Author Archives: Michelle

Miscellaneous Memoranda

– Here’s a good article by Anna Pitoniak, editor and debut author, on what her editing job has taught her about writing.

– And here’s an important lesson about the perils of ambiguous punctuation: ‘Lack of an Oxford comma could cost company millions in overtime dispute’.

– The Copyright Agency has funded research into teenagers’ reading habits and found that most Australian teenagers prefer to read print books rather than ebooks – although, worryingly, those who prefer ebooks tend to read ‘free’ (that is, pirated) versions.

– Here are the some sheep and here are the no sheep – but where is the green sheep? I loved this article about Australia’s quirky old maps, courtesy of the National Library’s Trove collection. (Have a closer look at Tasmania in the second map. Poor Tasmanians.)

– Still in Australia: ‘Massive spider claims six seats for itself on busy Melbourne train’. The Victorian Premier, Daniel Andrews, has criticised the spider as being ‘that one passenger who puts their feet on the seat’. The situation is being blamed on passengers no longer reading paper newspapers and therefore being unable to put inconsiderate arachnid commuters in their place (on the floor).

– That’s not to say that people have stopped reading newspapers. They’re simply switching to the digital versions, especially in the United States, with a huge surge in subscriptions to The New York Times, The Washington Post and other ‘old fashioned’ newspapers (‘How Donald Trump, President of the Twitterverse, gave ‘old media’ new lease of life’).

– Finally, some sage observations from Wondermark on those social media commenters who are outraged by political correctness (“You can’t talk like you’d normally talk, full of all the invective and slurs you’d normally use, without the objects of that invective feeling belittled and dehumanized by it!”). And anyone who’s ever run a blog would recognise the Sea Lion.

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part Five

Before I discuss etiquette for engagements and weddings, a small digression. I was curious about Nancy Spain, the writer who was so entertaining about Eating for England, because her name was vaguely familiar to me. I’d thought she was a journalist, possibly a war correspondent, and I was half-right. She did work as a newspaper columnist and broadcaster, but was a Wren rather than a writer during the war. After the war, she became famous for writing a series of detective novels set in a girls’ school (called ‘Radcliffe Hall’), for writing a biography of her great-aunt, Isabella Beaton (the Mrs Beeton of Household Management fame) and for getting sued, twice, by Evelyn Waugh for libel. Plus, she had a scandalous private life:

“…she lived openly with the editor of ‘She’, Joan Werner Laurie (Jonny), and was a friend of the famous, including Noël Coward and Marlene Dietrich. She and Laurie were regulars at the Gateways club in Chelsea, London, and were widely known to be lesbians. Spain and Laurie lived in an extended household with the rally driver Sheila van Damm, and their sons Nicholas (born 1946) and Thomas (born in 1952). Nicholas was Laurie’s son; Thomas was also described as Laurie’s youngest son, but may have been Spain’s son after an affair with Philip Youngman Carter, husband of Margery Allingham…”

Rose Collis has written a biography titled A Trouser-Wearing Character: The Life and Times of Nancy Spain, which clearly I need to read.

But let’s return to getting engaged and married. Noel Streatfeild looks back at a Victorian-era etiquette book, which included advice such as:

“When a man marries, it is understood that all former acquaintanceship ends, unless he intimates a desire to renew it, by sending you his own and his wife’s card, if near, or by letter, if distant. If this be neglected, be sure no further intercourse is desired.”

This is because bachelors are known to “associate freely enough with those whose morals and habits would point them out as highly dangerous persons to introduce into the sanctity of domestic life.”

Miss Streatfeild goes on to point out the many ways engagement and matrimony have changed in modern times, starting with the fact that many young people are unable to find a place of their own in an era of post-war housing shortages, and are therefore forced to live with their parents. There’s also the sad fact that most young people will not have a large number of servants to look after their household, nor enough space to hold the vast quantities of furniture, linens, silver, pots and pans that were traditionally given as wedding gifts.

