Englishness, class and manners

Sorry! The English and Their Manners - review.

No elbows please: table manners are bound up with English class. Photograph: Condé Nast Archive/Corbis

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.