Category Archives: 1950s and 1960s

‘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’.

‘Party Animals: My Family and Other Communists’ by David Aaronovitch

Party Animals is a fascinating memoir about growing up in a British Communist family during the Cold War, written by David Aaronovitch, the son of Sam Aaronovitch, Communist Party worker and Marxist economist, lecturer and writer. (David Aaronovitch also happens to be the eldest brother of Ben Aaronovitch, author of the Rivers of London series1, who makes a brief appearance in this book, aged three months, attending his first May Day rally.) As David Aaronovitch explains, being a Communist in the 1960s meant living a life set apart from most of their neighbours:

“We didn’t believe in God, go to church, stand up for the Queen in the cinema when they played the national anthem (which in any case, wasn’t our anthem, our anthem being the Internationale). We didn’t moan about strikes, because we liked them, and we would complain about South African oranges in the local greengrocer’s when most people had no conception of food being political.”

'Party Animals' by David AaronovitchDavid and his siblings attended Socialist Sunday School (where “much of the time was taken up with writing and rehearsing plays with a suitably socialist or anti-fascist theme”), played with folksy wooden toys imported from Eastern Europe, celebrated the success of Soviet cosmonauts, went on Party-sponsored camping holidays to Bulgaria and of course, took an active part in weekly marches and protest rallies. His account of his childhood is remarkably balanced. He is able, for example, to admire the Party’s commitment to social justice and education, while bitterly regretting that his parents refused to allow him to apply for a scholarship to Westminster or even attend the local grammar school (he was sent to a Party-approved comprehensive secondary school, where he was bullied and his academic performance plummeted). He also writes approvingly of how his parents and their comrades fought against racism, at a time when no one else in Britain (especially racist trade unions) seemed to care much about the rights of non-white British workers, let alone take any interest in the US civil rights movement or anti-apartheid protestors in South Africa.

However, he also questions how the adults who brought him up – mostly thoughtful, compassionate, intelligent people – could give such unquestioning support to the Soviet Union for so long. Somehow these people had managed to ignore any misgivings caused by the 1930s Soviet purges, Stalin’s 1939 pact with the Nazis, Stalin’s subsequent backflip in 1941, the Katyn massacre and other wartime Soviet atrocities. But then came indisputable evidence of Soviet evil – the 1950s show trials, the invasion of Hungary, Kruschev’s famous speech denouncing Stalin as a murderous despot, the invasion of Czechoslovakia – and still Party members refused to admit they’d ever been wrong. It was, the author decides, not unlike a deep religious faith. He notes that his mother, in particular, valued loyalty above all and despised anyone who was cowardly enough to leave the Communist Party:

“In a way everyone was right. It could be cowardly to leave and courageous to stay. The leavers no longer had to face those Cold War battles in which they were always on the wrong side of received opinion. The stayers, on the other hand, maintained their commitment in the face of everything the bourgeois media could throw at them.

But it could also be cowardly to stay and courageous to leave. The leavers went from the comfortable if constricting shape of a life in the Party, their certainties and their relationships all abandoned. The stayers carried on in the familiar routines, buying the Party paper, attending meetings, knowing exactly where they were on almost any issue in any country of the world.

And, to an extent, the longer you’d stayed already and the more you’d endured, the longer you would stay and endure […] If you’d suffered for the cause, you thought more highly of it. This is one reason why being rude to someone whose political ideas you think are stupid – however truthful you are being or however satisfying it is to do – is more likely to confirm them in their opinions than change their mind. The greater the sacrifice, the greater the commitment.”

His mother’s belief in duty, loyalty and sacrifice – and her firm denial of the truth – extended to her marriage. Her husband was often absent on ‘Party business’ (which included affairs with Party women), leaving her to bring up three children by herself on very little money. Her own childhood had been marked by loss and abandonment and she was an intelligent woman who’d been denied an education. She took out her frustrations on her eldest son, which led to the whole family ending up in psychotherapy with Robin Skynner, who used them as a case study in one of his famous books, One Flesh, Separate Persons: Principles of Family and Marital Psychotherapy. This book, in combination with his late mother’s diaries, allows Aaronovitch to examine how his mother and others “insisted on being lied to” in many aspects of their lives, although this section is frustratingly brief. I would have liked to have learned how this affected the author himself in later life, in both his political beliefs and personal life, and I would have loved to have heard more from his siblings. I can understand someone might be reluctant to explore such a personal topic in great depth, but in that case, why choose to write a memoir? Despite this quibble, I found Party Animals engrossing, thoughtful and often very funny. It will appeal to those interested in Cold War politics, but I also think it will resonate with any readers brought up in religious and/or dysfunctional families.

