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The English and Their Manners

Henry Hitchings

Farrar, Straus and Giroux

1
The stars’ tennis balls
or, a short introduction from an unusual angle
 
 
In 1977 an eighteen-year-old American skipped his high school graduation to play tennis in Europe. Although an amateur, he competed against professionals – thrilling fans and maddening traditionalists with his prickly, passionate attitude. Even to people for whom tennis was of little interest, his behaviour seemed at once scandalous and magnetic. Two decades later a sociologist, E. Digby Baltzell, would assess the player’s impact in his book Sporting Gentlemen. This had had a rather more catchy working title: John McEnroe and the Decline of Civilization.
Tennis mattered a lot to me when I was a child. Each summer I would go square-eyed watching Wimbledon. In the first couple of years that I was able to follow it, I registered McEnroe’s sulky petulance, and registered also how violently it was at odds with the coolness of his great rival, Björn Borg. I liked Borg, the doleful-looking Swede who reputedly slept surrounded by his racquets, and was encouraged in this preference by my parents.
McEnroe was considered a disgrace because he flouted the norms of a sport steeped in tradition, showed no regard for authority, and always insisted that he was right, even when (and partly because) such insistence was guaranteed to be futile. His technique disclosed his angsty nonconformity. In a review of one of the player’s televised matches, Clive James observed that McEnroe gave the impression of ‘serving around the corner of an imaginary building’; his service motion, apparently developed to prevent back pain, seemed consonant with paranoia. Meanwhile his demeanour was ‘as charming as a dead mouse in a loaf of bread’.1 A further source of outrage was McEnroe’s appearance: his air of dishevelment (wild hair, sloppy socks, a mystifying lack of muscle tone) meant that he looked like a dabbler, at a time when tennis was embracing the bland ruthlessness of professional sports management. McEnroe’s manners grated. His defiance stemmed from a hatred of anything that seemed phoney; he suffered not from a lack of sensitivity, but from a tendency to be hypersensitive in situations where he was meant to be stoical.
Borg and McEnroe suggested two distinct ways of experiencing the world, two distinct ways of greeting fortune and misfortune. Borg was the embodiment of restraint and politesse, averting his gaze from his own excellence, whereas McEnroe was the embodiment of … well, of what E. Digby Baltzell considered calling the decline of civilization.
The choice between these two figures and their attitudes was presented to me explicitly. Neither was English, but I saw the drama of their rivalry in an English setting, and it spoke to an English audience. Here were two approaches to life: the mannerly and the unmannerly. One player kept his feelings locked up; the other expressed them continually. One had eliminated all trace of intimacy from his behaviour; the other was forever admitting us to an intimate place we didn’t want to go.
Yet now the choice between Borg and McEnroe feels different: we find McEnroe’s conduct authentic, even courageous, while Borg’s seems that of an android. In his autobiography, Serious, McEnroe writes that ‘Where money and publicity meet, there’s always excitement, but good behaviour is rarely part of the mix. Manners are the operating rules of more stable systems … I thought tennis had had enough of manners. To me, “manners” meant sleeping linesmen at Wimbledon, and bowing and curtsying to rich people with hereditary titles who didn’t pay any taxes.’2
To McEnroe, as to many people, the notion of manners seems old-fashioned and starchy, and it also means something divisive, corrupt, shamefully unquestionable – and quintessentially English. The manners of every society encode a particular view of the world. They can be understood as a system for producing a sense of togetherness or minimizing a sense of not-togetherness. But in the pantheon of national stereotypes, English and manners go together like French and romance or German and efficiency.
In the pages that follow, I examine English manners. I also examine Englishness. It therefore seems appropriate to say something about the words English and British. The distinction between them is one that English people often fail to observe; in the eyes of the Scottish and Welsh, it is much clearer. Britain is a political construct; the Act of Union in 1707 joined England, Wales and Scotland as ‘one united kingdom by the name of Great Britain’. This construct, which blurred traditional divisions, was strengthened by a reaction against all that was encountered overseas. As a political concept, ‘Britain’ has worked, but at root the people of England, like the people of Scotland and Wales, feel that while ‘British’ may be the name for what they are, it is not who they are.
Because I have Welsh and Scottish antecedents as well as English ones, I call myself British. Yet to foreigners I undoubtedly seem deeply English. Some years ago, on a trip to Japan with students from a dozen other countries, I referred to myself as a European and was mocked for doing so by my generally charming companions. As one Belgian member of the group put it, ‘The English really are not Europeans.’ ‘I’m not English,’ I countered. The response was a chorus: ‘Oh yes, you are.’ What did Englishness mean to these citizens of Sweden, Portugal, Austria and Greece? Mainly it consisted of belligerence, xenophobia and crudeness, leavened by a chummy warmth. ‘We like the English,’ said one young woman from Barcelona, ‘and we know you like us. But you’re still, you know, different – the English, he’s partly a friendly person who’s polite and easy, and partly a guy who likes football and beer and is really loud.’ It meant something to my companions to think of me as English, and when I said I was British I was regarded as invoking a technicality.
