Memoranda readers may recall The Years of Grace: A Book for Girls, a fascinating (and often unintentionally hilarious) collection of wise advice edited by Noel Streatfeild. She must have realised there was a lucrative market for this sort of thing because in 1955, just a few years later, she produced Growing Up Gracefully, a guide to good manners for young people. Of course, I had to read it. And with chapters such as ‘Manners Abroad’, ‘When and When Not To Make A Fuss’ and ‘Don’t Drop That Brick or The Gentle Art of Avoiding Solecisms’, I’m sure I will find this book highly relevant to modern life. Perhaps I can send a copy to some of the people currently filling up newspapers with reports of their bad behaviour.
However, I have to admit that the book doesn’t get off to a good start. Mr Gilbert Harding, the author of ‘Manners’, is an old grump who thinks young people should only “speak when spoken to”. He spends most of his chapter disapproving of “the excessive party-giving which seems to me to be one of the scourges of modern life.” If you absolutely must host or attend a party, he huffs, well, just pretend to enjoy it, although “this can be a difficult impersonation and may call for practice in private.”
Miss Nancy Spain is far more entertaining regarding ‘Eating for England’, providing a lot of useful information for young people facing the terrors of an English dinner party. She explains how to drink soup and eat a bread roll gracefully, then tackles really tricky dishes such as asparagus and artichokes (eaten with fingers) and corn on the cob (impale on fork and nibble daintily). I was especially interested to read how to eat an “avocado pear” (which “should be eaten with a teaspoon as though you were scooping the ice-cream out of a carton”, rather than, say, smashing it onto toast). There’s also advice on how to use a finger bowl and fish knives (this includes a nice little dig at Nancy Mitford’s snobbery), what to do if you drop your fork or start to choke, and how to deal with fresh fruit (“I never touch grapes and advise you to make the same rule, there’s a right way to eat them, but I know few who have mastered it”). Also, never drink gin and tonic with oysters, because “gin turns oysters into little lumps of indigestible indiarubber”. Also, apparently the port after dinner needs “to be passed from your right hand to your left and it has to be kept moving” because if it settles for even a second, it’s “far worse luck than walking under a ladder.” (Unless you’re a girl, in which case you’ll have had your eye caught by the hostess at the appropriate time and will have withdrawn to the drawing room to wait for the gentleman. Now I’m wondering how Miss Spain found out about the mysterious rituals of port-passing. Maybe she has a spy on the inside.)
Miss Spain also gives handy hints for young people without their own “establishments”, who wish to entertain their friends in a restaurant. Obviously, most won’t be able to afford a famous restaurant (which “will cost you at least ￡1, 10s. a head”) so she recommends a “good but cheap restaurant” and helpfully explains how to deal with intimidating waiters, menus written in French, wine ordering and bill paying. She concedes that by now, the reader may have begun to think that:
“…Table Manners are a bit of a bore. Well, if you do, just try to imagine the banquet of mediaeval times. Everyone blind drunk, everyone pushing and shoving and dipping their knives in the salt cellar like mad things. Imagine trying to get pork fat off your best jerkin sleeves afterwards (no dry cleaners, remember). Then I think you will bless, with me, the invention of Table Manners.”
In the next chapter, Miss Lorna Lewis explains how to introduce people to one another. Luckily, most young people won’t need to concern themselves with the Order of Precedence (“you probably won’t have to know whether a bishop’s widow ranks higher than an admiral’s wife”), but she does think it vital to introduce Inferior to Superior (“a child rates lower than a grown-up, a man is Inferior to a woman, juniors in a profession must always be introduced to their seniors…”). It’s also useful to provide some information to get the conversation started. So, for example:
“Carola, this is my grandfather’s friend, Colonel Stump. Mrs Jack Sprigg. Carola and I were at school together, Colonel. Just imagine, Carola, Colonel Stump rode me on his knee when I was small, so I think you should know each other.”
The correct response to an introduction is to say ‘How d’you do?’ or smile. You must NEVER, EVER say ‘Pleased to meet you’ or ‘Hello’. (Really, ‘hello’ is forbidden? And what if you are pleased to meet them?) There’s also advice on shaking hands (“shake it with a firm grip; and by firm I do not mean “Try Your Strength”), dealing with boring people (don’t look over their shoulder for an escape route) and meeting Royalty (men should “bow slightly” and women should “drop a little curtsey”, although if you’re attending Court, you need to do a deep curtsey and “must go seriously into practice”).
Miss Norah Lofts then advises on ‘Don’t Drop That Brick’ – that is, don’t be accidentally rude (here she notes the old saying, ‘A gentleman is never rude unintentionally’). Don’t mention Religion, Politics or Money in general conversation, she stresses, because people tend to have strong feelings about these issues:
“…when we find ourselves in company we are dangerously ready to think and assume that we are all of one mind … This apparent, and deceptive, likeness amongst a gathering of civilised people is due to the fact that the well-behaved do not flaunt their prejudices and preferences in serious things and this makes it dangerously easy for the careless talker, at the beginning of his social career, to give offence.”
Avoid making slighting remarks about any “type, class, trade or profession”, don’t make fun of local accents, don’t correct others’ pronunciation mistakes, and consider whom you might be offending before you embark on a ‘funny story’, especially if it involves sex. This is very sensible advice. A lot of people on Twitter and Facebook would benefit from reading this. Miss Lofts even forestalls those who might complain about Political Correctness:
“It may now seem that if so strict a watch must be kept on one’s tongue, easy and natural conversation will be impossible and there will be nothing left to say. This is a groundless fear – for two reasons. First, because everything pleasant and agreeable is left to be said; the kindly, tolerant, amiable remark never comes amiss. Closely analysed, most dropped bricks show something critical, and either consciously or unconsciously, superior in the attitude of the speaker. The person who believes in the equality of men is never in any danger of rapping out the word ’nigger’ whether the nearest coloured person is in the next chair or a hundred miles away. Secondly, because after a very few times of being consciously extended, those sensitive feelers will reach out automatically and take charge of any conversation. Then their happy owner gains the enviable reputation of ‘never putting a foot wrong’…”
This doesn’t mean you need to be a jellyfish – sometimes you will need to speak out or disagree with others and you might find yourself in a minority of one. However, your reputation for “amiability and social poise” will mean “your disagreement will carry far more weight than it otherwise would” and others will be far more likely to consider your thoughts carefully.
Well, I now feel capable of meeting people at a dinner party and having a polite conversation with them. But what should I wear? Fortunately, the next section includes advice on ‘Correct Dress’.