We don’t half seem to love books on Englishness. Even those like myself who are second-generation imports love examining our national traits. Often these are written with mildly irreverent humour, shored up by sharp observations and self deprecating asides.
But sometimes, especially when it comes to manners and morals, we find the censorious tones of the declinist. In the aftermath of the riots in London, we heard the shrilly clamorous voices of the latter, and of those who answered them with typical liberal handwringing.
Henry Hitchings is, thankfully, neither handwringer nor declinist. His books on Englishness, language and class are engaging, witty and wise. Now he has written an elegant and erudite book on English manners, appropriately titled Sorry! – like the Eighties sitcom starring a cringing Ronnie Corbett, whose every gesture was shorthand for an apology. Corbett is, of course, Scottish.
Nonetheless, his character stood in for the type of generic lower middle-class suburban Britishness that the English might claim as their own.
Hitchings explains why he intends to stick, largely, with the English. Britain is a political construct, and he offers an anecdote that convinces once and for all that nobody outside these isles seems to recognise it as a meaningful term. “British” makes no claim on the imagination of foreigners. “ English” does.
As one young woman from Barcelona helpfully points out, the Englishman is “partly a friendly person who’s polite and easy, and partly a guy who likes football and beer and is really loud.”
Offering a chronological overview, Sorry! takes us from the days of medieval chivalry, where honour ruled, to an industrial society which values restraint, self-control and censure as a means of keeping a lid on bad behaviour. We learn how a global history on the subject of manners and etiquette, would reach as far back as the 25th century Bc.
Hitchings has an encyclopaedic mind, but like the well-mannered Englishman he is, wears his learning lightly.
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