At a Chinese restaurant recently, I was attempting to eat won ton soup, but couldn't scoop up some interesting bits at the bottom of the bowl. So I put the bowl to my lips and drank. As I did so, there was a small bleat of laughter from a nearby table. I looked across at a middle-aged woman, who looked back at me, then looked away.
It is increasingly hard these days to commit a breach of etiquette, but I had managed it. Social niceties are designed to signal class status, yet society is so fluid now that it would be difficult to write a comedy embarrassment like The Diary of a Nobody, or even Abigail's Party. Then again, new offences are being created all the time. In the Sixties, the severe injunction "Don't bogart that joint" arose. Today, I have a friend who can no longer enjoy classical music concerts because of the fear that his mobile phone will ring. He worries that, under certain circumstances, it will do so even when switched off, so he has taken to semi-dismantling it.
In any case, if I look back over the past couple of years, I find that I have overstepped the mark pretty often. Here are my top five faux pas of recent times:
1) Suffering from chapped lips while travelling on the Central Line, I took a Boots lip-salve from my pocket, and began to apply it. The woman sitting next to me got up and moved to another seat. This annoyed me, because I always try to be considerate to my fellow Tube users. I'd have thought that lip-salve was at worst borderline disgusting, like using a toothpick, and merited nothing more than a haughty turning aside from the sight.
2) During a long e-mail correspondence with a man I've never met, but who I assume to be quite posh, he wrote: "I'm sorry that on this occasion I've used the dreaded 'reply' button." At this point, it occurred to me that I had been using the reply button all along to respond to him. I can now see that it is offensive to a refined sensibility. It's like receiving a letter from somebody who sets out in detail exactly why they'd like you to come round to dinner, and responding by sending them back their own letter with "Sorry, can't make it" scrawled across the bottom.
3) Every year, I used to exchange Christmas cards with a man I knew from university who I suspected worked for the secret services. Two years ago, I wrote: "Happy Christmas. How's life in MI5?" I never heard from him again. Perhaps it has been necessary to construct a whole new identity for the poor chap. I should have realised that, as the secret services cannot hope to function in an environment of absolute secrecy, they must be relying on people simply not bringing up the subject. Good manners, in other words.
4) After urinating in a gentlemen's toilet at the headquarters of London Underground, I washed my hands, but then didn't bother to dry them. As I emerged from the Gents, the man I had come to see was standing directly in front of me, and so as we shook hands my hands were wet, which must have been a horrible experience for him. It felt as if I had been penalised for excessive gentility in washing my hands in the first place. After all, there are street urinals all over the highly sophisticated city of Paris, but with no washing facilities nearby.
5) At a drinks party, I got talking to an editor from one of the big publishing houses. He mentioned a book that he'd just published, and it turned out that I had read it. "What did you think?" he asked. "Well," I replied, "I didn't like it." The man walked off, hardly bothering even to conclude the conversation. It is easy to forget, in an environment where everybody seeks to be modern and "cutting-edge", that there is still a place for old-fashioned bourgeois hypocrisy.