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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

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Shell-shock symphony: Berg’s Wozzeck – opera’s take on post-traumatic stress disorder

Begun in 1914 and premiered in 1925, Wozzeck has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects.

When I was 12 years old, I made a devastating discovery. The arias from my favourite operas – Rigoletto, Turandot, The Barber of Seville – which I played over and over again, winding and rewinding the cassettes ­until they ceased to work, did not ­necessarily have words that matched the beauty of the music. Intense study of a book I had received for Christmas called Stories from Opera taught me that although some of the soaring melodies I adored carried words about love, death, horror and tragedy, other lyrics, in translation, proved to be people agreeing where to meet later, or misremembering each other’s names.

This crushing disappointment came to mind again recently while I was listening to an edition of Radio 3’s Building a Library, a segment of its regular Saturday-morning CD review, in which new releases are compared and contrasted with archive recordings to find the best listening experience. The reviewer Gillian Moore was surveying the available recordings of Alban Berg’s Wozzeck. She gave credit to several English-language recordings for the clarity they offer newcomers to this work, but eventually concluded that she must recommend a version using the original German, because there were crucial aural elements that could not be reproduced without it.

Moore, now director of music at the Southbank Centre, chose to kick off a series of semi-staged concert performances of operas with Wozzeck. Although undoubtedly an opera, it was a far cry from the fairy stories and doomed romances that filled my pre-teen ears, but it worked surprisingly well stripped of scenery, costumes and other theatrical accoutrements.

Zurich Opera’s presentation placed importance on the orchestral score above all else, allowing its jagged and insistent lines to remind us that this is music born of the dark years between the world wars. Begun in 1914, but delayed while Berg served in the Austro-Hungarian army (it premiered in 1925), it has class struggle, poverty and mental health problems as its principal subjects. The score owes much to Berg’s fellow Viennese composers Gustav Mahler and Arnold Schoenberg (Mahler’s widow put up the money for the initial publication of the score). At times in this production, the orchestra was so utterly central that it felt like a symphony with singing, rather than vocal melodies with accompaniment.

The Wozzeck of the title is a poor soldier, flawed and dogged by madness and visions we would probably now see as signs of post-traumatic stress disorder. He scrapes a living for his girlfriend, Marie, and their son by humiliating himself before his military and class superiors (the Captain, the Doctor, the Drum Major) and by participating in degrading medical “experiments”. The star of the show, the German baritone Christian Gerhaher, had to withdraw at the last minute for health reasons, so the British singer Leigh Melrose stepped in to reprise his Wozzeck from the widely acclaimed 2013 ENO production. Despite performing from behind a music stand, Melrose acquitted himself well, handling the transitions between Berg’s three singing styles: “half-singing”, Sprechgesang (or “spoken singing”) and full vocalisation to great effect.

Gun-Brit Barkmin, with a severe Twenties bob and a flowing scarlet dress, was a superb Marie – alternately harsh and soft as the music demanded it, flirting destructively with the Drum Major while conveying how little choice she had in the matter. Of the ensemble, Lars Woldt’s Doctor particularly stood out, using the German libretto to drag every ounce of black comedy out of his character’s fascination with Wozzeck’s bodily functions. The high vocal standard proved Moore’s point about the necessity of the original German libretto – it is a difficult language to sing, because of all the harsh consonants and modified vowels, but when used expertly can be unendingly expressive. We hear this in the way the double “zz” of the title character’s name becomes a derisory bitten-off “tz” in the mouth of the Captain; and Wozzeck’s exclamation in Act I that “Du, der Platz ist verflucht!” sounds so much more accursed and deranged with all those consonants in such close proximity.

The German sociologist Theodor Adorno once called Berg “the foreign minister of the land of his dreams”, much to the composer’s amusement; but, hearing the score for Wozzeck laid so bare, you understand what Adorno meant. The incredible double crescendo on a single B from the orchestra after Wozzeck murders Marie – raised by the conductor Fabio Luisi in this performance to an unbearable volume before being allowed to die away – feels like music from an other-worldly nightmare. Yet, for the war-battered men who inspired Wozzeck, his tragic half-life was all too real.

Caroline Crampton is web editor of the New Statesman.

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