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  1. Speaking of which, the publication date of the next Rivers of London novel, The Hanging Tree, has been pushed back yet again, this time to September 2017. What is going on, Gollancz? WE NEED TO KNOW WHAT HAPPENS NEXT.

What I’ve Been Reading: Muriel Spark

I enjoyed A Far Cry From Kensington so much that I wanted to know more about the author, so my next read was Muriel Spark: The Biography by Martin Stannard. This was a very long and thorough overview of Spark’s life and work, written with her cooperation, although the biographer claims his book is not ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ in any way. Nevertheless, I suspect he went out of his way to be tactful and discreet, given Spark’s tendency to lambaste journalists or reviewers who dared to voice the tiniest criticism of her. She even disowned her only child when he claimed (admittedly, without much evidence) that his maternal grandmother had been Jewish, with Spark telling journalists, “He can’t sell his lousy paintings and I have had a lot of success … He’s never done anything for me, except for being one big bore.”

'Muriel Spark: The Biography' by Martin StannardSpark did not seem to be very good at personal relationships. She married a violent, mentally unstable man when she was nineteen, then divorced him a few years later. She pretty much abandoned her young son, leaving him to be raised by his father and grandparents, while she worked in publishing in London and eventually began to enjoy critical and commercial success with her novels. There were a few boyfriends over the years, all of them insecure, controlling and disloyal. Her biographer thinks “she had a kind of death wish on all close relationships, a fear of exposure that led her to preserve distance and prevent intimacy. Boundlessly forgiving of human nature in general, she was boundlessly unforgiving of it when she saw it as obstructing her vocation.”

Her writing was more important than anyone or anything, and she took her publishers firmly to task whenever they weren’t giving her the respect and money she felt she deserved. However, I was surprised to read about how well she was treated by her publishers, especially her American publishers, even at a relatively early stage of her writing career. She earned enough, as a ‘literary’ author, to buy houses and apartments, race horses, designer clothes, jewellery and sports cars and to travel the world in luxury. She expected to be treated as royalty at all times and became increasingly peevish, obsessional and unpleasant in her final decades.

'The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie'  by Muriel SparkI’m always interested to learn how writers, especially women writers, balance the responsibilities of life with their work. In Spark’s case, she behaved as many male writers of the time did, by being completely focused on her writing, dumping partners and friends whenever they failed to give her unconditional support, and ignoring her family, including her offspring. She was fortunate enough to acquire a ‘wife’, Penelope Jardine, her secretary and then close friend, who gave up her own career as an artist to live with Spark and manage her business and personal affairs for thirty years. It should be noted that Spark was not born into wealth and social privilege. She had innate talent, but she worked extremely hard for her success. She refused to identify as a feminist, but claimed to be an “independent woman” and said, “I’m in favour of women’s liberation from the economic viewpoint, but I wouldn’t want men’s and women’s roles reversed.” If that seems a little contradictory, it’s typical of her perspective on life. For example, she converted to Roman Catholicism but ignored any doctrine that was inconvenient to her personal life, rarely attended Mass and wasn’t much interested in anything the Pope had to say.

This biography also provides an interesting analysis of Spark’s poetry, short stories and each of her books, which made me take The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie down from my shelf and re-read it with a new perspective. Miss Brodie was based on a real-life teacher of Spark’s, but she also comes across as a version of Spark herself. Miss Brodie is supremely confident, convinced that her opinions are fact. She either doesn’t notice or doesn’t care that she believes in contradictory ideas, such as despising the conformity of the Girl Guides while idolising Mussolini and his fascisti. She encourages her girls to challenge their headmistress, but is shocked when one of them rebels against Miss Brodie’s own authority. If you haven’t read it, I recommend it. It’s very funny and clever and full of gorgeous descriptions of pre-war Edinburgh life.

'Loitering with Intent' by Muriel SparkI then read Loitering with Intent, which was also highly entertaining and apparently very autobiographical. Set in post-war London, it’s about a young woman writing her first novel while working for an odd organisation called the Autobiographical Association. Life appears to be imitating art, thinks Fleur, but it turns out her deranged boss has stolen her manuscript and is incorporating its events into his own life and work. I enjoyed Fleur’s musings about the publishing industry (“the traditional paranoia of authors is as nothing compared to the inalienable schizophrenia of publishers”) and about making personal sacrifices to be a writer (“I preferred to be interested as I was than happy as I might be. I wasn’t sure that I so much wanted to be happy, but I knew I had to follow my nature.”) As entertaining and clever as the story was, I also kept stopping to admire Spark’s language. For example, rather than write, “Beryl Tims escorted the old lady out of the room”, as most authors would, Spark comes up with:

“Beryl Tims turned up just then and grimly promoted the old lady’s withdrawal; Beryl glared at me as she left.”

