making a full contribution to society, but of course it simply increases our entitlement so that's OK. Even our enemies are entitled, it seems, those who fight against us or want to kill us or preach against us in the hope that others will be encouraged to kill us. Not to worry – give 'em a council house and lots of benefits and they'll learn to love us. Yeah, right.
Of course there have always been people who had rather more than their share of entitlement. The toffs, the aristocracy, the landed gentry, call them what you will. They had more than the rest of us, they felt entitled to it, and no one can argue that this needed (and still needs) a bit of evening-out.
Trouble is, we've now given that sense of entitlement to hundreds of thousands of people who were not brought up to it, whose parents were not brought up to it. They don't really know what to do with it, and lack the intellectual rigour to work it out. It's tempting to think that a nice dose of poverty for a few years would do our society a lot of good.
But that would be ridiculous ... wouldn't it?
either on this site or on the World Wide Web.
Copyright © 2012 The GOS