Mr Alroy Maker then looks at the people who are getting engaged, sighing over so many young people making unsuitable friends:

“Goodness knows this is no time to be snobbish, but it is understandable that when parents have tried to bring their children up carefully, often sending them to expensive schools, where they should have made nice friends, it is annoying when they insist on choosing such peculiar types. Frequently ill-kempt, often without an aitch, sometimes dirty, addicted to the strangest views on politics, religion and manners …”

It is good manners for a young person to refrain from bringing their peculiar friends home, especially if they are Communist friends who look like tramps. However, if parents are forced to host the young Communist tramp, they should be tolerant and polite, confining any criticism to “the privacy of their bedroom”. Hopefully, their offspring will go on to marry a more suitable (and non-Communist) person.

Miss Streatfeild and Mr Cecil Notary then discuss how to solve the many problems that arise when two young lovers decide to plight their troth. What should they do if they want a quiet registry wedding, but their parents want a huge family affair? How do you avoid hurt feelings when choosing bridesmaids and, worse, bridesmaids’ frocks? Who should be the best man? (“The gay friend of countless riotous evenings is not necessarily the man to trust…”) Should the bride’s stepmother be allowed to stand in the receiving line? Do you need to hire a private detective disguised as a wedding guest to guard the display of wedding presents? All these and many other vital questions are answered.

Miss Streatfeild then concludes the book with a chapter addressing “late questions that could not be fitted into this book” (except here she is, fitting them in). She explains in detail how to tip when travelling first-class – for example, you must never tip receptionists or lift-boys, but porters and chambermaids require varying and very specific amounts, depending on their level of service. While she’s at it, she advises on London taxi drivers:

“There is no such thing as a threepenny tip. All taxi tips start at sixpence. Myself, I keep to sixpence until my fare reaches two and ninepence, when the man gets ninepence. After three shillings and sixpence, he gets a shilling …”

It goes on, until I started to think it would be a lot easier to take the bus. But woe betide any taxi driver who questions the amount Miss Streatfeild has given him. She says to him, quietly but firmly:

“Sixpence, or whatever it is, is a very good tip, and please remember your manners and say thank you.”

'Taxi Tips', illustration by John Dugan

She concedes this sometimes causes anger on the part of the taxi driver, but she has a strategy for that, too:

“While the taximan roared I removed the offending money from his palm, looked in my purse for the exact fare, and put it in his hand. ‘Since you do not like my tip,’ I said, ‘there is no need why you should have it.’ And I went into the house and shut the door firmly. I admit I trembled a bit at the knees, but nothing happened. After a good deal more shouting he got in his taxi and drove away.”

Did you know you are also supposed to tip hairdressers? I have never tipped a hairdresser in my life. Maybe that’s why my hair always looks so disorderly.

Miss Streatfeild also gives advice on how to get out of doing something you don’t want to do (“keep as close to the truth as possible” so “you can speak with what sounds like real regret”) and the right way to get up and leave a social gathering.

There is certainly a lot to remember if you want to grow up gracefully! But as Miss Streatfeild kindly points out,

“…the eyes of the world are far less on you than you think, because even the grandest person is often looking inward, as it were, studying themselves. So if on some occasion your manners slip, do not go over and over it in your mind, blushing when you think of it, the chances are fewer people noticed than you think, and those that did are not, as you suppose, making your blunder the sole topic of conversation. The great thing is to mark your slip, remember how it happened, and be determined it will never occur again.”

You may also be interested in:

Growing Up Gracefully, Part One
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Two
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Three
Growing Up Gracefully, Part Four

and

The Years of Grace: A Book For Girls

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part Four

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”.

'Letters', illustration by John Dugan

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.”

'Theatre Manners', illustration by John Dugan

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.

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part Three

Each chapter of Growing Up Gracefully has a short introduction by Noel Streatfeild and her introduction to ‘Manners Abroad’ contains the following sage advice for those travelling to Australia:

“I remember being surprised when, on my arrival at Menzies Hotel in Melbourne, the lift-boy took my book from under my arm, read the title, and said casually, ‘I’ll have a read of that when you’re through.’ But a very short time spent in Australia showed me his were not bad manners, as I had first supposed, but merely new manners with which I was not familiar. The boy was asserting in a friendly way that he might be a lift-boy, and I a guest in the hotel, but we had tastes in common.”