Grimly promoted! Especially juxtaposed with that casual, “turned up just then”. It’s exactly right for that character, that scene and that narrator. As is a later description of Sir Eric Findlay, who “lived long enough to earn the reputation of an eccentric rather than a nut”. Fleur herself is also beautifully portrayed throughout – whenever her confidence and ambition start to slide into arrogance and ruthlessness, we’re shown her genuine affection for Edwina, the incontinent “old lady”, and Fleur’s relationship with her friend Solly, and we’re reminded why she’s the heroine of this story.

I think my favourite Muriel Spark novel, though, is still A Far Cry From Kensington. If anyone has any further Muriel Spark recommendations, I’d be glad to hear them (keeping in mind my current interest in books set in post-war England).

What I’ve Been Reading

'An Experiment in Love' by Hilary MantelHilary Mantel’s An Experiment in Love was an interesting, if depressing, novel about young English women studying at university in the 1960s. Carmel, the narrator, has been brought up in a grim, working-class Northern town to believe that she does not deserve pleasure or happiness, and that her life must consist entirely of duty, hard work and ambition. She shares her London residential hall with two former schoolmates – Katrina, whose Eastern European migrant parents escaped the wartime “cattle cars”, and wealthy, confident Julianne, both of whom turn out to have secret lives. Carmel begins to starve herself, due partly to the terrible institutional meals and her inability to pay for extra food, partly to her misery after her boyfriend dumps her, but mostly as a logical consequence of her self-denying nature. The conclusion was a little too melodramatic and abrupt for me, but otherwise, I found this to be a thoughtful exploration of sexism and class divisions in 1960s England. It reminded me quite a lot of Margaret Atwood’s The Edible Woman, set during the same period in Canada and also featuring a young woman reacting to society’s restrictions on women’s appetites by starving herself nearly to death.

'The Watch Tower' by Elizabeth HarrowerI also found myself engrossed in Elizabeth Harrower’s The Watch Tower, a meticulous study of an abusive marriage, set in post-war Sydney. Young Laura and Clare have been abandoned by their self-centred mother after the death of their father, so Laura marries her boss, Felix Shaw, because he promises to fund Clare’s education. He goes back on this, and on every other promise he makes to Laura, and spends the next ten years torturing her, physically and psychologically, until she abandons all hope. At first it seems that Clare will also succumb to this monster, but she has hidden reserves of strength, which are revealed when a young refugee needing help enters her life. It was painful for me to watch Laura’s decline, with her only real attempt at escape thwarted by her environment – in the 1940s, Australian police regarded domestic violence as a private matter, there were no women’s refuges, and there were few options for a woman with no education, no job references and no money. Then again, a woman today trapped by a man as manipulative and vicious as Felix would also have a very difficult time escaping him. Some of the choices the author made (the constantly shifting points of view; the long sentences interspersed with sentence fragments) didn’t always work for me, but her descriptions of Sydney were vivid and the psychological studies of Felix, Laura and Clare were fascinating, if horrifying.

'A Far Cry From Kensington' by Muriel SparkAfter all that grimness, it was a relief to spend time with Mrs Hawkins, the magnificent young widow at the centre of Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington. Mrs Hawkins, who works in the publishing industry in 1950s London, busies herself dispensing good advice to neighbours and colleagues, but her comfortable life is disrupted when she insults a pompous hack called Hector Bartlett. Their feud leads to a range of disastrous consequences for those around them, but Mrs Hawkins has no regrets and emerges triumphant. This novel is cleverly plotted and very, very funny. I think my favourite scene was the posh dinner party, in which Mrs Hawkins dispenses writing tips to her fellow guests, and then, due to a misunderstanding of etiquette, remains with the gentlemen and their port and cigars when the other ladies prepare to depart the room:

“I didn’t see what the men had done wrong that the women should leave them like that, haughty and swan-like, sailing out of the room … I, for one, refused to behave rudely just to show solidarity with these oversensitive women, possibly prudes.”

As she is Mrs Hawkins, she not only gets away with this, but becomes even more respected. I also enjoyed her refusal to give in to Emma Loy, a successful novelist entangled with Hector Bartlett. Emma attempts to explain his appeal:

“Do you realise how dedicated he is to my work? He knows all my works by heart. He can quote chapter and verse, any of my novels. It’s amazing.”
“Does he quote it right?”
“No. He generally gets it wrong, I’ll admit. But his dedication to me is there…”

A Far Cry from Kensington is highly recommended, particularly if you liked The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie. I have Martin Stannard’s biography of Muriel Spark next on my reading pile.

