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Stop checking your smart phone – manners aren’t out of fashion yet

Ed Smith's "Left Field" column.

Manners have a PR problem. Leave to one side the vexed and probably unanswerable question of whether they are getting worse. John McEnroe, once tennis’s bad boy, captured the new conventional wisdom in his autobiography, Serious: “I thought tennis had had enough of manners. To me, ‘manners’ meant sleeping linesmen at Wimbledon, and bowing and curtsying to rich people with hereditary titles who didn’t pay any taxes.”

McEnroe’s argument is that his own “bad manners” had a noble effect. Bad manners are justified by talent and achievement. Good manners, in contrast, are damned by the antique uselessness concealed beneath the surface. Manners were the crumbling edifice of a rotten, snobbish and outdated system of values. They needed to be cleared away for a fairer, more accountable world to emerge.

For the word “tennis” in McEnroe’s quote, now substitute the phrase “the professional world”. You have a fair summary of how and why the public image of manners has collapsed. It also explains why bad manners are not only tolerated but often encouraged as a sign of professional competence. I am rude, impatient and self-important – ergo I am important, busy and successful.

Busy bodies

Instead of manners, we now celebrate busyness. Indeed, the same object that confers urgent busyness also causes the most rudeness: the smartphone. Who has time to be attentive and well-mannered when there are so many important emails to check? I sometimes suspect corporations pay a special category of employees not to do any work themselves but simply to rush purposely along office corridors making the real workers feel stressed and pressurised. To adapt Gordon Gekko’s adage about lunch in the film Wall Street: “Manners are for wimps.”

No wonder the Englishness of manners was one of the things McEnroe most hated about them. The French have romance, the Germans have efficiency, the English got stuck with manners. What hope is there for a country to have such a starchy, anachronistic self-image?

That is the starting point for Sorry! The English and Their Manners, Henry Hitchings’s fascinating and lightly erudite new book. Sorry! correctly identifies the fault line that exists in our feelings about manners. Are they essentially an artifice, a construction used to further our progress in the world? Letters to his Son, Lord Chesterfield’s famous 18th-century primer, stands firmly in this tradition. That is why Dr Johnson ridiculed him for teaching “the morals of a whore, and the manners of a dancing master”.

The rival view is more optimistic. It argues that manners in their truest form reflect character, rather than obscuring it. There can be a concept of “natural” good manners. According to Jonathan Swift, “good sense is the principle foundation of good manners”. At their best, according to Edmund Burke, manners “aid morals”.

But when Hitchings argues that “manners are a means of depriving other people of their weapons of attack” he is surely writing about the more modern idea of charm. Crucially, where manners sound outdated, the stock of charm has never been higher. “He charmed me”, “a real charmer”, or the simple injunction “charm him”: it is now almost ill-mannered to talk too much about manners but we cannot get enough of charm.

There, difference between the two ideas is revealing about changing tastes. Manners, properly understood, are about the other person – not offending them, helping them to feel at ease. Charm, in contrast, is about your own effect – more especially, your own advancement. For all the pleasure it gives, charm can be used against people, to disarm and mislead. Where manners are tainted by their association with the unfashionable concept of formality, charm benefits from the popular idea that we are all just doing what needs to be done to get ahead.

Charm is the subject of two memorable moments in Brideshead Revisited. On each occasion, Anthony Blanche lectures Charles Ryder, the novel’s ruminative narrator, about the dangers of charm, whether you are a victim of seduction by charming friends or guilty of misleading others through your own charm. Evelyn Waugh’s startling suggestion in the novel is that charm is about presenting a pleasing front, an amenable veneer. The artist should be mining deeper truths. “I warned you,” Blanche tells Ryder, “I took you out to dinner to warn you of charm. I warned you expressly and in great detail . . . Charm is the great English blight. It does not exist outside these damp islands. It spots and kills anything it touches. It kills love; it kills art; O great fear, my dear Charles, it has killed you.”

Man out of time

I reflected on the difference between charm and manners when I heard the news that Christopher Martin-Jenkins, the much loved cricket broadcaster and writer, had died. It sounds a weary tribute to say that we won’t see – or more aptly, hear – his like again. But many of the generous obituaries and tributes correctly argued that it would be very hard for a man like Christopher to achieve such a distinguished career in the media today.

Few suggested why. What it was about his style that defined him as unusual? The answer is the same thing that made him stand out as a broadcaster: his manners. He was far from uncharming. But when I introduced people to Christopher, they were usually struck by his courtesy rather than an overt expression of charm. He did not use charm to pursue his own agenda; his manners allowed those around him to pursue theirs.