Miss Streatfeild also experienced some differences between British and American manners:

“One of the freedoms on which Americans most pride themselves, for which, in fact, many of their forebears left the lands of their birth to become Americans, is the right to speak their minds on any and every subject … We may sometimes think more guarded speech would be better manners, but Americans do not feel like that. They believe speaking out is good manners, and keeping your thoughts to yourself hypocrisy. Maybe they are right. But right or wrong, what we consider good manners when abroad remains unchanged, so whatever we may think of foreigners and their countries we must Keep Our Thoughts To Ourselves.”

'Manners Abroad', illustration by John Dugan

Miss Virginia Graham then provides lots of useful hints for travelling abroad, which can often be challenging:

“A lot of irritating things will happen to you when you are overseas, and you will feel rather superior and will long to say to somebody that at home we manage these things much better…”

However, you must remember that foreigners don’t like hearing their countries criticised and can often understand English:

“So accept your sausageless continental breakfast with a smile, enquire, more as if you were seeking information than complaining, why it is that when you pull the plug nothing happens, tip with grace, wait quietly for those trains which never come.”

She explains how to manage tipping and taxis, how to clean your clothes and order breakfast in a hotel, how to manage cutlery in France and cheese in Holland and bathrooms in Italy, and how to avoid dropped bricks (“Although you are probably too young to remember much about the last war, it is quite a good thing to know which side the country you are in was on …”).

After that comes Mr Sidney Form’s ‘Guests and Hosts’. In her introduction, Miss Streatfeild takes a moment to rejoice in the evolution of manners since the war:

“A mother, as it might be your own, calling on a friend’s mother in calling-card days, had to leave three cards – one of her own and two of her husband’s. If it happened that the called-on was a widow, she only left two cards, one of her own and one of her husband’s. In any case, however many cards she left, she had to turn down the right-hand corners inwards, to show she had delivered the cards herself and not sent a servant with them. This turning down corners ritual went on even though the people on whom the mother called knew perfectly well there was either no servant, or the one that existed had far better things to do than going round delivering calling-cards…”

However, there are still difficulties to be overcome when hosting parties, says Mr Form. He thinks big parties are easier, because you can hold them outside your home, invite everyone you know, and let the caterers deal with the food, drink and clean-up. Small parties require skill when selecting the guest list (he advises you to find a celebrity and “implore him or her to attend”) and you might need to make it a cocktail or sherry party (if you have a lot of drab guests with nothing much in common, “clearly they won’t be an easy lot to get going at square-dancing”).

There are also challenges when guests stay overnight in your home, beginning with the state of your guest room (“where no member of the family has slept in them they do not know its horrors”). Then when the guests arrive, they will need to be entertained. Some hosts declare, ‘You must take us as you find us’, which is fine as long as the regular household routine is sufficiently organised and amusing. Others set up a strict and stressful activity schedule. Mr Fine believes that “perfect hosts are those who entertain tactfully, but not too much.” He also provides advice for house guests, including how to escape when necessary (fake an illness or arrange for a friend to telephone about an ‘emergency’).

'Take Us As You Find Us', illustration by John Dugan

Miss Marghanita Laski then discusses ‘How Eccentric May I Be?’

“By the time you come to read this book, the question is probably settled; you’re either going to accept the world as you find it or else to reject it – perhaps to make a better one and perhaps not. Both rebels and conformers are necessary. Both can be the salt of the earth, and both can be the most intolerable nuisances and bores.”

Rebellion is the natural state of young people, she believes, although she distinguishes between rebellion against the previous generation’s rules and true eccentricity, which is rare:

“A real eccentric is a person so much divorced from the social life around him or her that the opinion of others doesn’t matter at all. He directs his life entirely by his own thoughts and wishes which seldom happen in any way to coincide with the thoughts and wishes of other people. By the lights of the world, he is almost certainly a madman. He may be a mad genius, like Blake, or he may just be mad. It is to the highest degree improbable that this is the kind of eccentric you are.”