Mrs Hawkins Provides Some Advice for Writers

“So I passed him some very good advice, that if you want to concentrate deeply on some problem, and especially some piece of writing or paper-work, you should acquire a cat. Alone with the cat in the room where you work, I explained, the cat will invariably get up on your desk and settle placidly under the desk-lamp. The light from a lamp, I explained, gives a cat great satisfaction. The cat will settle down and be serene, with a serenity that passes all understanding. And the tranquillity of the cat will gradually come to affect you, sitting there at your desk, so that all the excitable qualities that impede your concentration compose themselves and give your mind back the self-command it has lost. You need not watch the cat all the time. Its presence alone is enough. The effect of a cat on your concentration is remarkable, very mysterious.”

The Brigadier fortunate enough to be seated beside Mrs Hawkins at a dinner party “listened with deep interest”. Mrs Hawkins continues:

“I must tell you here that three years later the Brigadier sent me a copy of his war memoirs, published by Mackintosh & Tooley. On the jacket cover was a picture of himself at his desk with a large alley-cat sitting inscrutably beside the lamp. He had inscribed it ‘To Mrs Hawkins, without whose friendly advice these memoirs would never have been written – and thanks for introducing me to Grumpy.’ The book itself was exceedingly dull. But I had advised him only that a cat helps concentration, not that the cat writes the book for you.”

'Napping Cat' by Elizabeth Fearne Bonsall (1903)

From A Far Cry from Kensington by Muriel Spark

‘The Meaning of Treason’ by Rebecca West

The Meaning of Treason is a fascinating, if somewhat biased, discussion about what ‘treason’ means in the modern world and although it was first published in 1949, I found it highly relevant to current political events. The author, Dame Rebecca West, reported on the post-war trials of the British traitors William Joyce (‘Lord Haw Haw’) and John Amery for The New Yorker, then decided the topic was interesting enough to explore at greater length. She revised the book in the 1960s to include a number of Cold War spy scandals, and the edition that I read included a new introduction, written by her in 1982.

'The Meaning of Treason' by Rebecca West

Revised edition of ‘The Meaning of Treason’, with a cover image of creepy Oswald Mosley and some of his fellow Fascists, including William Joyce (pictured, ironically, to the far left of Mosley)

In Britain, the “root of the law against treason” dated back to 1351, when Edward III declared that “if a man do levy war against our Lord the King in his realm or be adherent to the King’s enemies in his realm, giving them aid and comfort in the realm or elsewhere”, that man was guilty of treason. So, how did that apply to the strange case of William Joyce? He’d been a member of Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists in the 1930s, then he moved to Nazi Germany as soon as war was declared, became a German citizen and spent the war years broadcasting Nazi propaganda to the British public – for instance, he’d gloat over the radio about the damage that German bombs were inflicting on English cities and encourage the British to surrender to Hitler. Obviously, British people weren’t very impressed with Joyce at the time, although most came to regard the broadcasts, and Joyce, as a big joke. At the end of the war, Joyce was captured by the Allies and then put on trial in London, charged with ‘high treason’. Still, he’d been a German citizen at the time of the broadcasts, working loyally for his own country, not even engaged in anything that might be termed a ‘war crime’, so how could he be put on trial for being a British traitor? Well, it turns out “a British subject is forbidden by law to become the naturalized subject of an enemy country in wartime”, so he’d broken the law by moving to Germany and becoming a German. Except it turned out Joyce was actually an American citizen, born in the United States, with an Irish father who’d become a naturalized American years earlier. Joyce’s family moved to England when the boy was two, and he’d never applied for British citizenship, although as an adult, he fraudulently applied for (and received) a British passport to travel to Germany. The prosecution argued he’d been under the protection of the British Crown due to his passport, so he owed the Crown his allegiance, and after several trials and appeals, Joyce was found guilty and hanged. There were other British men tried for treason after the war, including John Amery (the son of Conservative Minister Leo Amery), who pleaded guilty and was also hanged, as well as a number of men who’d been taken prisoner by the Germans and were enticed to join the ‘British Free Corps’ and fight with the Nazis against the Soviets. West has some sympathy for these men, who were often young, uneducated and in terrifying situations (or, in the case of Amery, were mentally unstable).