Christopher’s manners were integral to his radio commentary – the patience with which he dealt with colleagues, the attentiveness he paid to the game. And yet he could not have been further from McEnroe’s caricature of amateurish incompetence. Far from being a sleeping linesman, he had one of the game’s sharpest pairs of eyes.

Manners have been on the wrong side of history for too long.

Ed Smith is a journalist and author, most recently of Luck. He is a former professional cricketer and played for both Middlesex and England.

This article first appeared in the 14 January 2013 issue of the New Statesman, Dinosaurs vs modernisers

Photo: Getty Images/Richard Stonehouse
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Here's how Jeremy Corbyn can win back the Midlands

The Midlands is where elections are decided - and where Jeremy Corbyn can win. 

The Midlands: this “formless” place is where much of Labour’s fate lies. The party witnessed some of its most disappointing 2015 results here. In those early, depressing hours of 8 May, Nuneaton was the result that rang the death knell of Labour’s election chances. Burton, Cannock Chase, Halesowen & Rowley Regis, Redditch and Telford weren’t far behind. To win here Labour need to build a grassroots movement that engages swing voters.

Luckily, this is also a place with which Labour’s new leader has a natural affinity. The bellwether seat of Nuneaton is where Jeremy Corbyn chose to hold his last regional rally of the leadership contest; just a couple of counties over you’ll find the home Corbyn moved to in Shropshire when he was seven. He cut his political teeth round the corner in marginal constituency The Wrekin; it was in this key seat he did his first stint of campaigning. Flanked by a deputy leader, Tom Watson, who represents Labour stronghold West Bromwich East, Corbyn has his eye on the Midlands.

As MP for Islington North since 1983, Labour’s leader has earned London-centric credentials that have long since overshadowed his upbringing. But Corbynism isn’t a phenomenon confined to the capital. The enthusiasm that spilled out of Corbyn’s summer leadership rallies across the country has continued into the autumn months; Labour’s membership is now over 370,000. It’s fast catching up with 1997 figures, which are the highest in the party’s recent history.

London is the biggest beneficiary of this new movement - with 20 per cent of Labour’s members and 19 per cent of new members who signed up the week before conference coming from the capital. But Corbynism is flourishing elsewhere. 11 per cent of all Labour party members now reside in the southeast. In that same pre-conference week 14 per cent of new members came from this mostly Tory blue area of the country. And since last year, membership in the southwest increased by 124 per cent. Not all, but a good deal of this, is down to Corbyn’s brand of anti-austerity politics.

A dramatic rise in membership, with a decent regional spread, is nothing to be sneered at; people are what you need to create an election-winning grassroots movement. But, as May proved, having more members than your opposition doesn’t guarantee victory. Corbyn has spoken to many who’d lost faith in the political system but more people need to be won over to his cause.  

This is clear in the Midlands, where the party’s challenges are big. Labour’s membership is swelling here too, but to a lesser degree than elsewhere. 32 per cent of party members now and 13 per cent of those who joined up in seven days preceding conference hail from this part of the country.

But not all potential Labour voters will become card-carrying members. Corbyn needs to speak to swing voters. These people have no party colours and over the summer they had mixed views on Corbynism. In Nuneaton, Newsnight found a former Labour turned Ukip voter who thought Corbyn would take Labour “backwards” and put the economy at risk. But a fellow Ukip voter said he saw Corbyn as “fresh blood”.

These are enduring splits countrywide. Voters in key London marginal Croydon Central gave a mixed verdict on Corbyn’s conference speech. They thought he was genuine but were worried about his economic credibility. While they have significant doubts, swing voters are still figuring out who Labour’s new leader is.

This is where the grassroots movement comes into play. Part of the challenge is to get out there and explain to these people exactly who the party is, what it’s going to offer them and how it’s going to empower them to make change. 

Labour have nascent plans to make this reality in the Midlands. Tom Watson advocated bringing back to life this former industrial heartland by making it a base for manufacturing once again – hopefully based on modern skills and technologies.  He’s also said the leadership team will make regular regional visits to key seats. Watson’s words chime with plans floated by shadow minister Jon Trickett: to engage people with citizens’ assemblies where they have a say over Labour politics.

But meetings alone don’t make grassroots movements. Alongside the economy, regional identity is a decisive issue in this – and other – area(s) of the country. With the influx in money brought in by new members, Labour should harness peoples’ desire for belonging, get into communities and fill the gaps the Government are leaving empty. While they’re doing this, they could spread the word of a proper plan for devolution, harking back to the days of municipal socialism, so people know they’ll have power over their own communities under Labour.

This has to start now, and there’s no reason why the Midlands can’t act as a model. Labour can engage with swing voters by getting down to a community level and start showing – and not just saying –  how the party can make a difference. 

Maya Goodfellow is a freelance journalist.