In fact, a lot of ‘rebellious’ teenagers are simply copying each other (‘Teddie-boys’ are again used as an example). But if you come into conflict with your parents about say, your religious or political opinions, she advises that you first determine whether you know you are absolutely right in your beliefs. If so, then it’s up to you to decide:

“Will you save your own conscience at the cost of outraging theirs, even if it’s only outraging some purely social value that they believe to be a matter of conscience? Or will you decide to conform outwardly rather than upset them, in which case your own conscience is in no danger at all, and you’re undoubtedly an unusually kind and mature young person?”

Often parents are concerned about your choice of friends, or your clothes, or whether you drink or swear or read certain books, because they worry it will lead you to become an unhappy adult, rejected by society as “immoral or criminal or grossly irresponsible”. Perhaps you are right or perhaps they are. Perhaps they refuse to compromise. Regardless, you have a right to your own views, but also a duty to ensure they are thoughtful views of your own, not copied from those you admire or put on to outrage those you dislike. Miss Laski concludes with her answer to the question of how eccentric you may be:

“As eccentric as you can reasonably manage without permanently damaging yourself or gratuitously hurting other people.”

As for the practicalities of this, perhaps they are dealt with in the next section, which includes a chapter on ‘When and When Not to Make a Fuss’.

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part Two

In ‘Correct Dress’, Mr James Leasor explains how much “good manners in dress” have changed since the war. Wartime clothes rationing meant most people had to ‘make do and mend’; nighttime bombing raids popularised utilitarian garments such as the siren suit; coal rationing led to theatre-goers and diners wrapping themselves in rugs and blankets to keep warm. Still, some things remain the same:

“What, in today’s world, is correct dress? Though no one now dresses up for every occasion, the rule about dressing is unchanged. You wear as nearly as possible what is being worn by the rest of the party you are with.”

So, it is “atrocious manners” to, say, visit a foreign church wearing shorts, a strapless dress or no hat. It is also bad manners to wear slacks and a jersey to dinner at a friend’s house, unless you know your host will be wearing the same – just as it is bad manners to put on an evening frock if no one else is wearing one. The only time you can dress as “gaudy and grand as you like” is at a wedding. Young men should wear morning suits and grey top hats, while for women, “no hat is too gay or too amusing”.

Mr Leaver also makes the important point that your clothes should suit your personality. If you hate drawing attention to yourself, don’t wear outrageous clothes. In general, “wearing clothes as an attempt to look conspicuous is nearly always a sign of an inferiority complex” and he gives the example of gangs of Teddy boys and girls, who “dress up to try and kid themselves that they are braver than, in fact, they are.” However, he makes an exception for artists, who tend to wear extraordinary outfits – that’s simply how the creative temperament expresses itself. He gives the example of two art students he recently saw at an exhibition:

“He wore an orange pullover over velvet trousers, and he had a beard; she wore tartan trousers, and a short sheepskin coat.”

'Artistic Dress' illustration by John Dugan

And they didn’t even realise what a sensation they were causing among onlookers! It all comes down to self-confidence:

“I sometimes think that the superb sang froid of a cat is due to its fur. Of course other animals have fur, but few wear it with such an air as does a cat. It is soft, usually a beautiful colour, and always a divine fit. All cats feel, I think, slightly superior to humans, and this may be based on the certainty that they are always perfectly turned out for every occasion.”

I thought Growing Up Gracefully had already covered polite conversation, but Miss Emily Hahn now contributes a chapter called ‘Conversations’, all about how young people can manage when they’re forced to talk to boring grown-ups. She reminds the young that older people are often not as confident as they seem and can be very sensitive. So don’t, for example, discuss their age or weight: “A remark like ‘I saw a woman yesterday who was even fatter than you’ does not go down well.” Try not to look at your watch or the door when they reminisce about the olden days. If stuck for conversational topics, talk about sport, the weather or the family. And remember, “truth isn’t always the first consideration in social intercourse.”