To speak of English manners, rather than of British ones, is to recognize something visceral. As I investigate this, in the chapters that follow, I also discuss manners in general. I could hardly not, for, as I shall show, the sources of many of our ideas to do with manners are not English at all. Manners are neither an English invention nor a modern one. A global history of the subject would reach back at least as far as the twenty-fifth century BC, when the Egyptian vizier Ptahhotep issued a set of maxims about appropriate behaviour. It would take in the Chinese thinker Confucius, the Roman statesman Cicero, the great compendium of Jewish lore known as the Talmud, and Abu Hamed Mohammad ibn Mohammad al-Ghazali, a scholar who almost 1,000 years ago wrote about adab, the code that provides Muslims with a model of respectfulness. The coverage of medieval Europe might start with Thomasin of Zerklaere, an Italian who produced a didactic poem about manners around 1215. Writing in German, Thomasin offered guidance on matters such as where to look when riding a horse (upwards, rather than at one’s legs), and advised young men not to step on benches and women not to look over their shoulders.3
Guides to manners have not always begun as reactions to bad behaviour – attempts to halt social decline – yet implicit in every such work, and explicit in most of them, is an anxiety about slipping standards or a belief that tighter codes of conduct need defining. Today it is common to remark that the little civilities that make life bearable are vanishing, that people from whom you expect flawless behaviour instead act rudely, that conflict is more common than rapport. We seem to be inundated with stories of degeneracy: politeness is expiring. Thus, for instance, the Daily Mail in April 2008 reported a new study claiming that bad manners were the biggest problem facing society. Behaviours cited as giving especially grave offence included spitting and swearing.4
Complaints of this kind will strike a chord with readers who feel that the present moment is one of unique discourtesy. But here is a snippet from a report published by penal reformers in 1898: ‘The tendencies of modern life incline more and more to ignore, or disparage, social distinctions, which formerly did much to encourage respect … [and it] is frequently asserted, that the manners of children are deteriorating, that the child of today is coarser, more vulgar, less refined, than his parents were.’ Here is the churchman Robert Wallace in 1758, summing up an attitude prevalent among his contemporaries: ‘There being now nothing in our constitution to give due check to our bad manners, their natural consequences must have their full effect, and we run the greatest risk of going to destruction.’5 And here is Baldassare Castiglione in 1528, in a book that would enjoy great popularity among English readers, condemning as an ‘error’ the tendency whereby ‘nearly all praise the past and blame the present, revile our actions and behaviour and everything which they themselves did not do when they were young, and affirm, too, that every good custom and way of life, every virtue and, in short, all things imaginable are always going from bad to worse.’
I hope to avoid the error described by Castiglione, developing a true sense of the past, the present and their relationship. My book’s structure is chronological, but sometimes I cut away from the main narrative to explore a subject such as table manners that belongs to no one historical moment. I have also canvassed the opinions of a few experts in the field – by which I mean complete strangers, people with whom I fell into conversation on the bus or while waiting in a queue. Here, for instance, are the views of Tia and Misha, teenage girls I met at the Elephant and Castle Shopping Centre. Tia: ‘Manners is just another word for respect. And respect has to be earned.’ Misha: ‘How do you earn manners?’ Tia: ‘You learn them.’ Misha: ‘You said you earn them.’ Tia: ‘Like fuck I did.’ And then to me, Tia: ‘Sorry about this, man.’
Sorry. Lynne Truss says in her 2005 book Talk to the Hand that the word is ‘near extinction’. Although that is not my experience, its force has diminished, and often today it does not express sorrow, penitence or even regret. It can be powerful when incorporated into a sincere apology, but when it stands alone may seem hollow – a punctuation mark, with a weight no greater than a comma, in the everyday discourse of selfishness. According to a report in the Daily Telegraph in September 2011, the average Briton says ‘Sorry’ eight times a day. The very existence of that report is worthy of remark: a lot of the time manners are treated as a minority concern, but they are guaranteed to interest the many readers of conservative newspapers such as the Telegraph and the Mail. It is apt that the Telegraph uses Old Testament terms when noting: ‘That’s 204,536 times in threescore years and ten.’6
The readiness of the English to apologize for something they haven’t done is remarkable, and it is matched by an unwillingness to apologize for what they have done. This puts me in mind of an essential paradox that I have observed: the English are polite, and they are also rude. Extreme rudeness and elaborate politeness both stem from feelings of unease; they are different techniques for twisting one’s way out of discomfiture.
Paradox will come up again and again in this book. A few examples: The English are proud of their stoicism and resilience, though often in practice they are hypochondriacs. ‘Mustn’t grumble,’ the English say straight after grumbling, and in circumstances where complaint is not only justified but necessary. (The stiff upper lip, that fabled image of restrained English fortitude in the face of adversity, seems to be American in origin.) The English advertise their simplicity, yet many of those who do so take pleasure in English culture’s tangled mysteries. Although they like forming committees, even like the idea of sitting on them, they hate committee meetings. The English catchphrase ‘I know my rights’ belies a state of affairs in which legal rights are convoluted, and in which litigation is slow and costly. The very people who display greatest pride in the English past know nothing of their own families before their grandparents.
A final example, before we are borne back into that past: the people who speak most emotionally about the decline of manners, and who rejoice most in the sanctity of their understanding of what English manners are, rarely express any curiosity about the origins of those manners or the authority and rationale on which they rest. But perhaps that isn’t a paradox at all.


 
Copyright © 2013 by Henry Hitchings