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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 Manners were the crumbling edifice of a rotten, snobbish and outdated system of values.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

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No, IDS, welfare isn't a path to wealth. Quite the opposite, in fact

Far from being a lifestyle choice, welfare is all too often a struggle for survival.

Iain Duncan Smith really is the gift that keeps on giving. You get one bile-filled giftbag of small-minded, hypocritical nastiness and, just when you think it has no more pain to inflict, off comes another ghastly layer of wrapping paper and out oozes some more. He is a game of Pass the Parcel for people who hate humanity.
For reasons beyond current understanding, the Conservative party not only let him have his own department but set him loose on a stage at their conference, despite the fact that there was both a microphone and an audience and that people might hear and report on what he was going to say. It’s almost like they don’t care that the man in charge of the benefits system displays a fundamental - and, dare I say, deliberate - misunderstanding of what that system is for.
IDS took to the stage to tell the disabled people of Britain - or as he likes to think of us, the not “normal” people of Britain -  “We won’t lift you out of poverty by simply transferring taxpayers’ money to you. With our help, you’ll work your way out of poverty.” It really is fascinating that he was allowed to make such an important speech on Opposite Day.
Iain Duncan Smith is a man possessed by the concept of work. That’s why he put in so many hours and Universal Credit was such a roaring success. Work, when available and suitable and accessible, is a wonderful thing, but for those unable to access it, the welfare system is a crucial safety net that keeps them from becoming totally impoverished.
Benefits absolutely should be the route out of poverty. They are the essential buffer between people and penury. Iain Duncan Smith speaks as though there is a weekly rollover on them, building and building until claimants can skip into the kind of mansion he lives in. They are not that. They are a small stipend to keep body and soul together.
Benefits shouldn’t be a route to wealth and DWP cuts have ensured that, but the notion that we should leave people in poverty astounds me. The people who rely on benefits don’t see it as a quick buck, an easy income. We cannot be the kind of society who is content to leave people destitute because they are unable to work, through long-term illness or short-term job-seeking. Without benefits, people are literally starving. People don’t go to food banks because Waitrose are out of asparagus. They go because the government has snipped away at their benefits until they have become too poor to feed themselves.
The utter hypocrisy of telling disabled people to work themselves out of poverty while cutting Access to Work is so audacious as to be almost impressive. IDS suggests that suitable jobs for disabled workers are constantly popping out of the ground like daisies, despite the fact that his own government closed 36 Remploy factories. If he wants people to work their way out of poverty, he has make it very easy to find that work.
His speech was riddled with odious little snippets digging at those who rely on his department. No one is “simply transferring taxpayers’ money” to claimants, as though every Friday he sits down with his card reader to do some online banking, sneaking into people’s accounts and spiriting their cash away to the scrounging masses. Anyone who has come within ten feet of claiming benefits knows it is far from a simple process.
He is incredulous that if a doctor says you are too sick to work, you get signed off work, as though doctors are untrained apes that somehow gained access to a pen. This is only the latest absurd episode in DWP’s ongoing deep mistrust of the medical profession, whose knowledge of their own patients is often ignored in favour of a brief assessment by an outside agency. IDS implies it is yes-no question that GPs ask; you’re either well enough to work or signed off indefinitely to leech from the state. This is simply not true. GPs can recommend their patients for differing approaches for remaining in work, be it a phased return or adapted circumstances and they do tend to have the advantage over the DWP’s agency of having actually met their patient before.
I have read enough stories of the callous ineptitude of sanctions and cuts starving the people we are meant to be protecting. A robust welfare system is the sign of a society that cares for those in need. We need to provide accessible, suitable jobs for those who can work and accessible, suitable benefits for those who can’t. That truly would be a gift that keeps giving.