If there’s some logic to the sequencing of the chapters in Growing Up Gracefully, I’ve yet to figure it out. Following Miss Laski’s philosophical discussion of the nature of eccentricity, we jump to Mr Martin Parson on the etiquette of letter-writing. He says a thank you letter should be written whenever you have been entertained, keeping in mind “they have to be sent whether you have enjoyed the hospitality or not”.
He acknowledges it can be difficult to compose other letters, such as letters of congratulation when someone gets engaged, married, receives some important award or has a baby. Especially the baby situation because:
“…what on earth is there to say? You haven’t seen the baby, you are not interested in what it weighs, and anyway, all babies look alike.”
Luckily new parents are too busy with their newborn to care much about what you write.
Mr Denzil Batchelor then explains ‘When and When Not to Make a Fuss’. This is complicated, because as Noel Streatfeild says in her introduction, “Most British people look upon making a fuss in public as the worst possible bad manners.” However, sometimes your conscience will demand you speak up. For example, imagine you are listening to a conversation and someone says something that you know is a lie. If the liar is a known fool and no one is likely to be harmed by the lie, it’s best to keep quiet. But what if the liar is maliciously spreading suspicion and hatred?
“Your conscience should force you to make a fuss whenever you hear an innocent person being traduced in his own absence, or your country attacked by somebody who just enjoys running down his own side – it’s surprising how many asses of that sort there are – or whenever you hear malicious mouths attack the religion you happen to believe in.”
I doubt I’d rush to the defence of my country or my (lack of) religious beliefs, although I’m sure lots of others would. In fact, a great deal of Twitter content seems to consist of this sort of fuss. However, Mr Batchelor does note that any fuss should be made immediately and you must keep your temper.
Apart from conversational outrages, it can also be appropriate to make a fuss over social interactions involving unfairness. For instance, if you’re at a café and the waitress brings you a cracked cup (“the surest collecting-place for the army of germs that beset our good health”), then “politely but firmly insist on being given another” cup. If you’re on a date at a restaurant, check the bill and if you’ve been overcharged, make a fuss! (“If your girl friend thinks it all very embarrassing, get another girl friend.”) And if you buy a “pair of nylons” and they ladder the first time you try to put them on – take them back to the shop and make a fuss!
However, if you’re the victim of an accident (for example, a waiter spills soup on you), you must smile sweetly and accept apologies with good grace. This is easier to do if you’re Australian, rather than British:
“I’m told the last time the Australian cricketers were in England, Lindsay Hassett, their captain, was the victim of just such an accident. The horrified waiter was profuse in his apologies and begged to be allowed to remove the cricketer’s coat and get it dried and pressed. ‘How kind of you,’ said Hassett, ‘but as a matter of fact the soup went over my trousers too.’ And without–well, he was a cricketer, let’s say without batting an eyelid–he removed his trousers also, revealing the most elegant pair of striped silk underpants. And in shirt and pants he sat down, without moving a muscle of his face, and finished his dinner as if nothing had happened.”
Lady Barnett, the author of ‘Presents – Giving and Receiving’ does not comment on Australian gift-giving habits, but does note how beautifully wrapped American parcels are, “as pretty as the gifts they enclose”. (This is absolutely true. Every American gift-giver I know does a superb and creative job of wrapping, with gorgeous paper and ribbons and hand-made labels. Do they teach this skill in American schools?) Lady Barnet feels that giving presents should be fun for both giver and receiver, whether at Christmas or birthdays or weddings, or just “to say ‘Thank you’ or to bring joy to a sick friend”. A present doesn’t need to be expensive, it simply needs to be thoughtful. And, of course, if you receive a gift, you need to write a thoughtful letter of thanks.
Mr Donald Wolfit then discusses ‘Manners in a Place of Entertainment’. He concedes that the British have not always been well-behaved at the theatre, particularly in Georgian and Victorian times:
“The quantity of liquor consumed, both before and during the performance, often led to high words, as a result David Garrick was eventually responsible for excluding the patrons and nobility from having seats on the stage at benefit performances. It is on record that on one occasion when playing King Lear, when he had laid the dead Cordelia on the stage in the final scene, he had to reprove a member of the party who thought having the actress’s body near him was an admirable opportunity to strike up an acquaintance with her, he even attempted to disarrange her corsage.”
Things were just as bad in America, during a performance of Macbeth:
“Macready records in his diary that asafoetida, vegetables, fruit and even the carcase of a dead sheep, were thrown at him from the auditorium.”
While dead sheep are no longer hazards of theatre-going, modern-day patrons light up pipes and cigars, unwrap crinkly chocolates, have coughing fits and (if they are school students forced to watch the classics on stage) engage in nudging and whispering and spit-ball fights. This is very bad manners.
In the final section of Growing Up Gracefully, we will learn all about well-mannered engagements and weddings.