She has far less sympathy for the next set of traitors, the nuclear scientists who’d signed agreements to keep information secret, then gave away these scientific secrets to the Soviet Union. In fact, she is deeply suspicious of scientists in general. Scientists, she says, are arrogant and clannish, placing scientific comradeship above national loyalty and believing themselves to be always rational, always right and incapable of doing harm. She uses as evidence the cases of Alan Nunn May, Klaus Emil Fuchs and Bruno Pontecorvo. Dr Fuchs is particularly interesting. He was born in Germany to a Quaker family who courageously opposed the Nazis when they came to power. His father, a church leader, was imprisoned in a concentration camp, but young Klaus, by then a member of the Communist Party, escaped to Britain, where he completed his doctorate studies in physics. When war broke out, the British imprisoned him because he was a German, then exiled him (along with many other scientists, including Max Perutz) to the wastelands of Canada. Eventually, the British worked out that all those imprisoned anti-Nazi German scientists could be helping the Allies win the war, so they brought them back, made Dr Fuchs a British subject, sent him to America to work on the Atomic Project for three years, then, after the war, employed him as head of the physics department at the Atomic Energy Establishment – until 1950, when they discovered he’d been sharing scientific information with the Soviet Union for eight years. He was charged with breaking the Official Secrets Act and pleaded guilty, but explained that most of the offences had been carried out while the Soviet Union was a wartime ally of Britain, so he hadn’t been ‘aiding the enemy’. He was sentenced to fourteen years in prison and his British citizenship was revoked, although he protested against the latter, pointing out that he’d pleaded guilty, cooperated fully with the authorities and anyway, “the British Nationality Act of 1948 excluded punishment as reason for revoking a certificate of naturalization”. Isn’t that interesting, that Britain couldn’t take away citizenship as punishment for a crime, even a ‘traitorous’ crime? In fact, West explains that if a traitor’s citizenship was revoked, he would become “a stateless person and could not have been deported” – that is, taking away someone’s citizenship meant he’d be forced to remain in the country.1 In the end, Fuchs was released from prison and moved to East Germany, where he became an East German citizen and resumed his career in nuclear physics.

West goes on to discuss the cases of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean (British diplomatic staff who turned out to be Soviet agents) and their friend Kim Philby (MI6 operative, also a Soviet agent), as well as William Marshall, George Blake, William Vassall and the Portland Five. She acknowledges that many of these spies could have been detected far earlier if British security services had been more competent, but she also seems to share the paranoid belief of Peter Wright that the Soviet Union was far more powerful and efficient than it actually was. Whenever a Soviet spy is caught, she’s convinced that the USSR deliberately allowed the spy to be discovered, in order to further its fiendish Communist plans (that is, to make British security services look foolish, encourage the British public to lose confidence in their government, and cause the Americans to regard the British with distrust). She insists, for instance, that William Vassall was a professional Communist spy, rather than a bumbling amateur who was blackmailed into handing over information to the Soviets after they took compromising photos of him during a drunken homosexual orgy (she says the party may have taken place but it was “probably engineered so that Vassall might refer to it, should his treachery ever be discovered”). And when Burgess and Maclean defected and the British government initially denied the men were Communist spies, this wasn’t a government trying to cover up its own incompetence but a sign of secret Communist conspiracies in the highest echelons of power. And so on.

I kept noticing the parallels with modern politics. West describes the experiences of Westerners imprisoned during the Korean War and subjected to Communist “brainwashing” before being sent home, then worries that future British fighters in “peripheral wars” could return home and spread false ideas “that their countries’ enemies were in the right”. Then there’s Harold Macmillan, responding to demands that security legislation be tightened in the wake of the Burgess and Maclean scandal: “It would be a tragedy if we destroyed freedom in the effort to preserve it.” But apart from having lots of interesting things to say about current events, this book was also beautifully written, full of thoughtful observations and a lot of droll humour and motivated by a genuine interest in the well-being of society. The Meaning of Treason is highly recommended for anyone wanting to learn more about the topic of treason, but particularly those interested in the Cold War.

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  1. For the benefit of non-Australians, I should explain that the current Australian government is trying to pass legislation that would revoke the citizenship of Australians accused of terrorism, regardless of whether or not these people had been convicted of terrorist offences, or indeed, if there was any firm evidence they’d committed any crime at all. Among the options being discussed were that such people could have their Australian citizenship revoked: if they had dual citizenship, even if their other country of citizenship refused to allow the person to enter that country; or if they were citizens only of Australia but had parents or grandparents who’d been citizens of other countries – that is, the legislation would potentially leave people stateless. Also, this would be decided by the Minister for Immigration, not by a court of law or an independent commission. Not surprisingly, when the draft of this legislation was shown to legal experts, they said (and I paraphrase), “This is illegal, unconstitutional and makes no sense whatsoever.”