Show Hide image

Englishness, class and manners

Sorry! The English and Their Manners - review.

Sorry! The English and Their Manners
Henry Hitchings
John Murray, 400pp, £19.99

Perhaps it is as part of a new post-unionist literature that Henry Hitchings has written a book about the English, as opposed to the British, and their manners. To speak of the English and their manners rather than the British is “to recognise something visceral”, Hitchings says at the start of this rather strange book. He claims to investigate it in the succeeding chapters but on that score I was little the wiser at the end of it. One meets Welshmen with manners every bit as bad as the most uncouth Englishman, or Scotsman for that matter: and with manners as charming as the best of them.

I suspect what Hitchings means is class. We have a class system in this country and it is, broadly, the fault of the English: perhaps that is the view. It is rubbish, of course. Scotland, an equally old and proud nation, has had a class system for centuries, as various Stuarts or ladies from Morningside will tell you. And since class is at the root of so much to do with manners, manners must have something to do with being English: I think that is the logic.

The author takes us through history to describe how manners originated at royal courts but then became the province of the middle class. They also had much to do with the concept of personal space and allowing the integrity of the individual; and they have a great deal to do with bodily functions. Almost all of those we wish to do without the gaze of others, apart from the function that usually requires two. It became a mark of refinement not to emit toxic odours, or to belch, or to smell for want of attention to personal hygiene: but all that was quite recent.

Perhaps it is true (not that Hitchings says so) that nowhere else in the western world is such attention paid to table manners, and nowhere is there such a link between a certain sort of manners and class. The person who holds his or her knife like a pen remains an object of outrage in golf cubs all round suburban England. Indeed, it remains a metaphor for the “not quite one of us” school to speak of such an outsider as one “who does not hold his knife and fork properly”.

Yet this is an undisciplined book. All the usual historical detail is here – when people started using handkerchiefs rather than engaging in the most repellent emunctory activities, or when they stopped using a specified hand to wipe their bottoms – without the help of paper. There is much about the gallantry men are – or were – supposed to show to women, though the author recounts how he was upbraided as a sexist for attempting such an act of chivalry. But then the book lapses into social history, or rudimentary sociology, not exploring manners as such but asking why communities are less cohesive than they used to be (apparently because we all sit and watch telly too much rather than going down the pub and learning how to buy our round).

And, further to that, Hitchings introduces little chats he has with casual passers-by, or people he meets in cafés, about their take on the whole question of manners. And there is a lot about the US, which as far as I remember is not England at all and not even in many cases a useful point of comparison. In this country, children of all classes are taught, in different ways, that it is not a good idea to draw attention to themselves. In the US, judging by the disgusting behaviour of most American children and quite a lot of the adults, it is quite the reverse.

Eventually, Hitchings comes to the unhelpful conclusion that although everybody seems to think manners are getting worse, actually they are not. How does he know? Certain things happen these days that would never have happened 30 years ago – people loudly saying “fuck” on public transport while sober, for example, or teenage girls lying in the gutter on a Friday night, their knickers on display, paralytically drunk. Perhaps both are signs that we are becoming a less inhibited people; or perhaps they are both signs that we are becoming more coarse.

As I wandered through this increasingly unfathomable book – if it has a thesis, I for one missed it – two elements of the bleeding obvious appeared to be missing. The first was the idea that most manners have evolved because most of us, whichever class we spring from, behave towards others as we would like them to behave towards us: so, unless downright barbaric, we do not defecate in front of other people, or vomit over them, or spit at them, or tell them their wives are ugly or stupid.

The second is that the most recent chapter in the evolution of manners is through what the right calls political correctness. The terms used half a century ago to describe ethnic minorities, or disabled people, or people of minority sexual orientations are not acceptable in most polite society today. Manners are made by fashion and by peer pressure.

There are some interesting observations and facts in this book – how wonderful that Edison, having invented the telephone, thought it should be answered with an “Ahoy!” (and why not?). But – if it is not rude to say so – it should have been better edited and about half as long.

