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  1. Politics
25 December 2000

All hail the off-the-peg gentleman

NS Christmas - The true English gent is dead. Now we make do with pale imitations, writesHy

By Hywel Williams

The term is loose, but its history long. Aristotle in fourth-century Athens started the tradition with his portrait of the “magnanimous” man whose “gait is measured, his voice deep, and his speech unhurried”. He is a reliable character whose word is his bond: “Neither excitable nor highly strung, he speaks and acts straightforwardly.” He always hits the golden mean – that ethical “third way” poised between humility and arrogance – because he has a just estimate of his own worth. Noisy, competitive and opinionated, Athenians provided few examples of this paragon in action. But Aristotle set the standard for a stoic type with once deep roots in our national soil – the gentleman.

In England, the gentleman was an amateur. He was discreet, anti-obsessive and sexually continent. Imagination was not his strong point, but he knew how to soften the asperities of hierarchy. His virtues were worldly ones, and he was good at running institutions when deference still applied. Bertie Wooster’s anarchic innocence excludes him from true gentlemanliness. But Jeeves is an authentic gentleman, as well as a gentleman’s gentleman.

The type was rarely a great artist – as Elgar showed – and artists rarely bothered with the code. Henry James and T S Eliot did their best, but always seemed to be following instructions learnt from a Bostonian manual of etiquette.

Now the league tables of both the players and the professionals are turned against the old tablets of stone. A gentleman publisher is usually an ineffective one. The gentleman lawyer was surely always a contradiction in terms. The gentleman scientist is a mere antiquarian dabbler.

We still talk about “gentlemen” in England because conduct and character are considered more important here than mind and soul; but today’s gentleman is different from the original article. The real thing behaved instinctively. His only authorities were intuition, conscience and experience; explicit guidance was superfluous. This is no longer so – John Morgan’s Times columns were designed for an age when custom confuses and the textbook has to be consulted to keep the neuroses at bay. Morgan (who died this year after a fall, aged 41) was the Freud of the dinner party and its discontents. He was an arbiter of conduct and cynosure of fashion , but he was just too interesting to be a gentleman himself. The self-consciousness and neurosis showed that he was in a different tradition – that of the dandy. Behind his serried ranks of shoes and panoply of brocaded waistcoats there lurked the shadows of Beau Nash and Beau Brummell.

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Cardinal Newman defined the gentleman as one who does not consciously inflict pain on others. Transcending class, the definition still applies. But the modern gent in England is something of a faker. His relationship to the original model is that of the apprentice painter who, working in the original artist’s studio, produces pastiche works – “school of”, rather than the real thing. In this guise, the gentleman risks becoming nothing but a caricature – witness Hugh Grant’s stammering, parodic version of the English gentleman – an impersonation lost in the coils of its own coyness. The genuine article knew no such debility (although “genuine” is difficult to gauge in a tradition wherein even as seemingly perfect a specimen as Prince Albert was, in fact, a German).

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But because the authentic version of the gentleman is dead, his lexicon is misread – hence the confusion and the opportunities for self-invention. A perfect example of the off-the-shelf gentleman is Boris Johnson (full name: Alexander Boris de Pfeffel Johnson), the prospective Conservative parliamentary candidate for Henley-on-Thames. Johnson has an aura of careless flourish and grand disdain for detail. But this impressive social art conceals artifice, serves ambition and obscures that his True Brit legacy is diluted by a whiff of foreignness – his grandfather was the interior minister of the imperial Turkish government.

Equally, Sir Peregrine Worsthorne may strike you as the apogee of the English gentleman – his baroque temperament and verbal arabesques delight both observers and readers – but his father was a Belgian. The clothes and the flowing locks, the concern with the phrase that delights, rather than the consistency that bores, show that Sir Perry, like John Morgan, belongs to the tradition of the English dandy, rather than the mausoleum of gentlemanly virtue.

Politics and journalism are necessarily public and noisy. The gentleman, though good on social virtues and getting people to rub along together in school, college and regiment, was also a private person. He had an aversion to talking about himself, his experiences and beliefs. Self- display was a vulgarity. But ours is the age of the insistently public, when the confessional doors are swung open in broadcasting studios and in columns of empathetic commentary. What is revealed is the hollowness of “personality”: the celebrity of those with nothing to say because their selves, deprived of privacy, have no time for reflection. In this impoverished landscape, we can see the prancing and inauthentic gents at work. But their antic cavorting ill conceals the discernible tombstone on which we can read: “The English Gentleman: RIP.”