Miss Caroline Ball then provides advice on ‘Manners at Work’, beginning with how to apply to a job. A good letter of application is vital:

“Some employers judge candidates on their handwriting, style of letter, notepaper and neatness of folding it, quite as much as they do on scholastic achievements … Avoid scented notepaper … If you send a typewritten application, it is a good idea to enclose a specimen of your handwriting. It can take the form of a postscript to the effect: ‘I am adding this so that you may see what my handwriting is like.’ Stamps should be stuck on straight … Special note to girl applicants: don’t leave lipstick on the back of the envelope when you lick the flap!”

Miss Ball then gives detailed advice for the job interview – for example, “don’t even think of lighting a cigarette or producing a powder-puff.” Of course, clothes require careful consideration. Girls should avoid huge earrings and gaudy make-up; boys should resist the urge to wear “loud check sports jackets, flashy pullovers, wild ties and even wilder socks!” Instead, Miss Ball recommends the three Ns: “Nice. Natural. Neat.”

This is followed by hints for starting your first job, such as being pleasant and responsive, turning up on time, not resenting chores such as “carrying round teacups”, and not “sitting with your eyes riveted to the clock from five o’clock onwards”.

Presumably once the young person has been employed for a while, they will be able to afford to travel. Then they should consult the next section, which includes advice on ‘Manners Abroad.’

‘Growing Up Gracefully’, Part One

'Growing up Gracefully', edited by Noel Streatfeild

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.”

'Graceful Dining', illustration by John DuganMiss 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’.

‘Indonesia Etc: Exploring the Improbable Nation’ by Elizabeth Pisani

This is a fascinating book about a year spent travelling around the Indonesian archipelago, written by a multilingual British woman who has spent much of her adult life in this diverse nation. She began her career as a journalist, then became an epidemiologist employed by the Indonesian Ministry of Health. In 2011, she decided to take time off to travel and learn more:

'Indonesia Etc' by Elizabeth Pisani“I only had one rule: ‘Just say yes’. Because Indonesians are among the most hospitable people on earth, this made for a lot of yesses. Tea with the Sultan? Lovely! Join a wedding procession? Yes please! Visit a leper colony? Of course! Sleep under a tree with a family of nomads? Why not? Dog for dinner? Uuuuh, sure. This policy took me to islands I had never heard of. I was welcomed into the homes of farmers and priests, policemen and fishermen, teachers, bus drivers, soldiers, nurses. I travelled mostly on boats and rickety-but-lurid buses that blared Indo-pop and had sick-bags swinging from the ceiling. Sometimes, though, I lucked into a chartered plane or rode cocooned in a leather car-seat behind tinted glass. I can count on one hand the number of times I was treated with anything other than kindness. I can also count on one hand the number of days that I did not have a conversation about corruption, incompetence, injustice and the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune.”

This is saved from being one of those ‘patronising white person blogging about their year of backpacking though a developing nation’ books by the author’s wide-ranging and first-hand knowledge of Indonesia. She displays genuine curiosity and warmth as she visits each community, but she’s also able to draw on her previous experiences. For example, there’s an excellent chapter on Aceh, the province that’s been wracked with separatist violence for decades. She provides a good summary of its complex post-colonial history, explaining why Aceh’s separatist movement is completely different to those in East Timor and West Papua, but she also relates anecdotes from working as a journalist in Aceh in the 1990s:

“At the time, it was impossible to tell who was behind the attacks. Only once, we saw a letter addressed to Indonesian newspaper editors, claiming responsibility for this wave of raids. Written entirely in lower-case, the letter was an eccentrically spelled mish-mash of anti-Javanese invective, childish threats, wounded pride and separatist rhetoric […] People called the troublemakers the GPK, just as the government did, and they had many theories about who they were. Most involved some combination of the following: disgruntled former soldiers who had been fired in a short-lived campaign against corruption in the military; thugs who wanted a bigger share of the marijuana trade (saus ganja was once a common ingredient in the cuisine of the region, and Aceh remained a centre of production for the crop); hot-blooded separatists back from training in Libya. It seemed wildly improbable to me that an organisation that didn’t have a shift key on its typewriter and couldn’t spell its own name would be linked to international terror training networks; it was only years later that I found that some of the fighters were indeed graduates from Middle Eastern training camps, though all the other theories also proved to be true.”