Simon Heffer is a journalist, author and political commentator, who has worked for long stretches at the Daily Telegraph and the Daily Mail. He has written biographies of Thomas Carlyle, Ralph Vaughan Williams and Enoch Powell, and reviews and writes on politics for the New Statesman

This article first appeared in the 28 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, After Chavez

Show Hide image

The Bloody Mary is dead: all hail the Bloody Caesar

This Canadian version of an old standard is a good substitute for dinner.

It is not anti-Catholic bias that makes me dislike the Bloody Mary, that lumpish combination of tomato juice and vodka named after a 16th-century English queen who, despite the immense reach of her royal powers, found burning Protestants alive the most effective display of majesty.

My prejudice is against its contents: the pulverised tomatoes that look like run-off from a Tudor torture chamber. A whole tomato is a source of joy and, occasionally, wonder (I remember learning that the Farsi for tomato is gojeh farangi, which translates literally as “foreign plum”) – and I am as fond of pizza as anyone. Most accessories to the Bloody Mary are fine with me: Worcestershire sauce, Tabasco, celery, black pepper, even sherry or oysters. But generally I share the curmudgeon Bernard DeVoto’s mistrust of fruit juice in my spirits: “all pestilential, all gangrenous, all vile” was the great man’s verdict. His main objection was sweetness but I will include the admittedly savoury tomato in my ban. At the cocktail hour, I have been known to crave all kinds of odd concoctions but none has included pulp.

To many, the whole point of a Bloody Mary is that you don’t wait until the cocktail hour. This seems to entail a certain shying away from unpleasant realities. I know perfectly well the reaction I would get if I were to ask for a grilled tomato and a chilled Martini at brunch: my friends would start likening me to F Scott Fitzgerald and they wouldn’t be referring to my writing talent. Despite its remarkably similar contents, a Bloody Mary is a perfectly acceptable midday, middle-class beverage. If the original Mary were here to witness such hypocrisy, she would surely tut and reach for her firelighters.

Yet, like the good Catholic I certainly am not, I must confess, for I have seen the error of my ways. In July, on Vancouver Island, I tried a Bloody Caesar – Canada’s spirited response to England’s favourite breakfast tipple (“I’ll see your Tudor queen, you bunch of retrograde royalists, and raise you a Roman emperor”). The main difference is a weird yet oddly palatable concoction called Clamato: tomato juice thinned and refined by clam juice. Replace your standard slop with this stuff, which has all the tang of tomato yet flows like a veritable Niagara, and you will have a drink far stranger yet more delicious than the traditional version.

Apparently, the Caesar was invented by an Italian restaurateur in Calgary, Alberta, who wanted a liquid version of his favourite dish from the old country: spaghetti alle vongole in rosso (clam and tomato spaghetti). He got it – and, more importantly, the rest of us got something we can drink not at breakfast but instead of dinner. Find a really interesting garnish – pickled bull kelp or spicy pickled celery, say – and you can even claim to have eaten your greens.

I’m sure that dedicated fans of the Bloody Mary will consider this entire column heretical, which seems appropriate: that’s the side I was born on, being Jewish, and I like to hope I wouldn’t switch even under extreme forms of persuasion. But this cocktail is in any case a broad church: few cocktails come in so many different incarnations.

The original was invented, according to him, by Fernand Petiot, who was a French barman in New York during Prohibition (and so must have known a thing or two about hypocrisy). It includes lemon juice and a “layer” of Worcestershire sauce and the tomato juice is strained; it may also actually have been named after a barmaid.

All of which proves only that dogma has no place at the bar. Variety is the spice of life, which makes it ironic that the world’s spiciest cocktail bestows a frivolous immortality on a woman who believed all choice to be the work of the devil.

Next week John Burnside on nature

Nina Caplan is the 2014 Fortnum & Mason Drink Writer of the Year and 2014 Louis Roederer International Wine Columnist of the Year for her columns on drink in the New Statesman. She tweets as @NinaCaplan.

This article first appeared in the 08 October 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Putin vs Isis