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Toby Banks

Manners maketh comeback

Q:How does one greet a person who is wearing riding gear?
A: If they are crossing the 'quad' at Christ Church College, Oxford, the correct form of address is 'wanker'.

This example of modern etiquette comes not from the pages of Viz magazine, but from a motion passed by the Junior Common Room of the aforementioned college. The jest hit a raw nerve, and not just with the 'young fogeys' at Christ Church. For some time now there has been an uneasy mood abroad in the rarefied world of the Oxbridge establishment, with dons making noises about 'standards' and the 'wrong sort' of students. No-one can spell, nobody reads any more, and attention spans have been destroyed by years of mind-rotting popular culture. Worst of all, nobody laughs at the dons' jokes, and they fondly believe that this is because nobody understands their references to the classics.

It's not just Oxford, either. Cricket, we hear, has been defiled by Graham Gooch's 'barmy army' of 'Brits on Tour' followers. Wimbledon was in uproar over 'Monic-ugh' Seles and the grunting brat pack. Ascot was 'ruined' by pink lycra mini skirts. There is a general feeling that, as one young writer put it over a decade ago, 'the yobs are winning'.

In those days, the fear was that the bourgeoisie would be drowned in the rising tide of lumpen filth. Now there are worries about the young middle classes diving enthusiastically into the scum. As the Hooray Henry gave way to the City lager lout, the public schoolboys learned to say 'son' and 'pukka' and had their corduroy trousers surgically removed. The latest 'tribe' to be lazily labelled is the 'Secret Sharons': nice girls who don white stilettos and go native in tacky wine bars, 'Knightsbridge Girls who turn Essex after dark'. And at the apex of this rapidly submerging social pyramid, forcing it down with the sheer weight of their vulgarity, sit the young royals.

One consequence of all this uneasiness is that 'manners' have become a topic of public discussion once again. Etiquette books are back, imparting courtly rules from bygone centuries. The authors try to justify their existence in the 1990s by suggesting that people want clear rules when tricky questions of race, class and gender arise. It all sounds very nice. Good to know that Debretts and the rest can move with the times. After all, manners are just an encouragement to kind, considerate behaviour. One heavily hyped new book begins in this vein by arguing that manners are really codes for minor morals. But this is a tall order: most of its pages address the intricacies of eating peas with a fork and similar matters, and before long the author is admitting that manners are usually more concerned with just 'being right', and some people are naturally righter than others.

For, as they say in the Bertie Wooster sherry ad, one instinctively knows when something is right. They say that the upper classes are equally at home with a duke or a dustman, and this is usually mistaken for putting other people at their ease. In reality, their social graces are busy wrong-footing everybody else in the politest possible way. The true reason the upper classes feel at home anywhere is that they are at home anywhere - the world is their home, they own it. They are comfortable talking to anyone because they feel superior to everyone.

Whether you are bothered about being wrong-footed by your social superiors depends on whether you aspire to be accepted by them. Hence manners are a particular preoccupation of the middle classes, where even today your position in a tight pecking order could rest on whether you say 'toilet' or 'serviette' in the wrong company.

One new guidebook makes a revealing observation about the nature of self-improvement and social mobility: 'Half the time people carry on as if we lived in a classless society these days, but the rest of the time those people are having quiet conversations about who others are and where they come from. The first thing to say is that no-one should feel ashamed of who they are and where they come from - and that applies to princes as much as slum children.' I don't imagine this particular £1.99 paperback was aimed at princes, so behind the reassuring tone is the clear assumption that the lower orders must shape up.

On this question many others agree. Whenever manners are discussed today, ordinary people are blamed for making the world an ugly place. The London papers are currently full of abusive articles about people who eat in the street. It seems this is not only rude, but distressing to others whose relaxation is spoilt. So next time you're cramming down your food in the rush to get back to work because your lunch 'hour' is now 10 minutes, spare a thought for the businessmen as you pass their pavement tables - you're probably ruining their four-course meals.

And when you have to fight 50 other people for a place on the bus, remember how much more pleasant it is to queue - if you behaved better, the businessmen wouldn't have to go everywhere by cab. And, when you finally get home in the middle of the evening, when the shops have shut, forcing you to buy another takeaway you can't afford, remember that as you sit round the TV too exhausted to speak, you are 'destroying the family institution of mealtimes' - not to mention the art of conversation.

Everybody is doing their bit. London Transport is about to publish a passengers' conduct guide. The writing is already on the wall - or at least, the posters are; little busybody thoughts for the day: 'Make time to help others', 'Make time to travel safely'. They request that you 'avoid travelling' during the rush hours (ie, between 7am and midnight). How long before it is 'bad manners' to cause a sweaty crush when half the trains are cancelled? And don't forget the 'cheap and cheerful service for typists' we are promised once BR is privatised. Perhaps we're ready for the return of the Great Unwashed - blaming people without bathrooms or running hot water for smelling bad. Or have the water board chiefs already thought of that?

Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 46, August 1992

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