Much of the conflict in Indonesia that’s reported in the Australian media as being due to ‘the rise of Islam’ turns out to have a more complex, but also more prosaic, explanation. For example, the gangs of leather-jacketed, motorbike-riding thugs previously employed by politicians in Jakarta to attack student demonstrators have now

“begun to appear in turbans or knitted skullcaps, long white robes and straggly beards [to] selectively smash up those bars, nightclubs and brothels that don’t pay them protection money. A friend in the music business told me they demonstrated against Lady Gaga only after her promoters refused to pay them to provide security for her concert. But they do not choose their targets indiscriminately. They never vent their wrath on the porn industry, for example, because it is said to be controlled by the military.”

Most of the book, though, is not explicitly about politics but about the lives of ordinary Indonesians, trying to earn enough money to raise their families while dealing with a corrupt and incompetent bureaucracy, but also doing what people all over the world do – attending school, playing games, visiting friends, celebrating birthdays and weddings, and, even in the remotest islands, Facebooking on their mobile phones. It’s all related in a warm, entertaining style by an intrepid traveller. I think even readers who aren’t much interested in Indonesia will enjoy this book.

‘The Book That Made Me’, edited by Judith Ridge

Disclaimer: I’m acquainted with several of the people involved with the creation of this book. But I wouldn’t be writing about it here if I didn’t like it – I’d just pretend I hadn’t read it.

'The Book That Made Me' edited by Judith RidgeThe Book That Made Me is an interesting collection of personal stories by thirty-one authors and artists (mostly Australian, mostly writers for children and teenagers) about the books that “made them” – made them think, feel, laugh, made them want to create their own books. As with most anthologies, there’s a wide variety of pieces and I found some more compelling than others. Shaun Tan contributes a thoughtful essay about books that disturbed him, starting at the age of seven or eight with his mother reading him Animal Farm as a bedtime story, under the mistaken impression that it would be a charming fairytale (he decided it was “no more disturbing than stuff I witnessed at school each day”). His charming, whimsical illustrations can also be found throughout the book.

Other favourite pieces were those which had something in common with my own experiences. Simmone Howell writes about how she tried (and failed) to become a proper teenager using the wisdom contained in the Sweet Dreams and Sweet Valley High series. Catherine Johnson explains how she “never expected to see [herself] in a book … everyone back then knew only white people lived in books and had adventures”. Jaclyn Moriarty discovered, aged six, how her secret rage at the injustices of life had been transformed into a book called The Magic Finger. I also enjoyed Fiona Wood’s discussion of the helpful life lessons contained in Anne of Green Gables; Emily Maguire’s description of how Edith in Grand Days encouraged her to take risks and celebrate her teenage mistakes; and Julia Lawrinson’s entertaining account of her obsessive identification with Laura Ingalls Wilder. Most of these writers were already familiar to me, but I’d never heard of Catherine Johnson and now I feel a pressing need to read some of her children’s books, in which she says she “made sure to put children like me [that is, mixed-race kids] right in there, riding horses, wearing those amazing frocks, and mostly having adventures, just like everyone else.”

There was plenty of book nostalgia for me to wallow in (Dr Seuss! Little Women! Trixie Belden!) and I’ve added some recommended books to my To Read list, including Tom’s Midnight Garden by Phillipa Pearce, The House on Mango Street by Sandra Cisneros and Displaced Person by Lee Harding. This book contains potted biographies of all the contributors and I was pleased to see a thorough index. The Book That Made Me is published in Australia by Walker Books and will be published in North America this year by Candlewick Press, with all royalties going to the Indigenous Literacy Foundation.

‘Mad World: Evelyn Waugh and the Secrets of Brideshead’ by Paula Byrne

I really enjoyed Mad World by Paula Byrne, which is an engrossing account of the people who inspired Evelyn Waugh’s novels – specifically, the troubled Lygon family of Madresfield Court, so similar to the Flyte family in Brideshead Revisited.

'Mad World' by Paula ByrneThe true story of the Lygons turns out to be even more dramatic and tragic than that of their fictional counterparts. Lord Beauchamp, a very grand earl, didn’t merely choose to live away from England with his lover because he disliked his pious wife – he was forced into permanent exile in 1931 to evade arrest for “committing acts of gross homosexual indecency” with his servants. While aristocratic men of the time often got away with flouting this law, Lord Beauchamp had been flagrant in his disregard for social and legal conventions. This became a problem when it appeared one of his daughters, Lady Mary, might marry Prince George. The King took action and recruited Beauchamp’s brother-in-law, Bendor, the Duke of Westminster, who’d long resented Beauchamp:

“It seemed grotesquely unfair that his brother-in-law should have three sons, a loyal wife, a string of homosexual lovers, a glittering career and great standing in politics, while he himself had got through three wives without producing a single male heir … Bendor set about his task with great relish and ruthless dispatch.”

The Lygon family was torn apart, with most of the children taking their father’s side and refusing to forgive their mother for divorcing him. The girls, previously the most eligible debutantes of their time, were unable to make ‘good’ marriages, due to the scandal. Lady Mary, the most beautiful, eventually married a philandering Russian aristocrat, who left her penniless and battling mental illness, alcoholism and loneliness. The heir, Lord Elmley, married a much older woman and had no children; Hugh, the model for Sebastian Flyte, quickly lost his good looks and his money and spent the remainder of his short life in a drunken stupor, trying to block out the guilt and shame of his own homosexuality; only Lady Dorothy, portrayed as Cordelia Flyte, seemed to live a relatively happy and productive life, although she had her own brief and disastrous marriage.

The author says that she wrote this book because she believed “that Evelyn Waugh had been persistently misrepresented as a snob and a curmudgeonly misanthropist.” However, I finished this book disliking Waugh, as a person, even more than I already did, which I didn’t think was possible. He was a snob. He spent his life attaching himself to a series of rich, aristocratic families, happy to be their court jester if he got to stay in grand country houses for extended periods at their expense, especially if it also provided him with good writing fodder. From his earliest years, he was spiteful and nasty, bullying anyone he regarded as his inferior in either social status or intelligence. He may have possessed wit and humour, but it always had a sharp edge. There is a lot of description of his idiotic drunken escapades with friends, which we are meant to admire:

“…to an outsider, the banter and play that characterised Mad World [that is, life at Madresfield Court with the Lygon siblings] appear frivolous and jejune, but in reality the comedy was a means of survival and a manifestation of love.”

'Brideshead Revisited' by Evelyn WaughHmm. Waugh at least had some self-awareness and admitted, when proposing to the woman who would become his second wife, “I am restless and moody and misanthropic and lazy and have no money…” (It reminded me of Mr Mybug in Cold Comfort Farm trying to appear more interesting to Flora by hinting at his dark depths.) Perhaps the poor woman thought he was joking, but she agreed to marry him and then spent years living in the country, perpetually pregnant, looking after their huge brood of children while he caroused around London. Despite his fervent Roman Catholicism, he had no moral qualms about buying the services of prostitutes, including “little Arab girls of fifteen and sixteen, for ten francs each” in Morocco. Even his brief military service during the war was marked by impropriety, when he falsified the official record of his battalion’s withdrawal from Crete in 1941. He told his friend Nancy Mitford that his behaviour would have been even worse if he hadn’t been under the moral influence of the Church. The mind boggles.

Paula Byrne provides an interesting analysis of most of Waugh’s books, including Vile Bodies, A Handful of Dust and the Sword of Honour trilogy, but I found her detailed chapter on Brideshead Revisited the most fascinating. She examines his descriptions of Oxford, homosexuality, Roman Catholicism and aristocratic life, linking the major characters in the novel to their real-life counterparts. I think readers who love Waugh’s writing will find this book rewarding – but don’t expect to feel very fond of Waugh by the end of it.